Honoring a Prophet of Empire

A prophet has died. Did his crying in the wilderness matter? At the end, did he think so?

Chalmers Johnson, whose life ended in November at 79, did his “crying” in a distinguished academic career that culminated in four books on the U.S. global empire of military bases. Near the end, he seemed pessimistic that U.S. policymakers would be capable of hearing his analysis of this empire’s destructive effects and acting on his remedy: shutting it down. But mere weeks before he died, there were signs that they might. I hope he saw them.

His intellectual odyssey began in the embrace of the national-security-hawk right wing. In 2001 he published Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, evidence of how far he’d traveled. After the 9-11 attacks, this book became widely recognized as a prophetic answer to the question, “Why do they hate us?” and it became the must-have foreign policy book of the year.

As the U.S. became mired in a war to remake the Middle East, and as the mother of all bases, in Baghdad, continued to expand, he deepened his analysis in three more books: Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic; Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic; and finally Dismantling the Empire; America’s Last Best Hope.

In a chapter of a book on Iraq I co-edited in 2008, he wrote: “A country can be democratic, or it can be imperialist, but it cannot for long be both. The U.S. political system failed to prevent this combination from developing, and I believe that it is by now probably incapable of correcting it.”

Less than two weeks ago, though, a blueprint for correction appeared. The bipartisan chairs of the president’s Deficit Reduction Commission floated their trial balloon, with something in it for everyone to hate — such as cuts to programs that will add to the pain of working families.

One of its surprises was its proposal for cuts to the discretionary budget (the one that Congress votes on every year): $100 billion from military spending, matched by $100 billion from domestic programs. Whatever you think about the wisdom of this, it at least reflects the proportion — a roughly 50-50 split — that these two occupy in the budget.

And within the proposal for the Pentagon’s cuts is the recommendation to cut our overseas bases by one-third.

My organization proposed this cut three years ago, in our Just Security (PDF) report. More recently this proposal was included in “Debt, Deficits and Defense: A Way Forward,” the report of the Sustainable Defense Task Force led by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA), and Ron Paul (R-TX), in which I participated. The other comprehensive deficit reduction plan, released last week by the bipartisan Rivlin-Domenici commission, includes a similar proposal.

A one-third cut is but a down-payment on what Chalmers Johnson wanted, of course. He believed about 700 of America’s 737 bases should go.

Nor is the fate of any of these plans discernible, by any prophet I’ve heard about. Causes for Johnsonian pessimism — regarding the government taking action of any kind, let alone shrinking our global network of bases — come much more easily to mind these days. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), a staunch opponent of military spending cuts, will soon be heading the House Armed Services Committee.

And yet, something remarkable happened in the last year of Johnson’s life: the deficit hawks’ bluff got called. The ranks of those demanding attention for cutting the deficit, while demanding exemption for the military budget, shrank dramatically. New and surprising voices, including three newly elected Republican senators, have publically affirmed that everything, including military spending, needs to be “On the Table.” The military media’s default position has become: prepare for the big cuts that are coming.

Mostly, they don’t talk about cutting bases. But this proposal has something going for it that most of other defense-cutting proposals — like weapon systems and military pay raises — don’t. No domestic constituency has a vested interest in preventing it.

So Chalmers Johnson’s proposal, at least a modest version of it, is now squarely on that table. He, more than anyone else, put it there.

Miriam Pemberton is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and a member of the Sustainable Defense Task Force. www.ips-dc.org