Book review: ‘Dismantling the Empire’ by Chalmers Johnson
There’s an unexplored flip side to the Cassandra myth: As you’ll recall, she was the Trojan princess to whom the gods granted the gift of prophecy. Then, because they were — in the fashion of deities — perverse, they guaranteed that no one ever would believe her visions, which drove her mad. So, one presumes, some of what she forecast from then on was true and some was a bit unhinged. Homer never gets to the question of how even those who were sympathetically inclined were supposed to tell the difference.
Chalmers Johnson, now 79 and professor emeritus at UC San Diego, was for many years one of our most distinguished scholars on China and Japan — head of UC Berkeley’s important Center for Chinese Studies and co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute, which he still serves as president. For some years, he was a consultant on China and Maoism to the Central Intelligence Agency. More recently, he has turned his focus as an eloquent public intellectual to his dismay over U.S. foreign policy during the post-Cold War period and, particularly, to the dangerous consequences of American interventions in the Islamic world.
“Blowback,” the first in a trilogy of books on the latter topic, appeared immediately before the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which gave his arguments a special urgency and a Cassandra-like credibility. His new book, “Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope,” attempts to do the same, retracing a good bit of that trilogy’s familiar ground. It is itself part of the publisher’s ongoing “American Empire Project,” which takes it as a given that “in an era of unprecedented military strength, leaders of the United States, the global hyperpower, have increasingly embraced imperial ambitions.” One of the project’s purposes is to “discuss alternatives to this dangerous trend.”
Johnson certainly does that in this latest volume, though, unfortunately, as is so often the case, he turns out to be a better diagnostician than a prescriber of remedy. Part of the problem has to do with the fact that we too often — and not just in this book — seem mired in antique categories. The United States’ mistakes abroad since World War II have been legion, but it’s simply too pat to describe what’s occurred as “imperialism” in either the classic economic or Marxist senses of that word. It’s a much more complicated and mixed record of stunning successes (like facilitating the reconstruction of Europe, Japan and South Korea) as well as failures.
Johnson, for his part, is clear on the fact that he regarded the Soviet Union as a menace and its implosion as a wholly salutary event. One of the provocative — and convincing — pillars of his critique is that successive administrations in Washington have bungled what could have been a great, generally beneficial demobilization from the staggeringly wasteful war footing into which the long confrontation with Soviet Communism forced us. There’s a strong case to be made for that point, but it isn’t helped by using the imperialist fallacy that makes everything that happens in the world a reaction to something the United States has done or neglected to do.
It’s true that the CIA has a history of dismal intelligence and operational failures and has spent a mind-boggling amount of money. It’s also undeniable that nearly every president since the agency’s founding has been unable to resist the temptation to misuse it. Still, to jump from there to a flat declaration that the CIA ought to be abolished leaves unanswered the obvious question of how the United States could survive without some sort of intelligence capacity. Johnson, for example, blames 9/11 on CIA failures; why wouldn’t a future without any intelligence capability turn into a series of 9/11s?
“Dismantling the Empire” repeatedly is undercut by similarly simplistic assertions. To argue, for example, that Osama bin Laden plotted his attacks on the U.S. to “get even” for American intervention in Iraq just doesn’t wash. The Wahhabi strain of Salafism to which Bin Laden and his allies adhere has been on a collision course with modernism — of which the United States is the leading exemplar — for decades. It’s true that Bin Laden was horrified by the Saudi royal family’s decision to allow U.S. troops into the kingdom as part of the effort to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, but that was a true war of necessity for the West. The alternative was to let most of the world’s petroleum slip under the control of a semi-delusional dictator of demonstrated homicidal impulse. It’s also historically crude to call Saudi Arabia the first nation “founded on Jihad.” The House of Saud has a long alliance with the Wahhabi clergy, going back to the movement’s founder, but as soon as Ibn Saud gained control of most of the Arabian Peninsula, he turned his guns on the Ikhwan, the most fanatic of his religious troops.
In fact, Bin Laden is part of a generation that grew up believing in the Sauds’ moral laxity and whose real antecedents are in the group of Salafists who seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979. Dealing with Saudi Arabia is hellishly complex because the House of Saud thinks it can both cultivate and control religious extremism as a way of maintaining power. The implications of that are far more difficult than those that flow from a regime “based” on jihad.
Several times in this book, Johnson asserts — apparently based mainly on a French newspaper interview — that President Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski set out to lure the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan and succeeded as part of a plot to create Moscow’s Vietnam. To anyone who knows anything of those two and their record, that’s simply preposterous — though it’s equally easy to believe Brzezinski now would like to cultivate the impression it is true.
“Dismantling the Empire” is meant to be provocative, but it seems too often like a prophet straining to be heard.