The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

by Chalmers Johnson



The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

by Chalmers Johnson

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Northern Italian communities had, for years, complained about lowflying American military aircraft. In February 1998, the inevitable happened. A Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler with a crew of four, one of scores of advanced American jet fighters and bombers stationed at places like Aviano, Cervia, Brindisi, and Sigonella, sliced through a ski-lift cable near the resort town of Cavalese and plunged twenty people riding in a single gondola to their deaths on the snowy slopes several hundred feet below. Although marine pilots are required to maintain an altitude of at least one thousand feet (two thousand, according to the Italian government), the plane had cut the cable at a height of 360 feet. It was traveling at 621 miles per hour when 517 miles per hour was considered the upper limit. The pilot had been performing low-level acrobatics while his copilot took pictures on videotape (which he later destroyed).

In response to outrage in Italy and calls for vigorous prosecution of those responsible, the marine pilots argued that their charts were inaccurate, that their altimeter had not worked, and that they had not consulted U.S. Air Force units permanently based in the area about local hazards. A court-martial held not in Italy but in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, exonerated everyone involved, calling it a “training accident.” Soon after, President Bill Clinton apologized and promised financial compensation to the victims, but on May 14, 1999, Congress dropped the provision for aid to the families because of opposition in the House of Representatives and from the Pentagon.1

This was hardly the only such incident in which American service personnel victimized foreign civilians in the post–Cold War world. From Germany and Turkey to Okinawa and South Korea, similar incidents have been common—as has been their usual denouement. The United States government never holds politicians or higher-ranking military officers responsible and seldom finds that more should be done beyond offering pro forma apologies and perhaps financial compensation of some, often minimal sort.

On rare occasions, as with the Italian cable cutting, when such a local tragedy rises to the level of global news, what often seems strangest to Americans is the level of national outrage elsewhere over what the U.S. media portray as, at worst, an apparently isolated incident, however tragic to those involved. Certainly, the one subject beyond discussion at such moments is the fact that, a decade after the end of the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of American troops, supplied with the world’s most advanced weaponry, sometimes including nuclear arms, are stationed on over sixty-one base complexes in nineteen countries worldwide, using the Department of Defense’s narrowest definition of a “major installation”; if one included every kind of installation that houses representatives of the American military, the number would rise to over eight hundred.2 There are, of course, no Italian air bases on American soil. Such a thought would be ridiculous. Nor, for that matter, are there German, Indonesian, Russian, Greek, or Japanese troops stationed on Italian soil. Italy is, moreover, a close ally of the United States, and no conceivable enemy nation endangers its shores.

All this is almost too obvious to state—and so is almost never said. It is simply not a matter for discussion, much less of debate in the land of the last imperial power. Perhaps similar thinking is second nature to any imperium. Perhaps the Romans did not find it strange to have their troops in Gaul, nor the British in South Africa. But what is unspoken is no less real, nor does it lack consequences just because it is not part of any ongoing domestic discussion.

I believe it is past time for such a discussion to begin, for Americans to consider why we have created an empire—a word from which we shy away—and what the consequences of our imperial stance may be for the rest of the world and for ourselves. Not so long ago, the way we garrisoned the world could be discussed far more openly and comfortably because the explanation seemed to lie at hand—in the very existence of the Soviet Union and of communism. Had the Italian disaster occurred two decades earlier, it would have seemed no less a tragedy, but many Americans would have argued that, given the Cold War, such incidents were an unavoidable cost of protecting democracies like Italy against the menace of Soviet totalitarianism. With the disappearance of any military threat faintly comparable to that posed by the former Soviet Union, such “costs” have become easily avoidable. American military forces could have been withdrawn from Italy, as well as from other foreign bases, long ago. That they were not and that Washington instead is doing everything in its considerable powers to perpetuate Cold War structures, even without the Cold War’s justification, places such overseas deployments in a new light. They have become striking evidence, for those who care to look, of an imperial project that the Cold War obscured. The byproducts of this project are likely to build up reservoirs of resentment against all Americans—tourists, students, and businessmen, as well as members of the armed forces—that can have lethal results.

For any empire, including an unacknowledged one, there is a kind of balance sheet that builds up over time. Military crimes, accidents, and atrocities make up only one category on the debit side of the balance sheet that the United States has been accumulating, especially since the Cold War ended. To take an example of quite a different kind of debit, consider South Korea, a longtime ally. On Christmas Eve 1997, it declared itself financially bankrupt and put its economy under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund, which is basically an institutional surrogate of the United States government. Most Americans were surprised by the economic disasters that overtook Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia in 1997 and that then spread around the world, crippling the Russian and Brazilian economies. They could hardly imagine that the U.S. government might have had a hand in causing them, even though various American pundits and economists expressed open delight in these disasters, which threw millions of people, who had previously had hopes of achieving economic prosperity and security, into the most abysmal poverty. At worst, Americans took the economic meltdown of places like Indonesia and Brazil to mean that beneficial American-supported policies of “globalization” were working—that we were effectively helping restructure various economies around the world so that they would look and work more like ours.

Above all, the economic crisis of 1997 was taken as evidence that our main doctrinal competitors—the high-growth capitalist economies of East Asia—were hardly either as competitive or as successful as they imagined. In a New Year’s commentary, the columnist Charles Krauthammer mused, “Our success is the success of the American capitalist model, which lies closer to the free market vision of Adam Smith than any other. Much closer, certainly, than Asia’s paternalistic crony capitalism that so seduced critics of the American system during Asia’s now-burst bubble.”3

As the global crisis deepened, the thing our government most seemed to fear was that contracts to buy our weapons might now not be honored. That winter, Secretary of Defense William Cohen made special trips to Jakarta, Bangkok, and Seoul to cajole the governments of those countries to use increasingly scarce foreign exchange funds to pay for the American fighter jets, missiles, warships, and other hardware the Pentagon had sold them before the economic collapse. He also stopped in Tokyo to urge on a worried Japanese government a big sale not yet agreed to. He wanted Japan to invest in the theater missile defense system, or TMD, antimissile missiles that the Pentagon has been trying to get the Japanese to buy for a decade. No one knew then or knows now whether the TMD will even work—in fifteen years of intercept attempts only a few missiles in essentially doctored tests have hit their targets—but it is unquestionably expensive, and arms sales, both domestic and foreign, have become one of the Pentagon’s most important missions.

I believe the profligate waste of our resources on irrelevant weapons systems and the Asian economic meltdown, as well as the continuous trail of military “accidents” and of terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies, are all portents of a twenty-first-century crisis in America’s informal empire, an empire based on the projection of military power to every corner of the world and on the use of American capital and markets to force global economic integration on our terms, at whatever costs to others. To predict the future is an undertaking no thoughtful person would rush to embrace. What form our imperial crisis is likely to take years or even decades from now is, of course, impossible to know. But history indicates that, sooner or later, empires do reach such moments, and it seems reasonable to assume that we will not miraculously escape that fate.

What we have freed ourselves of, however, is any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe. Most Americans are probably unaware of how Washington exercises its global hegemony, since so much of this activity takes place either in relative secrecy or under comforting rubrics. Many may, as a start, find it hard to believe that our place in the world even adds up to an empire. But only when we come to see our country as both profiting from and trapped within the structures of an empire of its own making will it be possible for us to explain many elements of the world that otherwise perplex us. Without good explanations, we cannot possibly produce policies that will bring us sustained peace and prosperity in a post–Cold War world. What has gone wrong in Japan after half a century of government-guided growth under U.S. protection? Why should the emergence of a strong China be to anyone’s disadvantage? Why do American policies toward human rights, weapons proliferation, terrorism, drug cartels, and the environment strike so many foreigners as the essence of hypocrisy? Should American-owned and managed multinational firms be instruments, beneficiaries, or adversaries of United States foreign policy? Is the free flow of capital really as valuable as free trade in commodities and manufactured goods? These kinds of questions can only be answered once we begin to grasp what the United States really is.

If Washington is the headquarters of a global military-economic dominion, the answers will be very different than if we think of the United States as simply one among many sovereign nations. There is a logic to empire that differs from the logic of a nation, and acts committed in service to an empire but never acknowledged as such have a tendency to haunt the future.

The term “blowback,” which officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use, is starting to circulate among students of international relations. It refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign acts of “terrorists” or “drug lords” or “rogue states” or “illegal arms merchants” often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.

It is now widely recognized, for example, that the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground, was retaliation for a 1986 Reagan administration aerial raid on Libya that killed President Muammar Khadaffi’s stepdaughter. Some in the United States have suspected that other events can also be explained as blowback from imperial acts. For example, the epidemic of cocaine and heroin use that has afflicted American cities during the past two decades was probably fueled in part by Central and South American military officers or corrupt politicians whom the CIA or the Pentagon once trained or supported and then installed in key government positions. For example, in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the U.S. government organized a massive campaign against the socialist-oriented Sandinista government. American agents then looked the other way when the Contras, the military insurgents they had trained, made deals to sell cocaine in American cities in order to buy arms and supplies.4

If drug blowback is hard to trace to its source, bomb attacks, whether on U.S. embassies in Africa, the World Trade Center in New York City, or an apartment complex in Saudi Arabia that housed U.S. servicemen, are another matter. One man’s terrorist is, of course, another man’s freedom fighter, and what U.S. officials denounce as unprovoked terrorist attacks on its innocent citizens are often meant as retaliation for previous American imperial actions. Terrorists attack innocent and undefended American targets precisely because American soldiers and sailors firing cruise missiles from ships at sea or sitting in B-52 bombers at extremely high altitudes or supporting brutal and repressive regimes from Washington seem invulnerable. As members of the Defense Science Board wrote in a 1997 report to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, “Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, the military asymmetry that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United States drives the use of transnational actors [that is, terrorists from one country attacking in another].”5

The most direct and obvious form of blowback often occurs when the victims fight back after a secret American bombing, or a U.S.-sponsored campaign of state terrorism, or a CIA-engineered overthrow of a foreign political leader. All around the world today, it is possible to see the groundwork being laid for future forms of blowback. For example, it is estimated that from the Gulf War of 1991 through 1998, the U.S.-sponsored blockade of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has helped contribute to the deaths of an estimated half million Iraqi civilians due to disease, malnutrition, and inadequate medical care. President Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, takes pride in the thought that this blockade has been “unprecedented for its severity in the whole of world history.” By 1999, it had still not brought down Saddam Hussein, the single-minded goal of American policy in the area, but it had ensured that surviving Iraqis were likely to hold a grudge against the American government and its citizens. At the same time, the slipping of “CIA paramilitary covert operators” onto the United Nations teams of postwar weapons inspectors in Iraq, who were charged with uncovering Saddam Hussein’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, has ensured that one of the most promising experiments in nonproliferation controls has been tainted forever.6

Blowback itself can lead to more blowback, in a spiral of destructive behavior. A good illustration of this lies in the government’s reaction to the August 7, 1998, bombings of American embassy buildings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, with the loss of 12 American and 212 Kenyan and Tanzanian lives and some 4,500 injured. The U.S. government promptly placed the blame on Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who had long denounced his country’s rulers and their American allies. On August 20, the United States retaliated by firing nearly eighty cruise missiles (at a cost of $750,000 each) into a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, and an old mujahideen camp site in Afghanistan. (One missile went four hundred miles off course and landed in Pakistan.) Both missile targets had been identified by American intelligence as enterprises or training areas associated with bin Laden or his followers. It was soon revealed, however, that the intelligence on both places had been faulty and that neither target could be connected with those who were suspected of attacking the embassies. On September 2, 1998, the U.S. secretary of defense said that he had been unaware that the plant in Khartoum made medicines, not nerve gas, when he recommended that it be attacked. He also admitted that the plant’s connection to bin Laden was, at best, “indirect.”7 Nonetheless, President Clinton continued to insist that he had repelled an “imminent threat to our national security,” and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Sudan a “viper’s nest of terrorists.”

Government spokesmen continue to justify these attacks as “deterring” terrorism, even if the targets proved to be irrelevant to any damage done to facilities of the United States. In this way, future blowback possibilities are seeded into the world. The same spokesmen ignore the fact that the alleged mastermind of the embassy bombings, bin Laden, is a former protégé of the United States. When America was organizing Afghan rebels against the USSR in the 1980s, he played an important role in driving the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and only turned against the United States in 1991 because he regarded the stationing of American troops in his native Saudi Arabia during and after the Persian Gulf War as a violation of his religious beliefs. Thus, the attacks on our embassies in Africa, if they were indeed his work, are an instance of blowback rather than unprovoked terrorism. Instead of bombing sites in Sudan and Afghanistan in response, the United States might better have considered reducing or removing our large-scale and provocative military presence in Saudi Arabia.

There are more effective—and certainly less destructive—ways of dealing with the threat of “terrorism” than instant military retaliation. In 1994, patient and firm negotiations finally resulted in the Sudan’s turning over the terrorist known as Carlos to the French government for trial; and in September 1998, Libya finally agreed to surrender to a Dutch court the two men charged with bombing the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. The latter agreement came about through a multilateral reliance on international law and an economic embargo of Libya and so avoided the spiral of blowback and retaliation that is undoubtedly not yet at an end in the case of bin Laden.

Needless to say, blowback is not exclusively a problem faced by Americans. One has only to look at Russia and its former satellites today to see exactly how devastating imperial blowback can be. The hostage crisis of 1996-97 at the Japanese embassy in Lima, in which a handful of Peruvian revolutionaries took virtually the entire diplomatic corps hostage, was probably blowback from Japan’s support for the antiguerrilla policies of President Alberto Fujimori and for the operations of Japanese multinational corporations in Peru. Israel’s greatest single political problem is the daily threat of blowback from the Palestinian people and their Islamic allies because of Israeli policies of displacing Palestinians from their lands and repressing those that remain under their jurisdiction. The United States, however, is the world’s most prominent target for blowback, being the world’s lone imperial power, the primary source of the sort of secret and semisecret operations that shore up repressive regimes, and by far the largest seller of weapons generally.

It is typical of an imperial people to have a short memory for its less pleasant imperial acts, but for those on the receiving end, memory can be long indeed. Among the enduring sources of blowback, for instance, are the genocidal cruelties some nations have perpetrated during wartime. Japan to this day is trying to come to grips with the consequences of its actions in China during World War II. Japanese reactionaries are still reluctant to face atrocities committed in China and Korea: the rape of Nanking, conscription of conquered women to serve as prostitutes for frontline troops, and gruesome medical experimentation on prisoners of war are but the better known of these. But given the passage of time and some payment of compensation, many Chinese would probably accept a sincere apology for these events. However, Japanese armies also terrorized and radicalized an essentially conservative peasant population and thereby helped bring the Chinese Communist Party to power, leading to thirty million deaths during the Great Leap Forward and savaging Chinese civilization during the Cultural Revolution. There are many educated Chinese who can never forgive Japan for contributing to this outcome.

Today, we know of several similar cases. In pursuing the war in Vietnam in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger ordered more bombs dropped on rural Cambodia than had been dropped on Japan during all of World War II, killing at least three-quarters of a million Cambodian peasants and helping legitimize the murderous Khmer Rouge movement under Pol Pot. In his subsequent pursuit of revenge and ideological purity Pol Pot ensured that another million and a half Cambodians, this time mainly urban dwellers, were murdered.

Americans generally think of Pol Pot as some kind of unique, self-generated monster and his “killing fields” as an inexplicable atavism totally divorced from civilization. But without the United States government’s Vietnam-era savagery, he could never have come to power in a culture like Cambodia’s, just as Mao’s uneducated peasant radicals would never have gained legitimacy in a normal Chinese context without the disruption and depravity of the Japanese war. Significantly, in its calls for an international tribunal to try the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge for war crimes, the United States has demanded that such a court restrict its efforts to the period from 1975 to 1979—that is, after the years of carpet bombing were over and before the U.S. government began to collaborate with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese Communists, who invaded Cambodia in 1978, drove the Khmer Rouge from power, and were trying to bring some stability to the country.

Copyright © 2000 by Chalmers Johnson