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Tuesday, June 20, 2000

U.S. pays the price for its empire

BLOWBACK: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000, 268 pp., $26 (cloth).

Is it time for the United States to withdraw from its empire? "America," "withdrawal," "empire": three words, three controversies. Tell me how you define these three words, and I'll tell you how you will answer Chalmers Johnson's question.

Just to pick this book off the shelf is to feel one's skepticism stiffen. Most Americans, for example, do not believe that they possess an empire to withdraw from. Most Japanese, by contrast, are wholly indifferent to the intellectual wrangle over whether or not the U.S. possesses an empire.

Nevertheless, the Japanese reader provides the litmus test. Empire or not, the thoughtful Japanese snaps to attention at any suggestion that Washington might sound a military retreat from the Western Pacific.

Hence, my provisional conclusion, and it applies equally to the American irritated by Johnson and to the Japanese alarmed by him. Anyone may disagree with this tract on the wages of democratic imperialism, but I dare the reader to ignore it.

And this brings us to our third word: "America." Johnson assumes that the U.S. today, the nation that may or may not have an empire that it may or may not have to withdraw from, is the same imperial republic that created our Pax Americana in the Pacific back in 1945.

But, with the white majority in the U.S. caught in irreversible demographic decline, this assumption may be more vulnerable on racial grounds alone than any of us now dream. Leaving aside the question of white America's imperial durability, let us see how Johnson's meditation on these three words hangs on one of the CIA's punchier contributions to the English language: the word "blowback."

According to Johnson, "The term 'blowback'. . . 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."

Thus, Johnson insists that the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which took 270 lives, was "retaliation for a 1986 Reagan administration aerial raid on Libya that killed President Moammar Gadhafi's stepdaughter."

Pushing the same argument, Johnson forces us to drink in the possibility that the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993, the two U.S. Embassies in East Africa in 1998, and the U.S. military dormitory in Saudi Arabia in 1996 are all violent examples of blowback, of tit for bloody tat courtesy of the CIA and the Pentagon.

Furthermore, Johnson warns that murderous reprisals against U.S. citizens and property are bound to increase. This is because the Bush and Clinton administrations have chosen to expand rather than reduce U.S. security commitments around the globe since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Johnson's test case is East Asia. Indeed, the roots of his defection from the liberal foreign-policy establishment can be traced to his well-advertised disgust with the conduct of the U.S. military in Okinawa, or what he provocatively calls "America's last colony."

His fierce denunciation of the often brutal treatment of the Okinawan people, particularly by the marines, is the emotional heart of this book. He has now expanded this critique into a general assault on U.S. foreign and military policy in East Asia since 1945.

In a provocative stroke, he compares Washington's Pacific satraps with the Soviet commissars who governed Moscow's postwar empire in Eastern Europe. If NATO was designed to keep the Germans down, the Soviets out and the Americans in Europe, Washington's postwar security pacts were intended to keep Japan down, the communists out and America in control of the Western Pacific.

Even before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt's war aims sought to dismantle not only Japan's empire but Europe's as well. After 1945, this was achieved. But the management of America's Pacific realm demanded massive military commitments, costly economic compromises and the will to trample on the enemies of the U.S. hegemony.

Three wars defined this hegemony. The Pacific War created it, the Korean War stabilized its frontiers and the Vietnam War modernized and consolidated U.S. control even as it battered its moral foundations. Recasting the conclusions drawn in Johnson's first book, "Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power," his new thesis allows us to see that the U.S.' three Asian wars have made it into Imperial Japan's regional hegemonic successor.

In a similar manner, Johnson's research for "MITI and the Japanese Miracle," arguably the most important social-scientific study of East Asia ever written by a Westerner, should make us even more aware of the imperial link between the opening of the vast U.S. market to Asian exporters and the success of the Japanese, South Korean and Southeast Asian economic miracles.

This was not the only price that Washington had to pay to buy Asian acquiescence to its Pax Americana. To keep this new empire ticking over, decades of often brutal and corrupt dictatorship, in South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Vietnam, were imposed with U.S. financial and military backing to ensure regional stability.

The enemies of American empire -- leftwing students, intellectuals, unionists, journalists, human-rights activists and grass-root democrats -- were systematically marginalized and, when necessary, imprisoned or killed by "pro-American" regimes. Confronted with these iron necessities of imperial rule, liberal U.S. policymakers, from President Harry Truman to President Bill Clinton, learned to close their eyes to ease their consciences.

In Japan, the U.S.' postwar embrace of former war criminals, corrupt politicians and business-before-democracy bureaucrats secured business vitality and fabulous levels of economic well-being. Asian democracy may have paid a heavy price for these astonishing, high-growth miracles; but crony capitalism has not been a fluke. It has flourished in East Asia by U.S. design.

In the name of clear thinking, we should embrace Johnson's notion of empire. Any idea that allows us to disperse the rhetorical fog of U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright's self-deluding talk about the U.S. being "the indispensable nation" is welcome. Indeed, imperial expansion is the unifying theme of all U.S. history, from Pocahontas to Pearl Harbor, from Hiroshima to the fall of Saigon.

Should the U.S. now give up this empire? Johnson endorses an imperial retreat but appears to be divided about the reasons for withdrawal. As a late convert to political radicalism, for example, he finds the U.S. military presence in Okinawa obscene.

But as a tough-minded liberal (so acute in other spheres, conservative thinking on such matters tends to be worse than useless), he knows that the forces of leftwing progressivism in noncommunist East Asia -- the students, labor unions and the like -- have proven constitutionally incapable of securing regional prosperity, political stability or national autonomy.

Furthermore, as a "declinist," Johnson believes that America's Pacific era is finished (it died, for him, with the International Monetary Fund's botching of the 1997 economic crisis in Southeast Asia). As a critic of globalization, he wants the U.S., economically, to come home. This self-confessed former "spear-carrier for Empire" now finds the moral comforts of isolationism increasingly attractive.

Standing at the edge of his own intellectual vista, Johnson should take the final plunge and accept the arrival of a post-white world. As Asia's vast population modernizes, India and China will increasingly dominate the regional economic scene. If Asia's leaders successfully rise to the resulting military and political challenges, white America will have to learn to let go or be pushed out.

Thus, the hour may have arrived for East Asia to follow in the wake of the European Union and to relearn how to manage its own affairs independently of Washington. The task is to achieve "self-mastery" or "autonomy" (both regional and national) or, better still, "shutaisei" (the Japanese translation of Hegel's idea of subjectivity or positive freedom).

Pregnant with promise and challenge, these ideas point to the larger truth: Japan and the rest of East Asia must now make their own history. The eagle has flown. Certainly for Johnson.

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