Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010

Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010
Chalmers Johnson, an academic cold warrior who became one of the most persuasive analysts of the ongoing costs of that conflict, has died. There's a respectable but too-brief obit in the New York Times, but Johnson hasn't gotten the Arts & Letters Daily treatment, a compilation of obituaries and commentaries for influential scholars and artists. Maybe that's still to come. Johnson certainly influential, both as a cold warrior, and then, after its official end, as a critic of the American empire into the service of which he put much of his scholarly career. Starting with Blowback, in 2000, and continuing with The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis, he moved from academe into public discussion; his books joined those of Hardt and Negri, Naomi Klein, and, of course, Noam Chomsky on the shelves of popular anti-imperialism. But he wasn't a radical; his critique of empire was that of a pragmatist, as Chomsky points out in a recent interview with the Jewish online magazine Tablet:
Take, say, the blowback theories. I like Chalmers Johnson, he’s a very good guy, but he argues that the U.S. policy of installing the shah didn’t work, because look at the blowback. Didn’t work? It worked perfectly for 25 years! That’s a long time in international affairs. Nobody plans for 50 years from now.
That's a fair point. But the real value of Blowback, the book, and the school of thought that grew out of it was the honest simplicity and eloquence of its accounting, its measurements of the costs. In 2000, I published a very short interview with Johnson for The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Verbatim" column. Here it is.
You know what they say about the road to hell and good intentions. Borrowing a Central Intelligence Agency phrase for the unplanned consequences of American actions-such as the 1988 terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which was probably retaliation for the 1986 U.S. aerial raid on Libya -- Chalmers Johnson, an emeritus historian at the University of California at San Diego, argues that in the aftermath of the cold war, the United States is facing an epidemic of "blowback" at every level, from individual acts of terrorism to the estrangement of nations.

Q. You argue that the cold war's legacies won't end anytime soon. Why not? Hasn't everybody had enough?

A. The American empire hasn't. The concrete origins of this book came as the result of a visit to Okinawa in 1996, after the rape incident of September,1995. I've spent my life working on Japan, thought I knew a lot about it. But Okinawa was a revelation. I was frankly just shocked by the sight of the then-42 American bases. And I was equally shocked that after a 12-year-old girl was raped by two marines and a sailor, the U.S. sought basically to spin the issue. To call it a unique tragedy. To claim that such things are not a common occurrence. To cover up the enormous costs of these bases on the Okinawan people. That then led me to ask, even if you could make a case for the deployment of American forces during the cold war, why are they still there 10 years after the cold war? Which led me to the conclusion, well the cold war hasn't ended in East Asia.

Q. Why not?

A. Whereas the Soviet Union created its own satellites, which then turned slowly into an empire in Eastern Europe, the U.S. did identically the same thing, and for identical reasons, often with even greater brutality, in East Asia. Whereas we may be able to make a strong case for our policies in Europe, in East Asia we have been in pursuit of empire. There the idea of the cold war was a sort of mask for an imperial project.

Q. Who needs an empire?

A. Mostly the military. For its bases, its budgets, its influence on foreign policy, which is bloated beyond reason. For instance, I believe that China is not a military threat, and that we ought to be much more accommodating in a military and political sense, to reassure them that we mean them no harm. By the same token, we ought to take them much more seriously as an economic challenge. If you want to be accommodating to China economically, who pays for it? It turns out it's not white men on Wall Street who pay for it. It's black steelworkers, in Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Alabama. The continuing hollowing out of our manufacturing is another kind of blowback.

Q. And then there's the violent kind.

A. Look at the cycle of terrorism. Osama bin Laden was a protege of ours in Afghanistan. He then objected to the stationing of American troops at Dhahran and Riyadh during the Persian Gulf war. They're still there. Saudi Arabia, the world's most important source of our petroleum, is beginning to look like Iran under the shah: a place where we don't really know what we're doing, where we're running on vested interests and established practices rather than thinking through whether we ought to be getting out of there, putting our relations on a much more commercial and less military basis.

Q. And if we don't?

A. One of the things that alarms me most of all is that we seem to be losing options to the point that we have only the military option. Our diplomacy is weak. We are no longer leading by example, and we're not even concerned about it. Moreover, this is occurring in the context of a discourse that forever tells us we are wonderful, we are perfect, we are the model of the world, that history came to an end because there are no longer any alternatives to the American way of life. These are signs of a mistaken and flawed polity that is asking for -- well, what happened to the Soviet Union.