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Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope – book review

Jan 8, 2011
The last American Caesars
Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope by Chalmers Johnson

Reviewed by Jim Ash

The United States is a country convinced of its own greatness. And while many would argue this claim, one thing that truly does make America great is its tradition of free expression, and its corresponding capacity for critical self-examination. Although other countries also have legal protections on free speech, none of them have the same anything-goes ethos of pushing the boundaries artistically, and speaking truth to power politically. Even though artists and thinkers who challenge the dominant corporate-state worldview are increasingly sidelined out of mainstream American culture, they continue to keep this tradition alive, and it is difficult to imagine them ever being silenced.

But one of these challenging voices was lost in November, when Chalmers Johnson died at the age of 79. Johnson was a former University of California historian most famous for a trilogy of books on American militarism and imperialism: Blowback: the Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2000); Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004); and Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic (2007). In his latest and last book, a collection of essays called Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope, Johnson encapsulates many of the main themes of his earlier trilogy in a short and very readable format.

The author argues that the United States has been running an empire that spans the globe since soon after the end of World War II, and that the clock is running out on this “American century”. Being in the empire business has destroyed American democracy, Johnson maintains, and is in the process of bankrupting the nation. There is also the fact that the US hegemon is constantly creating enemies anew around the world through “blowback”, which Johnson defines in an essay in Dismantling the Empire called “Empire v Democracy”:

I had set out to explain how exactly our government came to be so hated around the world. As a CIA term of tradecraft, “blowback” does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to, and in, foreign countries. It refers specifically to retaliation for illegal operations carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. [italics in original] These operations have included the clandestine overthrow of governments various administrations did not like, the training of foreign militaries in the techniques of state terrorism, the rigging of elections in foreign countries… as well as the torture or assassination of selected foreigners.

For Johnson, the most pernicious feature of blowback is not the damage that these retaliatory actions do to the US or its allies; it is the way in which the public is too ignorant to put them into context. The September 11, 2001 attack was the classic example of this, with most Americans incapable of seeing that US policy – both overt and covert – had filled the pond of hatred which then spawned al-Qaeda. Even worse, opportunistic American policymakers were then able to fool and frighten the electorate into backing what had until then been only neo-con fantasies: the “Bush Doctrine” of pre-emptive warfare; an endlessly expensive Pentagon drive for “full-spectrum dominance”; and an attempt to remake the Middle East as a Western-style democracy.

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