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American empire and its grim wages

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
By Chalmers Johnson
Metropolitan, 389 pp., $25

Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance
By Noam Chomsky
Metropolitan, 278 pp., $22

Since the rise to power of the radical right in the United States, I and others have often quoted Benjamin Franklin's reply to those who asked him about the outcome of the Constitutional Convention: "A republic, if you can keep it." We have meant to draw attention to several ominous developments: increasing economic inequality, the influence of money in electoral politics, the secrecy in which many governmental activities are shrouded, and the growth of a huge military establishment, out of all proportion to any conceivable threat against America's territorial integrity. Such tendencies, as Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and Madison all pointed out, inevitably erode self-government and popular sovereignty. If they are not checked and reversed, we doomsayers have warned, the United States will not indefinitely remain a republic, except in name.

Chalmers Johnson, author of a dozen highly regarded books on East Asian society and industrial policy as well as the best-selling "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire," is a distinguished doomsayer. "The Sorrows of Empire" details the metastasis of American militarism. Currently the United States has 725 acknowledged and many secret foreign bases -- far more than those of all other countries combined. And in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, their number is increasing. Now, as in the past, foreign bases are often acquired through secret agreements with antidemocratic governments. These bases are usually locally unpopular and nearly always involve enormous expenditures.

Our electronic surveillance network is even more extensive. Virtually any telephonic or electronic communication on earth can be intercepted by US or allied intelligence services. Like our archipelago of bases, our global surveillance network often creates dependence on unpopular governments and entails enormous expense, besides endangering our own and other countries' civil liberties. Still more costly and dangerous is the militarization of space, to which the Bush administration is enthusiastically committed.

For several reasons, Johnson argues, the American military is beginning to drift out of democratic control. For one thing, it is simply too large. Reform-minded legislators are no match for a hostile Pentagon with unlimited resources. The upper reaches of the Defense Department, the defense industry, and the armed services are seamlessly integrated, staffed by people who rotate jobs but share a common interest and outlook. This military juggernaut disciplines legislators through its control over defense-related employment in their districts, as well as through its huge public-relations apparatus.

For another thing, a great deal of military and intelligence activity is now secret -- off-limits even to our elected representatives. The General Accounting Office estimates that $30 billion to $35 billion is appropriated and spent secretly each year (in violation of the Constitution).

Disinformation, profiteering, secrecy, a de facto shift of power from the legislative to the executive branch, and within the executive to the "permanent government," a relentlessly expanding national security apparatus -- if these trends continue, Johnson predicts, "the United States will cease to bear any resemblance to the country once outlined in the Constitution."

How did we ever get to be an empire? The writings of Noam Chomsky -- America's most useful citizen, in my opinion -- are the best answer to that question. "Hegemony or Survival" is an excellent summary of his views.

America's leaders have always believed (like Marx) that capitalism could avoid stagnation only by expanding -- not territorially but into an integrated global economy presided over by America's corporate and financial elites. Through most of the 20th century, the chief obstacle to this was autarkic nationalism -- for that, in effect, is what "Communism" was. The Cold War aimed to contain and roll back the spread of independent, centrally planned economies managed by noncapitalist bureaucratic elites.

Although the Cold War ended when "Communist" elites fell from power (in the USSR and its satellites) or changed course (in China), other obstacles have arisen to the perennial goal of American foreign policy: an integrated global economy dominated by the United States. The desire of less developed countries to protect themselves against America's predatory trade and export policies is one. Arab nationalism is another, since the world's largest oil reserves are located in Arab countries. Rival capitalist blocs (Western Europe and East Asia), which might form integrated regional economies that exclude the United States, are another. America's fearsome military power has little to do with national defense or fighting terrorism; rather, it serves to ensure that none of the potential threats to American economic preeminence ever materializes. Such intimidation may succeed for a while. If -- when -- it fails, the consequences will be catastrophic, and perhaps terminal.

Quite possibly, these two trenchantly argued, comprehensively documented, grimly eloquent books are too late. If so, they are at least well worthy of the republic and the civilization they seek to defend.

George Scialabba is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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