Monday, February 15, 2016

Dismantling The Empire by Chalmers Johnson

Hardcover, 224 pages Published August 17th 2010 by Metropolitan Books (first published August 1st 2010)

Looking for the philosophical underpinnings of the necessity for U.S. leadership in the world, I came to Chalmers Johnson through Perry Anderson’s book, America’s Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers. This series of essays Johnson wrote from 2004 through 2009 for, a website that features very loud criticisms of the government (and everything else), mainly describe Johnson’s distaste for U.S. militarism around the world, including massive numbers of bases on foreign soil. About three-quarters of the way through these repetitive essays I was exhausted with Johnson’s shrill argument. He has an academic’s surety of the correctness of his own ingrown opinions. That’s not to say I disagreed with him completely.

First, I learned a few things that I didn’t know before: I wasn’t aware, for instance, that the CIA has largely outsourced the operations part of its intelligence collection. Why then, I wonder, does Republican candidate for President Marco Rubio spout on about “increasing the size of the CIA to improve intelligence”? If intelligence collection is run largely outside the Agency, that would just put more power and money into the hands of the corporations that do the work, e.g., Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) headquartered in San Diego, Booz Allen Hamilton, and CACI International.

I knew protection and fighting (to some extent) had been outsourced. I wasn’t aware that intelligence was outsourced, though I would have thought that was a “neat idea.” I agree with Johnson that the CIA should be dismantled, but some intelligence can and should still be collected, compiled, and analyzed. If large corporations are merely recreating an extensive bureaucracy that mirror what the government did in the past but at greater cost and less accountability, it doesn’t seem such a wise idea. We would have even less oversight and guarantee of institutional depth and knowledge. Certainly there have been documented abuses by these groups during Iraq’s Abu Ghraib chapter which indicate problems with execution of U.S. intentions, and adherence to U.S. values. Johnson’s proposition is worth considering: that we leave intelligence analysis within the purview of the State Department, and collection within the myriad other organizations set up now to do that very thing.

Another thing Johnson has pointed out which I did not know is that most countries in Latin and South America (and South Korea!) apparently loathe America and want nothing to do with their military bases or anything else. Johnson says it is a result of people in those countries learning of “dirty tricks” played there by U.S. agents in the past to influence elections and business decisions. Abuses committed by the CIA have largely been tasked to them by the White House in various administrations, which just goes to show that power, especially secret power without oversight, can have a pernicious effect on values.

Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter (1977-81), whose books I have reviewed lately, was so focused on Russian containment during the lead up to Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, that Brzezinski ordered the sale of arms, missile launchers, defensive weapons, etc. to the Afghan mujahideen, which gradually evolved into Al Qaeda’s strongest allies and foot soldiers there. A number of other secret coups and involvements by the CIA have changed the course of many countries’ histories, usually for the worse. We have to ask ourselves if the outcomes had been equally bad without our involvement, would that justify those illicit actions on behalf of our government? I think it is just wiser to stay on the side of our values.

It is easy to forget that the United States only created the CIA in 1947 after WWII as a result of the successes of the OSS behind enemy lines. A recent film by the son of CIA Director William Colby, “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby” (2011), dramatically illustrates the origins and almost immediate problems issuing from secrets created and held at the highest levels, to say nothing of the enormous damage done by double agents. We owe the organization nothing. We tried it and it did not work well. There is no reason we must perpetuate a bureaucracy that fails so spectacularly (witness the exquisite failures of the organization under the leadership of George Tenet during Bush II).

Johnson reminds us that Tim Weiner spent twenty years researching the CIA for his book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, which I suppose I need to read before I condemn CIA's bones to the dust heap of history. That’s next up, along with Johnson’s earlier trilogy starting with Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, his bestseller originally published in the year 2000. It has gone into a second edition, with updates dating to 2003.

In closing, I wish Johnson was less of an academic in his writing and more of a reasoned scholar, if all he is going to do is talk about what needs to be done. If he were making the decisions, I wonder how he would manage. I dislike his tone intensely, even when I agree he has made a point. And I heartily disagree with his notion that Andrew Bacevich, another slaphappy and shrill academic, should be Secretary of Defense. If that’s the best he can come up with, may he retread old arguments ad nauseam to his band of the converted.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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