Chalmers Johnson

Three Good Reasons To Liquidate Our Empire and 10 Ways to Do It

However ambitious President Barack Obama's domestic plans, one unacknowledged issue has the potential to destroy any reform efforts he might launch. Think of it as the 800-pound gorilla in the American living room: our longstanding reliance on imperialism and militarism in our relations with other countries and the vast, potentially ruinous global empire of bases that goes with it. The failure to begin to deal with our bloated military establishment and the profligate use of it in missions for which it is hopelessly inappropriate will, sooner rather than later, condemn the United States to a devastating trio of consequences: imperial overstretch, perpetual war, and insolvency, leading to a likely collapse similar to that of the former Soviet Union.

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Is This Election the Major Historical Turning Point It Seems to Be? Yes



In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama called the forthcoming presidential election a "defining moment" in this country's history. It is conceivable that he is right. There are precedents in American history for an election inaugurating a period of reform and political realignment.



Such a development, however, is extremely rare and surrounded by contingencies normally beyond the control of the advocates of reform. So let me speculate about whether the 2008 election might set in motion a political reconfiguration -- and even a political renaissance -- in the United States, restoring a modicum of democracy to the country's political system, while ending our march toward imperialism, perpetual warfare, and bankruptcy that began with the Cold War.



The political blunders, serious mistakes, and governmental failures of the last eight years so discredited the administration of George W. Bush -- his average approval rating has fallen to 27% and some polls now show him dipping into the low twenties -- that his name was barely mentioned in the major speeches at the Republican convention. Even John McCain has chosen to run under the banner of "maverick" as a candidate of "change," despite the fact that his own party's misgoverning has elicited those demands for change.



Bringing the opposition party to power, however, is not in itself likely to restore the American republic to good working order. It is almost inconceivable that any president could stand up to the overwhelming pressures of the military-industrial complex, as well as the extra-constitutional powers of the 16 intelligence agencies that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the entrenched interests they represent. The subversive influence of the imperial presidency (and vice presidency), the vast expansion of official secrecy and of the police and spying powers of the state, the institution of a second Defense Department in the form of the Department of Homeland Security, and the irrational commitments of American imperialism (761 active military bases in 151 foreign countries as of 2008) will not easily be rolled back by the normal workings of the political system.



For even a possibility of that occurring, the vote in November would have to result in a "realigning election," of which there have been only two during the past century -- the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and of Richard Nixon in 1968. Until 1932, the Republicans had controlled the presidency for 56 of the previous 72 years, beginning with Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860. After 1932, the Democrats occupied the White House for 28 of the next 36 years.



The 1968 election saw the withdrawal of the candidacy of President Lyndon Johnson under the pressure of the Vietnam War, the defeat of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, not to mention the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. That election, based on Nixon's so-called southern strategy, led to a new political alignment nationally, favoring the Republicans. The essence of that realignment lay in the running of Republican racists for office in the old Confederate states where the Democrats had long been the party of choice. Before 1968, the Democrats had also been the majority party nationally, winning seven of the previous nine presidential elections. The Republicans won seven of the next ten between 1968 and 2004.



Of these two realigning elections, the Roosevelt election is certainly the more important for our moment, ushering in as it did one of the few truly democratic periods in American political history. In his new book, Democracy Incorporated, Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin suggests the following: "Democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs."



However, the founders of this country and virtually all subsequent political leaders have been hostile to democracy in this sense. They favored checks and balances, republicanism, and rule by elites rather than rule by the common man or woman. Wolin writes, "The American political system was not born a democracy, but born with a bias against democracy. It was constructed by those who were either skeptical about democracy or hostile to it. Democratic advance proved to be slow, uphill, forever incomplete.


"The republic existed for three-quarters of a century before formal slavery was ended; another hundred years before black Americans were assured of their voting rights. Only in the twentieth century were women guaranteed the vote and trade unions the right to bargain collectively. In none of these instances has victory been complete: women still lack full equality, racism persists, and the destruction of the remnants of trade unions remains a goal of corporate strategies. Far from being innate, democracy in America has gone against the grain, against the very forms by which the political and economic power of the country has been and continues to be ordered."


Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal introduced a brief period of approximate democracy. This ended with the U.S. entry into World War II, when the New Deal was replaced by a wartime economy based on munitions manufacture and the support of weapons producers. This development had a powerful effect on the American political psyche, since only war production ultimately overcame the conditions of the Great Depression and restored full employment. Ever since that time, the United States has experimented with maintaining a military economy and a civilian economy simultaneously. Over time, this has had the effect of misallocating vital resources away from investment and consumption, while sapping the country's international competitiveness.



Socioeconomic conditions in 2008 bear a certain resemblance to those of 1932, making a realigning election conceivable. Unemployment in 1932 was a record 33%. In the fall of 2008, the rate is a much lower 6.1%, but other severe economic pressures abound. These include massive mortgage foreclosures, bank and investment house failures, rapid inflation in the prices of food and fuel, the failure of the health care system to deliver service to all citizens, a growing global-warming environmental catastrophe due to the over-consumption of fossil fuels, continuing costly military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more on the horizon due to foreign policy failures (in Georgia, Ukraine, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere), and record-setting budgetary and trade deficits.



The question is: Can the electorate be mobilized, as in 1932, and will this indeed lead to a realigning election? The answer to neither question is an unambiguous yes.



The Race Factor




Even to contemplate that happening, of course, the Democratic Party first has to win the election -- and in smashing style -- and it faces two formidable obstacles to doing so: race and regionalism.



Although large numbers of white Democrats and independents have told pollsters that the race of a candidate is not a factor in how they will decide their vote, there is ample evidence that they are not telling the truth -- either to pollsters or, in many cases perhaps no less importantly, to themselves. Andrew Hacker, a political scientist at Queen's College, New York, has written strikingly on this subject, starting with the phenomenon known as the "Bradley Effect."



The term refers to Tom Bradley, a former black mayor of Los Angeles, who lost his 1982 bid to become governor of California, even though every poll in the state showed him leading his white opponent by substantial margins. Similar results appeared in 1989, when David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York City and Douglas Wilder sought election as governor of Virginia. Dinkins was ahead by 18 percentage points, but won by only two, and Wilder was leading by nine points, but squeaked through by only half a percent. Numerous other examples lead Hacker to offer this advice to Obama campaign offices: always subtract 7% from favorable poll results. That's the potential Bradley effect.



Meanwhile, the Karl Rove-trained Republican Party has been hard at work disenfranchising black voters. Although we are finally beyond property qualifications, written tests, and the poll tax, there are many new gimmicks. These include laws requiring voters to present official identity cards that include a photo, which, for all practical purposes, means either a driver's license or a passport. Many states drop men and women from the voting rolls who have been convicted of a felony but have fully completed their sentences, or require elaborate procedures for those who have been in prison -- where, Hacker points out, black men and women outnumber whites by nearly six to one -- to be reinstated. There are many other ways of disqualifying black voters, not the least of which is imprisonment itself. After all, the United States imprisons a greater proportion of its population than any other country on Earth, a burden that falls disproportionately on African Americans. Such obstacles can be overcome but they require heroic organizational efforts.



The Regional Factor




Regionalism is the other obvious obstacle standing in the way of attempts to mobilize the electorate on a national basis for a turning-point election. In their book, Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics, the political scientists Earl and Merle Black argue that the U.S. electorate is hopelessly split. This division, which has become more entrenched with each passing year, is fundamentally ideological, but it is also rooted in ethnicity and manifests itself in an intense and never-ending partisanship. "In modern American politics," they write, "a Republican Party dominated by white Protestants faces a Democratic Party in which minorities plus non-Christian whites far outnumber white Protestants."



Another difference on the rise involves gender imbalance. In the 1950s, the Democratic Party, then by far the larger of the two parties, was evenly balanced between women and men. Fifty years later, a smaller but still potent Democratic Party contained far more women than men (60% to 40%). "In contrast, the Republican Party has shifted from an institution with more women than men in the 1950s (55% to 45%) to one in which men and women were as evenly balanced in 2004 as Democrats were in the 1950s."



Now, add in regionalism, specifically the old American antagonism between the two sides in the Civil War. That once meant southern Democrats versus northern Republicans. By the twenty-first century, however, that binary division had given way to something more complex -- "a new American regionalism, a pattern of conflict in which Democrats and Republicans each possess two regional strongholds and in which the Midwest, as the swing region, holds the balance of power in presidential elections."



The five regions Earl and Merle Black identify -- each becoming more partisan and less characteristic of the nation as a whole -- are the Northeast, South, Midwest, Mountains/Plains, and Pacific Coast. The Northeast, although declining slightly in population, has become unambiguously liberal Democratic. It is composed of New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont), the Middle Atlantic states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania), and the District of Columbia. It is the primary Democratic stronghold.



The South is today a Republican stronghold made up of the eleven former Confederate states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia). A second Republican stronghold, displaying an intense and growing partisanship, is the Mountains/Plains region, composed of the 13 states of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.



A second Democratic stronghold is the Pacific Coast, which includes the nation's most populous state, California, joined by Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. The Midwest, where national elections are won or lost by the party able to hold onto, and mobilize, its strongholds, is composed of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The two most important swing states in the nation are Florida (27 electoral votes) and Ohio (20 electoral votes), which the Democrats narrowly lost, generally under contested circumstances, in both 2000 and 2004.



These five regions are today entrenched in the nation's psyche. Normally, they ensure very narrow victories by one party or another in national elections. There is no way to get around them, barring a clear and unmistakable performance failure by one of the parties -- as happened to the Republicans during the Great Depression and may be happening again.



Why This Might Still Be a Turning-Point Election



Beyond these negatives, in 2008 there have been a number of developments that speak to the possibility of a turning-point election. First, the weakness (and age) of the Republican candidate may perhaps indicate that the Party itself is truly at the end of a forty-year cycle of power. Second, of course, is the meltdown, even possibly implosion, of the U.S. economy on the Republican watch (specifically, on that of George W. Bush, the least popular President in memory, as measured by recent opinion polls). This has put states in the Midwest and elsewhere that Bush took in 2000 and 2004 into play.



Third, there has been a noticeable trend in shifting party affiliations in which the Democrats are gaining membership as the Republicans are losing it, especially in key battleground states like Pennsylvania where, in 2008 alone, 474,000 new names have gone on the Democratic rolls, according to the Washington Post, even as the Republicans have lost 38,000. Overall, since 2006, the Democrats have gained at least two million new members, while the Republicans have lost 344,000. According to the Gallup organization, self-identified Democrats outnumbered self-identified Republicans by a 37% to 28% margin this June, a gap which may only be widening.



Fourth, there is the possibility of a flood of new, especially young, first-time voters, who either screen calls or live on cell phones, not landlines, and so are being under-measured by pollsters, as black voters may also be in this election. (However, when it comes to the young vote, which has been ballyhooed in a number of recent elections without turning out to be significant on Election Day, we must be cautious.) And fifth, an influx of new Democratic voters in states like Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico threatens, in this election at least, to dent somewhat the normal regional loyalty patterns described by Earl and Merle Black.



Above all, two main issues will determine whether or not the November election will be a realigning one. Republican Party failures in managing the economy, in involving the country in catastrophic wars of choice, and in ignoring such paramount issues as global warming all dictate a Democratic victory. Militating against that outcome is racist hostility, conscious or otherwise, toward the Democratic Party's candidate as well as deep-seated regional loyalties. While the crisis caused by the performance failures of the incumbent party seems to guarantee a realigning election favoring the Democrats, it is simply impossible to determine the degree to which race and regionalism may sway voters. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.


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The Vast and Dangerous Transfer of American Spying to Mercenary Companies

Editor's note--

Chalmers Johnson has produced a superb new article on what privatization has meant to the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Focusing on Tim Shorrock's new book, Spies for Hire, Johnson traces the history of "the wholesale transfer of military and intelligence functions to private, often anonymous operatives" from Ronald Reagan's day to the present, reminding us of just how crucial the Clinton administration was to this development. He also lays out just what can happen when the intelligence budget soars and startling amounts of it are placed in private, for-profit hands. Not only, he claims, has the privatization of intelligence made it easier for enemies to penetrate American intelligence and greased the slippery slope to the loss of professionalism within the community of intelligence analysts, but, perhaps most serious of all, it has ensured the loss of the most valuable asset any intelligence organization possesses -- its institutional memory.

Johnson concludes: "The current situation represents the worst of all possible worlds. Successive administrations and Congresses have made no effort to alter the CIA's role as the president's private army, even as we have increased its incompetence by turning over many of its functions to the private sector. We have thereby heightened the risks of war by accident, or by presidential whim, as well as of surprise attack because our government is no longer capable of accurately assessing what is going on in the world and because its intelligence agencies are so open to pressure, penetration, and manipulation of every kind."

****



Most Americans have a rough idea what the term "military-industrial complex" means when they come across it in a newspaper or hear a politician mention it. President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced the idea to the public in his farewell address of January 17, 1961. "Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime," he said, "or indeed by the fighting men of World War II and Korea We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."



Although Eisenhower's reference to the military-industrial complex is, by now, well-known, his warning against its "unwarranted influence" has, I believe, largely been ignored. Since 1961, there has been too little serious study of, or discussion of, the origins of the military-industrial complex, how it has changed over time, how governmental secrecy has hidden it from oversight by members of Congress or attentive citizens, and how it degrades our Constitutional structure of checks and balances.



From its origins in the early 1940s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was building up his "arsenal of democracy," down to the present moment, public opinion has usually assumed that it involved more or less equitable relations -- often termed a "partnership" -- between the high command and civilian overlords of the United States military and privately-owned, for-profit manufacturing and service enterprises. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that, from the time they first emerged, these relations were never equitable.



In the formative years of the military-industrial complex, the public still deeply distrusted privately owned industrial firms because of the way they had contributed to the Great Depression. Thus, the leading role in the newly emerging relationship was played by the official governmental sector. A deeply popular, charismatic president, FDR sponsored these public-private relationships. They gained further legitimacy because their purpose was to rearm the country, as well as allied nations around the world, against the gathering forces of fascism. The private sector was eager to go along with this largely as a way to regain public trust and disguise its wartime profit-making.



In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Roosevelt's use of public-private "partnerships" to build up the munitions industry, and thereby finally overcome the Great Depression, did not go entirely unchallenged. Although he was himself an implacable enemy of fascism, a few people thought that the president nonetheless was coming close to copying some of its key institutions. The leading Italian philosopher of fascism, the neo-Hegelian Giovanni Gentile, once argued that it should more appropriately be called "corporatism" because it was a merger of state and corporate power. (See Eugene Jarecki's The American Way of War, p. 69.)



Some critics were alarmed early on by the growing symbiotic relationship between government and corporate officials because each simultaneously sheltered and empowered the other, while greatly confusing the separation of powers. Since the activities of a corporation are less amenable to public or congressional scrutiny than those of a public institution, public-private collaborative relationships afford the private sector an added measure of security from such scrutiny. These concerns were ultimately swamped by enthusiasm for the war effort and the postwar era of prosperity that the war produced.



Beneath the surface, however, was a less well recognized movement by big business to replace democratic institutions with those representing the interests of capital. This movement is today ascendant. (See Thomas Frank's new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, for a superb analysis of Ronald Reagan's slogan "government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.") Its objectives have long been to discredit what it called "big government," while capturing for private interests the tremendous sums invested by the public sector in national defense. It may be understood as a slow-burning reaction to what American conservatives believed to be the socialism of the New Deal.



Perhaps the country's leading theorist of democracy, Sheldon S. Wolin, has written a new book, Democracy Incorporated, on what he calls "inverted totalitarianism" -- the rise in the U.S. of totalitarian institutions of conformity and regimentation shorn of the police repression of the earlier German, Italian, and Soviet forms. He warns of "the expansion of private (i.e., mainly corporate) power and the selective abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of the citizenry." He also decries the degree to which the so-called privatization of governmental activities has insidiously undercut our democracy, leaving us with the widespread belief that government is no longer needed and that, in any case, it is not capable of performing the functions we have entrusted to it.



Wolin writes:



"The privatization of public services and functions manifests the steady evolution of corporate power into a political form, into an integral, even dominant partner with the state. It marks the transformation of American politics and its political culture, from a system in which democratic practices and values were, if not defining, at least major contributory elements, to one where the remaining democratic elements of the state and its populist programs are being systematically dismantled." (p. 284)


Mercenaries at Work




The military-industrial complex has changed radically since World War II or even the height of the Cold War. The private sector is now fully ascendant. The uniformed air, land, and naval forces of the country as well as its intelligence agencies, including the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the NSA (National Security Agency), the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), and even clandestine networks entrusted with the dangerous work of penetrating and spying on terrorist organizations are all dependent on hordes of "private contractors." In the context of governmental national security functions, a better term for these might be "mercenaries" working in private for profit-making companies.



Tim Shorrock, an investigative journalist and the leading authority on this subject, sums up this situation devastatingly in his new book, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. The following quotes are a prcis of some of his key findings:


"In 2006 the cost of America's spying and surveillance activities outsourced to contractors reached $42 billion, or about 70 percent of the estimated $60 billion the government spends each year on foreign and domestic intelligence [The] number of contract employees now exceeds [the CIA's] full-time workforce of 17,500 Contractors make up more than half the workforce of the CIA's National Clandestine Service (formerly the Directorate of Operations), which conducts covert operations and recruits spies abroad



"To feed the NSA's insatiable demand for data and information technology, the industrial base of contractors seeking to do business with the agency grew from 144 companies in 2001 to more than 5,400 in 2006 At the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the agency in charge of launching and maintaining the nation's photoreconnaissance and eavesdropping satellites, almost the entire workforce is composed of contract employees working for [private] companies With an estimated $8 billion annual budget, the largest in the IC [intelligence community], contractors control about $7 billion worth of business at the NRO, giving the spy satellite industry the distinction of being the most privatized part of the intelligence community



"If there's one generalization to be made about the NSA's outsourced IT [information technology] programs, it is this: they haven't worked very well, and some have been spectacular failures In 2006, the NSA was unable to analyze much of the information it was collecting As a result, more than 90 percent of the information it was gathering was being discarded without being translated into a coherent and understandable format; only about 5 percent was translated from its digital form into text and then routed to the right division for analysis.



"The key phrase in the new counterterrorism lexicon is 'public-private partnerships' In reality, 'partnerships' are a convenient cover for the perpetuation of corporate interests." (pp. 6, 13-14, 16, 214-15, 365)


Several inferences can be drawn from Shorrock's shocking expos. One is that if a foreign espionage service wanted to penetrate American military and governmental secrets, its easiest path would not be to gain access to any official U.S. agencies, but simply to get its agents jobs at any of the large intelligence-oriented private companies on which the government has become remarkably dependent. These include Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), with headquarters in San Diego, California, which typically pays its 42,000 employees higher salaries than if they worked at similar jobs in the government; Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the nation's oldest intelligence and clandestine-operations contractors, which, until January 2007, was the employer of Mike McConnell, the current director of national intelligence and the first private contractor to be named to lead the entire intelligence community; and CACI International, which, under two contracts for "information technology services," ended up supplying some two dozen interrogators to the Army at Iraq's already infamous Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. According to Major General Anthony Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib torture and abuse scandal, four of CACI's interrogators were "either directly or indirectly responsible" for torturing prisoners. (Shorrock, p. 281)



Remarkably enough, SAIC has virtually replaced the National Security Agency as the primary collector of signals intelligence for the government. It is the NSA's largest contractor, and that agency is today the company's single largest customer.



There are literally thousands of other profit-making enterprises that work to supply the government with so-called intelligence needs, sometimes even bribing Congressmen to fund projects that no one in the executive branch actually wants. This was the case with Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Republican of California's 50th District, who, in 2006, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in federal prison for soliciting bribes from defense contractors. One of the bribers, Brent Wilkes, snagged a $9.7 million contract for his company, ADCS Inc. ("Automated Document Conversion Systems") to computerize the century-old records of the Panama Canal dig!



A Country Drowning in Euphemisms




The United States has long had a sorry record when it comes to protecting its intelligence from foreign infiltration, but the situation today seems particularly perilous. One is reminded of the case described in the 1979 book by Robert Lindsey, The Falcon and the Snowman (made into a 1985 film of the same name). It tells the true story of two young Southern Californians, one with a high security clearance working for the defense contractor TRW (dubbed "RTX" in the film), and the other a drug addict and minor smuggler. The TRW employee is motivated to act by his discovery of a misrouted CIA document describing plans to overthrow the prime minister of Australia, and the other by a need for money to pay for his addiction.



They decide to get even with the government by selling secrets to the Soviet Union and are exposed by their own bungling. Both are sentenced to prison for espionage. The message of the book (and film) lies in the ease with which they betrayed their country -- and how long it took before they were exposed and apprehended. Today, thanks to the staggering over-privatization of the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence, the opportunities for such breaches of security are widespread.



I applaud Shorrock for his extraordinary research into an almost impenetrable subject using only openly available sources. There is, however, one aspect of his analysis with which I differ. This is his contention that the wholesale takeover of official intelligence collection and analysis by private companies is a form of "outsourcing." This term is usually restricted to a business enterprise buying goods and services that it does not want to manufacture or supply in-house. When it is applied to a governmental agency that turns over many, if not all, of its key functions to a risk-averse company trying to make a return on its investment, "outsourcing" simply becomes a euphemism for mercenary activities.



As David Bromwich, a political critic and Yale professor of literature, observed in the New York Review of Books:


"The separate bookkeeping and accountability devised for Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and similar outfits was part of a careful displacement of oversight from Congress to the vice-president and the stewards of his policies in various departments and agencies. To have much of the work parceled out to private companies who are unaccountable to army rules or military justice, meant, among its other advantages, that the cost of the war could be concealed beyond all detection."


Euphemisms are words intended to deceive. The United States is already close to drowning in them, particularly new words and terms devised, or brought to bear, to justify the American invasion of Iraq -- coinages Bromwich highlights like "regime change," "enhanced interrogation techniques," "the global war on terrorism," "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," a "slight uptick in violence," "bringing torture within the law," "simulated drowning," and, of course, "collateral damage," meaning the slaughter of unarmed civilians by American troops and aircraft followed -- rarely -- by perfunctory apologies. It is important that the intrusion of unelected corporate officials with hidden profit motives into what are ostensibly public political activities not be confused with private businesses buying Scotch tape, paper clips, or hubcaps.



The wholesale transfer of military and intelligence functions to private, often anonymous, operatives took off under Ronald Reagan's presidency, and accelerated greatly after 9/11 under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Often not well understood, however, is this: The biggest private expansion into intelligence and other areas of government occurred under the presidency of Bill Clinton. He seems not to have had the same anti-governmental and neoconservative motives as the privatizers of both the Reagan and Bush II eras. His policies typically involved an indifference to -- perhaps even an ignorance of -- what was actually being done to democratic, accountable government in the name of cost-cutting and allegedly greater efficiency. It is one of the strengths of Shorrock's study that he goes into detail on Clinton's contributions to the wholesale privatization of our government, and of the intelligence agencies in particular.



Reagan launched his campaign to shrink the size of government and offer a large share of public expenditures to the private sector with the creation in 1982 of the "Private Sector Survey on Cost Control." In charge of the survey, which became known as the "Grace Commission," he named the conservative businessman, J. Peter Grace, Jr., chairman of the W.R. Grace Corporation, one of the world's largest chemical companies -- notorious for its production of asbestos and its involvement in numerous anti-pollution suits. The Grace Company also had a long history of investment in Latin America, and Peter Grace was deeply committed to undercutting what he saw as leftist unions, particularly because they often favored state-led economic development.



The Grace Commission's actual achievements were modest. Its biggest was undoubtedly the 1987 privatization of Conrail, the freight railroad for the northeastern states. Nothing much else happened on this front during the first Bush's administration, but Bill Clinton returned to privatization with a vengeance.



According to Shorrock:



"Bill Clinton picked up the cudgel where the conservative Ronald Reagan left off and took it deep into services once considered inherently governmental, including high-risk military operations and intelligence functions once reserved only for government agencies. By the end of [Clinton's first] term, more than 100,000 Pentagon jobs had been transferred to companies in the private sector -- among them thousands of jobs in intelligence By the end of [his second] term in 2001, the administration had cut 360,000 jobs from the federal payroll and the government was spending 44 percent more on contractors than it had in 1993." (pp. 73, 86)


These activities were greatly abetted by the fact that the Republicans had gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in 43 years. One liberal journalist described "outsourcing as a virtual joint venture between [House Majority Leader Newt] Gingrich and Clinton." The right-wing Heritage Foundation aptly labeled Clinton's 1996 budget as the "boldest privatization agenda put forth by any president to date." (p. 87)



After 2001, Bush and Cheney added an ideological rationale to the process Clinton had already launched so efficiently. They were enthusiastic supporters of "a neoconservative drive to siphon U.S. spending on defense, national security, and social programs to large corporations friendly to the Bush administration." (pp. 72-3)



The Privatization -- and Loss -- of Institutional Memory



The end result is what we see today: a government hollowed out in terms of military and intelligence functions. The KBR Corporation, for example, supplies food, laundry, and other personal services to our troops in Iraq based on extremely lucrative no-bid contracts, while Blackwater Worldwide supplies security and analytical services to the CIA and the State Department in Baghdad. (Among other things, its armed mercenaries opened fire on, and killed, 17 unarmed civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad, on September 16, 2007, without any provocation, according to U.S. military reports.) The costs -- both financial and personal -- of privatization in the armed services and the intelligence community far exceed any alleged savings, and some of the consequences for democratic governance may prove irreparable.



These consequences include: the sacrifice of professionalism within our intelligence services; the readiness of private contractors to engage in illegal activities without compunction and with impunity; the inability of Congress or citizens to carry out effective oversight of privately-managed intelligence activities because of the wall of secrecy that surrounds them; and, perhaps most serious of all, the loss of the most valuable asset any intelligence organization possesses -- its institutional memory.



Most of these consequences are obvious, even if almost never commented on by our politicians or paid much attention in the mainstream media. After all, the standards of a career CIA officer are very different from those of a corporate executive who must keep his eye on the contract he is fulfilling and future contracts that will determine the viability of his firm. The essence of professionalism for a career intelligence analyst is his integrity in laying out what the U.S. government should know about a foreign policy issue, regardless of the political interests of, or the costs to, the major players.



The loss of such professionalism within the CIA was starkly revealed in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. It still seems astonishing that no senior official, beginning with Secretary of State Colin Powell, saw fit to resign when the true dimensions of our intelligence failure became clear, least of all Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.



A willingness to engage in activities ranging from the dubious to the outright felonious seems even more prevalent among our intelligence contractors than among the agencies themselves, and much harder for an outsider to detect. For example, following 9/11, Rear Admiral John Poindexter, then working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the Department of Defense, got the bright idea that DARPA should start compiling dossiers on as many American citizens as possible in order to see whether "data-mining" procedures might reveal patterns of behavior associated with terrorist activities.



On November 14, 2002, the New York Times published a column by William Safire entitled "You Are a Suspect" in which he revealed that DARPA had been given a $200 million budget to compile dossiers on 300 million Americans. He wrote, "Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every web site you visit and every e-mail you send or receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book, and every event you attend -- all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as a 'virtual centralized grand database.'" This struck many members of Congress as too close to the practices of the Gestapo and the Stasi under German totalitarianism, and so, the following year, they voted to defund the project.



However, Congress's action did not end the "total information awareness" program. The National Security Agency secretly decided to continue it through its private contractors. The NSA easily persuaded SAIC and Booz Allen Hamilton to carry on with what Congress had declared to be a violation of the privacy rights of the American public -- for a price. As far as we know, Admiral Poindexter's "Total Information Awareness Program" is still going strong today.



The most serious immediate consequence of the privatization of official governmental activities is the loss of institutional memory by our government's most sensitive organizations and agencies. Shorrock concludes, "So many former intelligence officers joined the private sector [during the 1990s] that, by the turn of the century, the institutional memory of the United States intelligence community now resides in the private sector. That's pretty much where things stood on September 11, 2001." (p. 112)



This means that the CIA, the DIA, the NSA, and the other 13 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community cannot easily be reformed because their staffs have largely forgotten what they are supposed to do, or how to go about it. They have not been drilled and disciplined in the techniques, unexpected outcomes, and know-how of previous projects, successful and failed.



As numerous studies have, by now, made clear, the abject failure of the American occupation of Iraq came about in significant measure because the Department of Defense sent a remarkably privatized military filled with incompetent amateurs to Baghdad to administer the running of a defeated country. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates (a former director of the CIA) has repeatedly warned that the United States is turning over far too many functions to the military because of its hollowing out of the Department of State and the Agency for International Development since the end of the Cold War. Gates believes that we are witnessing a "creeping militarization" of foreign policy -- and, though this generally goes unsaid, both the military and the intelligence services have turned over far too many of their tasks to private companies and mercenaries.



When even Robert Gates begins to sound like President Eisenhower, it is time for ordinary citizens to pay attention. In my 2006 book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, with an eye to bringing the imperial presidency under some modest control, I advocated that we Americans abolish the CIA altogether, along with other dangerous and redundant agencies in our alphabet soup of sixteen secret intelligence agencies, and replace them with the State Department's professional staff devoted to collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence. I still hold that position.



Nonetheless, the current situation represents the worst of all possible worlds. Successive administrations and Congresses have made no effort to alter the CIA's role as the president's private army, even as we have increased its incompetence by turning over many of its functions to the private sector. We have thereby heightened the risks of war by accident, or by presidential whim, as well as of surprise attack because our government is no longer capable of accurately assessing what is going on in the world and because its intelligence agencies are so open to pressure, penetration, and manipulation of every kind.



[Note to Readers: This essay focuses on the new book by Tim Shorrock, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.



Other books noted: Eugene Jarecki's The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril, New York: Free Press, 2008; Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008; Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.]

Can We End the American Empire Before It Ends Us?

In politics, as in medicine, a cure based on a false diagnosis is almost always worthless, often worsening the condition that is supposed to be healed. The United States, today, suffers from a plethora of public ills. Most of them can be traced to the militarism and imperialism that have led to the near-collapse of our Constitutional system of checks and balances. Unfortunately, none of the remedies proposed so far by American politicians or analysts addresses the root causes of the problem.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released on April 26, 2007, some 78% of Americans believe their country to be headed in the wrong direction. Only 22% think the Bush administration's policies make sense, the lowest number on this question since October 1992, when George H. W. Bush was running for a second term -- and lost. What people don't agree on are the reasons for their doubts and, above all, what the remedy -- or remedies -- ought to be.

The range of opinions on this is immense. Even though large numbers of voters vaguely suspect that the failings of the political system itself led the country into its current crisis, most evidently expect the system to perform a course correction more or less automatically. As Adam Nagourney of the New York Times reported, by the end of March 2007, at least 280,000 American citizens had already contributed some $113.6 million to the presidential campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Rudolph Giuliani, or John McCain.

If these people actually believe a presidential election a year-and-a-half from now will significantly alter how the country is run, they have almost surely wasted their money. As Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism, puts it: "None of the Democrats vying to replace President Bush is doing so with the promise of reviving the system of check and balances.... The aim of the party out of power is not to cut the presidency down to size but to seize it, not to reduce the prerogatives of the executive branch but to regain them."

George W. Bush has, of course, flagrantly violated his oath of office, which requires him "to protect and defend the constitution," and the opposition party has been remarkably reluctant to hold him to account. Among the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that, under other political circumstances, would surely constitute the Constitutional grounds for impeachment are these: the President and his top officials pressured the Central Intelligence Agency to put together a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's nuclear weapons that both the administration and the Agency knew to be patently dishonest. They then used this false NIE to justify an American war of aggression. After launching an invasion of Iraq, the administration unilaterally reinterpreted international and domestic law to permit the torture of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, at Guant·namo Bay, Cuba, and at other secret locations around the world.

Nothing in the Constitution, least of all the commander-in-chief clause, allows the president to commit felonies. Nonetheless, within days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush had signed a secret executive order authorizing a new policy of "extraordinary rendition," in which the CIA is allowed to kidnap terrorist suspects anywhere on Earth and transfer them to prisons in countries like Egypt, Syria, or Uzbekistan, where torture is a normal practice, or to secret CIA prisons outside the United States where Agency operatives themselves do the torturing.

On the home front, despite the post-9/11 congressional authorization of new surveillance powers to the administration, its officials chose to ignore these and, on its own initiative, undertook extensive spying on American citizens without obtaining the necessary judicial warrants and without reporting to Congress on this program. These actions are prima-facie violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (and subsequent revisions) and of Amendment IV of the Constitution.

These alone constitute more than adequate grounds for impeachment, while hardly scratching the surface. And yet, on the eve of the national elections of November 2006, then House Minority Leader, now Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), pledged on the CBS News program "60 Minutes" that "impeachment is off the table." She called it "a waste of time." And six months after the Democratic Party took control of both houses of Congress, the prison at Guant·namo Bay was still open and conducting drumhead courts martial of the prisoners held there; the CIA was still using "enhanced interrogation techniques" on prisoners in foreign jails; illegal intrusions into the privacy of American citizens continued unabated; and, more than fifty years after the CIA was founded, it continues to operate under, at best, the most perfunctory congressional oversight.

Promoting Lies, Demoting Democracy

Without question, the administration's catastrophic war in Iraq is the single overarching issue that has convinced a large majority of Americans that the country is "heading in the wrong direction." But the war itself is the outcome of an imperial presidency and the abject failure of Congress to perform its Constitutional duty of oversight. Had the government been working as the authors of the Constitution intended, the war could not have occurred. Even now, the Democratic majority remains reluctant to use its power of the purse to cut off funding for the war, thereby ending the American occupation of Iraq and starting to curtail the ever-growing power of the military-industrial complex.

One major problem of the American social and political system is the failure of the press, especially television news, to inform the public about the true breadth of the unconstitutional activities of the executive branch. As Frederick A. O. Schwarz and Aziz Z. Huq, the authors of Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror, observe, "For the public to play its proper checking role at the ballot box, citizens must know what is done by the government in their names."

Instead of uncovering administration lies and manipulations, the media actively promoted them. Yet the first amendment to the Constitution protects the press precisely so it can penetrate the secrecy that is the bureaucrat's most powerful, self-protective weapon. As a result of this failure, democratic oversight of the government by an actively engaged citizenry did not -- and could not -- occur. The people of the United States became mere spectators as an array of ideological extremists, vested interests, and foreign operatives -- including domestic neoconservatives, Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi exiles, the Israeli Lobby, the petroleum and automobile industries, warmongers and profiteers allied with the military-industrial complex, and the entrenched interests of the professional military establishment -- essentially hijacked the government.

Some respected professional journalists do not see these failings as the mere result of personal turpitude but rather as deep structural and cultural problems within the American system as it exists today. In an interview with Matt Taibbi, Seymour Hersh, for forty years one of America's leading investigative reporters, put the matter this way:

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Assassins R Us

As the Iraqi resistance expands and perfects its attacks, the American military, like so many occupying armies before it, is turning to methods of warfare long outlawed by civilized nations -- assassinations and reprisals against civilians. When it comes to the first, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has long been on record as wanting Saddam Hussein and the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban brought in "dead or alive," with emphasis on the former.

Now, according to a November 7th front-page piece in the New York Times, the Pentagon, in conjunction with the CIA, has announced the creation of a new "task force" -- polite language for an assassination squad -- to accomplish these ends. "The new Special Operations organization," according to reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, "is designed to act with greater speed on intelligence tips about 'high-value targets' and not be contained within the borders where American conventional forces are operating in Iraq and Afghanistan." In other words, this death squad, composed of U.S. Army Special Forces troops, can run down its quarry in countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan but presumably also (if the occasion required it) in France, Germany, or even the United States itself.

The contradictions inherent in this plan are striking and tell us a great deal about what it means to be the lone planetary superpower. Although the Bush administration has refused to join the new International Criminal Court because it allegedly threatened our sovereignty, we now openly say that nobody else's sovereignty means anything at all to us. Without debate or oversight by elected officials, we are seemingly adopting a militarized version of globalization -- sending "terminator" squads wherever we want to whenever we care to -- whose operations will inevitably change the nature of our world, no matter how any individual attack may sort itself out. The concept of sovereignty -- that national governments exercise supreme authority within their own borders -- is the bedrock of global order. Without it, we open the door to anarchy.

Something like this plan for officially sanctioned assassinations has been in the cards for some time. On November 4, 2002, the Bush administration acknowledged that it had carried out a strike in Yemen, violating that country's sovereignty. Using an armed "Predator" unmanned surveillance aircraft monitored by CIA operatives based at a French military facility in Djibouti and at CIA headquarters in Virginia, the U.S. released a Hellfire missile that destroyed an SUV said to contain a senior al-Qaeda terrorist. Not only was the vehicle so completely vaporized that this claim cannot be verified, but the nature of the strike itself -- coming after the Yemeni government reportedly refused to act on information passed to it by the CIA -- must give pause to other governments. Why couldn't a Hellfire missile released from a remote-controlled drone be used to destroy reputed terrorists in the Philippines, in Singapore, or in Germany, regardless of what a local government might think or wish?

It would be prudent for our leaders to remember that sovereignty only makes sense when it is honored by all nations reciprocally. The day could come when the United States might be vulnerable to another country's use of such missiles against the homes and offices of supporters of, say, Israel or Taiwan.

Secretary Rumsfeld is, in fact, taking a leaf out of the play-book of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. He has long employed hit-squads against Palestinian and Hamas leaders who displeased him, and he is on record as having seriously considered "taking out" President Arafat. Just as Sharon and his government are indifferent to the collateral damage caused by their missile assaults, Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of all U.S. military forces from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, invariably uses the word "terrorist" to describe Iraqi resistance fighters. Calling guerrilla fighters "terrorists" allows American soldiers great leeway in avoiding responsibility when, for instance, they shoot unarmed civilians at checkpoints because they failed to obey shouted orders, which they may not have understood, fast enough.

Equally important under this rubric, Abizaid is opening the way to the authorization of indiscriminate reprisals against defenseless Iraqis. Frustrated by the deaths of thirty-eight U.S. soldiers during the first half of November, the U.S. high command has already launched Operation Ivy Cyclone, using F-16 fighters to drop 500-pound bombs on Tikrit and Falluja. This was immediately followed by Operation Iron Hammer within Baghdad itself, employing Apache attack helicopters and paratroopers in armored vehicles to blow up civilian properties the military thinks might have been involved in the planning of ambushes -- or that are just prominent places upon which to showcase America's military might. It appears that "staying the course" in Iraq may soon enough involve smaller scale versions of those Vietnam staples, the saturation bombing of cities and towns, the herding of civilians into barbed-wire enclosed "strategic hamlets," and a rerun of the Phoenix Program in which the CIA and Special Forces assassinated some 30,000 suspected Viet Cong leaders.

Not only is this thuggish behavior completely unacceptable under international law but, as in Israel, it is unlikely to achieve the ends that are so confidently being predicted. (The term "thuggish" derives from a 13th century Indian secret society that worshiped the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali. "Thugs" would infiltrate a party of travelers and when the moment was right on some remote stretch of road, they would strangle their prey with "Kali's skirt hem," a strip of cloth.) As Milt Bearden, who was the head of CIA operations in Afghanistan during the late 1980s, observed in a New York Times op-ed, "For every mujahedeen killed or hauled off in raids by Soviet troops in Afghanistan, a revenge group of perhaps a half-dozen members of his family took up arms. Sadly, this same rule probably applies in Iraq."

Bearden went on to argue, "There [are] two stark lessons in the history of the 20th century: no nation that launched a war against another sovereign nation ever won. And every nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded." Actually, of course, he overlooks America's attacks against small Latin American countries like Nicaragua, Panama, and Grenada, each of which resulted in putative "victories." Nonetheless, it would be useful if the war-lovers of the Pentagon would contemplate Bearden's lessons.

Another result of our government's taking the law into its own hands is to deceive the public about what is going on -- leading often to a violent reaction against politicians and complicit journalists when the truth finally comes out (recall the post-Watergate Church committee hearings). It also raises the level of callousness throughout our society. Assassinations and reprisals do nothing to advance national policies, but they do harden and numb the consciences of ordinary American citizens and instill in our armed forces the most corrosive of all emotions: guilt.

If Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, or Saddam Hussein are actually killed by the military's special assassination squad, a very large proportion of Middle Easterners simply will not believe it. Not even bodies put on display or DNA tests can alter that fact. After the massive campaign of false information that preceded our invasion of Iraq, it is doubtful that any foreigner would today trust anything said by our Department of Defense or Central Intelligence Agency. The only thing that might work would be good police work, leading to the capture of terrorist leaders and their conviction at a trial based on evidence presented before an international tribunal.

Secretary Rumsfeld nonetheless seems to believe that the deaths of these men will halt or seriously cripple the attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, too, he is undoubtedly wrong. First of all, many of the so-called terrorists are in fact nationalists whose targets are not unarmed civilians but easily identified military occupiers who, the Iraqis believe with some evidence, invaded their country to steal their resources. As ever, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Second, the actions are usually the work of small groups or cells, and the deaths of one or two leaders, however prominent, are unlikely to stop them. New leaders will arise to take their place, and the guerrillas are likely to redouble their efforts spurred on by the "martyrdom" of those who are killed. Think Ireland, Colombia, Vietnam, Chechnya, and many other places and occasions.

The Bush administration evidently imagines that opposition to its occupation in Iraq will lessen or disappear once people there know for sure that Saddam Hussein will not be back. I predict that quite the opposite will occur. The Iraqi Sunnis without Saddam will quickly rally around a new leader (or leaders) and redouble their efforts to kick out the Americans and claim the nationalist credit for doing so; the Shiites -- once they realize the coast is temporarily clear -- will struggle ever harder against both the U.S. and the Sunnis for an Islamic state under their control; and the Kurds, seeing the way the wind is blowing, will demand a state of their own.

This may be what Secretary Rumsfeld also foresees in his more pessimistic moments and why he sometimes says that the U.S. will have to remain in Iraq for at least a decade. But even if we were to garrison every town and village in the country, we could neither control nor stop this process. Some people say the U.S. should at least be praised for getting rid of Saddam. I believe that years from now we may come to understand why it took a leader so brutal to temporarily weld together these disparate peoples into a semblance of a nation-state. Think Stalin and the now dissolved USSR. Once the Soviet Union's control apparatus was discredited, rule from Moscow disintegrated. Russia today is only a shadow of the former USSR and has a national economy about the same as the Netherlands.

Iraq was a place to steer clear of, not one where our armed missionaries, the U.S. Army, should have tried out their nonexistent nation-building skills.

Chalmers Johnson is author of Blowback. His new book, The Sorrows of Empire, will be published by Metropolitan Books on January 1, 2004.

The Scourge of Militarism

The collapse of the Roman republic in 27 BC has significance today for the United States, which took many of its key political principles from its ancient predecessor. Separation of powers, checks and balances, government in accordance with constitutional law, a toleration of slavery, fixed terms in office, all these ideas were influenced by Roman precedents. John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams often read the great Roman political philosopher Cicero and spoke of him as an inspiration to them. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, authors of the Federalist Papers, writing in favor of ratification of the Constitution signed their articles with the name Publius Valerius Publicola, the first consul of the Roman republic.

The Roman republic, however, failed to adjust to the unintended consequences of its imperialism, leading to a drastic alteration in its form of government. The militarism that inescapably accompanied Rome's imperial projects slowly undermined its constitution as well as the very considerable political and human rights its citizens enjoyed. The American republic, of course, has not yet collapsed; it is just under considerable strain as the imperial presidency -- and its supporting military legions -- undermine Congress and the courts. However, the Roman outcome -- turning over power to an autocracy backed by military force and welcomed by ordinary citizens because it seemed to bring stability -- suggests what might happen in the years after Bush and his neoconservatives are thrown out of office.

Obviously, there is nothing deterministic about this progression, and many prominent Romans, notably Brutus and Cicero, paid with their lives trying to head it off. But there is something utterly logical about it. Republican checks and balances are simply incompatible with the maintenance of a large empire and a huge standing army. Democratic nations sometimes acquire empires, which they are reluctant to give up because they are a source of wealth and national pride, but as a result their domestic liberties are thereby put at risk.

These not-particularly-original comparisons are inspired by the current situation of the United States, with its empire of well over 725 military bases located in other people's countries; its huge and expensive military establishment demanding ever more pay and ever larger appropriations from a supine and manipulated legislature; unsolved anthrax attacks on senators and newsmen (much like Rome's perennial assassinations); Congress's gutting of the Bill of Rights through the panicky passage of the Patriot Act -- by votes of 76-1 in the Senate and 337 to 79 in the House; and numerous signs that the public is indifferent to what it is about to lose. Many current aspects of our American government suggest a Romanesque fatigue with republican proprieties. After Congress voted in October 2002 to give the president unrestricted power to use any means, including military force and nuclear weapons, in a preventive strike against Iraq whenever he -- and he alone -- deemed it "appropriate," it would be hard to argue that the constitution of 1787 is still the supreme law of the land.

Checks and Balances

My thinking about the last days of republics was partly stimulated this past summer by a new book and an old play. The book is Anthony Everitt's magnificent account of the man who had his head and both hands chopped off for opposing military dictatorship -- "Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician" (Random House, 2001). The play was a modern-dress production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar , seen at San Diego's Old Globe theater. The curtain opened on a huge backdrop of Julius Caesar looking remarkably like any seedy politician with the word "tyrant" scrawled graffiti-style beneath his face in red paint. At play's end, after Octavian's hypocritical comments on the death of Brutus, who was one of the republic's most stalwart supporters ("According to his virtue let us use him. . . ."), the picture of Caesar dropped away, replaced by one of Octavian -- soon to become the self-proclaimed god Augustus Caesar -- in full military uniform and bearing a marked resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, Octavian's military rule did not actually follow at once after the suicides of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC, and Shakespeare does not say it did. But that is what the play -- and the history -- are all about: Killing Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC only prepared the ground for a more ruthless and determined successor.

The Roman republic is conventionally dated from 509 to 27 BC, even though Romulus is traditionally said to have founded the city in 753 BC. All we know about its dim past, including the first two centuries of the republic, comes from the histories written by Livy and others and from the findings of modern archaeology. For the century preceding the republic, Rome had been ruled by Etruscan kings from their nearby state of Etruria (modern Tuscany), until in 510, according to legend, Sextus, the son of king Tarquinius Superbus ("King Tarquin"), raped Lucretia, the daughter of a leading Roman family. A group of aristocrats backed by the Roman citizenry revolted against this outrage and expelled the Etruscans from Rome. The rebels were determined that never again would any single man be allowed to obtain supreme power in Rome, and for four centuries the system they established more or less succeeded in preventing that from happening. "This was the main principle," writes Everitt, "that underpinned constitutional arrangements which, by Cicero's time [106 to 43 BC], were of a baffling complexity."

At the heart of the unwritten Roman constitution was the Senate, by the early years of the first century BC composed of about 300 members from whose ranks two chief executives, called consuls, were elected. The consuls took turns being in charge for a month each, and neither could hold office for more than a year. Over time an amazing set of "checks and balances" evolved to ensure that the consuls and other executives whose offices conferred on them imperium -- the right to command an army, to interpret and carry out the law, and to pass sentences of death -- did not entertain visions of grandeur and overstay their time. At the heart of these restraints were the principles of collegiality and term limits. The first meant that for every office there were at least two incumbents, neither of whom had seniority or superiority over the other. Office holders were normally limited to one-year terms and could be reelected to the same office only after waiting ten years. Senators had to serve two to three years in lower offices -- as quaestors, tribunes, aediles, or praetors -- before they were eligible for election to a higher office, including the consulship. All office holders could veto the acts of their equals, and higher officials could veto decisions of lower ones. The chief exception to these rules was the office of "dictator," appointed by the consuls in times of military emergency. There was always only one dictator and his decisions were immune to veto; according to the constitution, he could hold office only for six months or the duration of a crisis.

Once an official had ended his term as consul or praetor, the next post below consul, he was posted in Italy or abroad as governor of a province or colony and given the title of proconsul. It is absurd for journalistic admirers of the U.S. military today to pretend that its regional commanders-in-chief for the Middle East (Centcom), Europe (Eucom), the Pacific (Pacom), Latin America (Southcom), and the United States itself (Northcom) are the equivalents of Roman proconsuls. (1) The Roman officials were seasoned members of the Senate who had held the highest executive post in the country, whereas American regional commanders are generals or admirals who have served their entire careers away from civilian concerns and risen to this post by managing to avoid making egregious mistakes.

After serving as consul in 63 BC (the year of Octavian's birth), for example, Cicero was sent to govern the colony of Cilicia in present-day southern Turkey, where his duties were both civilian and military. Over time this complex system was made even more complex by the class struggle embedded in Roman society. During the first two centuries of the republic, what appeared to be a participatory democracy was in fact an oligarchy of aristocratic families that dominated the Senate. Not everyone was happy with this. After 287 BC, when the constitution was more or less formalized, a new institution came into being to defend the rights of the plebs or populares, that is, the ordinary, non-aristocratic citizens of Rome. These were the tribunes of the people, charged with protection of the lives and property of plebeians. Tribunes could veto any election, law, or decree of the Senate, of which they were ex officio members, as well as the acts of all other officials (except a dictator). They could also veto each others' vetoes. "No doubt because their purpose in life was to annoy people," Everitt notes, "their persons were sacrosanct." Controlling appointments to the office of tribune later became very important to generals like Julius Caesar, who based their power on their armies plus the support of the populares against the aristocrats.

The system worked well enough and afforded extraordinary freedoms to the citizens of Rome so long as all members of the Senate recognized that compromise and consensus were the only ways to get anything done. Everitt poses the issue in terms of the different perspectives of Caesar and Cicero; Caesar was Rome's -- and perhaps history's -- greatest general; whereas Cicero was the most intellectual defender of the Roman constitution. Both were former consuls: "Julius Caesar, with the pitiless insight of genius, understood that the constitution with its endless checks and balances prevented effective government, but like so many of his contemporaries Cicero regarded politics in personal rather than structural terms. For Caesar the solution lay in a completely new system of government; for Cicero it lay in finding better men to run the government -- and better laws to keep them in order."

"Remember that you are human"

Imperialism provoked the crisis that destroyed the Roman republic. After slowly consolidating its power over all of Italy and conquering the Greek colonies on the island of Sicily, the republic extended its conquests to Greece itself, to Carthage in North Africa, and to what is today southern France, Spain, and Asia Minor. By the first century BC, Rome dominated all of Gaul, most of Iberia, the coast of North Africa, Macedonia (including Greece), the Balkans, and large parts of modern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. "The republic became enormously rich on the spoils of empire," Everitt writes, "so much so that from 167 BC Roman citizens in Italy no longer paid any personal taxes." The republic also became increasingly self-important and arrogant, believing that its task was to bring civilization to lesser peoples and naming the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum (our sea), somewhat the way some Americans came in the twentieth century to refer to the Pacific Ocean as an "American lake."

The problem was that the Roman constitution made administration of so large and diverse an area increasingly difficult and subtly altered the norms and interests that underlay the need for compromise and consensus. There were several aspects to this crisis, but the most important was the transformation of the Roman army into a professional military force and the growth of militarism. During the early and middle years of the republic, the Roman legions were a true citizen army composed of small, conscripted landowners. Differing from the American republic, all citizens between the age of 17 and 46 were liable to be called for military service. One of the more admirable aspects of the Roman system was that only those citizens who possessed a specified amount of property (namely, a horse and some land) could serve, thereby making those who had profited most from the state also responsible for its defense. (By contrast, of the 535 members of Congress, only seven have children in the U.S.'s all-volunteer armed forces.) The Roman plebs did their service as skirmishers with the army or in the navy, which had far less honor attached to it. At the beginning of each term, the consuls appointed tribunes to raise two legions from the census role of all eligible citizens.

When a campaign was over, the troops were promptly sent back to their farms, sometimes richer and flushed with military glory. Occasionally, the returning farmers got to march behind their general in a "triumph," the most splendid ceremony in the Roman calendar, a victory procession allowed only to the greatest of conquerors. The general himself, who paid for this parade, rode in a chariot with his face covered in red lead to represent Jupiter, king of the gods. A boy slave stood behind him holding a laurel wreath above his head while whispering in his ear "Remember that you are human." In Pompey's great triumph of 61 BC, he actually wore a cloak that had belonged to Alexander the Great. After the general came his prisoners in chains and finally the legionnaires, who by ancient tradition sang obscene songs satirizing their general.

By the end of the second century BC, in Everitt's words, "The responsibilities of empire meant that soldiers could no longer be demobilized at the end of each fighting season. Standing forces were required, with soldiers on long-term contracts." The great general Caius Marius undertook to reform the armed forces, replacing the old conscript armies with a professional body of long-service volunteers. When their contracts expired, they expected their commanders, to whom they were personally loyal, to grant them farms. Unfortunately, land in Italy was by then in short supply, much of it tied up in huge sheep and cattle ranches owned by rich, often aristocratic, families and run by slave labor. The landowners were the dominant conservative influence in the Senate, and they resisted all efforts at land reform. Members of the upper classes became wealthy as a result of Rome's wars of conquest and bought more land as the only safe investment, driving small holders off their property. In 133 BC, the gentry arranged for the killing of the tribune Tiberius Gracchus (of plebian origin) for advocating a new land-use law. Rome's population continued to swell with landless veterans. "Where would the land be found," asks Everitt, "for the superannuated soldiers of Rome's next war?"

During the last century before its fall, the republic was assailed by many revolts of generals and their troops, leading to gross violations of the constitution and on several occasions to civil wars. These included the uprisings of Marius and Sulla and of the failed revolutionary Catilina. There was also the Spartacus slave rebellion of 73 BC, put down by the immensely wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus, who in the process crucified some 6,000 survivors. Crassus was a member of the First Triumvirate, along with Pompey and Caesar, which attempted to bring the situation under control by direct cooperation among the generals. Everitt writes, "During his childhood and youth Cicero had watched with horror as Rome set about dismantling itself. If he had a mission as an adult, it was to recall the republic to order. . . . [He] noticed that the uninhibited freedom of speech which marked political life in the republic was giving way to caution at social gatherings and across dinner tables. . . . The Senate had no answer to Rome's problems and indeed sought none. Its aim was simply to maintain the constitution and resist the continual attacks on its authority. . . . The populares had lost decisively with the defeat of Catilina, but the snake was only stunned. Caesar, who had been plotting against Senatorial interests behind the scenes, was rising up the political ladder and, barring accidents, would be consul in a few years' time."

Caesar became consul for the first time in 59 BC enjoying great popularity with the ordinary people. After his year in office, he was rewarded by being named governor of Gaul, a post he held between 58 and 49 during which he earned great military glory and became immensely wealthy. In 49 he famously allowed his armies to cross the Rubicon, a small river in northern Italy that served as a boundary against armies approaching the capital, and plunged the country into civil war, taking on his former ally and now rival, Pompey. He won, after which, as Everitt observes, "No one was left in the field for Caesar to fight. . . . His leading opponents were dead. The republic was dead too: he had become the state." Julius Caesar exercised dictatorship from 48 to 44 and a month before the Ides of March had arranged to have himself named "dictator for life." Instead, he was stabbed to death in the Senate by a conspiracy of eight members, led by Brutus and Cassius, both praetors, known to history as "principled tyrannicides."

Shakespeare's recreation of the scenes that followed, based upon Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch, has become as immortal as the deed itself. In a speech to the plebeians in the Forum, Brutus defended his actions. "If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's, to him I say that Brutus' love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I lov'd Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and all die slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?" However, Mark Antony, Caesar's chief lieutenant, speaking to the same audience, had the last word. He turned the populace against Brutus and Cassius, and as they raced forth to avenge Caesar's murder, said cynically, "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war."

Who will watch the watchers?

The Second Triumvirate, formed to avenge Caesar, ended like the first, with only one man standing, but that man, Caius Octavianus (Octavian), Caesar's eighteen-year-old grand nephew, would decisively change Roman government by replacing the republic with an imperial dictatorship. Everitt characterizes Octavian as "a freebooting young privateer," who on August 19, 43 BC, became the youngest consul in Rome's history and set out, in violation of the constitution, to raise his own private army. "The boy would be a focus for the simmering resentments among the Roman masses, the disbanded veterans, and the standing legions." Cicero, who had devoted his life to trying to curb the kind of power represented by Octavian, now gave up on the rule of law in favor of realpolitik. He recognized that "for all his struggles the constitution was dead and power lay in the hands of soldiers and their leaders." In Cicero's analysis, the only hope was to try to co-opt Octavian, leading him toward a more constitutional position, while doing everything not to "irritate rank-and-file opinion, which was fundamentally Caesarian." Cicero would pay with his life for this last, desperate gamble. Octavian, allied with Mark Antony, ordered at least 130 senators (perhaps as many as 300) executed and their property confiscated after charging them with supporting the conspiracy against Caesar. Mark Antony personally added Cicero's name to the list. When he met his death, the great scholar and orator had with him a copy of Euripides' Medea, which he had been reading. His head and both hands were displayed in the Forum.

A year after Cicero's death, following the battle of Philippi where Brutus and Cassius ended their lives, Octavian and Antony divided the known world between them. Octavian took the West and remained in Rome; Antony accepted the East and allied himself with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt and Julius Caesar's former mistress. In 31 BC, Octavian set out to end this unstable arrangement, and at the sea battle of Actium in the Gulf of Ambracia on the western coast of Greece, he defeated Antony's and Cleopatra's fleet. The following year in Alexandria Mark Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra took an asp to her breast. By then, both had been thoroughly discredited for claiming that Antony was a descendant of Caesar's and for seeking Roman citizenship rights for Cleopatra's children by Caesar. Octavian would rule the Roman world for the next 45 years, until his death in 14 AD.

On January 13, 27 BC, Octavian appeared in the Senate, which had legitimized its own demise by ceding most of its powers to him, and which now bestowed on him the new title of Augustus, first Roman emperor. The majority of the Senators were his solid supporters, having been handpicked by him. In 23 BC, Augustus was granted further authority by being designated a tribune for life, which gave him ultimate veto power over anything the Senate might do. His power rested ultimately on his total control of the armed forces.

Although his rise to power was always tainted by constitutional illegitimacy -- not unlike that of our own Boy Emperor from Crawford, Texas -- Augustus proceeded to emasculate the Roman system and its representative institutions. He never abolished the old republican offices but merely united them under one person -- himself. Imperial appointment became a badge of prestige and social standing rather than of authority. The Senate was turned into a club of old aristocratic families, and its approval of the acts of the emperor was purely ceremonial. The Roman legions continued to march under the banner SPQR -- Senatus Populusque Romanus, "the Senate and the Roman People" -- but the authority of Augustus was absolute.

The most serious problem was that the army had grown too large and was close to unmanageable. It constituted a state within a state, not unlike the Pentagon in the United States today. Augustus reduced the army's size and provided generous cash payments to those soldiers who had served more than twelve years, making clear that this bounty came from him, not their military commanders. He also transferred all legions away from Rome to the remote provinces and borders of the Empire, to ensure their leaders were not tempted to meddle in political affairs. Equally astutely, he created the Praetorian Guard, an elite force of 9,000 men with the task of defending him personally, and stationed them in Rome. They were drawn only from Italy, not from distant provinces, and were paid more than soldiers in the regular legions. They began as Augustus's personal bodyguards, but in the decades after his death they became decisive players in the selection of new emperors. It was one of the first illustrations of an old problem of authoritarian politics: Create one bureaucracy, the Praetorian Guard, to control another bureaucracy, the regular army, but before long the question will arise: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchers?)

Augustus is credited with forging the Roman Peace (Pax Romana), which historians like to say lasted more than 200 years. It was, however, a military dictatorship and depended entirely on the incumbent emperor. And therein lay the problem. Tiberius, who reigned from 14-37 AD, retired to Capri with a covey of young boys who catered to his sexual tastes. His successor, Caligula, who held office from 37-41, was the darling of the army, but on January 24, 41 AD, the Praetorian Guard assassinated him and proceeded to loot the imperial palace. Modern archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Caligula was an eccentric maniac, just as history has always portrayed him. (2)

The fourth Roman emperor, Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54, was selected and put into power by the Praetorian Guard in a de facto military coup. Despite the basically favorable portrayal of him by Robert Graves (I, Claudius, 1934) and years later on TV by Derek Jacobi, Claudius, who was Caligula's uncle, was addicted to gladiatorial games and fond of watching his defeated opponents being put to death. As a child, Claudius limped, drooled, stuttered, and was constantly ill. He had his first wife killed and married Agrippina, daughter of the sister of Caligula, after having the law changed to allow uncles to marry their nieces. On October 13, 54 AD, Claudius was killed with a poisoned mushroom, probably fed to him by his wife, and at noon that same day, the sixteen-year-old Nero, Agrippina's son by a former husband, was acclaimed emperor in a carefully orchestrated piece of political theater. Nero, who reigned from 54 to 68, was a probably insane tyrant who has been credited with setting fire to Rome in 64 and persecuting some famous early Christians (Paul and Peter), although his reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years as a patron of the arts.

The short, happy life of the American republic

After Augustus, not much recommends the Roman Empire as an example of enlightened government despite the enthusiasm for it of such neoconservative promoters of the George W. Bush administration as the Washington Post 's Charles Krauthammer, the Wall Street Journal 's Max Boot, and the Weekly Standard 's William Kristol. My reasons for going over this ancient history are not to suggest that our own Boy Emperor is a second Octavian but rather what might happen after he is gone. The history of the Roman republic from the time of Julius Caesar on suggests that it was imperialism and militarism -- poorly understood by all conservative political leaders at the time -- that brought it down. Militarism and the professionalization of a large standing army create invincible new sources of power within a polity. The government must mobilize the masses in order to exploit them as cannon fodder and this leads to the rise of populist generals who understand the grievances of their troops and veterans.

Service in the armed forces of the United States has not been a universal male obligation of citizenship since 1973. Our military today is a professional corps of men and women who join up for their own reasons, commonly to advance themselves in the face of one or another cul de sac of American society. They normally do not expect to be shot at, but they do expect all the benefits of state employment -- steady pay, good housing, free medical benefits, relief from racial discrimination, world travel, and gratitude from the rest of society for their military "service." They are well aware that the alternatives civilian life in America offers today include difficult job searches, no job security, regular pilfering of retirement funds by company executives and their accountants, "privatized" medical care, bad public elementary education systems, and insanely expensive higher education. They are ripe, it seems to me, not for the political rhetoric of patrician politicians who have followed the Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School route to riches and power, but for a Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Juan Perón -- a revolutionary, military populist with no interest in republican niceties so long as he is made emperor.

Given the course of the postwar situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may not be too hard to defeat George Bush in the election of 2004. But whoever replaces him will have to deal with the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, our empire of bases, and a fifty-year-old tradition of not telling the public what our military establishment costs and the devastation it can inflict. History teaches us that the capacity for things to get worse is limitless. Roman history suggests that the short, happy life of the American republic is in serious trouble -- and that conversion to a military empire is, to say the least, not the best answer.

Chalmers Johnson's new book, forthcoming at the end of 2003 from Metropolitan Books, is "The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic."

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