Evil Empire

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Evil Empire

by Chalmers Johnson, Rachel Salomon

April 8, 2007

America's military imperialism may shake domestic democracy to its foundations.

Given the perspective of history, it is clear that there is no less stable political configuration than the one we have in the United States today-a domestic democracy and a foreign empire. A nation can be a democracy or it can be an empire, but it cannot for long be both. It will either succumb to the temptation to keep its empire and thereby lose its democracy or else try to remain a democracy by getting rid of its empire.The primary example of the first is the Roman Republic, the source of many of America's constitutional protections against dictatorship and tyranny. Institutions such as federalism; the balance of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government; fixed terms in office and fixed dates for elections; the veto; and many other things were borrowed from Rome. But after the assassination of Julius Cæsar in 44 B.C., the Roman Republic decided to keep its empire and, as a result, declined into a military dictatorship.The best example of an empire deciding to retain its democracy is the British Empire after World War II. The English people recognized that keeping their "jewel in the crown"-India-could only be achieved through administrative massacres against the Indian people, a tactic the British had often used in the past. But to do so again, after the war against Nazism, would have turned Britain into a domestic tyranny. It chose to abandon its empire and remain a democracy (while, of course, letting the United States step into its old imperial shoes).Some people question whether what we do abroad as a nation can be called imperialism. The British ruled India, much of Africa, and large swaths of the Middle East through their colonies. They did not dominate these places through consent but through direct military force. Similarly, the Dutch dominated Indonesia, the French Indochina and Algeria, and the Japanese Korea and Taiwan. These, too, we recognize as empires. But what the Russians had in Eastern Europe-a system of satellites from Bulgaria to East Germany, ruled through the Soviet Red Army-was also a form of empire. Moscow dominated these countries through huge military forces stationed on their borders or based in their territories, local pro-Soviet puppets, and economic integration into the Soviet-bloc system.
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Imperialism is invariably accompanied by militarism.
This is the sort of empire the U.S. has created and is now trying to maintain-by way of its military forces and overseas bases, and threats such as those it issues daily against Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, the Palestinians, and other regimes. We maintain some 737 U.S. military bases around the world. We station more than half a million troops, spies, contractors, and others on military bases located in more than 130 countries, many of which have dictatorial regimes that gave their citizens no voice in the decision to let us in.These bases do not contribute to the defense of the United States. To the contrary, they are one of the major causes of the rest of the world's hatred for us. More troubling to our own form of government is that foreign imperialism is invariably accompanied by militarism. Huge and expensive standing armies are required to protect, expand, and police our empire. On February 5, 2007, the Bush administration submitted to Congress a $481.4 billion defense-appropriation budget for fiscal 2008, plus a request for an additional $245 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add the billions spent on nuclear weapons; military aid to our satellites; veterans' benefits, including care of the wounded; homeland security; the upkeep of our bases; and interest payments on debts incurred in past wars: it comes to an annual figure of around a trillion dollars, larger than all other defense budgets on earth combined.Most seriously, militarism breaks down our system of checks and balances in favor of an imperial presidency. As our first president, George Washington, warned in his farewell address of 1796, "Overgrown military establishments ... under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty." In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower issued his own warning against the "military-industrial complex," the huge, secret, and often corrupt arms industry that squanders billions on inappropriate weapons. Over time, militarism imbues the executive branch with dictatorial powers, and the main bulwark against tyranny crumbles. That is what is at risk in the United States today.Author portrait by RACHEL SALOMON  Johnson is the author of Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis (2007).

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