Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hopeby Chalmers Johnson
The author of the bestselling Blowback Trilogy reflects on America's waning power in a masterful collection of essays
In his prophetic book Blowback, published before 9/11, Chalmers Johnson warned that our secret operations in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe would exact a price at home. Now, in a brilliant series of essays written over the/i>/p>/b>
The author of the bestselling Blowback Trilogy reflects on America's waning power in a masterful collection of essays
In his prophetic book Blowback, published before 9/11, Chalmers Johnson warned that our secret operations in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe would exact a price at home. Now, in a brilliant series of essays written over the last three years, Johnson measures that price and the resulting dangers America faces. Our reliance on Pentagon economics, a global empire of bases, and war without end is, he declares, nothing short of "a suicide option."
Dismantling the Empire explores the subjects for which Johnson is now famous, from the origins of blowback to Barack Obama's Afghanistan conundrum, including our inept spies, our bad behavior in other countries, our ill-fought wars, and our capitulation to a military that has taken ever more control of the federal budget. There is, he proposes, only one way out: President Obama must begin to dismantle the empire before the Pentagon dismantles the American Dream. If we do not learn from the fates of past empires, he suggests, our decline and fall are foreordained. This is Johnson at his best: delivering both a warning and an urgent prescription for a remedy.
“Stimulating and prescient. . .” Times Literary Supplement
“Succinct, hard-hitting attacks on what the author perceives as America's ruinous imperial follies...” Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Concise, clear, hard-hitting. . . Dismantling the Empire is a must read for anyone looking for meaningful information concerning the future of the American Empire.” Foreign Policy Journal
“Johnson wants the scales to fall from American eyes so that the nation can see the truth about its role in the world. His is a patriot's passion: his motive is to save the American republic he loves.” Jonathan Freedland, The New York Review of Books
“The role of the prophet is an honorable one. In Chalmers Johnson the American empire has found its Jeremiah. He deserves to be heard.” Andrew J. Bacevich, The Washington Post Book World
“Chalmers Johnson's important new book is something with which everyone who aspires to a worthwhile opinion about this country's future must contend.” The Los Angeles Times (on Nemesis)
“Trenchantly argued, comprehensively documented, grimly eloquent. . . Worthy of the republic it seeks to defend.” The Boston Globe (on The Sorrows of Empire)
“Stunning and shocking. . . Blowback is a wake-up call for America.” John Dower, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Embracing Defeat
Read an Excerpt
Dismantling the Empire
America's Last Best Hope
By Chalmers Johnson
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Chalmers Johnson
All rights reserved.
November 5, 2004
Steve Coll ends his important book on Afghanistan, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, by quoting Afghan president Hamid Karzai: "What an unlucky country." Americans might find this a convenient way to ignore what their government did in Afghanistan between 1979 and the present, but luck had nothing to do with it. Brutal, incompetent, secret operations of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, frequently manipulated by the military intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, caused the catastrophic devastation of this poor country. On the evidence contained in Coll's book, neither the Americans nor their victims in numerous Muslim and Third World countries will ever know peace until the Central Intelligence Agency has been abolished.
It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United States. In his memoir published in 1996, the former CIA director Robert Gates made it clear that the American intelligence services began to aid the mujahideen guerrillas not after the Soviet invasion, but six months before it. In an interview two years later with Le Nouvel Observateur, President Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski proudly confirmed Gates's assertion. "According to the official version of history," Brzezinski said, "CIA aid to the mujahideen began during 1980, that's to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: on 3 July 1979 President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention."
Asked whether he in any way regretted these actions, Brzezinski replied: "Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: 'We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.'"
NOUVEL OBSERVATEUR: And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?
BRZEZINSKI: What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?
Even though the demise of the Soviet Union owes more to Mikhail Gorbachev than to Afghanistan's partisans, Brzezinski certainly helped produce "agitated Muslims," and the consequences have been obvious ever since. Carter, Brzezinski, and their successors in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including Gates, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, and Colin Powell, all bear some responsibility for the 1.8 million Afghan casualties, 2.6 million refugees, and 10 million unexploded land mines that followed from their decisions. They must also share the blame for the blowback that struck New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. After all, al-Qaeda was an organization they helped create and arm.
A WIND BLOWS IN FROM AFGHANISTAN
The term "blowback" first appeared in a classified CIA postaction report on the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, carried out in the interests of British Petroleum. In 2000, James Risen of the New York Times explained:
When the Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Muhammad Mossadegh as Iran's prime minister in 1953, ensuring another 25 years of rule for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the CIA was already figuring that its first effort to topple a foreign government would not be its last. The CIA, then just six years old and deeply committed to winning the Cold War, viewed its covert action in Iran as a blueprint for coup plots elsewhere around the world, and so commissioned a secret history to detail for future generations of CIA operatives how it had been done.... Amid the sometimes curious argot of the spy world — "safebases" and "assets" and the like — the CIA warns of the possibilities of "blowback." The word ... has since come into use as shorthand for the unintended consequences of covert operations.
"Blowback" does not refer simply to reactions to historical events, but more specifically to reactions to operations carried out by the U.S. government that are kept secret from the American public and from most of their representatives in Congress. This means that when civilians become victims of a retaliatory strike, they are at first unable to put it in context or to understand the sequence of events that led up to it. Even though the American people may not know what has been done in their name, those on the receiving end certainly do: they include the people of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1959 to the present), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Vietnam (1961–73), Laos (1961–73), Cambodia (1969–73), Greece (1967–73), Chile (1973), Afghanistan (1979 to the present), El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua (1980s), and Iraq (1991 to the present). Not surprisingly, sometimes these victims try to get even.
There is a direct line between the attacks on September 11, 2001 — the most significant instance of blowback in the history of the CIA — and the events of 1979. In that year, revolutionaries threw both the shah and the Americans out of Iran, and the CIA, with full presidential authority, began its largest ever clandestine operation: the secret arming of Afghan freedom fighters to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union, which involved the recruitment and training of militants from all over the Islamic world. Steve Coll's book is a classic study of blowback and is a better, fuller reconstruction of this history than the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the "9/11 Commission Report").
From 1989 to 1992, Coll was the Washington Post's South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi. Given the CIA's paranoid and often self-defeating secrecy, what makes his book especially interesting is how he came to know what he claims to know. He has read everything on the Afghan insurgency and the civil wars that followed, and he has been given access to the original manuscript of Robert Gates's memoir (Gates was the CIA director from 1991 to 1993), but his main source is some two hundred interviews conducted between the autumn of 2001 and the summer of 2003 with numerous CIA officials as well as politicians, military officers, and spies from all the countries involved except Russia. He identifies CIA officials only if their names have already been made public. Many of his most important interviews were on the record, and he quotes from them extensively.
Among the notable figures who agreed to be interviewed were Benazir Bhutto, who was candid about having lied to American officials for two years about Pakistan's aid to the Taliban, and Anthony Lake, the U.S. national security adviser from 1993 to 1997, who let it be known that he thought CIA director James Woolsey was "arrogant, tin-eared and brittle." Woolsey was so disliked by Clinton that when an apparent suicide pilot crashed a single-engine Cessna airplane on the south lawn of the White House in 1994, jokers suggested it might be the CIA director trying to get an appointment with the president.
Among the CIA people who talked to Coll are Gates; Woolsey; Howard Hart, Islamabad station chief in 1981; Clair George, former head of clandestine operations; William Piekney, Islamabad station chief from 1984 to 1986; Cofer Black, Khartoum station chief in the mid-1990s and director of the Counterterrorist Center from 1999 to 2002; Fred Hitz, a former CIA inspector general; Thomas Twetten, deputy director of operations, 1991–93; Milton Bearden, chief of station at Islamabad, 1986–89; Duane R. "Dewey" Clarridge, head of the Counterterrorist Center from 1986 to 1988; Vincent Cannistraro, an officer in the Counterterrorist Center shortly after it was opened in 1986; and an official Coll identifies only as "Mike," the head of the "bin Laden Unit" within the Counterterrorist Center from 1997 to 1999, who was subsequently revealed to be Michael F. Scheuer, the anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror.
In 1973, General Sardar Mohammed Daoud, the cousin and brother-in-law of King Zahir Shah, overthrew the king, declared Afghanistan a republic, and instituted a program of modernization. Zahir Shah went into exile in Rome. These developments made possible the rise of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a pro-Soviet communist party, which, in early 1978, with extensive help from the USSR, overthrew President Daoud. The communists' policies of secularization in turn provoked a violent response from devout Islamists. The anticommunist revolt that began at Herat in western Afghanistan in March 1979 originated in a government initiative to teach girls to read. The fundamentalist Afghans opposed to this were supported by a triumvirate of nations — the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia — with quite diverse motives, but the United States didn't take these differences seriously until it was too late. By the time the Americans woke up, at the end of the 1990s, the radical Islamist Taliban had established its government in Kabul. Recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, it granted Osama bin Laden freedom of action and offered him protection from American efforts to capture or kill him.
The Afghan government that the United States eventually chose to support beginning in the late autumn of 2001 — a federation of Ahmed Shah Massoud's organization [the Northern warlords], exiled intellectuals and royalist Pashtuns — was available for sponsorship a decade before, but the United States could not see a reason then to challenge the alternative, radical Islamist vision promoted by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence.... Indifference, lassitude, blindness, paralysis and commercial greed too often shaped American foreign policy in Afghanistan and South Asia during the 1990s.
FUNDING THE FUNDAMENTALISTS
The motives of the White House and the CIA were shaped by the Cold War: a determination to kill as many Soviet soldiers as possible and the desire to restore some aura of rugged machismo as well as credibility that U.S. leaders feared they had lost when the shah of Iran was overthrown. The CIA had no intricate strategy for the war it was unleashing in Afghanistan. Howard Hart, the agency's representative in the Pakistani capital, told Coll that he understood his orders as "You're a young man; here's your bag of money, go raise hell. Don't fuck it up, just go out there and kill Soviets." These orders came from a most peculiar American. William Casey, the CIA's director from January 1981 to January 1987, was a Catholic Knight of Malta educated by Jesuits. Statues of the Virgin Mary filled his mansion, called Maryknoll, on Long Island. He attended mass daily and urged Christianity on anyone who asked his advice. Once settled as CIA director under Reagan, he began to funnel covert action funds through the Catholic Church to anticommunists in Poland and Central America, sometimes in violation of American law. He believed fervently that by increasing the Catholic Church's reach and power he could contain communism's advance, or reverse it. From Casey's convictions grew the most important U.S. foreign policies of the 1980s: support for an international anti-Soviet crusade in Afghanistan and sponsorship of state terrorism in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Casey knew next to nothing about Islamic fundamentalism or the grievances of Middle Eastern nations against Western imperialism. He saw political Islam and the Catholic Church as natural allies in the counterstrategy of covert action to thwart Soviet imperialism. He believed that the USSR was trying to strike at the United States in Central America and in the oil-producing states of the Middle East. He supported Islam as a counter to the Soviet Union's atheism, and Coll suggests that he sometimes conflated lay Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian extremist organization, of which Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, was a passionate member. The Muslim Brotherhood's branch in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami, was strongly backed by the Pakistani army, and Coll writes that Casey, more than any other American, was responsible for welding the alliance of the CIA, Saudi intelligence, and the army of General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's military dictator from 1977 to 1988. On the suggestion of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization, Casey went so far as to print thousands of copies of the Koran, which he shipped to the Afghan frontier for distribution in Afghanistan and Soviet Uzbekistan. He also fomented, without presidential authority, Muslim attacks inside the USSR and always held that the CIA's clandestine officers were too timid. He preferred the type represented by his friend Oliver North.
Over time, Casey's position hardened into CIA dogma, which its agents, protected by secrecy from ever having their ignorance exposed, enforced in every way they could. The agency resolutely refused to help choose winners and losers among the Afghan jihad's guerrilla leaders. The result, according to Coll, was that "Zia-ul-Haq's political and religious agenda in Afghanistan gradually became the CIA's own." In the era after Casey, some scholars, journalists, and members of Congress questioned the agency's lavish support of the Pakistan-backed Islamist general Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, especially after he refused to shake hands with Ronald Reagan because he was an infidel. But Milton Bearden, the Islamabad station chief from 1986 to 1989, and Frank Anderson, chief of the Afghan task force at Langley, vehemently defended Hekmatyar on the grounds that "he fielded the most effective anti-Soviet fighters."
Even after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, the CIA continued to follow Pakistani initiatives, such as aiding Hekmatyar's successor, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. When Edmund McWilliams, the State Department's special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1988–89, wrote that "American authority and billions of dollars in taxpayer funding had been hijacked at the war's end by a ruthless anti-American cabal of Islamists and Pakistani intelligence officers determined to impose their will on Afghanistan," CIA officials denounced him and planted stories in the embassy that he might be homosexual or an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Afghanistan descended into one of the most horrific civil wars of the twentieth century. The CIA never fully corrected its naïve and ill-informed reading of Afghan politics until after bin Laden bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7, 1998.
A cooperative agreement between the United States and Pakistan was anything but natural or based on mutual interests. Only two weeks after radical students seized the American embassy in Tehran on November 5, 1979, a similar group of Islamic radicals burned to the ground the American embassy in Islamabad as Zia's troops stood idly by. But the United States was willing to overlook almost anything the Pakistani dictator did in order to keep him committed to the anti-Soviet jihad. After the Soviet invasion, Brzezinski wrote to Carter: "This will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our non-proliferation policy." History will record whether Brzezinski made an intelligent decision in giving a green light to Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons in return for assisting the anti-Soviet insurgency.
Pakistan's motives in Afghanistan were very different from those of the United States. Zia was a devout Muslim and a passionate supporter of Islamist groups in his own country, in Afghanistan, and throughout the world. But he was not a fanatic and had some quite practical reasons for supporting Islamic radicals in Afghanistan. He probably would not have been included in the U.S. embassy's annual "beard census" of Pakistani military officers, which recorded the number of officer graduates and serving generals who kept their beards in accordance with Islamic traditions as an unobtrusive measure of increasing or declining religious radicalism; Zia had only a mustache.
Excerpted from Dismantling the Empire by Chalmers Johnson. Copyright © 2010 Chalmers Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, is the author of the bestselling books Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis, which make up his Blowback Trilogy. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the London Review of Books, Harper's Magazine, The Nation, and TomDispatch.com.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
If you're concerned about the federal budget deficit and our burgeoning national debt, why is it we hear so little about the need to cut back on wasteful, superfluous, pork-barrell military spending? It's the biggest scam around and it will ultimately bankrupt us. Chalmers Johnson has the numbers and the historical analysis to prove it.
Brilliant, as was "Blowback". Anyone who cares at all about America's place in geo-politics must read this book. And, if you think you don't care, you WILL after the 3rd page. Get it, read it, share it!
Stormheart~ A stormy gray shecat with black tipped tail and has bright blue eyes. Has a scar on her left forepaw. Shes a fierce, outgoimg, and loyal cat. She tend to get into trouble... A lot.• Thunderclaw~ A light gray shecat, her front paws are a stormy gray, back paws are light gray, he has a dark gray tipped tail, she has green eyes. Her left ear is torn and she has a scar on her back right leg. She is fierce when needed but is mainly shy, gentle, and compassionate, she is very loyal. He likes to stay out of trouble as much as possible, but tend to get into it protecting her sister and only kin, Stormheart.
Probably one of the most rdiculous books I've read...clearly a waste of money. Its nothing more than a childish rage by a clearly leftist hater of the US and its policies. Johnson spends most of his time in an immature rant, and provides little in the way of substantive information. For example Johnson, please advise, in your list of recommendations for dismantling the empire at the end of your book, how maintaining the higher tax rate on the rich contributes to reducing US military and other presence around the globe,, which is the thrust of your book. Unfortunately, Johnson's screed maintains the impression of UC Berkeley educators generally held around the country, that being out of touch, liberal elitists without any real understanding of what really goes on in the world. This is probably not the true picture for many educators there, but Johnson doesn't help matters. This book is ridiculous. There are much more legitimate writers on this subject out here.....