In Part 4 of his series of interviews with Chalmers Johnson, Senior Editor Paul Jay asks the renowned author to weigh-in on the two presidential hopefuls in the upcoming US election. Chalmers shares his skepticism about the real power that any president has over the conduct of the US on the world stage, before critiquing the visions and advisory teams being unveiled by both Obama and McCain.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome to Part 4 of our series of interviews with journalist and author Chalmers Johnson. Chalmers joins us by phone from San Diego. He’s the author of the renowned Blowback trilogy, former advisor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Thank you for joining us again, Chalmers.
CHALMERS JOHNSON, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Thank you very much.
JAY: So let’s take a look at Obama and McCain, their foreign policy, and their relationship to the military-industrial complex. And we’re going to start with Barack Obama. One of the things that, I guess, told me something about Obama was the controversy with Reverend Wright. Reverend Wright was pilloried for saying “chickens come home to roost,” and everyone knew that meant blowback, and it made everyone who knew anything think of Chalmers Johnson. But Barack Obama slammed Reverend Wright and disassociated himself from the chickens-come-home-to-roost thesis. Just a positioning he had to take for pragmatic campaign reasons? Or is it something he believes?
JOHNSON: Well, this is what the kind of minds of the Stephanopouloses of this world would say, that that’s what he had to do, that’s the way it works in this country. If that’s the way it works in this country, then we’re a doomed country. If this were, say, 1985 and I’d said to you that four years from now the Soviet Union won’t exist, you’d have said, “This guy’s not reliable. I just don’t trust him.” Well, they don’t exist. Russia is a much smaller place than the Soviet Union used to be. It happens, and it happens very rapidly. And the same kind of pressures on the former Soviet Union are on us right now, and we’re not responding to them any cleverer. Gorbachev was in fact probably wiser than anybody we’ve got in our government, in that he was quite willing to forgo these crummy satellites that Stalin had created in East Europe.
JAY: Talk about Obama. Do you see some signs in Obama’s foreign policy that give you some reason for optimism?
JOHNSON: No, I don’t. I mean, there’s [inaudible] the political system failed us in getting us into this trap, in getting us totally owned by the military-industrial complex and 16 secret intelligence agencies that are the personal praetorian guards of the president. That is to say, I don’t believe any president, when it really came push to shove, can stand up to the powerful influences of the military-industrial complex and the Central Intelligence Agency today. They are beyond normal workings of our government. We were warned by President Eisenhower. We didn’t pay attention. The warnings have come home to roost right now. The only thing that matters, though, I believe, in this area, is the quality and kind of advise, advisors, opinions, discussions that will be available to Obama. He, unfortunately, so far is not very encouraging. He’s taken a bunch of old Democratic hacks of the Madeleine Albright variety and seems to be putting them back together again. They didn’t do a very good job once before; it’s unlikely that they would do any better a job now. All we can say is that this may also be simply Democratic Party decorating of the halls, and that instead, that as you begin to inquire into the real apparatus of Barack Obama, that he does have quite good and younger, capable, knowledgeable people able to give him good advice, that there are people inside the government and dissidents within the CIA that are quite capable of providing intelligent information today on which to make decisions. And the thing that’s impressive about it, the reason I’m for him, is that I have a close colleague in the Yale Law School who went to school with him and she knows him. She doesn’t like politicians at all; she doesn’t trust them. She says, “All I can say about Obama is that he is extremely intelligent.” I believe that is about all you can ask for right now and that he’s doing his best to prepare for it. But he’s making some bad mistakes by talking about Afghanistan as a good war and we need to just simply have something like what has now been called by the press a “surge.”
JAY: And he’s picking up all the kind of rhetoric. He calls Venezuela a “rogue nation.” I mean, what has Venezuela done that makes it a rogue nation other than oppose US policy? But that doesn’t make you rogue, though.
JOHNSON: Right. It’s crazy. During the past decade, Latin America has simply gone away from us. There’s only one nation left that would dare even sit down to dinner with us, and that’s Colombia. We are being thrown out of the base in Manta in Ecuador. The president of Ecuador said, “You can keep your base if you’ll give me a base in New Jersey.”
JAY: The way things are going, New Jersey might in five or six years be willing to make that deal.
JOHNSON: [inaudible] certainly say, if you want one, you may have one.
JAY: It may be anybody that wants to buy and get a piece of America in exchange for cash will get it. So on Obama’s side, intelligent, and I guess one could say rational after eight years of what a lot of people think is irrationality. Let’s go to McCain. McCain has surrounded himself with people like James Woolsey, who wanted to bomb Syria during the Israeli-Lebanese War. He’s got Randy Scheunemann, who lobbied for Georgia. So if we start looking at what is a significant difference between Obama and McCain, what conclusions do you come to?
JOHNSON: Well, I think in the case of McCain he looks like a standard GI-issue of a neocon, of people who have not been following what’s been going on in the world, who do not understand the way world politics works, who have delusions of Roman grandeur, who sound like the air force, with the full-spectrum dominance and this kind of tone they like to intone these days, which are largely nonsense.
JAY: McCain’s been talking about a proposal he calls “the League of Democracies.” What do you think of this proposal, which essentially is to exclude Russia, China, and have American allies in some organization that could perhaps even authorize the use of military force?
JOHNSON: I think the biggest falling-out among the nations of the world in thinking about the United States occurs among the main democratic allies of ours in Western Europe, that no Western European politician could think of walking into such a league, with the possible exception of an Englishman who was still desperately trying to have some little influence, as if they were still a major empire. When you think about how pitiful Tony Blair has turned out to be in terms of the influence that Britain might have had in the world compared with the actual influence it has now, it’s been a disaster. Britain showed us after World War II that it is possible for an empire to give up its empire. We normally teach that no empire every voluntarily gives up, that we aren’t going to give up our 700-and-something military bases. We are going to, and we’re going to start losing them pretty fast, too. Nonetheless, Britain did understand after World War II that you can’t continue to rule India using Nazi methods. They began to understand, no matter how you [inaudible], how many clever characters you hire at the American Enterprise Institute to talk it up, empire is a pure form of tyranny. It never rules through consent, and least of all does an empire that basically grows out of the barrel of a gun as ours does.
JAY: So what you’re suggesting is the financial crunch is going to force the disassembling of the empire.
JOHNSON: Well, I could think of a lot of other things that might. I mean, very slowly you begin to think of those old Roman fears that a world of enemies is combining against us. There’s a lot of nations out there now that are on the move, that are beginning to think of ways to frustrate, to check and even checkmate the United States. We see it, probably, in Latin America, we see it in the growing restiveness over status of forces agreements on our bases, and things of this sort. But basically my wife needled me one day and said, “Can’t you come up with something more optimistic than war?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll come up with something more optimistic. Let’s try bankruptcy.”
JAY: There’s some studies to show that Hitler launched World War II more or less when he realized Germany was on the road to bankruptcy, and the only thing left was war to cover up the consequences of bankruptcy.
JOHNSON: Well, they did go bankrupt in 1923.
JAY: But I’m talking in ’39-40. The German economy was at its weakest at the time he launched the war, because one of the motivations for the war being the lack of ability to provide consumer goods and services to the German people.
JOHNSON: Well, it’s an old classic of history to use war to cover up these hopeless domestic failures precisely is what is scary about the United States right now.
JAY: So I guess it’s up to us; it’s up to us and the people watching.
JOHNSON: And that’s why I like to be on a program like this. I don’t believe in wasting my time. But I’m sure this is not going to come out of the normal workings of the political system. It’s going to require the mobilization of the public to understand what they’re about to lose, and once they lose it they’ll never get it back.
JAY: Thank you very much for joining us, Mr. Johnson.
JOHNSON: Thank you for inviting me.
JAY: Thank you. And thank you for joining us. And we hope and plan to talk to Chalmers Johnson again soon. And if you like what we’re doing, look over my shoulder or down here. You’ll find a “donate” button, ’cause it’s your donations that keep us alive. Thank you.
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