Democracy, or Empire? The F-35 debate is a small part of a much larger question


The fact that our local political establishment and democratic process is paralyzed in the face of the military’s insistence that they be free to station the F-35 jet fighter in Tucson should not be seen as a surprise. At least not if we accept the arguments of the distinguished historian Chalmers Johnson, who persuasively argued that America’s unparalleled global military power was bringing about a democratic crisis in our republic-turned-empire.

Though Johnson, who died in 2010, never addressed the issue of the F-35 being in Tucson, he has much to tell us how about how the political process of such a stationing might play out. As a leading historian of modern Asian history and former CIA analyst, he had seen and studied the rise of many authoritarian and totalitarian governments in that part of the world, seeing and studying how they operate, as well as witnessing and writing about the vast network of American military bases in Asia. Here he saw many health, political, and economic issues play out regarding those bases and the military hardware stationed in them; from this experience he would hardly be surprised at the slipshod and haphazard way that our political authorities are addressing the potentially dire noise levels that the F-35 will bring with it, which could well affect the physical health of many of Tucson’s residents as well as the overall economic health of the city.

Johnson primary contention was that we should not expect too much democracy in a society dominated by military-industrial interests. In his 2007 work, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, Johnson pointed to the later years of the Roman Republic, just as it was about to be subsumed by Caesar’s imperial ambitions, as the key historical parallel to our own situation. Johnson argues that by the time of Cicero, the fate of the Roman Republic was already sealed for the same reason that, in his view, the American republic is currently under threat: the basic incompatibility of empire, with its requirement of a vast military establishment, and a republic, with its inherently democratic values. He also notes that, just like the writers of the American constitution, the Romans too were quite aware of the problem, and struggled to find a balance between their military and their republic. They attempted to achieve this by developing a system of “co-counsels” to lead the country in peacetime and then, recognizing that in time of war more decisive leadership was needed, allowed for the temporary creation of a “dictator,” whose decisions were immune to veto by the Senate. The dictator, however, could only hold office for a period of six months, or the duration of the crisis, whichever was shorter. The writers of the American constitution (who were avid students of Roman history) tried to get around this problem by making the executive — the president — on the one hand the “commander-in-chief” of the military, but making him subject to elections every four years and, critically, by giving the legislative branch the sole right to declare war and to appropriate money for war. The president, then, could only effectively become commander in chief if Congress allowed him.

But, as Johnson points out, the problem for both the Roman and the American republics was that, in the course of their long histories, they also became empires. And an empire means, more or less, a permanent state of war as there is always, somewhere on earth, an enemy that is challenging or about to challenge the imperium’s far flung territories or interests, even if that enemy is a person or a people that hardly anybody in the imperium’s home country has ever heard of. The United States, for example, has intervened militarily over 200 times overseas since WWII; including 30 “major” invasions or interventions that led to actual war and regime change, about one every two years. And so the USA has continuously maintained a wartime army and wartime levels of military spending for more than sixty years.

But this also means that war – what James Madison called the most “dreaded enemy of the republic” — has become a permanent presence in the life of the American republic. All the changes that, according to Madison, befall a republic in wartime have become fully institutionalized. As Madison wrote:

…In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people…In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.
(James Madison, “Political Observations,” April 20, 1795)

We only need think of the billions and billions of dollars that have flowed into the coffers of former Vice President Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, or the increasingly malleable and non-critical American media, to see Madison’s point. Of these changes, however, Johnson first emphasizes the creation of the “physical force,” pointing out that a republic’s first and most obvious casualty as it transitions to empire is the end of the citizen’s army. This also happened in Rome: until the middle of the second century B.C., the Roman Republic relied on its propertied yeoman farmers to form the backbone of its army; these citizen-soldiers would be conscripted to fight a war, which would be close to home, and then return to their fields when it was over. But once Rome started expanding its territories, this no longer worked. To man the distant provincial outposts required professional soldiers who didn’t need to return home to attend to their farm, and these soldiers’ primary allegiances weren’t to the Senate, but rather to the military establishment itself. This is problematic for a number of reasons, one of which is that, since military institutions are by their very nature undemocratic, one of the republic’s largest and most powerful institutions is the very antithesis of democracy, and its millions of active members and tens of millions of former members (in the case of the USA) have a tendency to look to decisive, authoritarian leaders as the solution to problems, not quibbling democrats concerned about proper parliamentary procedure.

The next casualty, slower in coming but even more fundamental, is the complicated series of checks and balances between the branches of government necessary in a republican form of government. To illustrate this, we only need point to the state of two of the checks and balances discussed above: the legislative branch having the sole right to declare war, and the sole responsibility to appropriate money for that war (or, for that matter, for anything else.)

For the first century and a half of America’s constitutional democracy Congress fully retained its right to declare war. Thus, when FDR declared December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy” in his famous speech after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he did so while addressing Congress to request a declaration of war from them. It didn’t take long after the birth of America’s global military empire, however, for this practice to cease functioning. Somehow, the USA managed to fight two major wars, one in Korea (36,516 dead soldiers), the other in Vietnam (58,209 dead American soldiers), without a formal declaration of war. Instead, Congress essentially looked the other way as the wars were fought on the basis of executive orders and declared to be “police actions.” Far more catastrophic, from a constitutional point of view, was Congress effectively handing over their right to declare war to the president in the lead up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, causing the 83 year-old Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia to play the role of Cicero when he asked, in his eloquent and desperate speech to forestall the legislation, “Why are we being hounded into action on a resolution that turns over to President Bush the Congress’s Constitutional power to declare war?…The judgment of history will not be kind to us if we take this step.” Congress, however, didn’t hesitate to take the step, by a 77-23 vote in the Senate, and a 296-133 vote in the House.

But even more key to the balance of power, indeed to many of the events that we have been witnessing, is “the unlocking of the public treasuries” under the direction of the executive that Madison wrote of, for the single most important check that the legislative branch has on the executive is this budgetary one. After all, how can the president become a tyrant if he can’t get any money with which to engage in tyrannical acts? But this constitutional check has been fundamentally undermined by the discretionary military and intelligence budgets justified by the imperium’s permanent state of war. The most obvious example of this is in regards to the many, ever-expanding intelligence agencies in the U.S. government, including the CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Although the U.S. Constitution declares that “a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time,” this is not done with these agencies. Indeed, congressional “oversight” of these agencies is largely a formality, limited to two committees, and these often being informed of operations well after the fact.

Thus, when the president orders the CIA to overthrow a government, send in its army (yes, it has one) to engage in covert guerilla or terrorist operations, or to kidnap citizens of allied countries off the streets of those allied countries and transport them to countries where they are brutally tortured, neither the budgets for these operations nor the operations themselves are ever debated by the peoples’ representatives with input from their constituents, nor are they ever voted on by either the Senate or the House. Nor, indeed, do the people or over 95% of the peoples’ elected representatives ever even know about them unless an intelligence operative, risking brutal retribution, leaks news about it or unless the intelligence agency itself bungles the operation so badly that it becomes pubic (as happened in Italy in 2003 during the forced rendition of the cleric Abu Omar). And here again we can see how an empire, in this case simply because of its size and scale, can threaten the transparency necessary for the continuance of a democracy. For while it’s true that even the most democratic of governments have some sort of intelligence apparatus and secret funds not subject to immediate, legislative oversight, they are of a far more limited nature. In the early days of the American republic, for example, George Washington asked for and received such a secret fund from Congress. However, it’s use back then, for such things as trying to bribe Napoleon Bonaparte so that he would coerce Spain into ceding East and West Florida to the United States, or to pay the famed pirate Jean Laffite and his men to scout, spy, and sometimes fight for Gen. Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, is a far cry from the government within a government that this secret budget currently controls (and this quite literally, the American intelligence budget is at least 80 billion dollars a year larger than the total budget of the government of Israel).

Indeed, the sudden rise of such institutions, and their permanence, in the aftermath of WWII helps to explain one of the more extraordinary, and most often cited, statements by an American president: Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning, in his final televised speech as president, that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” That any president would say such a thing is quite extraordinary, but that Eisenhower, a retired five-star general and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War Two, would say something like this seems, at first glance, to be almost incomprehensible. But Eisenhower, who first enlisted in the army in 1915, had seen first hand the dramatic changes that Johnson is commenting on: how after World War One the American army, true to the ideals of a citizen’s army, drew down to a minimal, peacetime force but how, after WWII, there was no such demobilization. And, already by 1961, as president, he’d seen the growth of not only a permanent, increasingly professional army and the economic interests attached to the manufacturing of their weaponry, but also those secret, “black budget” agencies and forces that went far beyond what had existed in the lead-up to WWII. Eisenhower didn’t, then, need a Ph.D. in history or political science to see the profound changes that were happening as a result of America’s new, permanent state of war and that, in all likelihood, such a military industrial complex might be inimical to the practice of democracy.

And this is where Eisenhower’s warning – and Johnson’s argument – can be brought right home to Tucson and the F-35 debate. How, we can reasonably ask, can the mayor of a city like Tucson, much less the city council, stand up to a group of generals? In a proper republic such elected officials, because they are elected by the people and speak for the people, would carry considerably more authority than military officers. But in an empire the tables are turned, and elected officials become mere deputies of the generals.

If there is any hope of stopping military-induced follies such as stationing of the F-35 in Tucson, it likely will have to come from direct expressions of popular opposition, involving large enough numbers of people that even the generals won’t be able to ignore them.

Leave a Comment