Book Review – Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

Then Stahl asked, "Is the price worth it?" Albright replied, "I think this is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it."

In Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, author Chalmers Johnson points out that Albright later amended her statement, but her clarification was even worse then her earlier indifference to the death of hundreds of thousands of children. She claimed that Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering. But in the period after the Gulf War of 1991 the reality was much more complicated. As a former ambassador to the United Nations, Albright was certainly fully informed about the sanctions and their impact.

During the war the US dropped some ninety thousand tons of bombs on Iraq, intentionally destroying much of the civilian infrastructure. This included destruction of eighteen of twenty electricity-generating plants and the water-pumping and sanitation systems essential to public health. The sanctions then reinforced and deepened what the bombing began. Purification of the water to prevent disease requires chlorine, but the sanctions explicitly embargoed the importation of chlorine. Professor Richard Garfield of Columbia University later estimated that, through 2000, the sanctions had killed 350,000 Iraqi children. When Denis Halliday, the United Nations coordinator in Iraq, resigned in 1998 to protest the effects of the sanctions, he condemned them as "a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq" and called their implementation "genocide."

This was one of the reasons Osama bin Laden offered for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September11, 2001, saying, "One million Iraqi children have thus far died although they did not do anything wrong." This is certainly no justification for the despicable attacks but the public, usually poorly informed, is unable to put events in context. Instead it supports responses that are irrational, dangerous, constitutionally indefensible, and destructive of our democracy.

As a specific example of irrational response the 2003 invasion of Iraq is a case study. The chief reasons, originally, for attacking were Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and his support of al-Qaeda, both fictions. Looked at another way, given that the US had caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqi children, why would former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, or any rational person, believe that invading US forces would be welcomed as liberators.

At the top of the list of blows against the constitution, after decades of expansion of the executive branch, is the unprecedented Bush-Cheney grab for power. President Bush’s concept of presidential power was stated most simply during a press conference on April 13, 2004. He told the reporters that he was "the ultimate decision-maker for this country." Johnson comments that this would have appalled the authors of the Constitution. But it certainly doesn’t stand alone; In Nemesis Johnson offers a catalog of other examples that are equally appalling. For one, Bush and Cheney have unilaterally authorized preventive war against nations they designate as needing "regime change." For another, they have directed US soldiers to torture persons seized and imprisoned in various countries.

One of Bush’s most flagrant abuses of the Constitution was his authorization of the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on US citizens without court-approved warrants, as required by the Fourth Amendment. It isn’t clear why the president didn’t simply use the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA); the FISA court has approved virtually every request for wiretapping citizens. One analyst has speculated that Bush couldn’t ask for warrants for the kind of spying he wanted done because he had no legitimate reasons to offer even the lenient FISA court.

An even more blatant abuse of the Constitution is Bush’s use of "signing statements." The Constitution states that after a bill has passed both houses of Congress it must be presented to the president. If he signs it, it becomes law, if he returns it the bill is vetoed in its entirety. Through these interpretive signing statements, issued at the time the president signs the bill, he is asserting that he disagrees with one or more provisions contained in the legislation and therefore reserves the right not to implement them.

According to David Golove, a New York University law professor, "The signing statement is saying ‘I will only comply with this law when I want to, and if something arises in the war on terrorism where I think it’s important to torture or engage in cruel, inhumane, and degrading conduct, I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me.’ "

A striking example occurred with the 2006 Defense Appropriation Bill. On the initiative of Republican senator John McCain, who was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, the Senate added an amendment. It reads, "No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government . . . shall be subject to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment." When the Senate passed McCain’s torture ban by a veto-proof vote of 90 to 9, the White House turned to extralegal means to get what it wanted.

In a photo session at the White House President Bush and Senator McCain shook hands and Bush announced that this landmark legislation would make it "clear to the world that this government does not torture." However, when he actually signed the bill he added a signing statement that essentially gutted McCain’s amendment. It said that he would order whatever he deemed necessary in his war on terror and that, as president "in a time of war," he was beyond any legal constraints.

It’s not just the executive branch that has been tearing at the fabric of the Constitution. Through its partisanship, complacency, and corruption Congress has done much to ensure that the crises the republic is now facing will be fatal to democratic government. Johnson quotes constitutional specialist Noah Feldman: "For the last four years, a republican Congress has done almost nothing to rein in the expansion of presidential power. This abdication of responsibility has been even more remarkable than the president’s assumption of new powers."

Perhaps as dangerous as this irresponsibility, Congress, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, has, like the executive branch, bought into the very military-industrial threat that President Eisenhower warned against. Members of Congress strive to bring military contracts into their district, usually without much thought about the larger implications. An administration strains, all too often, to increase the military strength it can muster against other nations.

Decades of funding a bloated military has consequences, all of them bad. It leads to virtually constant war and imperial expansion, as well as a waste of essential resources. Throughout history, as Johnson shows using European examples going back to Rome, the growth of empire is always at the expense of democracy. And the financial cost of war and imperial expansion is economic ruin. There is the expense of military operations, of caring – not always very well – for increasing numbers of wounded, of maintaining military bases – more than 700 — throughout the world, of interest payments on all these expenses. Indirectly, there is the shift in production (the country has lost three million manufacturing jobs just since mid-2000) that causes people in the US to buy much more of what they want overseas.

The war in Iraq provides a striking illustration of the total expense of military operations. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, and his colleague at Harvard Linda Bilmes have put together an estimate of the real cost. They calculate about $2 trillion, a figure much larger than the Bush administration publicly acknowledges. Above all they have tried to compute honest figures for veterans benefits. Medical advances that allow troops who once might have died to survive detonation of an "improvised explosive device" can receive wounds that may require round-the-clock care for the rest of their lives.

A few other examples will illustrate the impending economic ruin. The deficit in the US current account, the imbalance in the trading of goods and services as well as all other cross-border payments, recently underwent its fastest ever quarterly deterioration. In the fourth quarter of 2005 the deficit hit a staggering $225 billion, up from $185 billion in the previous quarter. For all of 2005 the current account deficit was $805 billion. In that year the US trade deficit, the largest component of the current account deficit, soared to an all-time high of $725.8 billion, the fourth consecutive year that the trade deficit set records.

To try to cope with these and other imbalances, in March 2006, Congress raised the national debt limit to $896 billion, the fourth time since George W. Bush took office that the limit had to be raised. Among the creditors that finance this unprecedented debt are China and Japan, but there’s no guarantee how long they will want to or be able to do so.

As these examples – only a few among many cited in Nemesis — drive home, the country is facing crises from which there may be no recovery. Johnson stresses that even "a severe reduction in our numerous deficits (trade, governmental, current account, household, and savings) would still not be enough to save the republic," because of what our economy has become. We are now dependent on military spending and war for our wealth and well-being. Ever since we recovered from the Great Depression of the 1930s by way of massive government spending on armaments during World War II we have become dependent on "military Keynesianism," artificially boosting the growth of the economy through government spending on armies and weapons.

In Greek mythology Nemesis was the goddess of retribution, who punishes human transgression of the natural, right order of things and the arrogance that causes that transgression. The punishment for US arrogance in dealing with the rest of the world may be, at best, economic ruin followed by an extremely slow, extremely painful recovery.

Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, by Chalmers Johnson. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, published 2007. Purchase the book from