…The US Republic has yet to collapse, but an imperial presidency now places great strain on it with a dominant Pentagon and culture of militarism undermining Congress, the courts and our civil liberties…

Chalmers Johnson, in his new book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, makes his case citing ancient Rome to show how imperialism and militarism destroyed the Republic. He notes after its worst defeat at the hands of Carthaginian general Hannibal in 216 BC, Romans vowed never again to tolerate the rise of a Mediterranean power capable of threatening their survival and felt justified waging preemptive war against any opponent it thought might try.

That was Paul Wolfowitz’s notion as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the GHW Bush administration in 1992 that he began implementing as Deputy Secretary of Defense in 2001 and made part of the National Security Strategy in 2002. It was an ancient Roman megalomanic vision called Pax Romana that post-WW II became Pax Americana with illusions of wanting unchallengeable dominance to deter any potential rival, and, like ancient Rome, wage preemptive or preventive war to assure it.

A culture of corruption and militarism eroded the Roman Republic that effectively ended in 49 BC when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in Northern Italy plunging the country in civil war that left Caesar victorious when all his leading opponents were dead. The Republic died with them as Caesar became the state exercising dictatorship over it from 48 to 44 BC when his reign ended on the Ides of March that year after his fateful meeting in the Roman Senate with Brutus, Cassius and six other conspirators whose long knives did what enemy legions on battlefields couldn’t. It led to the rise of Caesar’s grandnephew Octavian. In 27 BC, the Roman Senate gave him his new title, Augustus Caesar, making him Rome’s first emperor after earlier ceding most of its powers to him. He then emasculated Rome’s system of republican rule turning the Senate into an aristocratic family club performing ceremonial duties only.

It was much the same in Nazi Germany only much faster. The German Reichstag made Adolph Hitler Reichschallcellor on January 30, 1933 ceding its power to him March 23 by enacting the Enabling Act or Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Empire establishing a Nazi dictatorship and allowing the Weimar Republic to pass quietly into history. With a whimper, not a bang, it gave Hitler absolute power and the right to enact laws and constitutional changes on his own with little more than rubber-stamping approval from an impotent Reichstag that anointed him Reichsfuhrer a year later allowing him supreme power to destroy the state he only got to rule for 12 years.

Like Nazi Germany and other empires, Johnson explains the “Roman Republic failed to adjust to the unintended consequences of its imperialism (and militaristic part of it) leading to drastic alterations in its form of government” that was transformed into dictatorship. It’s constitution became undermined along with genuine political and human rights its citizens once had but lost under imperial rule. Rome’s military success made made it very rich and its leaders arrogant leading to what Johnson calls “the first case of what today we call imperial overstretch.” It didn’t help that a citizen army of conscripts got transformed into professional military warriors. It grew large and unwieldy becoming a state within a state like our Pentagon today. It created a culture of militarism that turned into a culture of moral decay leading to the empire’s decline and fall.

The US Republic has yet to collapse, but an imperial presidency now places great strain on it with a dominant Pentagon and culture of militarism undermining Congress, the courts and our civil liberties. Ancient Rome proved republican checks and balances aren’t compatible with imperial dreams and a powerful military on the march for them. The US may have crossed its own Rubicon on September 18, 2001 with the passage of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) by joint House-Senate resolution authorizing “the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States (and) giving the President….authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States….”

By this act alone, George Bush got congressional authority to seize near dictatorial power in the name of national security, ignore constitutional and international law, be able to wage aggressive war to protect the nation, and get repressive laws passed threatening citizens and others alike with loss of our freedoms. Then in October, 2002, Congress voted the president unrestricted power to preemptively strike Iraq whenever he believed it “appropriate” meaning he was free to wage aggressive war against Iraq or any other nation he henceforth called a threat using tactical nuclear weapons if he chooses.

This kind of unrestricted power isn’t just dictatorial authority. It’s insanity courtesy of the Congress and supportive right wing courts. It’s taking us the same way as ancient Rome assuring our fate will be no different unless it’s stopped and reversed. It’s the inevitable price of imperial arrogance making leaders feel invulnerable till they no longer are, and it’s too late.

We may still have a choice, and Johnson cites the one Britain took to explain. They sacrificed empire to preserve democracy knowing they couldn’t have both. They earlier took up the “White Man’s Burden” in a spirit of imperial “goodness” we now call “spreading democracy” believing Anglo-Saxons deserved to rule other nations, especially ones of color they thought inferior. Johnson explains “successful imperialism requires that a domestic republic change into a tyranny.” It happened to Rome, and he sees it happening here under an imperial presidency with militarism taking ever greater root in society. Britain was spared by a democratic resurgence followed WW II. People finally freed from the scourge of Nazism said never again and chose democracy to assure it.

We must now choose whether to return to our founding roots or stay on our present path heading to imperial tyranny. For Johnson, Rome and Britain are the “archtypes” defining where we stand and what we face. Rome chose empire, lost its Republic and then everything. Britain went the other way choosing democracy despite the Blair government’s disgraceful post-9/11 imperial indiscretions acting as Washington’s pawn in service to our adventurism. Now late in the game, we must choose one way or the other. We can either have our democratic “cake” or “eat it” and suffer the consequences. We can’t have it both ways.

The CIA – The President’s Private Army

Imperial Rome had its elite praetorian guard to protect and serve its emperors. The CIA here works the same way as a private army for the president that in the end will go his way as it did producing phony intelligence the Bush administration used to justify war with Iraq. It proved its loyalty by its willingness to lie, but it does lots more than that – the kinds of extrajudicial things it gets away with because everything about “the company” is secret, including its budget. It puts CIA beyond the law making it unaccountable to the public and Congress that have every right to know in a “democracy” but none under imperial rule. Johnson stresses that US presidents have “untrammeled control of the CIA (and it’s) probably (their) single most extraordinary power” as it puts them beyond the check and balancing powers of Congress and courts constitutionally required in republican systems of government. Not in our “Republic,” at least since 1947 when the National Security Act created the CIA under Harry Truman to succeed the wartime OSS dissolved in 1945.

Johnson explains CIA originally had five missions. Four dealt with collection, coordination and dissemination of intelligence. The fifth one was vague allowing the agency to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council (overseeing it) may….direct.” This mandate caused the problem turning “CIA into the personal, secret, unaccountable army of the president” and making secret covert, often mischievous illegal, operations its main function. Their duties include overthrowing democratically elected governments, assassinating foreign heads of state and key officials, propping up friendly dictators, and snatching targeted individuals for “extraordinary rendition” on privately-leased aircraft to secret torture-prisons for not too gracious treatment on arrival that may include “destroying” the evidence after completing interrogation.

We claimed justification for it during the Cold War even though extrajudicial activities are never permissible under republican constitutional government. Today under George Bush, things are further complicated as CIA is one of 15 intelligence agencies under a director of National Intelligence (DNI). But even with this realignment, CIA remains the president’s private praetorian guard army accountable only to him with tens of billions of secret budget power to do plenty of damage.

It now lets CIA be more active than ever as under Bush it’s got double the number of covert operatives making Johnson believe the spy agency’s original purpose is history with DNI now handling most intelligence gathering functions. CIA is now a mostly global hit squad Mafia with Bush its resident Godfather sending it off to do “assassinations, dirty tricks, renditions, and engineering foreign coups. In the intelligence field it will be restricted to informing our presidents and generals about current affairs.” In all it does, the agency’s secrecy shields the chief executive from responsibility giving him plausible deniability if anything leaks out. Johnson explains “CIA’s bag of dirty tricks….is a defining characteristic of the imperial presidency. It is a source of unchecked power that can gravely threaten the nation….(Its) so-called reforms….in 2006 have probably further shortened the life of the American republic.” “The company” is a menace to democratic rule. Either it goes or our freedoms do.

Note: This is the third of a six-part series on Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic.
Part 1, Part 2,

by Stephen Lendman [send him email], who lives in Chicago, and maintains a blog at http://sjlendman.blogspot.com. Stephen is a Populist Party featured columnist.

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