Julian Assange and the late Chalmers Johnson may have similar messages .. and democracy in America should listen

Dec 19th, 2010 | By Randall White | Category: In Brief

“Assange is poised to enter the pantheon of Internet innovators along with Tim Berners-Lee who got the whole thing rolling, Ward Cunningham who developed the wiki software or Jimmy Wales who co-founded Wikipedia, Craig Newmark of craigslist, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Pierre Omidyar of eBay, and Mark Zukerberg of Facebook.”

Julian Assange is now out on bail, living the high life at “Ellingham Hall, a lavish country estate in eastern England, where under the bail conditions he must spend every night.” I have been trying to understand what makes his case as high-minded as it does seem to have become, even though he probably is “something of a bounder — a cad with a penchant for megalomania,”  at the very least “grossly irresponsible” and, it would seem, a sexual adventurer too, not unlike others obsessed by Henry Kissinger’s “ultimate aphrodisiac.”

There is much compelling comment on this subject already, of course. My mission has just been to figure out what I think myself.  There is, I agree, a lot to be said for the argument “WikiLeaks has revealed that … the public position taken by the US on any given issue is usually the private position as well … Conspiracy theorists all over the world must be deeply disappointed.” But Julian Assange is still shining light on something obscure that many feel is important, all over the world as well. He focused on this when he said, a few days ago: “We now know that Visa, Mastercard and Paypal are instruments of US foreign policy.” (More recently he might want to add Bank of America — though in this case his threats about leaking financial information may be more crucial.)

What I came up with, for myself at any rate, was a broad analogy. Assange’s latest irresponsible acts are ultimately pointing at essentially the same troubling global village reality that has haunted the later work of Chalmers Johnson — the US “scholar of Japan, one-time Cold Warrior, and CIA consultant,” who “in the twenty-first century … became the most trenchant critic of American militarism around.” Or as the sleeve of the hard cover edition of a Johnson publication from just this past summer puts it: “In his prophetic book Blowback, published before 9/11, Chalmers Johnson warned that our secret operations around the globe would exact a price at home. Now …  Johnson measures that price, assesses the dangers America faces, and shows just how the United States became a superpower living desperately beyond its means.”

Chalmers “Chal” Johnson, 1931–2010.

I have no idea whether Julian Assange knows anything of Johnson’s provocative research and writing on US militarism today — or whether he would agree with what I am suggesting here. And I agree that my analogy between the work of  WikkiLeaks and Chalmers Johnson’s critique of “the American empire with its 770 plus military bases around the world,” and “its defense spending equivalent to that of the rest of the world combined,” is less than altogether exact. But what gives Assange’s latest assault on the powers that be its strongest moral force, I think, has quite a lot to do with its similarities to the case Chalmers Johnson has been trying to make about contemporary “US foreign policy,” ever since the first volume of his so-called “Blowback Trilogy” first appeared in the year 2000.

Unhappy recent death of Chalmers Johnson … just over a week before the latest WikiLeaks leaks began!

It is also intriguing (as well as sad and unfortunate), it seems to me, that this past Saturday, November 20, 2010 Chalmers Johnson  “died … at age 79, at his home near San Diego,” California, after struggling with “a variety of health problems for a long time.” And metaphorically at least, I think it was not entirely an accident that just over a week after Johnson’s death (according to the current Washington PostTimeline of the WikiLeaks cable release”), we saw the start of Julian Assange’s latest batch of  leaked US State Department documents, on various mostly mundane and not-really-secret complexities of keeping “the American empire with its 770 plus military bases around the world” in business.

Johnson’s last book, 2010.

Part of what makes Chalmers Johnson’s case against the American military empire of his later years so compelling is his earlier career as an essentially right-wing “Cold Warrior.”

(I first became aware of Johnson myself back in long vanished college days, through a prescribed short book called Revolution and the Social System, published in 1964 by The Hoover Institution at Stanford — which “has long been a place of scholarship for high-profile conservatives with government experience.” Subsequently I bought another short book of Johnson’s, published in 1973 and called Autopsy on People’s War. This was an extension in some ways of his earlier study of revolution, dealing with the military concept that drove Mao’s Chinese Revolution, and that many thought was at least trying to drive the Vietnam War.)

Johnson’s earlier career does seem to have won some respect for his later views from such figures as Clyde Prestowitz, “founder and President of the Economic Strategy Institute …  counselor to the Secretary of Commerce in the Reagan Administration,” and author of the much more recent critical volume, The Betrayal of American Prosperity: Free Market Delusions, America’s Decline, and How We Must Compete in the Post-Dollar Era. But even with his earlier pedigree, Johnson’s later views have still apparently made only the slightest dents on the thinking of the current US foreign and defence policy establishments.

Yet as  Prestowitz put it in his obituary for Chalmers Johnson last month, “the American empire with its 770 plus military bases around the world, its defense spending equivalent to that of the rest of the world combined, its priority over economic and social considerations, its frequent alliance with undemocratic and even corrupt foreign countries and leaders, and its continuous discovery of new enemies is strangling both the American economy and American democracy.”

Clyde Prestowitz at a 2009 conference on the future of China and America in Washington, DC.

Or, as explained on the sleeve of the hard cover edition of  Johnson’s last book:“Our reliance on Pentagon economics, a global empire of bases, and war without end, he [Chalmers Johnson] declares, is nothing short of a ‘suicide option’ …  There is, he proposes, only one way out: President Obama must begin to dismantle the empire before it 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.”

How the USA today should (or should not) ultimately punish Julian Assange …

Insofar as any of this is true enough (and I do think quite a lot of it is myself), and insofar as it does have more to do than initially meets the eye with the latest megalomaniacal adventures of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, there are implications for the, as it were, appropriate punishments for Assange’s gross irresponsibilities, from a US point of view.

“Julian Assange of WikiLeaks .. interviewed by TED’s Chris Anderson. During the interview we saw footage of American helicopter soldiers shooting an unarmed group of men ... The video was leaked to Assange from what he said was ‘a number of military whistleblowers’ ... One question Anderson asked ... ‘Is Assange a dangerous troublemaker or a hero?’ Most everyone in the audience raised their hand for the latter.”

Just this past Tuesday, eg, a “new Washington Post-ABC News poll” found that: “Most of those polled — 68% — say the WikiLeaks’ exposure of government documents about the State Department and US diplomacy harms the public interest. Nearly as many — 59% —  say the US government should arrest Assange and charge him with a crime for releasing the diplomatic cables.”  Assange himself seems concerned about this prospect. (See, eg: “Freed Assange launches attack on ‘illegal and aggressive’ US investigation.”) But he is an Australian not a US citizen. And Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has made clear that, although she condemns Assange for “publishing the documents, saying it was ‘grossly irresponsible’ … WikiLeaks hasn’t broken any Australian laws.”

Just yesterday, the Washington Post op-ed columnist Dana Milbank came up with what could prove a more effective approach to US punishment for Julian Assange — whom Milbank is very careful to make clear he finds “insufferable.”

A Russian professor’s prediction of the American future. A Canadian might wonder why Alaska does not go to Canada, where it most geographically belongs (although considering Sarah Palin, etc, etc ...).

As Milbank explains: “ I can understand why Obama administration figures want to prosecute Assange for espionage or other crimes. I confess I’d like to throw a cream pie in his face myself … But prosecuting Assange would give him exactly what he wants: proof that America is hypocritical, that we don’t live by the freedoms we preach. Assange would like nothing more than to be a martyr — and President Obama shouldn’t give that to him …  The better way to deal with Assange is to make him irrelevant. The only reason WikiLeaks has been a sensation is the absurd secrecy of the Obama administration, in some ways worse than that of George W. Bush … Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive at George Washington University said that between 50% and 90% of classified material shouldn’t be; the result is ‘vast prairies’ of phony government secrets that are impossible to protect … It achieves little to punish Assange for trespassing on the prairie, either by prosecuting him (as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other Democrats suggest) or hunting him like a terrorist (as Sarah Palin would have it) … Instead, end the obsessive classification that made Assange possible — and deny him the martyrdom he desires. President Obama: Forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

This in fact seems to me a sensible enough policy in some ways — certainly better than the remedies proposed by either Dianne Feinstein or Sarah Palin. At the same time, if the real moral (and even practical political — and economic) resonance Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks has achieved flows ultimately from Chalmers Johnson’s kind of critique of the still rather secretive “American empire with its 770 plus military bases around the world” and “its defense spending equivalent to that of the rest of the world combined,” then democracy in America  — if it does survive the current troubled era in American history — may finally see Assange himself as what the also 79-year-old  Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame has already called “a hero. Convicting Assange, he [Ellsberg has] said, ‘would mean that the crown had returned to America . . . and that we’re really under a monarchical system of total control of information.’”

Some in Canada might say now doesn’t this look quite a lot like the old British empire, on which the sun never set — and which the USA so wanted to get rid of, at the end of the Second World War?

For Julian Assange to become any kind of Ellsbergian hero, of course, “President Obama must actually begin to dismantle the empire” of the 770 plus military bases around the world, “before it dismantles the American dream.” And it is already quite clear that if anything at all like this is ever going to happen, it will only be in a second Obama term — if he does somehow manage to win re-election in 2012 (which no less an authority than Charles Krauthammer, mirabile dictu, apparently does believe is, in the dying days of 2010, “now more likely than not”).

Meanwhile, I for one continue to believe that only a very great fool would rush in to predict just where both WikiLeaks and Julian Assange will actually be six months from now. For the time being the international press is reporting: “Assange is supposed to remain at the mansion in Bungay [aka Ellingham Hall, a lavish country estate in eastern England] until his next hearing, scheduled for early January. A decision on his extradition [to Sweden, regarding so-called sexual misbehaviour] is expected at a hearing in February.”

Chalmers Johnson memorial. From The Japan Policy Research Institute site.

We will just have to wait and see what happens between now and then — as we continue to mourn democracy in America’s great loss of Chalmers Johnson (and hope that more and more bright minds in the US foreign and defence policy establishments will be reading his Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope over this poignant holiday season of 2010).

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  1. Yes, i have for awhile myself been very disappointed with propaganda media reports, not about anything political in particular, but just common every day stories ranging from sportsmen to being labeled a hero. If i pulled a old lady off the road from being run over, i would end up receiving a medal. ? Go back 20 years, someone might have bought me a beer, even today, i would prefer the beer. How did we get to doing a good deed deserves a reward, or worse still, expect a reward. Interesting story you have written about Chalmer Johnson, recently i have aquired 2 books, one on our past prime minister, John Howard, and another on a sports coach here in Australia, Wayne Bennett. The coach delivers a plain and simple message, repeated over and over throughout the book, but never swaying from his goal and/or message. He is always trying his best to make his players a team of winners, yet his overall message is they become better men. He has never swayed from this task.
    John Howard on the other hand looked after a whole nation and the message was simalar, he cared about the people.
    Julian Assange seems to be having trouble to gain the support from our government, delivering the meassage of truth seems to be punishable these days. I am not sure why alot of people support him, but my message is simple, i am tired of the propaganda reporting, the disfunctive ideals of governments, the secrecy and waste. Sinse when did losing 100 million dollars become the norm. It happens here in Australia not only at government level, but also state level. When did this happen that the public became decensitised to this amount of loss, you could also add that to human life. If i dropped 50 dollars on the ground, how quickly would i stoop to pick it up, yet we lose billions and shrug our shoulders.

    Maybe the support for Assange is just people like me, who have had enough, and see this as our last hope of making change, at last we have a voice. I cant recall how many times i complain about things and nothing changes, we all seem to busy watching what others are doing, instead of doing ourselves.
    I do agree if the USA try to punnish Assange, bring him to justice for leaking the truth, it will help my cause, a government without propaganda, more open and accountable. The support for Assange in many countries is growing stronger by the day, alot of these countries see him as a hope, a trigger, a prophet even. The truth is not that, it is merely hidden, suppressed even, but now it is out there, and so many people need to, want to hang onto that, why? Maybe they have never seen it before, or like me, they know it’s there yet are sick of being lied to about the truth by propaganda undertones.
    I will add this book to my other 2, i am not a big reader, i choose carefully what i read. Sounds interesting because he came from right to left, as i myself have done.
    Thanks for the read, this book sounds inviting.

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