Two Jeremiads


Militarism, Secrecy,

and the End of the Republic

By Chalmers Johnson

Metropolitan Books; 389pp; $25


How to Win the War on Terror

By David Frum and Richard Perle

Random House; 284pp; $25.95

Maybe it's the effect of the imminent political campaign, but The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic by liberal Chalmers Johnson and An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror by conservatives David Frum and Richard Perle seem designed merely to bolster the thinking of already converted audiences at either end of the political spectrum. If you want detailed arguments for or against the Bush Administration's aggressive foreign policy, read these tracts. But the authors give no quarter to a slightly different -- dare I say moderate -- point of view. As a result, the books are unconvincing. Indeed, these volumes squander a chance to present nuanced approaches to the complex security issues the U.S. will face in the future.

Johnson's jeremiad against what he sees as American imperialism and militarism exhaustively catalogs decades of U.S. military misdeeds, from rapes committed by soldiers in Okinawa to the deaths of Afghan civilians from errant bombs. He says the Bush Administration, emboldened by September 11, has taken trends that began with the Monroe Doctrine and Spanish-American War to new heights, viewing America as "the greatest colossus in history, no longer bound by international law, the concerns of allies, or any constraints on its use of military force." Johnson's conclusion: The cost of supporting troops deployed to hundreds of bases abroad will bankrupt the American empire and republic.

Johnson is an emeritus Asia expert at the University of California at San Diego and president of the Japan Policy Research Institute. But his book lacks the academic rigor one might have expected. He fails to distinguish between a nation that is imperious, which the U.S. is, and one that is imperialist, which America isn't. Johnson maintains that the more than 700 U.S. military bases around the globe have replaced traditional colonization. But if those bases, which include several in Germany, really translated to political control, Washington wouldn't have faced much resistance in the U.N. Security Council from Bonn, Ankara, and others. Diplomatically, America seems more of a hyped power than a hyperpower.

Johnson also worries about the domestic political muscle of the military-industrial complex. But if it wields so much clout, why is aerospace/defense-industry employment down to 1953 levels and the Pentagon's inflation-adjusted procurement budget half the Reagan-era high? Johnson may be right that the U.S. doesn't always use its power wisely, but he fails to say what the U.S. role should be. Al Qaeda, North Korea, and Iran are all out there. How should the U.S. handle them?

Frum and Perle, in contrast, have plenty of answers to such questions. The two American Enterprise Institute fellows advocate an IKEA-style foreign policy: It's a big planet, and someone has to rearrange all the furniture. In contrast to Johnson, they all but say that President Bush is a wimp for even contemplating negotiations with Iran or North Korea. The authors avoid a direct attack on Bush by blaming the striped-pants brigade at the State Dept. for pursuing its own foreign policy, though they offer little evidence of that. They seem to think that the term "rogue state" refers to Colin Powell's minions.

Given the authors' background, An End to Evil is predictable in advocating regime change from Paris to Pyongyang. Frum is a former Bush speechwriter who claimed credit for adding "axis of evil" to the political lexicon. Perle pushes his hard-line views from the platform of a Pentagon advisory panel, the Defense Policy Board.

The authors fear that Washington's will to fight the war on terrorism is ebbing, but, they assert, "there is no middle way for Americans: It is either victory or holocaust." They call for attacking a potential enemy early rather than waiting for an attack. They would, for example, opt for an air and naval blockade of North Korea in the hope that it would prompt China to bring the North to heel. Their goal is to topple Kim Jong Il, whom they imagine would be replaced with someone more subservient to China and more willing to adopt economic reforms. But where are the moderate North Koreans who would oust Kim? And do Frum and Perle really want to create a stronger ally for China, a land many conservatives fear will be America's next great rival?

Surely we can do better. The military options Frum and Perle favor have been exhausted. North Korea and Iran are not Afghanistan and Iraq. The diplomacy the authors skewer is the only option left, though the military prowess Johnson eschews would help any negotiations. To deal with new threats, we need new rules, tactics, and strategies -- and help from friends. The approach that should emerge may not be clear. But neither Johnson's negativism nor the Frum-Perle blunderbuss advance the debate.

By Stan Crock

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