The Sorrow of Empire

"In the decade following the end of the Cold War," wrote Chalmers Johnson in his 2000 book Blowback, "the United States largely abandoned a reliance on diplomacy, economic aid, international law, and multilateral institutions in carrying out its foreign policies and resorted much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation." They were certain to produce consequences, Johnson claimed. And so they did, on a September morning a year later, when jihadists previously sponsored by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Bosnia turned their sights on America.

Long before Rahm Emanuel, governments knew how to use a crisis to seize more power. September 11 was followed by an explosive growth of bureaucracy at home, and increased belligerence abroad. Afghanistan was originally invaded to capture Osama bin Laden; though he hasn’t been seen in years, American and NATO troops are still here, and the Taliban — once believed defeated — is back and stronger than ever. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent occupation was sold to the American public as a pre-emptive attack against a government in possession of weapons of mass destruction and willing to share them with terrorists. When it became obvious that the WMD story was one colossal hoax, the Emperor’s only reaction was a shrug and "So what?"

Johnson has continued documenting America’s descent into imperialism, with The Sorrows of Empire in 2004 and Nemesis in 2008, and his newest book, Dismantling the Empire, is coming soon.

It Began With Hiroshima

This transformation of America from a constitutional republic into an increasingly autocratic empire did not begin after 9/11, or even at the end of the Cold War. It did pick up speed in both cases, but its roots go farther back into history. Abraham Lincoln’s crackdown on secession elevated the federal government far above its constitutionally intended station. After McKinley’s war with Spain in 1898, the U.S. acquired its first overseas possessions. Woodrow Wilson did not quite succeed in his crusade to "make the world safe for democracy," but FDR had better luck. It was Harry Truman, however, who actually took the plunge.

An argument can be made that the first shots of the Cold War were the nuclear attacks on Japan in August 1945. By that point, Japan was defenseless and surrender was being negotiated anyway. By using nuclear weapons, Truman was trying to finish the war before the Soviets could get involved, and assert a position of strength in the postwar world. His National Security Act of 1947 reorganized the armed forces and  intelligence, creating the apparatus necessary for fighting the Cold War — which he then began by claiming that Communism was a global threat to the U.S. For the next 40 years, the world would teeter on the brink of mutually assured nuclear annihilation, while both the USSR and the US expanded their world empires of bases and client states.

From Krajina to Kosovo

The Cold War ended in 1989, when the USSR basically gave up. Two years later, the USSR itself was gone, replaced by a patchwork of "independent states." The jihad in Afghanistan, engineered as a weapon against the Soviets in the 1970s, was coming to an end. Francis Fukuyama famously wrote about the coming "end of history." But the imperialist establishment saw this as an opportunity. The world was theirs for the taking.

Step by step, the U.S. dismantled the old world order, suborning the UN, brushing aside international law, asserting phantom rights under the guise of greater, "humanitarian" necessity. The test bed for this was the Balkans, where the U.S. got deeply involved in an ethnic war following the destruction of Yugoslavia.

By intervening in Bosnia, Richard Holbrooke admitted, the U.S. re-asserted power in Europe. It also sidelined the UN and empowered NATO. Just three years after the gunpoint-diplomacy of Dayton came the farce of Rambouillet, and the war of aggression NATO billed as "humanitarian intervention."

There was nothing humanitarian about the Kosovo war. If anything, it was an attempted re-run of Operation Storm from August 1995, in which the Empire lent air support to the local proxy forces. Back then, the "junkyard dogs" (a term used by Holbrooke’s colleague Robert Frasure) were the U.S.-trained Croatian Army; in 1999, it was the terrorist KLA. Not coincidentally, many of the KLA — Agim Ceku, for example — used to fight in the Croatian Army.

The consequences were chillingly similar as well: mass expulsion of Serbs (along with other non-Albanians, in Kosovo), murder and intimidation of those who stayed, and widespread destruction of property. Though Croatia recently launched a major advertising campaign to attract tourists from Serbia, those that do visit are routinely met with verbal and physical abuse. In Kosovo, Serb-supplied electricity and bread are welcome, but Serbs themselves are not; in one infamous incident, a Bulgarian UN employee was murdered on the street for speaking in what sounded like Serbian.

The Empire, however, presented both "Storm" and the occupation of Kosovo as great victories for human rights. The Kosovo campaign was spun as "illegal but legitimate," and the road was clear all the way to Baghdad


Empire’s "nation-building" through bombs, bribes and propaganda has transformed the Balkans into an Orwellian dystopia, where different rules applied differently to different people. Empire’s ideologues have tried to obscure this duplicity by separating Balkans conflicts, declaring that Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo were completely separate and unique cases, each with its own set of principles and rules — because, well, they said so.

Watching U.S. "diplomats" thunderously defending the "sovereignty and integrity" of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo — states created and maintained solely by American power — would be funny were it not tragic.

Meanwhile, the Empire has asserted the right to attack anyone, anywhere, at any time, on any pretext, adopting the Communists’ Brezhnev Doctrine. Yesterday the Balkans, today Iraq and Afghanistan, tomorrow the world!

Money, Politics and Power

Over the years, opposition to Imperial adventures has waxed and waned. Much of it has been partisan; Republicans made noises about Clinton’s interventions, Democrats pilloried Bush the Lesser. Yet when push came to shove, they all got on the same imperial bandwagon, always voting to fund the wars. For all the promised "hope" and "change," Barack Obama’s election brought about the Clinton Restoration.

Bush the Lesser and his cohorts ran America — and tried to run the world — with a conviction that their willpower alone could shape reality. Yet the "liberal" imperialists remain convinced that the world actually desires American hegemony, and all they have to do is change the flavor.

Critics of the Empire also try to follow the money. While that is sound advice when it comes to deciphering the motivations of individuals, when dealing with governments that can — literally — print money to their heart’s content, it becomes less than useful. Wars by definition destroy wealth. While some people may profit from them, society at large does not. And only a fool seeks to seize by force what can be obtained far cheaper through commerce. The Empire is not about money — though its policymakers and enablers are not above enriching themselves — but about power and control. As Orwell so prophetically described it, "a boot stamping on a human face — forever."


There is nothing wrong with ambition. In just about every religion on Earth, though, lust for power is considered a sin. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," wrote Lord Acton in 1887. What could be more corrupting than a desire to rule the entire world? Over and over, people have succumbed to this temptation, convincing themselves that this time, for them, it would be different. It never is.

Politicians dream of empire to gain power and wealth; to their subjects, they sell that dream as something that will make them richer and safer. Yet the pursuit of empire is bankrupting America, and Americans are less safe than ever. America’s power is no longer based on ideas, but on fear. Sooner or later, the rest of the world will stop being afraid.

What then? Chalmers Johnson argues that the Empire has already damaged American society, perhaps beyond repair. What good is it to a country if it gained the world, but lost its soul? When it has blood on its hands, and the world is in ruins?

Those who seek to see beyond the Empire should recall the words of Thomas Jefferson: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.