Review:

Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
by Chalmers Johnson


     Ever since the indefensible, horrible terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC took place, TV announcers have been asking: Why did this happen? Chalmers Johnson's book, Blowback, provides the answer.

"The term 'blowback,' which officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use, is starting to circulate among students of international relations. It refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign acts of 'terrorists' or 'drug lords' or 'rogue states' or 'illegal arms merchants' often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations."

     In the context of Johnson's book, what possible actions "kept secret from the American people" brought about this horrible disaster?

  • The Saudi Arabia-located Gulf War which Bush I foisted on the world in his speech to Congress exactly eleven years ago: September 11, 1990

  • The Camp David accords, which signalled the US buy-out of Egypt as a countervailing force for Palestinian rights in the Middle East, which occurred on September 11, 1978

  • The recent Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories that have included assassinations of Palestinian leaders and the slaughter of Palestinian civilians with the use of American aircraft

  • Clinton's bombing of the Sudan, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing tens of thousands of people (no one knows how many for sure because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and our corporate-dominated "news" agencies deliberately fail to pursue it)

  • Bush administration renewal of attacks and sanctions against Iraq that have seen upward of a million people die, most of them children


     The thesis of Johnson's book is straightforward:

     "I believe the profligate waste of our resources on irrelevant weapons systems and the Asian economic meltdown, as well as the continuous trail of military 'accidents' and of terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies, are all portents of a twenty-first century crisis in America's empire, an empire based on the projection of military power to every corner of the world and on the use of American capital and markets to force global economic integration on our terms, at whatever costs to others."

     Beyond the tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, what other examples of blowback can we trace?

     "It is now widely recognized, for example, that the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground, was retaliation for a 1986 Reagan administration aerial raid on Libya that killed president Muammar Khadaffi's stepdaughter."

     As Johnson illustrates, for decades United States leaders have supported dictators in national struggles for independence:

  • Indochina against the French
  • Malaya against the British
  • Indonesia against the Dutch
  • Philippine guerillas against American puppet, Ferdinand Marcos
  • South Korea against American puppet dictator, Syngman Rhee
    • 1960: Koreans overthrew Rhee - Americans put in Park Chung-hee, first of 3 army generals who would rule from 1961 to 1993
    • Americans tolerated a coup d'etat by General Chun Doo-hwan in 1979 and covertly supported his orders that led to the killing of several hundred, maybe several thousand, Korean civilians at Kwangju in 1980 (probably far more people than the Chinese Communists killed in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989)
  • Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan
  • Ngo Dinh Diem (assassinated on American orders), General Nguyen Khanh, General Nguyen Cao Ky, And General Mguyen Van Thieu in Vietnam
  • General Lon Nol in Cambodia
  • Marshals Pibul Songgram, Sarit Thanarat, Praphas Charusathien, and Thanom Kittikachorn in Thailand (where they were essentially caretakers for the huge American air bases at Udorn, Takli, Korat, and Ubon)
  • General Suharto in Indonesia (brought to power with the help of the CIA and overthrown with the help of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency)
  • 1981: U.S. launched Vietnam-style operations in Central America, supporting insurgency against a Sandinista government in Nicaragua sympathetic to Castro's Cuba; U.S. supported cocaine trade of Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, the "Contras"

     Another factor which is more than likely to produce blowback is the economic policy which American leaders pursued in Asia.

"To base a capitalist economy mainly on export sales rather than domestic demand, however, ultimately subverts the function of the unfettered world market to reconcile and bring into balance supply and demand. Instead of producing what the people of a particular economy can actually use, East Asian export regimes thrived on foreign demand artificially engineered by an imperialist power. In East Asia during the Cold War, the strategy worked so long as the American economy remained overwhelmingly larger than the economies of its dependencies and so long as only Japan and perhaps one or two smaller countries pursued this strategy.
    But by the 1980s the Japanese economy had become twice the size of both Germanies. Anything it did affected not just the American but the global economy. Moreover, virtually everyone else in East Asia (and potentially every underdeveloped country on earth) had some knowledge of how to create such a miracle economy and many were trying to duplicate Japanese-style high-speed growth.
         An over-capacity for products oriented to the American market (or products needed to further expand export-oriented economies) became overwhelming. There were too many factories turning out athletic shoes, automobiles, television sets, semiconductors, petrochemicals, steel, and ships for too few buyers."

     Johnson indicates that America's economic imperialism may likely result in a world-wide economic blowback.

     "The economic crisis at the end of the century had its origins in an American project to open up and make over the economies of its satellites and dependencies in East Asia. Its purpose was both to diminish them as competitors and to assert the primacy of the United States as the globe's hegemonic power. Superficially it can be said to have succeeded. The globalization campaign significantly reduced the economic power and capitalist independence of at least some of the United States' 'tiger' competitors-even if, as with Russia and Brazil, the crisis could not be kept within the bounds of East Asia. This was, from a rather narrow point of view, a major American imperial success.

      "Despite such immediate results, however, the campaign against Asian-style capitalism (and the possibility that America's satellite states in the area might gain independent political clout as well) was ill-founded and included serious blowback consequences. The United States failed to acknowledge that East Asian success had depended to a considerable extent on preferential, Cold War-based exports to the American market. By cloaking its campaign in the rhetoric of market opening and deregulation instead of the need to reform outdated Cold War arrangements, the United States both destroyed the credibility of its economic ideology and betrayed its Cold War supporters. Indonesia The impoverishment and humiliation of huge populations from Indonesia to South Korea was itself blowback enough, even if the blowback for the time being spared ordinary Americans. But if and when the stricken economies recover, they will almost certainly start to seek leadership elsewhere than from the United States. At a bare minimum, they will try to protect themselves from ever again being smothered by the American embrace. In short, by refusing to reform its Cold War structures and instead insisting that other peoples emulate the American way, the United States gave itself an unnecessary, possibly terminal case of imperial overstretch. Instead of forestalling global instability, it helped make such instability inevitable."

     But we must look to possible destructive effects which could result from the tragic attack on New York City and Washington, DC. The people who killed the thousands of Americans in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were persons who had allowed themselves to become so brainwashed by their leaders that they embraced their own death.

     We must not become programmed by leaders who may try to turn us into unthinking, unreasoning pawns in a world war, indoctrinated dupes reacting to recent events in heedless retaliation. It has now become necessary that we recognize and act on our solidarity with reasonable, freedom-loving people throughout the world.

      It's clear that actions taken by our leaders have led to this horrible blowback situation of common people becoming victims in a war we didn't realize had been going on for decades. People in other countries were being murdered in this ongoing terrorist war that our leaders were carrying out, but it took people dying in the United States before we woke up to the reality of what was happening.

     We should be encouraged by the fact that in this time when a variety of people are reacting in a deranged manner, many cool heads and reasonable voices are being heard.

  • Robert Jensen's article in CounterPunch, "Why I Won't Rally Around the President":
    "When we speak out against war in public, we will find support, but we also should expect hostility. We should expect the question posed by one of the people who wrote to condemn me: 'Whose side are you on?'      The answers to that are simple:
    • I am on the side of the people -- no matter where they live -- who will suffer the violence, not the leaders -- no matter where they live -- who will plan it.
    • I am on the side of peace, not war.
    • I am on the side of justice, not vengeance.
    • And most important, I am on the side of hope, not despair."

  • Anthony Lewis's Op-Ed in the 9/15/01 New York Times, "Beware Unintended Results":
          "The danger in the current situation is that hasty, ill-targeted military action could arouse anti-Western sentiments right across the Middle East. That could threaten such important U.S. friends as the governments of Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia, from which Osama bin Laden is an angry exile and which is at the core of his grievance. He would be delighted at a United States response that destabilized the Saudi regime."

  • In Paris, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin warned that a precipitous attack could unleash wider instability: "We should not start thinking in terms of a confrontation between the Western world and the Islamic world as such . . .  We have friends and partners there. We must keep our heads."

  • "I hope that the United States will not act rashly and [will] take international public opinion into account when weighing its response," former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel said. "I hope they will not try and pin this act on an entire region or an entire ethnic group, but that they will have the prescience to punish only those who were responsible for this act of terrorism."

     One of the first things we must do to protect against further blowback is to regain our democracy, to make sure that this crisis is not used as the excuse to destroy or limit essential civil liberties. Already, some disturbing actions have taken place to suppress our rights:

  • Only hours after the attacks, the FBI reportedly began installing its controversial Carnivore system at some Internet providers to monitor and record electronic communications, particularly seeking accounts with Arabic names. On the day of the attacks, an ABC-Washington Post poll found that 66% of Americans would willingly give up some civil liberties to combat terrorism.

  • On Sept. 12, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly cautioned that divulging classified intelligence could hinder the government's efforts to track down those responsible and could put military personnel at risk. His remarks heightened expectation that the "classified leaks" bill, which would criminalize intelligence leaks, could be swiftly revived after being shelved only last week.

  • On September 12, Vermont's governor, Howard Dean, said at a news conference that the crisis would require "a re-evaluation of the importance of some of our specific civil liberties."

  • The U.S. Senate approved legislation on September 12 that would make it easier for the FBI to obtain warrants for electronic eavesdropping. And Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., saying that civil libertarians in the past had blocked legislation essential in a terrorism fight, vowed to push for laws to make search and surveillance easier in domestic intelligence-gathering efforts.

  • Also on September 12, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., echoing earlier remarks by Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., warned that an erosion of civil liberties would be inevitable. "We're in a new world where we have to rebalance freedom and security," he said, according to The Washington Post.

     Fortunately there are some sane voices who realize how important it is to keep our liberties intact. Senator (Bob) Graham seemed to capture in his statement [Sept. 12] precisely the proper tone — that if we sacrifice basic rights and liberties for security, then the terrorists will truly have prevailed. Acknowledging that the enormity of this disaster makes for an extraordinary time, we must keep First Amendment rights in focus.

     Robert O'Neil, founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, in Charlottesville, Va., put it another way: "The dilemma is balancing, on one hand, the undoubted need for better and more sophisticated intelligence gathering, against the imperative to preserve civil liberties despite the heightened threats of terrorism."

     O'Neil predicts government action on "potential threats that were simmering before Tuesday and on which the heat may now be turned up, especially in view of Senator Lott's comment about civil liberties at risk in time of war. Those include," he said, "possible revival of the 'classified leaks' bill, renewed interest in installing Carnivore-like devices and maybe a new round of Clipper Chip," the encryption technology for digital telephones developed secretly with a "back door" key by the National Security Agency in 1993.

      "The concern we have in the media [is that] as we demand information, we'll be accused of being subversive for the very process of interviewing, associating with or learning about those who would explain terrorism," O'Neil said. "The person who has their First Amendment credentials — The New York Times, The Washington Post — around their neck is probably OK," he added. "But someone seeking information and asking questions for a book or a free-lance article, for example, will be guilty by association," Armstrong said. "It becomes very insidious. What happens when reporters start asking about that intelligence failure asking for proof that the people targeted are the right people? Somewhere in there, it's going to be considered disloyal."

     Civil liberties groups are already beginning to gather their forces, the Los Angeles Times reported. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has started a telephone hotline to monitor violations of civil liberties, particularly racial profiling. And the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights met on September 13 in San Francisco to discuss the risks to civil liberties and plan a possible response.

     Contrary to some of the extremists now trying to scare America into a lunatic reaction to its crisis, a time of tragedy is precisely the time to place renewed emphasis on civil liberties.

     This horrific calamity which has befallen us can be a genuine wake-up call, making us aware of the necessity that we retake control of our government so that such catastrophes do not recur.

      To protect ourselves from further catastrophic blowback, we must arouse ourselves to become once again an informed citizenry. We must demand that our executive and legislative leaders actually carry out due diligence in assuring that the people's interests are being served. No longer can we allow our leaders to act in ways which threaten our nation, our way of life, and our very lives.





September 16, 2001
Dr. Norman D. Livergood

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