Do citizens of the United States really believe that the current regime can subjugate foreign peoples who deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as much as anyone, without fear of repercussion? This appeared to be a major assumption defining the recent much-anticipated and well-attended Historians Against the War (HAW) conference in Austin, Texas.
Keynote speaker Howard Zinn expressed passionately the moral imperatives confronting U.S. citizens in light of the Bush Administration's reckless foreign policy. "We must rise up and put an end to regime outrages," he implored. "We must acknowledge that these outrages have been occurring for much longer than the last six years," ... We must finally become the nation our ideology says we are." But Zinn overlooked that could happen should Americans fail to rise to this challenge.
During the question and answer period that followed someone broached this topic specifically: Would the U.S. survive if the regime's actions were not halted? What if we simply continue to watch television and shop at malls while our bullies beat up the have-nots of the world and muscle aside our own allies when they object? Or might we suffer terrible blowback, as Chalmers Johnson, Noam Chomsky and other well respected analysts have suggested. In short, were we to understand that citizen action was a moral necessity, but not necessarily a physical necessity?
Dr. Zinn responded that of course the nation would survive, however at the cost of a terrible moral failure. The possibility that we in the audience, and our children and grandchildren, might find ourselves immersed in chaos as phantoms poison water supplies and spread deadly germs and radioactive isotopes - and more - went unmentioned, perhaps unnoticed by most of the more than a thousand scholars, citizens and activists gathered for his address. Blowback had fallen off the conference radar even as a significant variable.
One might assume from this fact that U.S. vulnerability to terrorist attack described in the November 1, 2001 New York Times have been addressed by Homeland Security in the years since 9/11. The Times article listed Anthrax, Plague, Botulinum, Q Fever, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Yellow Fever, and Marburg Virus as particular biochemical threats.
Concerning nuclear threats: smuggling entire bombs into the country, building them from smuggled in materials or obtaining radioactive material and detonating them with dynamite, thus infecting large urban areas, were within terrorist capabilities. "Experts no longer believe that getting a complete weapon is impossible...Russia is believed to have developed extremely small nuclear weapons -- 'suitcase' bombs -- probably with yields equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT or fewer.... Another possibility would be to obtain the grapefruit like core of uranium from, say, the Pakistanis, which would be easier to smuggle out of the country than an entire bomb."
A year later, this prognosis remained in effect. The Hart-Rudman Senate Foreign Relations Committee Task Force on Homeland Security reported on October 25, 2002 that the nation remained unprotected and the Administration still had no adequate plan for redressing this condition.
Nearly another year passed, then economist Paul Krugman observed in the April 1, 2003 New York Times that Homeland Security still failed to target funds rationally to address the nation's vulnerabilities. "The most natural targets for terrorism lie in or near great metropolitan areas; surely protecting those areas is the highest priority, right? Apparently not...the Bush administration isn't serious about protecting the homeland. Instead, it continues to subordinate U.S. security needs to its unchanged political agenda."
By February 20, 2005, the New York Times lead editorial found it striking "how much has not changed in the three and a half years since nearly 3,000 people were killed on American soil. The nation's chemical plants are still a horrific accident waiting to happen. Nuclear material that could be made into a 'dirty bomb' or even a nuclear device, and set off in an American city remains too accessible to terrorists. Critical tasks, from inspecting shipping containers to upgrading defenses against biological weapons, are being done poorly or not at all."
One year later, less than a month ago, a February, 2006 article in The Scientific American, titled Thwarting Nuclear Terrorism, reinforces the Times report, describing how High Energy Uranium (HEU) is abundant and readily available to terrorist organizations that might wish to make use of it. Such abundance serves no useful purpose, the authors note; however "The effort to convert HEU- fueled reactors has already dragged on for more than a quarter of a century. That the use of HEU continues has little to do with technical reasons. This failure has resulted largely from a dearth of sufficient high-level governmental support." This may constitute the hardest evidence of all that the country is neither secure, nor becoming secure under the stewardship of the current regime.
The History of Homeland Security's ineffectualness weighed against the threat of blowback never came up at the HAW conference. That this history might enhance the public's motivation to oppose the war, however, did come up during the final session. Frequently during the conference panelists had stated with certainty, without, however, citing evidence to this effect, that U.S. citizen opposition to the war was becoming overwhelming. At a certain point, one of the previous day's panelists, an expert on the Middle East, observed that actually data seem to indicate that about half the U.S. public supports the war, at least in some fashion.
The participant who had raised the question about blowback threats the first evening observed that perhaps most citizens care more about whether the regime can kick ass competently than about whether it operates too ruthlessly in the process. The following discussion indicated that many felt it important to explore this question, and to determine systematically where people actually stand on the war.
If in fact U.S. citizens can live with the current regime's policies, so long as they work, examining whether these policies can actually produce security, rather than severe blowback, is essential. This assessment requires an historical review of U.S. foreign relations un-included in the conference. The following brief sketch illustrates that U.S. policy makers have been dealing poorly with two huge challenges: the rise of the Third World and an impending energy crisis. Their ineptness could well be placing the citizenry at great personal risk.
The irresistible force of Asian ascendance
Following WW II, Asian resistance to Western imperial control showed signs of accelerating. Especially vexing to imperial strategists was the tendency for the new Arabic nations -- carefully designed by the Grand Alliance powers following WWI to discourage Arabic independence -- to take their nationalisms seriously. In the atmosphere of the Cold War this concern occupied center stage, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called upon Owen Lattimore, the nation's leading expert on Asia, to assess the situation.