The Ultimate Blowback Universe
A Planet Boiling With Unintended Consequences
By Tom Engelhardt
You want to see "blowback" in action? That's easy enough. All you need is a vague sense of how Google Search works. Then type into it phrases like "warmest years," "rising sea levels," "melting ice," "lengthening wildfire season," or "future climate refugees," and you'll find yourself immersed in the grimmest of blowback universes. It's a world which should give that CIA term of tradecraft a meaning even the Agency never imagined for it.
But before I put you on this blowback planet of ours and introduce you to the blowback president presiding over it, I want to take a moment to remember Mr. Blowback himself.
And what a guy he was! Here's how he described himself in the last piece he wrote for TomDispatch just months before his death in November 2010: "My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her."
He wasn't being immodest. He had, in many ways, seen the shape of things to come for what he never hesitated to call "the American empire," including -- in that 2010 piece -- its decline. As he wrote then, "Thirty-five years from now, America's official century of being top dog (1945-2045) will have come to an end; its time may, in fact, be running out right now. We are likely to begin to look ever more like a giant version of England at the end of its imperial run, as we come face to face with, if not necessarily to terms with, our aging infrastructure, declining international clout, and sagging economy."
You know how -- if you're of a certain age at least -- there are those moments when you go back to the books that truly mattered to you, the ones that somehow prepared you, as best anyone can be prepared, for the years to come. One I return to regularly is his. I'm talking about Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.
The man who wrote that was Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant and an eminent scholar of modern Asian history, who would in that work characterize himself in his former life as a "spear-carrier for empire."
Blowback was published in 2000 to next to no notice. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, it became a bestseller. There was so much to learn from it, starting with the very definition of blowback, a word he brought out of the secret world for the rest of us to consider. "The term 'blowback,' which officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use," he wrote, "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."
And if "unintended consequences" isn't a supremely appropriate title under which to write the misbegotten history of the years that followed 9/11 in the era of the self-proclaimed "sole superpower" or, as American politicians love to say, "the indispensable nation," what is? Of course, in the best blowback fashion, al-Qaeda's attacks of that day hit this country like literal bolts from the blue -- even the top officials of George W. Bush's administration were stunned as they scurried for cover. Of all Americans, they at least should have been better prepared, given the warning offered to the president only weeks earlier by that blowback center of operations, the CIA. ("Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." was the title of the presidential daily brief of August 6, 2001.)
Osama bin Laden would prove to be the poster boy of blowback. His organization, al-Qaeda, would be nurtured into existence by an all-American urge to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam, what its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, would later call its "bleeding wound," and to do so in, of all places, Afghanistan. In October 2001, 12 years after the Red Army limped out of that country in defeat and a decade after the Soviet Union imploded, in part thanks to that very wound, Washington would launch a "Global War on Terror." It would be the Bush administration's response to al-Qaeda's supposedly inexplicable attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The Taliban's Afghanistan would be its first target and so would begin America's second Afghan War, a conflict now almost 17 years old with no end in sight. Yet in our American world, remarkably few connections are ever made between the present war and that blowback moment against the Soviets nearly 40 years ago. (Were he alive, Chalmers Johnson, who never ceased to make such connections, would have been grimly amused.)
Giving Imperial Overstretch New Meaning
Talk about the endless ramifications of blowback. It was bin Laden's genius -- for a mere $400,000 to $500,000 -- to goad Washington into spending trillions of dollars across significant parts of the Islamic world fighting conflict after conflict, all of which only seemed to create yet more rubble, terror outfits, and refugees (who, in turn, have helped fuel yet more right-wing populist movements from Europe to Donald Trump's America). Tell me it's not a blowback world!
As it happened, bin Laden's 2001 attacks brought official Washington not to its knees but to its deepest post-Cold War conviction: that the world was its oyster; that, for the first time in history, a single great power potentially had it all, a shot at everything, starting with Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, then much of the rest of the Middle East, and sooner or later the whole planet. In a post-Soviet world in which America's leaders felt the deepest sense of triumphalism, the 9/11 attacks seemed like the ultimate insult. Who would dream of doing such a thing to the greatest power of all of time?
In an act of pure wizardry, bin Laden drew out of Bush, Cheney, and company their deepest geopolitical fantasies about the ability of that all-powerful country and, in particular, "the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world," the U.S. military, to dominate any situation on Earth. The early months of 2003, when they were preparing to invade Saddam Hussein's Iraq, may have been their ultimate hubristic moment, in which imagining anything other than success of a historic sort, not just in that country but far beyond it, was inconceivable.
Until then, never -- except in Hollywood movies when the bad guy rubbed his hands with glee and cackled that the world was his -- had any power truly dreamed of taking it all, of ruling, or at least directing, the planet itself. Even for a globalizing great power without rivals and wealthy almost beyond compare that would prove the ultimate in conceptual overstretch. Looking back, it's easy enough to see that almost 17 years of ceaseless war and conflict across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and even parts of Asia, of massive destruction, of multiplying failed states, of burgeoning terror outfits, and of blowback of every sort, have given the old phrase, "biting off more than you can chew," new geopolitical meaning.