Those who like to look at the United States as an imperialist power and the source of all the world’s ills have enthusiastically latched onto the term ‘blowback’, without really understanding the origins of the term, what it means in a broader contemporary context or the inherent limitations on the concept which it represents. For the most part they misuse the term, applying it indiscriminately in the belief that it automatically legitimizes their hatred of the United States.
‘Blowback’ originates as a term used by the intelligence community to refer to the unintended consequences of covert operations. It’s not a complex or mysterious concept, despite the mystique which some have attached to it. The idea that actions have consequences and that we have to pay a price for some of the things we do as a nation isn’t exactly a surprising discovery. It’s a lesson you learn on the playground as a child and it remains just as true in international relations. In the intelligence community it’s a somewhat more sophisticated concept which includes not only direct negative responses, but also the unexpected byproducts of covert programs, from the emergence of the Unification Church to the booming market for mercenaries in Central American drug interdiction programs.
The popularization and dumbing down of the term began with the publication of Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback in 2000, which actually gained its greatest notoriety with a timely reprint in 2004. Johnson’s thesis boils down to the idea that the United States has developed into a global empire and that all of the problems we face with terrorism and economic sabotage and abuse of government power are a direct result of that imperial ambition and the oppressive behavior which is inherent to empires. In Johnson’s simplistic viewpoint it is our imperialist actions around the world which result in vengeful efforts to strike back at us. It’s a naive perspective which isn’t well supported by historical analysis or contemporary events, but it was very appealing to a certain audience.
Although Johnson’s book actually predates the Bush administration, the rabidly anti-Bush left latched onto it when it was reprinted and hailed it as a condemnation of Bush imperialism. Johnson has since played to that audience like so many other cloistered academics who suddenly find themselves popular. In their hands the idea of ‘blowback’ has become even more simplified to the point where it really doesn’t mean much more than simple revenge.
The common sense of the term has now become the idea that nothing bad that happens in the world is ever anyone’s fault but America’s. Their thesis is that US imperialism creates the motivation which drives terrorists to attack the US and that it is the existence of the US as an imperialist power which motivates the whole range of violence and oppression which goes on in the rest of the world. Sunnis wouldn’t kill Shiites if the US wasn’t oppressing both of them. Immigrants wouldn’t come to the US illegally if we weren’t exploiting their home countries and forcing them into poverty. Oppressive regimes exist around the world as a defensive reaction against the threat of US imperialism. People are starving in Africa because Americans eat too much. Whatever the problem, it can only be America’s fault, and as a result everyone is justified in striking back against the evil empire.
The original concept of blowback was that simple actions could produce complex and unpredictable results. The new, dumbed-down version is that all hostility towards America can be traced to the single direct cause of American imperialistic behavior. The current common usage of the term has strayed very far from the original use when it was coined by the intelligence community, yet by sticking with the same word, those who like to throw ‘blowback’ into their diatribes against the United States are hoping that the legitimacy of the term in its original context will transfer to their perverse adaptation of the idea. They often get away with this because those hearing them use the term are too ignorant to realize how fundamentally different their use of ‘blowback’ is from the original denotation.
At the heart of their flawed argument is the idea that the United States is an empire or imperialistic in any normal sense of the terms. This perception is largely generated by the fact that the US is or at lest appears to be the only remaining superpower. Never mind that a united Europe is as much a superpower in most ways as the US and never mind that Russia retains much of its potential to weild international power and forget about the enormous potential of China, the US has become identified in the minds of the left as a new ‘evil empire’ in the same way that the Soviet Union was for the west in the Cold War.
As a result, the moment the US attempts to exert itself in any way with any kind of active foreign policy, the smallest action is automatically looked on with suspicion. No matter how much good the US is trying to do, no matter how much of our blood or money we sacrifice with little hope of getting much of anything out of our efforts, whatever we do is seen as an imperialistic effort to oppress someone. Ironically, even our inaction is seen as imperialistic and likely to result in ‘blowback’. Our choice not to intervene in Darfur is blamed on the lack of opportunities to profit and create empire there. Oddly no one blames Russia or the EU or even the UN for their similar lack of interest in the suffering there.
In addition to ignoring the fact that the US is hardly the world’s only superpower, even if it’s slightly ahead in arms and economy for the time being, those who are so quick to condemn the US are also using a pretty twisted definition of imperialism. Traditionally, imperialism requires the intent to go out and conquer or annex other parts of the world and make them part of your empire. That means creating colonies or at least subject states of some sort from which you squeeze profit and resources in exchange for providing the administrative and security services of an empire.
Historically the US has been remarkably uninterested in creating anything resembling an empire. Somewhere early in our history we realized that we could get most of the benefits of empire without many of the costs and inconveniences, by making ourselves the most attractive trading partner imaginable for smaller countries around the world. With our massive consumer base we would buy their products at a fair price. We would export jobs, opportunity and education to them and thereby improve their economies. We would provide them with manufactured goods they couldn’t make themselves. At a pinch we would even step in and provide them with military protection and international diplomatic clout.
One aspect of this which most people have never understood is that our relations with other countries have almost never really been on a government to government basis. They are primarily trading and business relationships backed up by the enthusiastic support of our government. They are relationships between the people of the US and the people of those countries, relationships in which the US government was involved only as an agent of the interests of the people and our economic sector. Thus, when a local government was working against the best interests of its people and the US – trade with the US generally being in the best interests of the people of a country – we have sometimes taken steps to remove, replace or reform that government so that it will cease to be an impediment to free trade.
That kind of behavior has sometimes been mistaken for imperialism, but it’s something very different. It’s a foreign policy based on opening doors to capitalism, which to our detractors is probably even worse than actual imperialism. Imperialism they understand. Culturally and economically subverting the nations of the world so that they want to voluntarily become part of the US sphere of influence is more frightening and unacceptable than a lot of them can stand.
What the US has never done is engage in conquest and plunder. Historically when we seize land we give it back and we try to leave the country we’ve visited in better shape than when we came there. We’ve also never been interested in taking resources from other nations. We want to create situations where they give them to us in fair trade, because that creates a long-term profitable relationship which is far more beneficial to us than the short-term gain of plunder. This is why we have always rebuilt the economies of former enemies and tried to make them friends. All we gain is hostility and resentment from a destroyed and oppressed former enemy. From a rebuilt nation we get respect, trade and generations of mutual profit.
Some would argue that our current efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are a betrayal of this non-imperial tradition and the beginnings of the creation of a real empire. The irony of that accusation is that in many ways we’ve gone even more out of our way in those nations to do what we traditionally do in as unimperial a way as possible. In the old days we would have kicked out the Taliban and kicked out Saddam and quickly and conveniently replaced them with cooperative dictators who would promote capitalism and work with the US. This would have worked to the mutual benefit of our economic interests and those of the people of those nations and gotten them stable and economically productive quite quickly.
Strategic bumbling aside, the problem of the Bush administration in that part of the world has been their excess of naive liberal zeal. They’ve been far too dedicated to the idea of rebuilding those countries from the ground up not just economically but also ideologically. The emphasis on free elections and democratic government has been counterproductive and has massively slowed the rebuilding process and forced the US to remain directly involved far too long, resulting in these silly but superficially believable accusations of imperialism.
We didn’t need to give the Iraqis or Afghans a fair and democratic government. We needed to give them a stable, pro-US government which didn’t interfere with trade. All we had to do was pick the toughest tribal leader in Afghanistan and make him boss/king/president and all we had to do in Iraq was find Saddam-lite and put him in power as a kinder, gentler and friendlier but no less dominant dictator. Then we could have mostly pulled out and backed these leaders with money and military aid and let them ruthlessly put down any rebellions in ways and by methods which we’re too squeamish to use while we stood back and washed our hands of the whole business. And meanwhile the terrorists would be having their asses kicked by fellow muslims and the oil would be flowing freely.
This kind of foreign policy worked for years because it put US economic interests first and didn’t overcommit our governmental resources. It was efficient and kept the emphasis on capitalism, not democracy. What the current administration somehow managed to forget was that it is US capitalism which matters, not the political ideologies which we are used to associating with it. Their failure to put capitalism first is particularly ironic given the fact that they are a Republican administration and one which has been often accused of being overly swayed by business influences.
Despite the claims of imperialism and the confused accusations that we face ‘blowback’, what we’re really seeing in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan is the inevitable result of misguided efforts to make our traditional foreign policy less high-handed and more constructive. They’ve ‘gilded the lilly’ by taking methods which have been proven to work and junking them up with well-intentioned but counterproductive meddling. By doing so they’ve opened us up to accusations of imperialism and proven the classic axiom that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’.