What Goes Around…

INTERVIEW: Blowback author Chalmers Johnson

Jeff Shaw

Chalmers Johnson saw the September 11 catastrophe coming. A renowned Asia specialist and founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute, Johnson is the author of more than a dozen books about world politics. His 2000 book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, argued that U.S. interventionist foreign policy and military overextension would lead to unintended and unpredictable consequences. A year later, his warning seems eerily prescient.

Johnson spoke with In These Times on September 13.

Is what happened on September 11 an example of blowback?
Of course it is. That’s exactly what my book was written for: It was a warning to my fellow Americans, a year ago, that our foreign policy was going to produce something like this. It’s important to stress, contrary to what people in Washington and the media are saying, that this was not an attack on the United States: This was an attack on American foreign policy. It was an example of the strategies of the weak against the overwhelmingly powerful.

Osama bin Laden has been named the primary suspect in these attacks. In the first chapter of Blowback, you talk about earlier American attacks on Osama bin Laden as an example of a spiral of destructive behavior.”
I heard Sen. John McCain say this morning that the people of Afghanistan have nothing to worry about if they would just turn over Osama bin Laden and cooperate with us. … Where was he during the 80s, when we and the Soviet Union were destroying Afghanistan? Our efforts were to hire people like bin Laden to come from Saudi Arabia and help give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-like experience.

Don’t get me wrong. Everyone understands that the people of New York, the people of Washington, the people on the airplanes were innocent bystandersand that is the nature of this kind of warfare. Our Department of Defense invented the phrase collateral damage” to deal with the dead Iraqis and the dead Serbs as a result of our bombings of their countries. … I know it sounds cruel to say, but the people of New York were collateral damage of American foreign policy. It was inevitable that something like this would come back. 

You implied that this type of terrorist warfare seems to be the warfare of the future. I assume that you would expect to see more?
No nation can hope to beat the United States on American terms. Therefore you must devise a strategy that essentially makes our overwhelming military capability worthless. I think they have managed to do so. 

People in Washington are continually talking about declaring warbut declaring war on whom? They don’t know. If they are going to go out and attack Afghanistan, it will simply produce a further cycle of blowback and retaliation. In the meantime, it will also even further inflame the entire Middle East. 

If not military force, what could be effective against this type of terrorist warfare?
What we need to find out is, what are we doing that is provoking this? Is there any flexibility in our policy? Couldn’t we alter our policies somewhat? Couldn’t we make it our business to try to stay out of fratricidal and hate-laden conflicts? And then, to the extent that we are still the victim of terrorismwhich we always will bethen we need a much greater analytic effort to defend ourselves against that. And that would not be impossible to do.

Clearly, what happened on September 11 was an almost catastrophic failure of intelligence by extremely expensive agencies that do not do anything. And so far, the American reaction seems to be to target the Bill of Rights more than anything else. Retaliation is not the answer. It hasn’t worked for Israel, it has only exacerbated the situation. It won’t work for us. 

Is it possible that blowback may take place internally as well as externally?
The greatest danger we have now is militarism in America. We have this huge, overpowering, unbelievably expensive military establishment. It is something from the days of Washington’s farewell address to Eisenhower’s invention of the phrase military-industrial complex” that seasoned U.S. leaders have warned againstthe threat of a huge military establishment to the liberty of our citizens. 

I fear that from this we are going to get even more militarism. That is, more and more functionsincluding domestic police functionswill be transferred from civilian institutions to the military, and the military will have ever greater authority in our society. We know how that will end. We’re talking here about imperial overstretch, and the weaknesses of the imperial structure that will ultimately lead to a collapse.

Often in times of crisis, there are opportunities. Might this be an opportunity for the American public to look itself in the mirror?
It is possible that we could have a genuine popular reaction. I’m not totally pessimistic. It is perfectly possible we will have a demand from the public that foreign policy becomes important again. If this attack is an attack on our foreign policy, as I believe it is, we should be looking much harder at what our foreign policy is. If the United States is now going to go out and bomb some innocent people in Afghanistan who have already gone through two decades of living hellmost of it sponsored by our government and that of the other erstwhile superpower, the former Soviet Union. Then you must say, we deserve what we’re going to get.

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