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
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
You implied that this type of terrorist warfare seems to
be the warfare of the future. I assume that you would expect to
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
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.