Cover of Chalmers Johnson's book, <em>Blowback</em>

The following was posted in 2001.

Review of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson. Henry Holt and Company, 2000, 268 pp.

Reviewed by Mary Meehan

I happened to start reading Blowback shortly before the September 11th attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Those traumatic events give added weight to the book, which was published last year in an effort to warn Americans of coming disaster.

"Blowback," Chalmers Johnson says, is a CIA term for "the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people." He adds that 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." (Not all the operations, it should be said, have been kept secret from the American people; but many have been, and in others the true motives of government officials have been hidden or prettified.)

Since September 11th, some commentators have branded as "anti-American" those Americans who say that the Muslim world has legitimate grievances against the United States and that the September 11th attacks were retaliation against U.S. foreign policy. Instead of making personal attacks, the commentators should read Johnson's book and similar ones, check the notes and sources and--if they still disagree--debate facts and policy.

While Blowback is not primarily about Muslim complaints, it does deal with some of them, and many of its criticisms apply to U.S. foreign policy across the board.

In words written well before September 11th, Johnson briefly discusses Osama bin Laden and notes "the spiral of blowback and retaliation that is undoubtedly not yet at an end" in his case. Johnson predicts that "blowback will ultimately produce a crisis that suddenly, wrenchingly impairs or ends American's hegemonic influence." Not imagining the use of civilian airliners against huge buildings, he thought the crisis was likely to be an economic one. But now we face both severe economic problems and the likelihood of more terrorist attacks. We find ourselves in a war that may lead to more retaliation against us.

Why are we in such a terrible situation? Johnson--an Asian expert who taught at the University of California, San Diego, and now heads the Japan Policy Research Institute--says the United States, like the former Soviet Union, developed an empire of satellite countries and dependencies after World War II. As the two great powers engaged in their decades-long Cold War, they maneuvered their satellites, using them as military bases for policing actions and wars. Johnson includes Japan among the American satellites, remarking that "each and every Japanese prime minister, as soon as he comes into office, gets on an airplane and reports to Washington."

With the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the U.S. failed to dismantle its Cold-War apparatus. It kept large numbers of troops in many allied nations--troops who in many cases behaved badly and created great resentment in host nations. It continued its huge arms sales around the world, thus helping to fuel regional arms races and wars. It also kept the Central Intelligence Agency and the Special Operations Command of the Defense Department.

All of this was fuel for blowback, but there was also a new program that led to more problems. In 1991 Congress authorized a Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, which sends U.S. special-operations forces abroad for training exercises with other nations' troops. Johnson says that this program enabled Americans to offer "crucial training to the Turkish mountain commandos, who in their ongoing operations against their country's rebellious Kurdish population have killed at least twenty-two thousand people." (But aren't we trying to protect the Kurds who rebelled against Iraq's Saddam Hussein? Well, yes...This is one of many contradictions in U.S. human-rights policy that lead to charges of hypocrisy.) Johnson also notes that there were many JCET exercises with a powerful and brutal Indonesian commando unit called Kopassus.

He deals with the Mideast at several points, although not in great depth. Given September 11th, we need an entire book just on blowback from the Mideast. The book should cover the unstinting U.S. support for Israel despite its injustice to Palestinians; huge U.S. arms sales to both Israelis and Arabs; CIA meddling in the Mideast over the past 50 years; U.S. support for authoritarian rulers hated by many of their own people; the U.S. "tilt" toward Iraq that strengthened Saddam Hussein in the 1980s; and the post-Gulf War sanctions on Iraq that have contributed to the deaths of many civilians there.

Johnson's main focus is on Japan, North and South Korea and China, and he warns of potential blowback from all of those nations if the U.S. does not change its ways. Aware that many Americans do not understand widespread anti-Americanism in non-Western countries, he gives many particulars. He devotes an entire chapter to the Japanese island of Okinawa, whose people he says have "felt themselves under occupation by Japan since the seventeenth century and by the United States since 1945."

One result of the large American troop presence on Okinawa has been a long series of rapes of local women and girls. In 1995 a U.S. sailor, aided by two marines, kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old girl "just for fun." The incidence of rapes at U.S. military bases on Okinawa is twice that of the United States. Johnson adds: "And that, of course, is counting only reported rapes. In Okinawan culture it is unbearably humiliating for an adult woman to bring a charge of rape (something that the Marine Corps has often relied on in covering up its record)."

U.S. troops have also caused some horrific traffic accidents. After a 19-year-old was killed in one, his father noted that no one from the U.S. military even "attended the funeral or sent a telegram or wreath of condolence."

There are problems with noise pollution from military airfields as well as toxic pollution from jet fuel and from depleted-uranium shells fired into a nearby island. None of this helps Okinawa's chief industry, which is tourism.

Johnson denies that U.S. troops are needed in Okinawa more than 50 years after World War II. He says the U.S. sometimes argues that our troops are needed to defend Japan, and at other times that they are needed to contain Japan. One problem with the defense argument, he says, is that there has been no effort to invade Japan's main islands since Kublai Khan tried and failed over 700 years ago. As for the containment argument, he notes that the U.S. "has long pushed Japan to build up exactly the military power it is supposed to be containing." The U.S. government, he adds, "sells more advanced weapons to Japan than to any other nation or territory except Saudi Arabia and Taiwan."

Johnson has interesting things to say about China, its foreign policy concerns, and its human-rights issues. But he is not fair in suggesting that U.S. politicians are just playing to a U.S. audience when they criticize China. That may be true of some; but others are genuinely appalled by the horrific abuses there, including coercive population control.

Johnson does not deal with heavy U.S. pressures on many nations to adopt population control. This is another cause of anti-U.S. feeling and another possible source of blowback.

He writes powerfully, though, on U.S. international economic policy, contending that it has often harmed both other nations and the U.S. itself.

Determined to make Japan a capitalist showcase during the Cold War, he says, the U.S. gave it highly preferential treatment in trade, technology transfer and currency exchange--even accepting trade terms that discriminated against U.S. industry.

The United States also opened American markets to other non-communist Asian nations and territories (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines) as a way of retaining their political loyalty in the Cold War. The Japanese, as the leaders, "found this so-called flying-geese pattern appealing. They were flattered to be the lead goose and the inspiration for those that followed."

Although the system seemed to work well for a long time, Johnson says that it "produced gross overinvestment and excess capacity in East Asia, the world's largest trade deficits in the United States, and a lack of even an approximation of supply-and-demand equilibrium across the Pacific." Moreover: "Contrary to Communist analyses of how neocolonialism should work, these terms proved surprisingly costly to the imperial power. They cost American jobs, destroyed manufacturing industries, and blunted the hopes of minorities and women trying to escape from poverty."

According to Johnson, belated efforts by the U.S. to negotiate better trade terms "always collided with the security relationship" with Asian nations.

Johnson's analysis of the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s is detailed and fascinating. He blames it on a series of U.S. policies, including the "globalization" that insisted on free flow of capital across national borders and made Asian nations vulnerable to Western currency speculators. The International Monetary Fund, which Johnson calls "essentially a covert arm of the U.S. Treasury," made matters worse by demanding of troubled Asian economies "the imposition of austerity budgets and high interest rates, as well as fire sales of debt-ridden local businesses to foreign bargain hunters." The fire sales resulted in a major transfer of assets to U.S. companies, a process that Asians aptly called "vulture capitalism."

Johnson suggests that at least some of the U.S. policies were not the result of incompetence, but were intended to hurt Asian economies that had grown to be among American's strong competitors in the world economy. On the one hand, this sounds too monstrous to be true, since the Asian crisis and the related Russian and Brazilian crises did enormous harm to the countries involved and could have resulted in worldwide recession. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that U.S. policymakers could be so inept as not to understand what they were doing.

Why didn't the various crises result in an international recession? Johnson says it was "largely because the United States went on a consumption binge and provided virtually all growth in demand for the excess output of the world." He asks, "Can American 'shop till we drop' be sustained indefinitely?" and answers, "No one knows."

This is a valuable book, one that puts the confusing reports of the daily media into a perspective that makes sense. It has a message that many Americans, still outraged by the September 11th massacres, do not want to hear just now. Yet it's one they should hear in order to understand both anti-Americanism and terrorism. (See, also, Chalmers Johnson's brief update, "Blowback," The Nation, 15 Oct. 2001, 13-15.)

In response to September 11th, our government has called upon its allies to join a war on terrorism; leaned heavily on Third-World nations to join that war; and concentrated the war's first phase on Afghanistan--a poor, basket-case of a country that has suffered invasions, civil war, mining and bombing for some 20 years. We are sowing more seeds of blowback, instead of taking a close look at the policies that led to September 11th.

Review and revision of U.S. policies would not be, as some suggest, a form of anti-Americanism. Rather, it would be the kind of patriotism recommended by Carl Schurz, who was a Union general during the Civil War and later a U.S. senator: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."

Drawing back from empire, which Chalmers Johnson recommends, is very hard for a powerful nation to do; but it would be a sign of true moral greatness. Thirty-five years ago, the late Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote another powerful critique of American foreign policy, a book called The Arrogance of Power. In pressing for a more peaceful foreign policy, the senator remarked that "we, being the most powerful of nations, can afford as no one else can to be magnanimous. Or, to put it another way, disposing as we do of the greater physical power, we are properly called upon to display the greater moral power as well." A more peaceful and friendly attitude toward other nations, he suggested, "would involve, no doubt, the loss of certain glories, but that seems a price worth paying for the probable rewards, which are the happiness of America and the peace of the world."