Home / Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback – The Costs and Consequences of American Empire: Is America in Decline?

Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback – The Costs and Consequences of American Empire: Is America in Decline?

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One of the enduring myths sedulously cultivated by apologists of American foreign policy is that America, the land of the free and the brave, is besieged by malevolent foreign powers. In the realm of pure thought unsullied by empiric evidence the lone superpower bravely battles rogue states to prevent free societies from nuclear extinction. As Michael Howard, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford says, “For 200 years the United States has preserved almost unsullied the original ideals of the enlightenment: the belief in the God-given rights of the individual, the inherent rights of free assembly and free speech, the blessings of free enterprise, the perfectibility of man, and, above all, the universality of these values”.
But is the record of the ‘defender of freedom’ in contemporary history unblemished? “Two hundred years (of US history) is illustrated by a century of literal human slavery,” writes Chomsky in Deterring Democracy, “and effective disenfranchisement of Blacks for another century, genocidal assaults on native population, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos at the turn of the century, of millions of Indochinese, of some 200,000 Central Americans in the past decade.”

Since September 11, criticism of the Empire has attained respectability. The word Empire has appeared in mainstream newspapers and books critical of American foreign Policy have been resurrected. One such book is Blowback, written by Chalmers Johnson. Interestingly, this book, which was written during the year 1998-99, received little attention in the mainstream press. Philip Zelikowin, a former member of the National Security staff of President Bush Senior, dismissed Blowback as a comic book. The terrorist attack on the WTC changed all that and the book was reprinted seven times in less than two months.

Unintended Negative Consequences

Johnson, who is the president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and professor emeritus at the University of California, views the events of September 11 not with hysteria but with scholarly detachment. “The suicidal assassins of September 11, 2001, did not attack America,” he writes in his preface, “as political and news media in the United States have tried to maintain; they attacked American Foreign Policy. Employing the strategy of the weak, they killed innocent bystanders who became enemies only because they (assassins) had already become victims.” With refreshing candour he admits, “Many aspects of what the American government had done abroad virtually invited retaliatory attacks from nations and peoples who had been victimized.”

Recent events only confirm this. The massive bombing of Afghanistan which the US launched on October 7, 2001, killed many innocent people and inflicted untold misery on men women and children of an already war torn country. The deployment of overwhelming military force on the peasants of Vietnam in the recent decades and military action in Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Serbia and Kosovo only produce ‘unintended negative consequences throughout the Islamic and underdeveloped worlds.’

The casual arrogance with which President Clinton ordered the firing of nearly eighty cruise missiles (at a cost of $750,000 each) into a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, and an old mujahideen camp site in Afghanistan is another instance of its imperial hauteur. The military response was in retaliation to the bombings of American embassy buildings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The grudging admission of error in intelligence reports came on September 2, 1998, when the US secretary of defense said he was unaware that the plant made medicines and not nerve gas. The fact that the plant made affordable medicines for the poor people of Sudan went largely unnoticed in the US media. No word of sympathy was uttered by Clinton who justified the military action on the ground of repelling ‘imminent threat to our national security’.

Clinton’s abrasive secretary of state Madeline Albright made matters worse by her tactless remark that Sudan was a viper’s nest of terrorists. In the streets of Sudan tempers ran high and street protesters waved placards accusing Clinton of diverting public opinion from his sexual misadventures with his White House subordinate. The memories of injustice linger on and the image of an arrogant superpower using disproportionate military force on small defenseless countries evokes moral outrage among the victims. The situation is ripe for terrorist attacks on the Empire leading to the endless cycle of violence and retaliation.

Johnson explains that the word "blowback" was coined by the CIA. The word was originally used in poison gas warfare "to refer to the likelihood of battlefield gasses blowing back on the forces that have released them." In its political sense it first appeared in a CIA post-action report on the secret overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953. The CIA helped to install the brutal regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi who ruled Iran with an iron hand for twenty-five years. The overthrow of the Shah regime by the Islamic clerics and the persistent anti –American sentiments in the region are rooted in recent history.

In CIA argot, blowback simply means the ‘unintended and unexpected consequences of covert operations of the CIA which have been kept secret from the American public and, in most cases, from the elected representatives.’ Such covert operations are illegal, ill conceived and short term aimed at overthrowing foreign governments or helping launch state terrorist operations against target populations.

The Soviet Afghan War

One example that comes to mind is the American involvement in the Soviet Afghan war. The official version has it that US helped the mujahideen after the Russians invaded Afghanistan in Dec 24, 1979. If the memoirs of Robert Gates, former CIA Director (From the Shadow: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War) are to be believed, then a different picture emerges. It was on July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to be given to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, i.e., six months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The French weekly magazine Nouvel Observateur pursued this extraordinary story. The weekly interviewed Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who confirmed Gates' account. The Nouvel Observateur put the following question to Brzezinski: "You don’t regret any of this today?" Brzezinski replied, "Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want to regret it?" The Nouvel Observateur posed another question to Brzezinski. "And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which had given arms and advice to future terrorists?" Brzezinski disdainfully answered, "What is more important in world history? The Taliban or collapse of the Soviet empire?"

What was hidden from the American public is the loss of 1.8 million Afghan lives, some 2.6 million refugees and ten million land mines left in Afghanistan as a result of US secret operation. The bombing of the WTC on 9/11 was a blowback from the same organisation, which US helped to build in Afghanistan.

Deadly Skills

What is concealed from the American public is that the US government trains the police/military of repressive regimes. In 1991, the US Congress passed a law authorising Joint Combined Exchange Training Programme (JCET). Though the law permitted the Special Forces to have overseas joint military exercises with foreign governments to train US soldiers, in actuality, the US Special forces are engaged in espionage activities. Under the guise of military exercises the Special Forces collect extensive information about the whole range of military capability of the foreign country they visit.

The Special Forces also train repressive foreign regimes friendly to US interests in lethal skills such as advance sniper techniques, psychological warfare, close quarters combat, torture techniques to elicit confessions from suspects. Evidence is slowly emerging that the Turkish Mountain Commandos were trained by the Special Forces who used the skills against the rebellious Kurdish population killing at least twenty-two thousand of them. According to the manual entitled Doctrine for Special Forces Operations the main activity of the Special Forces is to give foreign military units instructions in Foreign Internal Defense (FID). The disastrous impact of such training programmes were felt in nineteen countries of Latin America, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Rwanda, to name a few.

A Muscle-Bound Crackpot

Tom Plate, a columnist for the Los Angles Times, once described United States as "a muscle bound crackpot with little more than cruise missiles for brains.” US media glorify the warrior roles and justify the use of military force in world affairs. The reported statement of Madeleine Albright best exemplifies this: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are an indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.” Echoing his concern Johnson observes, “In the decade following the end of the cold war, the US largely abandoned a reliance on diplomacy, economic aid, international law, and multilateral institutions in carrying out its foreign policies and resorted much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation.”

In pursuit of its imperial dreams US maintains its elaborate military bases all over the world. Its military expenditure dwarfs imagination. Conservative estimate places the US military expenditure in the region of four hundred billion dollars a year. According to Brookings Institution study, it costs US $5.5 trillion to build and maintain its nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon Industrial Complex sets its own agenda and it has a voracious appetite for more and more resources. The military system has become an autonomous system. With corporate interests permeating the military, the civilian control over the military is at best tenuous. Policymaking is dominated by militarism, ‘a vast array of customs, interests, prestige, actions, and thought associated with armies and wars and yet transcending true military purpose’ which is the defense of its realm.

Negative Economic Policies

The economic policies dictated by imperial ambition expose the US to blowback. The classic example of this is its relationship with East Asian client states. In the case of Japan, in order to further its cold war strategy of proving to the world that free market capitalism is the only mode of economic development, the US ‘treated Japan as a beloved ward, indulging its every economic need and proudly patronising it as a star pupil.’ The US used its influence to admit Japan into many International Institutions. The US transferred its crucial technology to Japan on concessionary terms and opened its markets to Japanese goods while tolerating Japan’s protection of its domestic market. This led to the hollowing out of key American Industries such as steel, consumer electronics, robotics, automotive, camera, and semi-conductor industries. This suicidal economic policy was also continued as a trade off to maintain US military bases in Japan. The long-term impact was that soon the American industries became uncompetitive vis-à-vis Japanese industries.

With the huge US export market made available to them, Japan, becoming a five trillion-dollar economy, pursued an aggressive export led growth. It followed its own brand of state guided capitalism steering clear of market capitalism and the command economy of the Soviets. Increasingly, it expanded its production capacity. What was hidden from economic planners was that Japan generated industrial over capacity that threatened the health of the economy. The over capacity reached crisis point when other Asian countries such as South Korea, Hong-Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, emulated the fast catch up strategy of Japan. ‘There were too many factories,’ writes Johnson, ‘turning out athletic shoes, automobiles, television sets, semi-conductors, petrochemicals, steel and ships for too few buyers.’ The ripple effect of the over capacity is the increased competition between American and European MNC. This has resulted in corporations cutting costs by transferring the high paid jobs from the advanced economy to low wage developing countries. The global demand is on the verge of collapse, as rich countries do not generate demand on account of market saturation or stagnant or falling income of its people. In countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia the workers who earn low wages cannot buy the goods produced by them.

In East Asian economies financial capitalism spearheaded by the US played an important role in destabilising the economies. US played an aggressive role in making the East Asian economies to deregulate the capital market. The Wall Street Treasury Complex thrust the concept of capital mobility upon the East Asian countries. The nature of money pumped into the economy of South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Philippines was hot money. The financial inflows were short term, speculative, highly liquid and could easily leave the economy. The US accumulated vast funds (around 3 trillion dollars) especially in the mutual funds. These pools of capital were invested and transferred out of the Asian economies. The result was catastrophic: East Asian economies collapsed. Big American companies bought factories and businesses for a song. Proctor & Gamble picked up several South Korean state of art Companies at a fraction of the price.

In Thailand, American Investment  firms bought service, steel, and energy companies at throw away prices. The Carlyle Group sent Bush senior to Bangkok to evaluate opportunities to buy real estate at low prices. The economic meltdown resulted in the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world. The smoldering anger of East Asians against US predatory capitalism is a potential source of retaliatory strikes against US interests in the region.

There are worrying signs that the US is not able to pay for its huge military deployments and its military adventurism. The US uses its political clout to cajole its satellite countries to pay for its wars. For instance, Japan paid $13 billion to the US for the first gulf war against Iraq. According to Michael Hudson, author of Super Imperialism, the ballooning US balance of payments deficit is financed by the central banks of the world, which plough back the surplus dollars to buy  US Treasury bonds. Blinded by its overwhelming military power the Empire hurtles relentlessly towards the future in pursuit of its hegemonic goals. Its inept elected representatives have surrendered their judgment to a cabal of unelected military experts.

The unraveling of the Empire would have the same inevitability of a Greek tragedy: the hamartia of an inflexible empire bereft of adjustment and compromise colliding against the forces of blowback and imperial overstretch. The danger of the US alienating Europe, Russia East Asia and China politically cannot be ruled out.  The threat of the dollars not flowing back into the American economy is a real possibility. The scenario is dangerous for the US economy as it may financially implode if foreign investment dries up.

Imperial Overstretch

“The two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power,” wrote Paul Kennedy in his magisterial survey The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, “whether in the military /strategical realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments; and whether it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of ever-shifting patterns of production.” Kennedy holds the view that this test of American abilities will be greater because it, like imperial Spain around 1600 or the British Empire around 1900, is the inheritor of a vast array of strategic commitments which had been made decades earlier when the nation’s political, economic, and military capacity to influence world affairs seemed so much more assured. ‘The United States now runs the risk of what might roughly called “imperial overstretch”: that is to say, decision-makers in Washington must face the awkward and enduring fact that the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligation are far larger than the country’s power to defend them simultaneously.’

Johnson believes that America is in a state of decline. The signs are there for all to see: increasing estrangement between the population and their government, loss of moral authority among the elite, the appearance of militarism and the separation of military from the society it is supposed to serve. He quotes with approval David Calleo, professor of international politics, ‘The international system breaks down not only because unbalanced and aggressive new powers seek to dominate their neighbors, but also because declining powers, rather than adjusting and accommodating, try to cement their slipping preeminence into exploitative hegemony.’

Has the bell then begun to toll for the behemoth? Johnson answers the question with scholarly sang froid: “The danger I foresee is that we are embarked on the same path as the former Soviet Union a decade ago. It collapsed for three reasons — internal economic contradictions, imperial overstretch, and an inability to reform. The United States has always been richer so it might take us longer for similar afflictions to do their work. But it is nowhere written that the United States, in its guise as an empire dominating the world, must go on for ever.” Prophetic words?

Only time will tell.

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About Socrates

  • I have to think that the main shortcoming of your thesis is that despite the appearance of imperialism, the US is not and has never been an empire, and as a nation has no real desire to do the things which empires do, such as dominating or colonizing other nations.

    You seem to be laboring under the restrictions of terminology and paradigms of the 19th century while attempting to examine relationships between modern nations which aren’t easily pigeonholed by concepts like ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’.

    Good case in point is the assumption you repeat that the ’empire’ is characterized by overwhelming military power, when that’s certainly not true of the US. What we see demonstrated in Iraq today is how inadequate our military capabilities are to dominate even a relatively small area and disorganized enemies. When compared to real ‘imperial’ powers the amount the US spends on its military and the size of that military are insignificant.


  • Dave, firstly, if it walks, talks, and quacks like a duck, it doesn’t matter whether it has an identity crisis. There’s no basis to believe imperialism died with the 19th or the 20th century. Why then did the United States appoint a pro-consul as their first act after the invasion and conquest of Iraq?

    Secondly, I’m not sure if you’ve read Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope, but in the very beginning, he talks about how civilizations move from an Age of Expansion to an Age of Conflict, characterized by a declining rate of growth and expansion, growing tensions and class conflicts, and frequent and violent imperialist wars. That sounds pretty much like the social dynamic of the United States in particular in the world today. He goes on to analyze why the Universal American Empire is a near certainty, and its eventual decay.

    The longevity of empires is much reduced, as has been pointed out elsewhere, and you seem to prove the point by your description of the difficulty of maintaining even the semblance of imperial rule in Iraq.

    Incidentally. there is a regional imperial power with greater longevity who seems to be only too ready to step into the American vacuum, but that’s another story.

  • Zharkov

    The viewpoint of the author is entirely one-sided, Leftist, and distorted. For example, he repeats the old Leftwing canard: “In countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia the workers who earn low wages cannot buy the goods produced by them”, yet this hasn’t been true for years. Chinese workers are buying cars, homes, and other consumer products at a record rate, and although the pay scales may be somewhat lower than the U.S., the prices of their goods are also lower.

    He fails to criticize the utter depravity of 9/11, an attack without any particular purpose other than to terrorize New York City, and he suggests it’s the moral equivalent of righteous “blowback” from the poor and oppressed, yet nobody believes Saudi Arabia was poor, nor was Osama bin Ladin ever “oppressed”. The Saudi citizens who went to flight school could certainly afford it and the airline tickets required to hijack the airliners.

    What is true is that the USA has sacrificed a large portion of its industrial base to help other countries bring their living standards higher and move them into a modern age. If the resistance to moving 7th century living standards into the 21nd century is “blowback”, then perhaps it is one of those things necessary to advance the human race.

    Some criticisms are justified, and the Soviet army could have been allowed to remain in Afghanistan undisturbed as it ultimately made no difference whether they won or lost there, when collapse of the Soviet state was inevitable. What did make a difference was that guerrilla warfare methods had been taught to America’s future enemies. The CIA made many mistakes and misjudgements in dealing with the Islamic revolution because it failed to understand it, and many of those mistakes have caused American fatalities, so critical comments are merited, yet there must remain the criticism of Islam that it remains a deadly religion that results in genocide against Christians, Buddists, Hindus, and others, wherever Islam has been allowed to spread.

    The Islamic revolution is not a result of empire but developed as the result of a lack of empire when the British and French withdrew from the middle east region, and to say it is “blowback” is the ultimate in disinformation.

  • socrates

    Dear Zharkov,
    we do not advance a debate if we call a viewpoint ‘entirely one-sided, Leftist, and distorted.’By calling your response a extreme right-wing view of a neocon I do not advance the cause of rational debate either.So let me respond to the issues raised by you.

    “In countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia the workers who earn low wages cannot buy the goods produced by them” ‘yet this hasn’t been true for years. Chinese workers are buying cars, homes, and other consumer products at a record rate, and although the pay scales may be somewhat lower than the U.S., the prices of their goods are also lower.’

    You appear to have missed the main point of the argument that shipping high wage jobs to low wage economies is beneficial to US corporations in the short term but it also replaces high wage consumers with low wage consumers. The paradox is that by job losses in US & Europe leading to loss of purchasing power in middle and lower class of consumers is not made good in countries where the consumers have poor pay.If there is compression of demand in Rich countries on account of job losses the economy gets into a tailspin of depression. The ripple effect on low cost economies would be that outsourcing would slow down and cripple the low cost economy. As things stand US is the consumer of last resort and if things go wrong there countries like China and India would also be in trouble.For the world economy to be stable the corporations in US and Europe would have to ship jobs overseas with the same pay as workers in US and Europe(a silly thing to do from the perspective of corporations).

    The terrorist attack of 9/11 may be an act of depravity but does not tell you the reasons.The flawed foreign policy of supporting and aiding the repressive Saudi ruling elites produces anger in the Middle East. Foisting of tin pot dictators elsewhere does not help US in making friends but produces angry people who would like to hurt US by acts of terrorism.Incidently, the Saudi terrorists were not poor but angry people.

    If US sacrificed its Industrial base by favoring Japan, it was not for altrusitic reasons. The primary reason was to show the world that Japan was a star pupil of capitalism. To serve the interests of cold war and to prove that communism/ socialism would never succeed Japan was propped up post II world war,for which US paid a heavy price.

    And your last comment’The Islamic revolution is not a result of empire but developed as the result of a lack of empire when the British and French withdrew from the middle east region, and to say it is “blowback” is the ultimate in disinformation.’ You are assuming that the British & French Empires were civilising influences, an assumption which betrays an elementary knowledge of history.

    Islam does not have the monopoly of violence in history.In the blood splattered pages of history Christanity does have its share of intolerence and violence too.

  • socrates

    Dear Dave,
    Thank you for your comments.

    Post cold war, US has relied less on diplomacy and more on military force and financial manipulation when it came to foreign policy. She maintains military bases all over the world and her military budget for the year 2007 was raised to a total of US$ 532.8 Billion.

    According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2003 the United States spent approximately 47% of the world’s total military spending of US$9106 billion.

    In view of the staggering military expenditure,it would be extremely naive to say that US does not have hagemonic in