Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empireby Chalmers Johnson
The term "blowback," invented by the CIA, refers to the unintended consequences of American actions abroad. In this incisive and controversial book, Chalmers Johnson lays out in vivid detail the dangers faced by our overextended empire, which insists on projecting its military power to every corner of the earth and using American capital and markets to force global economic integration on its own terms. From a case of rape by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa to our role in Asia's financial crisis, from our early support for Saddam Hussein to our conduct in the Balkans, Johnson reveals the ways in which our misguided policies are planting the seeds of future disaster. In a new edition that addresses recent international events from September 11 to the war in Iraq, this now classic book remains as prescient and powerful as ever.
“Blowback is expansive thinking . . . a straight-talking analysis of America's global conduct during the Cold War and since, and what we're going to pay for it.” The Nation
“Johnson is on to something . . . It is indeed a new post–Cold War ballgame, and Johnson's warning, if it were heeded in Washington, would help keep America safe from the temptation of untrammeled power.” Newsday
Read an Excerpt
Northern Italian communities had, for years, complained about lowflying American military aircraft. In February 1998, the inevitable happened. A Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler with a crew of four, one of scores of advanced American jet fighters and bombers stationed at places like Aviano, Cervia, Brindisi, and Sigonella, sliced through a ski-lift cable near the resort town of Cavalese and plunged twenty people riding in a single gondola to their deaths on the snowy slopes several hundred feet below. Although marine pilots are required to maintain an altitude of at least one thousand feet (two thousand, according to the Italian government), the plane had cut the cable at a height of 360 feet. It was traveling at 621 miles per hour when 517 miles per hour was considered the upper limit. The pilot had been performing low-level acrobatics while his copilot took pictures on videotape (which he later destroyed).
In response to outrage in Italy and calls for vigorous prosecution of those responsible, the marine pilots argued that their charts were inaccurate, that their altimeter had not worked, and that they had not consulted U.S. Air Force units permanently based in the area about local hazards. A court-martial held not in Italy but in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, exonerated everyone involved, calling it a "training accident." Soon after, President Bill Clinton apologized and promised financialcompensation to the victims, but on May 14, 1999, Congress dropped the provision for aid to the families because of opposition in the House of Representatives and from the Pentagon.1
This was hardly the only such incident in which American service personnel victimized foreign civilians in the post-Cold War world. From Germany and Turkey to Okinawa and South Korea, similar incidents have been commonas has been their usual denouement. The United States government never holds politicians or higher-ranking military officers responsible and seldom finds that more should be done beyond offering pro forma apologies and perhaps financial compensation of some, often minimal sort.
On rare occasions, as with the Italian cable cutting, when such a local tragedy rises to the level of global news, what often seems strangest to Americans is the level of national outrage elsewhere over what the U.S. media portray as, at worst, an apparently isolated incident, however tragic to those involved. Certainly, the one subject beyond discussion at such moments is the fact that, a decade after the end of the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of American troops, supplied with the world's most advanced weaponry, sometimes including nuclear arms, are stationed on over sixty-one base complexes in nineteen countries worldwide, using the Department of Defense's narrowest definition of a "major installation"; if one included every kind of installation that houses representatives of the American military, the number would rise to over eight hundred.2 There are, of course, no Italian air bases on American soil. Such a thought would be ridiculous. Nor, for that matter, are there German, Indonesian, Russian, Greek, or Japanese troops stationed on Italian soil. Italy is, moreover, a close ally of the United States, and no conceivable enemy nation endangers its shores.
All this is almost too obvious to stateand so is almost never said. It is simply not a matter for discussion, much less of debate in the land of the last imperial power. Perhaps similar thinking is second nature to any imperium. Perhaps the Romans did not find it strange to have their troops in Gaul, nor the British in South Africa. But what is unspoken isno less real, nor does it lack consequences just because it is not part of any ongoing domestic discussion.
I believe it is past time for such a discussion to begin, for Americans to consider why we have created an empirea word from which we shy awayand what the consequences of our imperial stance may be for the rest of the world and for ourselves. Not so long ago, the way we garrisoned the world could be discussed far more openly and comfortably because the explanation seemed to lie at handin the very existence of the Soviet Union and of communism. Had the Italian disaster occurred two decades earlier, it would have seemed no less a tragedy, but many Americans would have argued that, given the Cold War, such incidents were an unavoidable cost of protecting democracies like Italy against the menace of Soviet totalitarianism. With the disappearance of any military threat faintly comparable to that posed by the former Soviet Union, such "costs" have become easily avoidable. American military forces could have been withdrawn from Italy, as well as from other foreign bases, long ago. That they were not and that Washington instead is doing everything in its considerable powers to perpetuate Cold War structures, even without the Cold War's justification, places such overseas deployments in a new light. They have become striking evidence, for those who care to look, of an imperial project that the Cold War obscured. The byproducts of this project are likely to build up reservoirs of resentment against all Americanstourists, students, and businessmen, as well as members of the armed forcesthat can have lethal results.
For any empire, including an unacknowledged one, there is a kind of balance sheet that builds up over time. Military crimes, accidents, and atrocities make up only one category on the debit side of the balance sheet that the United States has been accumulating, especially since the Cold War ended. To take an example of quite a different kind of debit, consider South Korea, a longtime ally. On Christmas Eve 1997, it declared itself financially bankrupt and put its economy under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund, which is basically an institutional surrogate of the United States government. Most Americanswere surprised by the economic disasters that overtook Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia in 1997 and that then spread around the world, crippling the Russian and Brazilian economies. They could hardly imagine that the U.S. government might have had a hand in causing them, even though various American pundits and economists expressed open delight in these disasters, which threw millions of people, who had previously had hopes of achieving economic prosperity and security, into the most abysmal poverty. At worst, Americans took the economic meltdown of places like Indonesia and Brazil to mean that beneficial American-supported policies of "globalization" were workingthat we were effectively helping restructure various economies around the world so that they would look and work more like ours.
Above all, the economic crisis of 1997 was taken as evidence that our main doctrinal competitorsthe high-growth capitalist economies of East Asiawere hardly either as competitive or as successful as they imagined. In a New Year's commentary, the columnist Charles Krauthammer mused, "Our success is the success of the American capitalist model, which lies closer to the free market vision of Adam Smith than any other. Much closer, certainly, than Asia's paternalistic crony capitalism that so seduced critics of the American system during Asia's now-burst bubble."3
As the global crisis deepened, the thing our government most seemed to fear was that contracts to buy our weapons might now not be honored. That winter, Secretary of Defense William Cohen made special trips to Jakarta, Bangkok, and Seoul to cajole the governments of those countries to use increasingly scarce foreign exchange funds to pay for the American fighter jets, missiles, warships, and other hardware the Pentagon had sold them before the economic collapse. He also stopped in Tokyo to urge on a worried Japanese government a big sale not yet agreed to. He wanted Japan to invest in the theater missile defense system, or TMD, antimissile missiles that the Pentagon has been trying to get the Japanese to buy for a decade. No one knew then or knows now whether the TMD will even workin fifteen years of intercept attemptsonly a few missiles in essentially doctored tests have hit their targetsbut it is unquestionably expensive, and arms sales, both domestic and foreign, have become one of the Pentagon's most important missions.
I believe the profligate waste of our resources on irrelevant weapons systems and the Asian economic meltdown, as well as the continuous trail of military "accidents" and of terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies, are all portents of a twenty-first-century crisis in America's informal empire, an empire based on the projection of military power to every corner of the world and on the use of American capital and markets to force global economic integration on our terms, at whatever costs to others. To predict the future is an undertaking no thoughtful person would rush to embrace. What form our imperial crisis is likely to take years or even decades from now is, of course, impossible to know. But history indicates that, sooner or later, empires do reach such moments, and it seems reasonable to assume that we will not miraculously escape that fate.
What we have freed ourselves of, however, is any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe. Most Americans are probably unaware of how Washington exercises its global hegemony, since so much of this activity takes place either in relative secrecy or under comforting rubrics. Many may, as a start, find it hard to believe that our place in the world even adds up to an empire. But only when we come to see our country as both profiting from and trapped within the structures of an empire of its own making will it be possible for us to explain many elements of the world that otherwise perplex us. Without good explanations, we cannot possibly produce policies that will bring us sustained peace and prosperity in a post-Cold War world. What has gone wrong in Japan after half a century of government-guided growth under U.S. protection? Why should the emergence of a strong China be to anyone's disadvantage? Why do American policies toward human rights, weapons proliferation, terrorism, drug cartels, and the environment strike so many foreigners as the essence of hypocrisy? Should American-owned and -managed multinational firms be instruments,beneficiaries, or adversaries of United States foreign policy? Is the free flow of capital really as valuable as free trade in commodities and manufactured goods? These kinds of questions can only be answered once we begin to grasp what the United States really is.
If Washington is the headquarters of a global military-economic dominion, the answers will be very different than if we think of the United States as simply one among many sovereign nations. There is a logic to empire that differs from the logic of a nation, and acts committed in service to an empire but never acknowledged as such have a tendency to haunt the future.
The term "blowback," which officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use, is starting to circulate among students of international relations. It refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. 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.
It is now widely recognized, for example, that the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground, was retaliation for a 1986 Reagan administration aerial raid on Libya that killed President Muammar Khadaffi's stepdaughter. Some in the United States have suspected that other events can also be explained as blowback from imperial acts. For example, the epidemic of cocaine and heroin use that has afflicted American cities during the past two decades was probably fueled in part by Central and South American military officers or corrupt politicians whom the CIA or the Pentagon once trained or supported and then installed in key government positions. For example, in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the U.S. government organized a massive campaign against the socialist-oriented Sandinista government. American agents then looked the other way when the Contras, the military insurgents they had trained, made deals to sell cocaine in American cities in order to buy arms and supplies.4
If drug blowback is hard to trace to its source, bomb attacks, whetheron U.S. embassies in Africa, the World Trade Center in New York City, or an apartment complex in Saudi Arabia that housed U.S. servicemen, are another matter. One man's terrorist is, of course, another man's freedom fighter, and what U.S. officials denounce as unprovoked terrorist attacks on its innocent citizens are often meant as retaliation for previous American imperial actions. Terrorists attack innocent and undefended American targets precisely because American soldiers and sailors firing cruise missiles from ships at sea or sitting in B-52 bombers at extremely high altitudes or supporting brutal and repressive regimes from Washington seem invulnerable. As members of the Defense Science Board wrote in a 1997 report to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, "Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, the military asymmetry that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United States drives the use of transnational actors [that is, terrorists from one country attacking in another]."5
The most direct and obvious form of blowback often occurs when the victims fight back after a secret American bombing, or a U.S.-sponsored campaign of state terrorism, or a CIA-engineered overthrow of a foreign political leader. All around the world today, it is possible to see the groundwork being laid for future forms of blowback. For example, it is estimated that from the Gulf War of 1991 through 1998, the U.S.sponsored blockade of Saddam Hussein's Iraq has helped contribute to the deaths of an estimated half million Iraqi civilians due to disease, malnutrition, and inadequate medical care. President Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, takes pride in the thought that this blockade has been "unprecedented for its severity in the whole of world history." By 1999, it had still not brought down Saddam Hussein, the single-minded goal of American policy in the area, but it had ensured that surviving Iraqis were likely to hold a grudge against the American government and its citizens. At the same time, the slipping of "CIA paramilitary covert operators" onto the United Nations teams of postwar weapons inspectors in Iraq, who were charged with uncovering SaddamHussein's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, has ensured that one of the most promising experiments in nonproliferation controls has been tainted forever.6
Blowback itself can lead to more blowback, in a spiral of destructive behavior. A good illustration of this lies in the government's reaction to the August 7, 1998, bombings of American embassy buildings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, with the loss of 12 American and 212 Kenyan and Tanzanian lives and some 4,500 injured. The U.S. government promptly placed the blame on Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who had long denounced his country's rulers and their American allies. On August 20, the United States retaliated by firing 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. (One missile went four hundred miles off course and landed in Pakistan.) Both missile targets had been identified by American intelligence as enterprises or training areas associated with bin Laden or his followers. It was soon revealed, however, that the intelligence on both places had been faulty and that neither target could be connected with those who were suspected of attacking the embassies. On September 2, 1998, the U.S. secretary of defense said that he had been unaware that the plant in Khartoum made medicines, not nerve gas, when he recommended that it be attacked. He also admitted that the plant's connection to bin Laden was, at best, "indirect."7 Nonetheless, President Clinton continued to insist that he had repelled an "imminent threat to our national security," and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Sudan a "viper's nest of terrorists."
Government spokesmen continue to justify these attacks as "deterring" terrorism, even if the targets proved to be irrelevant to any damage done to facilities of the United States. In this way, future blowback possibilities are seeded into the world. The same spokesmen ignore the fact that the alleged mastermind of the embassy bombings, bin Laden, is a former protégé of the United States. When America was organizing Afghan rebels against the USSR in the 1980s, he played an important role in driving the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and only turnedagainst the United States in 1991 because he regarded the stationing of American troops in his native Saudi Arabia during and after the Persian Gulf War as a violation of his religious beliefs. Thus, the attacks on our embassies in Africa, if they were indeed his work, are an instance of blowback rather than unprovoked terrorism. Instead of bombing sites in Sudan and Afghanistan in response, the United States might better have considered reducing or removing our large-scale and provocative military presence in Saudi Arabia.
There are more effectiveand certainly less destructiveways of dealing with the threat of "terrorism" than instant military retaliation. In 1994, patient and firm negotiations finally resulted in the Sudan's turning over the terrorist known as Carlos to the French government for trial; and in September 1998, Libya finally agreed to surrender to a Dutch court the two men charged with bombing the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. The latter agreement came about through a multilateral reliance on international law and an economic embargo of Libya and so avoided the spiral of blowback and retaliation that is undoubtedly not yet at an end in the case of bin Laden.
Needless to say, blowback is not exclusively a problem faced by Americans. One has only to look at Russia and its former satellites today to see exactly how devastating imperial blowback can be. The hostage crisis of 1996-97 at the Japanese embassy in Lima, in which a handful of Peruvian revolutionaries took virtually the entire diplomatic corps hostage, was probably blowback from Japan's support for the antiguerrilla policies of President Alberto Fujimori and for the operations of Japanese multinational corporations in Peru. Israel's greatest single political problem is the daily threat of blowback from the Palestinian people and their Islamic allies because of Israeli policies of displacing Palestinians from their lands and repressing those that remain under their jurisdiction. The United States, however, is the world's most prominent target for blowback, being the world's lone imperial power, the primary source of the sort of secret and semisecret operations that shore up repressive regimes, and by far the largest seller of weapons generally.
It is typical of an imperial people to have a short memory for its lesspleasant imperial acts, but for those on the receiving end, memory can be long indeed. Among the enduring sources of blowback, for instance, are the genocidal cruelties some nations have perpetrated during wartime. Japan to this day is trying to come to grips with the consequences of its actions in China during World War II. Japanese reactionaries are still reluctant to face atrocities committed in China and Korea: the rape of Nanking, conscription of conquered women to serve as prostitutes for frontline troops, and gruesome medical experimentation on prisoners of war are but the better known of these. But given the passage of time and some payment of compensation, many Chinese would probably accept a sincere apology for these events. However, Japanese armies also terrorized and radicalized an essentially conservative peasant population and thereby helped bring the Chinese Communist Party to power, leading to thirty million deaths during the Great Leap Forward and savaging Chinese civilization during the Cultural Revolution. There are many educated Chinese who can never forgive Japan for contributing to this outcome.
Today, we know of several similar cases. In pursuing the war in Vietnam in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger ordered more bombs dropped on rural Cambodia than had been dropped on Japan during all of World War II, killing at least three-quarters of a million Cambodian peasants and helping legitimize the murderous Khmer Rouge movement under Pol Pot. In his subsequent pursuit of revenge and ideological purity Pol Pot ensured that another million and a half Cambodians, this time mainly urban dwellers, were murdered.
Americans generally think of Pol Pot as some kind of unique, selfgenerated monster and his "killing fields" as an inexplicable atavism totally divorced from civilization. But without the United States government's Vietnam-era savagery, he could never have come to power in a culture like Cambodia's, just as Mao's uneducated peasant radicals would never have gained legitimacy in a normal Chinese context without the disruption and depravity of the Japanese war. Significantly, in its calls for an international tribunal to try the remaining leaders of theKhmer Rouge for war crimes, the United States has demanded that such a court restrict its efforts to the period from 1975 to 1979that is, after the years of carpet bombing were over and before the U.S. government began to collaborate with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese Communists, who invaded Cambodia in 1978, drove the Khmer Rouge from power, and were trying to bring some stability to the country.
Even an empire cannot control the long-term effects of its policies. That is the essence of blowback. Take the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which Soviet forces directly intervened on the government side and the CIA armed and supported any and all groups willing to face the Soviet armies. Over the years the fighting turned Kabul, once a major center of Islamic culture, into a facsimile of Hiroshima after the bomb. American policies helped ensure that the Soviet Union would suffer the same kind of debilitating defeat in Afghanistan as the United States had in Vietnam. In fact, the defeat so destabilized the Soviet regime that at the end of the 1980s it collapsed. But in Afghanistan the United States also helped bring to power the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement whose policies toward women, education, justice, and economic well-being resemble not so much those of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran as those of Pol Pot's Cambodia. A group of these mujahideen, who only a few years earlier the United States had armed with ground-to-air Stinger missiles, grew bitter over American acts and policies in the Gulf War and vis-à-vis Israel. In 1993, they bombed the World Trade Center in New York and assassinated several CIA employees as they waited at a traffic light in Langley, Virginia. Four years later, on November 12, 1997, after the Virginia killer had been convicted by an American court, unknown assailants shot and killed four American accountants, unrelated in any way to the CIA, in their car in Karachi, Pakistan, in retaliation.
It is likely that U.S. covert policies have helped create similar conditions in the Congo, Guatemala, and Turkey, and that we are simply waiting for the blowback to occur. Guatemala is a particularly striking example of American imperial policies in its own "backyard." In 1954, the Eisenhower administration planned and the CIA organized andfunded a military coup that overthrew a Guatemalan president whose modest land reform policies were considered a threat to American corporations. Blowback from this led to a Marxist guerrilla insurgency in the 1980s and so to CIA- and Pentagon-supported genocide against Mayan peasants. In the spring of 1999, a report on the Guatemalan civil war from the U.N.-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification made clear that "the American training of the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques" was a "key factor" in the "genocide ... . Entire Mayan villages were attacked and burned and their inhabitants were slaughtered in an effort to deny the guerrillas protection."8 According to the commission, between 1981 and 1983 the military government of Guatemalafinanced and supported by the U.S. governmentdestroyed some four hundred Mayan villages in a campaign of genocide in which approximately two hundred thousand peasants were killed. José Pertierra, an attorney representing Jennifer Harbury, an American lawyer who spent years trying to find out what happened to her "disappeared" Guatemalan husband and supporter of the guerrillas, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, writes that the Guatemalan military officer who arrested, tortured, and murdered Bámaca was a CIA "asset" and was paid $44,000 for the information he obtained from him.9
Visiting Guatemala in March 1999, soon after the report's release, President Clinton said, "It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake ... . The United States will no longer take part in campaigns of repression."10 But on virtually the day that the president was swearing off "dirty tricks" in other people's countries, his government was reasserting its support for Turkey in its war of repression against its Kurdish minority.
The Kurds constitute fifteen million people in a Turkish population estimated at fifty-eight million. Another five million Kurds live largely within reach of Turkey's borders in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The Turks have discriminated against the Kurds for the past seventy years and have conducted an intense genocidal campaign against them since 1992, in theprocess destroying some three thousand Kurdish villages and hamlets in the backward southeastern part of the country. Former American ambassador to Croatia Peter W. Galbraith comments that "Turkey routinely jails Kurdish politicians for activities that would be protected speech in democratic countries."11 The Europeans have so far barred Turkey from the European Union because of its treatment of the Kurds. Because of its strategic location on the border of the former Soviet Union, however, Turkey was a valued American ally and NATO member during the Cold War, and the United States maintains the relationship unchanged even though the USSR has disappeared.
After Israel and Egypt, Turkey is the third-highest recipient of American military assistance. Between 1991 and 1995, the United States supplied four-fifths of Turkey's military imports, which were among the largest in the world. The U.S. government, in turn, depends on the NATO base at Incirlik, Turkey, to carry out Operation Provide Comfort, set up after the Gulf War to supply and protect Iraqi Kurds from repression by Saddam Husseinat the same time that the United States acquiesces in Turkish mistreatment of its far larger Kurdish population. One obvious reason is that communities like Stratford and Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Black Hawk and Comanche helicopters are made, depend for their economic health on continued large-scale arms sales to countries like Turkey. At the time of the Gulf War, a senior adviser to the Turkish prime minister said to John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights, "If you want to stop human rights abuses do two thingsstop IMF credits and cut off aid from the Pentagon. But don't sell the weapons and give aid and then complain about the Kurdish issue. Don't tell us about human rights while you're selling these weapons."12
The capture in February 1999 of the Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan exposed the nature of American involvement with Turkey, in this case via a CIA gambit that holds promise as a rich source of future blowback. The CIA term for this policy is "disruption," by which it means the harassment of terrorists around the world. The point is to flush them out of hiding so that cooperative police forces or secret services can then arrest and imprison them. According to John Diamond ofthe Associated Press, "The CIA keeps its role secret, and the foreign countries that actually crack down on the suspects carefully hide the U.S. role, lest they stir up trouble for themselves." There are no safeguards at all against misidentifying "suspects," and "the CIA sends no formal notice to Congress." Disruption is said to be a preemptive, offensive form of counterterrorism. Richard Clarke, President Clinton's antiterrorism czar, likes it because he can avoid "the cumbersome Congressional reporting requirements that go with CIA-directed covert operations" and because "human rights organizations would have no way of identifying a CIA role." The CIA has carried out disruption operations in at least ten countries since September 1998. In the case of Ocalan's capture, the United States "provided Turkey with critical information about Ocalan's whereabouts." This was the first time some of the details of a "disruption" campaign were made public.13
In many other countries there are milder or subtler versions of these kinds of covert manipulations that may lead to future blowback. To take but one example, the U.S. State Department recently published volume 22 of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, the official chronicle of American foreign policy, in this case devoted to relations between the United States, China, Korea, and Japan thirty-five or more years ago. Nonetheless, the government refused to declassify some 13.5 percent of the documents that should have been included in the section on Japan, particularly materials relating to military operations and U.S. bases in that country. For the first time, the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, charged by law with supervising the editing and publication of this venerable series, wrote in the Preface that volume 22 "does not constitute a 'thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions.'" The State Department, surely under instructions from the CIA and the Department of Defense, took the unusual step of holding back key documentsundoubtedly involving among other matters secret CIA payments to the conservative, long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its leading politicians, as well as the presenceof nuclear arms at American bases in Japan, fearing that their publication might result in the kind of blowback of which a poor Third World country like Guatemala would be incapable, but which Japan might well undertake.
In a sense, blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows. Although people usually know what they have sown, our national experience of blowback is seldom imagined in such terms because so much of what the managers of the American empire have sown has been kept secret. As a concept, blowback is obviously most easy to grasp in its most straightforward manifestation. The unintended consequences of American policies and acts in country X are a bomb at an American embassy in country Y or a dead American in country Z. Certainly any number of Americans have been killed in that fashion, from Catholic nuns in El Salvador to tourists in Uganda who just happened to wander into hidden imperial scenarios about which they knew nothing. But blowback, as demonstrated in this book, is hardly restricted to such reasonably straightforward examples.
From the hollowing out of key American industries due to Japan's export-led economic policies to refugee flows across our southern borders from countries where U.S.-supported repression has created genocidal conditions or where U.S.-supported economic policies have led to unbearable misery, blowback can hit in less obvious and more subtle ways and over long periods of time. It can also manifest itself domestically in ways that are often not evident, even to those who created or carried out the initial imperial policies.
Because we live in an increasingly interconnected international system, we are all, in a sense, living in a blowback world. Although the term originally applied only to the unintended consequences for Americans of American policies, there is every reason to widen its meaning. Whether, for example, any unintended consequences of the American policies that fostered and then heightened the economic collapse of Indonesia in 1997 ever blow back to the United States, the unintended consequences for Indonesians have been staggering levels of suffering, poverty, and lossof hope. Similarly, the unintended consequences of American-supported coups and bombing in Cambodia in the early 1970s were unimaginable chaos, disruption, and death for Cambodians later in the decade.
Our role in the military coup in Chile in 1973, for example, produced little blowback onto the United States itself but had lethal consequences for liberals, socialists, and innocent bystanders in Chile and elsewhere. On the nature of American policies in Chile, journalist Jon Lee Anderson reports, "The plan, according to declassified United States government documents, was to make Chile ungovernable under [elected socialist president Salvador] Allende, provoke social chaos, and bring about a military coup ... . A CIA cable outlined the objectives clearly to the station chief in Santiago: 'It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup ... . We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that United States Government and American hand be well hidden.'"14
No ordinary citizen of the United States knew anything about these machinations. The coup d'état took place on September 11, 1973, resulting in the suicide of Allende and the seizure of power by General Augusto Pinochet, whose military and civilian supporters in their seventeen years in power tortured, killed, or "disappeared" some four thousand people. Pinochet was an active collaborator in Operation Condor, a joint mission with the Argentine militarists to murder exiled dissidents in the United States, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. This is why, when Pinochet traveled to England in the autumn of 1998 for medical treatment, Spain tried to extradite him to stand trial for genocide, torture, and state terrorism against Spanish citizens. On October 16, 1998, the British police arrested Pinochet in London and held him pending his possible extradition.
Although few Americans were affected by this covert operation, people around the world now know of the American involvement and were deeply cynical when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opposed Pinochet's extradition, claiming that countries like Chile undertaking a "transition to democracy" must be allowed to guarantee immunity fromprosecution to past human rights offenders in order to "move forward."15 America's "dirty hands" make even the most well-intentioned statement about human rights or terrorism seem hypocritical in such circumstances. Even when blowback mostly strikes other peoples, it has its corrosive effects on the United States by debasing political discourse and making citizens feel duped if they should happen to take seriously what their political leaders say. This is an inevitable consequence not just of blowback but of empire itself.
What, then, of the very idea of an American empire or, for that matter, American imperialism? "Hegemony," "empire," and "imperialism" have often been used as epithets or fighting words. They lie at the heart of Marx's and, especially, Lenin's condemnation of capitalism. During the Cold War, Communists asserted that imperialism was one of the "contradictions" of capitalism and hence a root cause of class struggle, revolution, and war. However, the terms also evoke images of the Roman and British empires, as well as of the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica that were said to have accompanied them. Imperialism is further associated with the racism and exploitation that accompanied European, American, and Japanese colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and with the violent reactions to it that dominated the non-Western world in the wake of the Second World War.
In speaking of an "American empire," however, I am not using the concept in these traditional senses. I am not talking about the United States' former colony in the Philippines, or about such dependent territories as Puerto Rico; nor when I use the term "imperialism" in this book do I mean the extension of one state's legal dominion over another; nor do I even want to imply that imperialism must have primarily economic causes. The more modern empires I have in mind normally lie concealed beneath some ideological or juridical conceptcommonwealth, alliance, free world, the West, the Communist blocthat disguises the actual relationships among its members.
According to Milovan Djilas, Stalin pithily described the origin of such new empires in a conversation he had with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia in the Kremlin in April 1945 in this way: "This war is not as in the past.Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own social system as far as his army has power to do so. It cannot be otherwise."16 Imposing one's own social system is precisely what the former Soviet Union proceeded to do in the territories it occupied in Eastern Europe and what the United States did in the territories it occupied in East Asia, particularly Japan and South Korea. Over the forty years of the Cold War these original "satellites" became the cores of Soviet and American new-style empires, only one of whichthe American empirestill remains today. The nature of that remaining empire and how it has changed over time is the subject of this book.
In 1917, the Soviet Union inherited an older czarist empire in Europe and central Asia, a multinational union of peoples based on conquest and a particular civilization, similar to the former Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires. This imperial past undoubtedly colored the nature of the Soviet Union then taking shape, but in talking about the Cold War Soviet empire, I am referring mainly to the seven "people's democracies" in Eastern Europe that formed the heart of the Communist camp until its collapse in 1989: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria. Its American equivalent was not NATOWestern Europe's American-inspired and American-supported defensive reaction to the massive armies and armaments the Soviet Union had mobilized to defeat the Third Reichbut the system of satellites the United States created in East Asia. These included at one time regimes in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
Over time, and with the development of a nuclear arms race between the United States and the USSR, the two empires based on satellite regimes created after World War II expanded into much more extensive alignments based on ideology, economic interactions, technology transfers, mutual benefit, and military cooperation. For the Soviet Union this was the world that for a brief moment during the 1950s stretched from Moscow to Hanoi in the east and to Havana in the west and that even included, at least formally, China. For the United States it came to include most of the rest of the worldplaces where the United Statesassumed responsibility for maintaining some ill-defined "favorable" military environment (what the Pentagon now likes to call "stability") and where we insisted on free access for our multinational corporations and financiers (what our economists now call "globalization").
There was, I believe, far more symmetry between the postwar policies of the Soviet Union and the United States than most Americans are willing to recognize. The USSR in Eastern Europe and the United States in East Asia created their satellite systems for essentially the same reasons. In the course of the Cold War, the USSR intervened militarily to hold its empire together in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The United States intervened militarily to hold its empire together in Korea and Vietnam (where it killed a great many more people in losing than the USSR did in its two successful interventions).
The richest prize in the Soviet empire was East Germany; the richest prize in the American empire is still Japan. Today, much like East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, Japan remains a rigged economy brought into being and maintained thanks to the Cold War. Its people seem increasingly tired of the American troops stationed on their soil for the last half century and of the gray, single-party regimes that presided in Tokyo for almost all of those years. East Germany's dreary leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker can appear almost dynamic when compared to the prime ministers Japan's Liberal Democratic Party has put in office since 1955.
Just as the two satraps of the German Democratic Republic faithfully followed every order they ever received from Moscow, each and every Japanese prime minister, as soon as he comes into office, gets on an airplane and reports to Washington. And as in the former East Germany, so Japanese voters long ago discovered that as long as they continue to be allied with the United States, nothing they do ever seems to change their political system. Many ordinary Japanese have learned to avoid politics like the plague, participating only in local elections, where a surprising number vote Communist both to register a protest and because the party is competent and honest. In Japan, political idealists tend to become nihilists, not unlike their German brethren before 1989.
The Soviet Union started setting up its satellites largely because it could not compete with the largesse of the United States' Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of war-torn Europe. (This, of course, reflected a major outcome of World War II: much of the Soviet Union had been reduced to rubble, while the United States emerged unscathed.) The USSR quickly recognized that in the conflict between democracy and totalitarianism developing in postwar Europe, it was on the less popular side. In Eastern Europe it could not bring its supporters to power through the ballot box, and so it ruthlessly ousted local democrats. In a Czech coup in February 1948 and elsewhere it imported Stalinism, claiming it was merely a version of socialism.
The Soviet Union had a defensive need to secure its Western approaches. By contrast, after Japan's defeat no regime in East Asia was capable of threatening the United States itself, least of all a China devastated by war and revolution. We therefore built our system of satellites for more genuinely imperialist reasons, although the government argued that our efforts were necessary due to the natural aggression of Sino-Soviet communism and the possibility that the fall of any country, however minor, to communism would lead other countries to topple like a set of "dominoes," until the chain reaction might reach the heartland of capitalism itself.
The American decision to create satellites in East Asia followed in part from the Communist revolution in China, which meant that American plans for a new postwar international order in East Asia based on an alliance with China, its wartime ally, were no longer viable. Although unwilling to go to war against the popular forces of Chinese communism to prop up the failing Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, we reversed our policies for occupied Japan, giving up on further efforts to democratize the country and committing ourselves instead to its swift economic rehabilitation. Japan, the former implacable enemy, replaced China as America's primary East Asian ally. The U.S. government now devoted its energies to defending Japan and building it up as an East Asian alternative to the Chinese revolution. Even though we did not try to "roll back" that revolution, President Truman's decision in 1950 toorder the Seventh Fleet to defend Taiwan and police the Taiwan Strait, and General Douglas MacArthur's decision to march north to the Chinese border during the Korean War, nonetheless ensured Chinese hostility for at least two decades.
Needless to say, the United States did not consult the defeated Japanese people about these decisions or about the decision to cultivate the remnants of that country's unquestionably anti-Communist wartime establishment. Our reliance in some cases on literal war criminalsfor example, Nobusuke Kishi, former minister of munitions in Tojo's wartime cabinet, who became the country's prime minister in 1957and on a CIA-financed single-party regime were the mirror image of Soviet policies in the former German Democratic Republic. Such policies actually led to an anti-American revolt in 1960. In the largest mass demonstrations in postwar Japanese history, protesters surrounded the parliament building and demanded that lawmakers not ratify a renewal of the Japanese-American Security Treaty. The situation became so tense that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to cancel a proposed visit. (The first sitting American president ever to visit Tokyo would be Gerald Ford.) Using its rigged majority, the conservative party forced through ratification, keeping American troops in Japan, and the political system never again fully regained the trust of the public. For thirty years, the Liberal Democratic Party successfully prevented any alteration in political power and dutifully legitimated Japan's status as a satellite of the United States. Unfortunately, it did little else, leaving the actual governance of the country to the state bureaucracy, ensuring that any impulses the citizenry might have had toward self-government would atrophy. By the 1990s Japan was the world's second-richest country, but with a government remarkably similar to that of the former East Germany.
In order to support Britain, France, and Holland in the face of fears that the rest of Europe might "go Communist," the United States abandoned its wartime promises to help liberate those nations' colonies. Instead, the United States came to support or replace the former imperialists in wars intended to secure their prewar possessions. This meant that in East Asia, except in our own colony, the Philippines, we woundup on the wrong side of history. (Even in the Philippines, which we granted formal independence on July 4, 1946, we kept enormous military base complexes until the Filipinos expelled us in 1992.)
Unlike in Europe, the main Cold War conflicts in East and Southeast Asia were not between democracy and totalitarianism but between European colonialism and national independence movements. The reluctance of the main European powers to give up their colonies led to wars of national liberation in Indochina against the French, in Malaya against the British, and in Indonesia against the Dutch, in all of which the United States supported the side of imperialism. The Dutch were finally driven from Indonesia; the British, after a decade-long war, finally acquiesced in Malaya's independence, followed by its becoming two independent countries, Malaysia and Singapore. After the French were defeated militarily in Vietnam, the United States fought an incredibly bloody and prolonged conflict before it, too, was forced to abandon its imperial role there. The United States also supported a long counterinsurgency struggle in the Philippines against a guerrilla movement that considered the postindependence Filipino government a creature of the Americans. Only after our defeat in Vietnam did we begin to adjust to the idea that East Asia was different from Europe. Nixon's opening to China was the first sign that some understanding of East Asian history was finally starting to penetrate Washington minds.
The problem for the United States was that national Communist parties had filled a leadership vacuum in colonial East Asia. To prevent much of that region, possibly even Japan, from coming under the influence of nationalistic Communist parties, the U.S. government from time to time used the sort of brutal methods to which the USSR had resorted in Eastern Europe to hang on to its sphere of influence. The clearest example of this was the role it played in South Korea after 1945, a history that has been almost totally suppressed in the United States.
South Korea has been occupied by American forces virtually continuously since the end of World War II. It was the scene of the most important armed conflict of the early Cold War years, the place where the United States and China fought each other to a standstill and frozerelations with each other for two decades. Thanks to the United States and the Soviet Union, which in 1945 divided the country for their own convenience, a half century later Korea remains the last place on earth whose borders are determined by where the armies of World War II stopped. South Korea's rise during the 1960s as a "miracle economy" and its spectacular financial collapse of 1997 were directly related to its status as a satellite of the United States.
South Korea was the first place in the postwar world where the Americans set up a dictatorial government. With the exception of its authoritarian president, Syngman Rhee, it consisted largely of former Korean collaborators with the Japanese colonialists. Despite opposition from the Korean people, America's need for a staunchly anti-Communist regime took precedence, given the occupation of North Korea by the USSR. In 1960, after Koreans searching for democracy overthrew Rhee, the U.S. government threw its support behind Park Chung-hee, the first of three army generals who would rule from 1961 to 1993. The Americans tolerated a coup d'état by General Chun Doo-hwan in 1979 and covertly supported his orders that led to the killing of several hundred, maybe several thousand, Korean civilians at Kwangju in 1980 (probably far more people than the Chinese Communists killed in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989). In order to keep South Korea firmly under its control, during the 1980s the Americans sent as successive ambassadors two senior officials of the Central Intelligence Agency, James Lilly and Donald Gregg. Nowhere else did the United States so openly turn over diplomatic relations to representatives of its main clandestine services organization.
South Korea is today probably closer to a genuine parliamentary democracy than any country in East Asia, but no thanks to the American State Department, the Pentagon, or the CIA. It was the Korean people themselves, particularly the students of the country's leading universities, who through demonstrations and street confrontations in 1987 finally brought a measure of democracy to their country. After the democratically elected government of Kim Young-sam took office in 1993, President Kim felt sufficiently secure to put the two surviving dictators,Chun and Roh Tae Woo, on trial. They were convicted of state terrorism, sedition, and corruption. The American press gave the trials only the most minimal coverage, while the U.S. government ignored them as a purely internal Korean affair.
The rule of Syngman Rhee and the U.S.-backed generals was merely the first instance in East Asia of the American sponsorship of dictators. The list is long, but it deserves reiteration simply because many in the United States fail to remember (if they ever knew) what East Asians cannot help but regard as a major part of our postwar legacy. U.S.sponsored Asian dictators include:
• Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan. (Taiwan started to democratize only in the 1980s after the Carter administration had broken relations with it.)
• Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (brought down by Corazon Aquino and her People Power movement after Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush had hailed him as a democrat).
• Ngo Dinh Diem (assassinated on American orders), General Nguyen Khanh, General Nguyen Cao Ky, and General Nguyen Van Thieu in Vietnam.
• General Lon Nol in Cambodia.
• Marshals Pibul Songgram, Sarit Thanarat, Praphas Charusathien, and Thanom Kittikachorn in Thailand (where they were essentially caretakers for the huge American air bases at Udorn, Takli, Korat, and Ubon).
• General Suharto in Indonesia (brought to power with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency and overthrown with the help of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency).
Several others had careers too brief or obscure to remember clearly (for example, General Phoumi Nosavan in Laos). These men belong tothe same category of petty tyrants that the former Soviet Union used to staff its satellites in Eastern Europe from 1948 to 1989 (although the Russians usually chose obedient members of the local Communist Party apparatus over militarists).
The U.S. government used economics, as well as authoritarian regimes, as a tool of empire building. Our most effective, nonmilitary policies in East Asia were to trade access to our markets for East Asian toleration of the indefinite billeting of our soldiers, aircraft, and ships in their countries. Admittedly, following the Vietnam War, the United States briefly toyed with the idea of letting its empire in East Asia go. President Jimmy Carter explored withdrawing our troops from South Korea, particularly since North and South Korea were at that point nearly indistinguishable in terms of human rights abuses and Staliniststyle development policies. But he was forestalled in 1979 by the assassination of the South Korean dictator, General Park Chung-hee, and by his inability politically to cast off one satellite just as another one, Iran, was in open rebellion against the United States. When, in the final days of the Carter administration, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up its own puppets there, any talk of giving up our empire evaporated.
During the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War, the parallelism between the policies of the United States and the USSR continued but with a new geographical focus. Both sought to shore up or establish puppet regimes in territories that were on their borders or in adjacent regions that had long been claimed as spheres of influence. The USSR was preoccupied with Afghanistan; the United States, with Central America. Both superpowers utilized the rhetoric of the Cold War to justify their aggressive actions against much smaller statesanticapitalism for the USSR in Afghanistan, anticommunism for the United States in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, and the island of Grenadaeven though capitalism in Afghanistan and communism in Central America were both essentially absurd ideas. Propaganda apparatuses in the United States and the USSR effectively disguised from their own peoples the true roots of revolt in both regionsa religious revival inAfghanistan, opposition to oligarchies that had long fronted for American corporations in Central America.
President Reagan and his CIA director, William Casey, claimed they were trying to halt the erosion of the "free world" in the wake of the Vietnam War. Whether this was truly their strategy or merely political rhetoric has never been clear, but what could not be clearer was that, in 1981, the United States launched Vietnam-style operations in Central America and put large sums of money, often covertly raised, into supporting an insurgency against a Sandinista government in Nicaragua sympathetic to Castro's Cuba. At the same time, superpower detente, arms control talks, and Sino-American rapprochement virtually eliminated any real threat of war between hostile camps in Europe or East Asia. While the American demonization of Castro's Cuba ratcheted upward and the government argued vociferously that Cuban-inspired insurgencies were the hemisphere's greatest threat, the Cold War was already essentially over. The superpowers continued it only as propaganda cover for their respective neighborhood imperialisms.
It is not necessary to detail here the many American covert operations in Latin America. Americans supported a series of activities that ranged from the widespread use of paramilitary death squads in countries like El Salvador to military-directed genocidal campaigns in Guatemala, seriously compromising American rhetoric about human rights for the rest of the century. Similar largely covert operations continued throughout the 1980s and probably still continue. Although the CIA has done everything in its power to hide the American hand in these imperial policing actions, a pattern has developed in the revelation of Americansponsored atrocities and their ensuing blowback. An American regional newspaperthe Baltimore Sun in the case of Honduran death squads, the San Jose Mercury News in the case of the cocaine trade of our Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, the "Contras"publishes a report based on the research of its staff reporters. The report offers evidence that an agency of the United States condoned war crimes against civilians in Central America and lied to Congress when asked about it or turned a deaf ear to evidence that "assets" under our control were engaged in activitiessuch as drug smuggling that were extremely deleterious to the welfare of Americans. The establishment pressthe Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Los Angeles Timesthen accuses the regional paper of sloppy journalism; the publisher of the regional paper apologizes and fires the reporters who filed the story.
Meanwhile, the CIA orders its inspector general to investigate the charges. He duly releases a report saying that not a shred of evidence can be found in the official files to support the story. Months or even years later, a research organization, such as the National Security Archive at George Washington University, discovers that there was a second internal report by the inspector general. The second report still disputes the newspaper account but also acknowledges that the substance of its charges was accurate. As the CIA's internal response to the Baltimore Sun's report put it in the gingerly and euphemistic language of imperialism, "CIA reporting to Congress in the early 1980s underestimated Honduran involvement in abuses."17
The United States now faces an agenda of problems that simply would not exist except for the imperial commitments and activities, open and covert, that accompanied the Cold War. The most common government argument for such continued imperialist activism in the wake of that half-century-long superpower confrontation is still a version of the old "domino theory," discredited during the Vietnam War: America's armed forces and covert warriorsfor the sake of the world's goodhave no choice but to hold off "instability" wherever it may threaten. The Department of Defense's East Asia Strategy Report of 1998 explains the one hundred thousand troops "forward deployed" in Okinawa and South Korea as necessary to maintain "stability" in the region. But instability, a nebulous concept at best, is the normal state of affairs in an international system of sovereign states. Instability as such does not threaten the security of the United States, particularly when there is no superpower rival eager to exploit it.
Actual military intervention in brutal civil wars or civil strife in places like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo has been justified as "deterrence by example." Even though the United States may have no obvious orvital interest in the outcome of ethnic, religious, or internecine struggles in such places, advocates of military activism argue that it is a good thing for us to intervene because it shows allies and adversaries alike that we will not be "bullied" or "blackmailed." Such interventions, it is thought, will cause others to respect our power and authorityand hesitate to plunge into similar bloody strife in their own areas. But deterrence by example does not work. As foreign policy analyst Barbara Conry puts it, "The aborted U.S. intervention in Haiti ... is not going to lead to a rash of military dictatorships any more than strong American responses to Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein deterred Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic from pursuing his aims in Bosnia."18
Not only are such military interventions often ineffective, but the use of military force in the name of democracy or human rights regularly makes a mockery of these very principles. More serious yet, an injudicious intervention can create threats where none existed before, as was the case in Truman's intervention in the Chinese civil war and in General MacArthur's menacing of China's borders during the Korean War.
Thirty years ago the international relations theorist Ronald Steel noted, "Unlike Rome, we have not exploited our empire. On the contrary, our empire has exploited us, making enormous drains on our resources and energies."19 Our economic relations with our East Asian satellites have, for example, hollowed out our domestic manufacturing industries and led us into a reliance on finance capitalism, whose appearance has in the past been a sign of a hitherto healthy economy entering decline. An analogous situation literally wrecked the former USSR. While fighting a losing war in Afghanistan and competing with the United States to develop ever more advanced "strategic weaponry," it could no longer withstand pent-up desires in Eastern Europe for independence.
The historian Paul Kennedy has dubbed this condition "imperial overstretch." In an analysis of the United States in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he wrote that it too
cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power that occupies the "number one" position in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategic realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation's perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain these commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point, it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of the ever-shifting patterns of global production. This test of American abilities will be the greater because it, like Imperial Spain around 1600 or the British Empire around 1900, is the inheritor of a vast array of strategical 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.20
I do not believe that America's "vast array of strategical commitments" were made in past decades largely as the result of attempts to exploit other nations for economic gain or simply to dominate them politically and militarily. Although the United States has in the past engaged in imperialist exploitation of other nations, particularly in Latin America, it has also tried in various ways to liquidate many such commitments. The roots of American "imperial overstretch" today are not the same as those of past empires. Instead they more closely resemble those that brought down the Soviet Union.
Many Americans do not care to see their country's acts, policies, or situations compared with the Soviet Union's; some condemn such a comparison because it commits the alleged fallacy of "moral equivalence." They insist that America's values and institutions are vastly more humane than those of Stalin's Russia. I agree. Throughout the years of the Cold War, the United States remained a functioning democracy, with rights for its citizens unimaginable in the Soviet context (even if its more recent maintenance of the world's largest prison population suggests that it should be cautious in criticizing other nations' systems ofcriminal justice). Comparisons between the United States and the former Soviet Union are useful, however, because those two hegemons developed in tandem, challenging each other militarily, economically, and ideologically. In the long run, it may turn out that, like two scorpions in a bottle, they succeeded in stinging each other to death. The roots of both modern empires lay in World War II and in their subsequent contest to control the forces that the war unleashed. A stress on the costs of the Cold War to the United States also draws attention to the legacies of that struggle. America's role as the planet's "lone superpower"as leader of the peace-loving nations and patron of such institutions as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organizationis made much more difficult by the nature of the harvest we continue to reap for imprudent, often secret operations undertaken in the past.
The most important of our Cold War legacies may be in East Asia. The wealth of that region today has fundamentally altered the world balance of power. Starting with Japan, many East Asian countries adapted to the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War years and took advantage of its conditions to engineer their own self-sustaining economic growth. Even though the high-speed economic growth of some countries in the area stalled or even collapsed with the economic crisis of 1997, that in no way alters the basic shift in manufacturing's global center of gravity to East Asia.
The American political and intellectual establishments remain mystified by and hostile to the economic achievements of Asians, just as the Soviet establishment remained mystified by and hostile to the economic achievements of Anglo-American and Western European capitalism. It is time to realize, however, that the real dangers to America today come not from the newly rich people of East Asia but from our own ideological rigidity, our deep-seated belief in our own propaganda. As sociologists Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver warn, "There are no credible aggressive new powers that can provoke the breakdown of the U.S.centered world system, but the United States has even greater capabilities than Britain did a century ago to convert its declining hegemony into an exploitative domination. If the system eventually breaks down,it will be primarily because of U.S. resistance to adjustment and accommodation. And conversely, U.S. adjustment and accommodation to the rising economic power of the East Asian region is an essential condition for a non-catastrophic transition to a new world order."21
The United States today desperately needs a new analysis of its role in a post-Cold War world and of the sorts of policies that might prevent another major war, like its last three, in East Asia. Some of the significant changes to come in East Asia are already visible: China's increasing attempt to emulate high-growth economies elsewhere in Asia; the reunification of Korea; Japan's need to overcome its political paralysis; America's confusion over how to adjust to a self-confident China and to a more independent Japan; the growing importance of Southeast Asia as a new economic center of gravity. American policy making needs to be taken away from military planners and military-minded civilians, including those in the White House, who today dominate Washington policy making toward the area. American ambassadors and diplomats in Asia should have at least an elementary knowledge of East Asian history, languages, and aspirations. The United States desperately needs options for dealing with crises other than relying on the carrier task force, cruise missiles, and the unfettered flow of capital, just as it needs to overcome the complacency and arrogance that characterize American official attitudes toward Asia today.
Terrorism by definition strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable. The innocent of the twenty-first century are going to harvest unexpected blowback disasters from the imperialist escapades of recent decades. Although most Americans may be largely ignorant of what was, and still is, being done in their names, all are likely to pay a steep priceindividually and collectivelyfor their nation's continued efforts to dominate the global scene. Before the damage of heedless triumphalist acts and the triumphalist rhetoric and propaganda that goes with them becomes irreversible, it is important to open a new discussion of our global role during and after the Cold War. There is no place more appropriate to begin a reconsideration of America's imperial policies than with American behavior in East Asia.
Copyright © 2000 by Chalmers Johnson
Meet the Author
Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times and The Nation. Author of the forthcoming The Sorrows of Empire, and numerous books on Japan and Asia, including MITI and the Japanese Miracle and Japan: Who Governs?, he lives in southern California.
Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, is the author of the bestselling books Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis, which make up his Blowback Trilogy. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the London Review of Books, Harper's Magazine, The Nation, and TomDispatch.com.
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