09/13/2013 07:33 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

If You Really Want to Understand Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria (and More), You Need Context. Try Blowback

The largest narrative I know is our own: the story of the American Empire (1945 to the present). A large narrative always contains a Big Idea. For me, the biggest idea being expressed in the world now is Newton's Third Law of Motion: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Just maybe not right away. Maybe later, in the form of "blowback."

"Blowback" is a phrase popularized by Chalmers Johnson (1931-2010). He wasn't a household name, so let me offer a short bio. As an undergraduate majoring in economics at Berkeley, he joined the Naval Air Reserve. After graduation in 1953, he became an ensign and was assigned to a ship based in Japan. He traveled around that country, where he saw nothing wrong with "United Nations Forces" riding in heated railroad cars while Japanese passengers rode in unheated, windowless cars in the rear. As a grad student at Berkeley, he built on his knowledge of the Far East and earned a PhD in Chinese Studies. His views were completely mainstream. He ran the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley and was, from 1967 to 1972, a consultant for the CIA. "I was a cold warrior," he recalled, decades later. "There's no doubt about that. I believed the Soviet Union was a genuine menace. I still think so."

Then his views changed.

In 2000, he published his most important book, "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire." It's largely about the effects of United States imperialism in Japan and Korea --- interesting reading if you skim, but hardly the reason to pay attention to Chalmers. What matters is the book's argument:

'Blowback' is a CIA term that means retaliation, or payback. It was first used in the after-action report on our first clandestine overthrow of a foreign government, the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, when, for the sake of the British Petroleum Company, we claimed he was a Communist when he just didn't want the British to keep stealing Iranian resources. In the report, which was finally declassified in 2000, the CIA says, "We should expect some blowback from what we have done here." This was the first model clandestine operation.

By blowback we do not mean just the unintended consequences of events. We mean unintended consequences of events that were kept secret from the American public, so that when the retaliation comes, the public has no way to put it into context.

Like, in Iran:

The CIA's fears that there might ultimately be some blowback from its egregious interference in the affairs of Iran were well founded. Installing the Shah in power brought twenty-five years of tyranny and repression to the Iranian people and elicited the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution. The staff of the American embassy in Teheran was held hostage for more than a year. This misguided "covert operation" of the US government helped convince many capable people throughout the Islamic world that the United States was an implacable enemy.

Or recall, more recently, Osama bin Laden. What motivated 9/11? "They hate our freedom," George Bush said. Hardly. Here's Johnson, writing in "Blowback" more than a year before the attack:

Osama bin Laden comes from a wealthy family of a construction empire in Saudi Arabia. He's the sort of person that you would more likely expect to see on the ski slopes of Gstaad with a Swiss girl on his arm, or as a houseguest in Kennebunkport with the first President Bush and the notorious "petroleum complex" of America. But he was insulted. He had been in Afghanistan. The base where he trained mujahideen, at Khost, the CIA built for him.

Osama bin Laden joined our call for resistance to the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and accepted our military training and equipment along with countless other mujahedeen "freedom fighters." It was only after the Russians bombed Afghanistan back into the Stone Age and suffered a Vietnam-like defeat, and we turned our backs on the death and destruction we had helped cause, that he turned against us. The last straw as far as bin Laden was concerned was that, after the Gulf War, we based "infidel" American troops in Saudi Arabia to prop up its decadent, fiercely authoritarian regime. Ever since, bin Laden has been attempting to bring the things the CIA taught him home to the teachers.

Was 9/11 "unprovoked terrorism?" Not for Chalmers Johnson. For him, it was classic blowback.

America is an empire, Johnson argues. The biggest. The last. In 2002, we had 725 bases in other countries. And then there are the bases we don't know about --- 40 percent of our military budget is secret, spent without Congressional oversight. When you have a military that big, it's inevitable that conflicts make you think of a military response; we invaded Iraq to bring "freedom" to the Iraqis, and now some speak of exporting "democracy" to Iran.

Johnson followed "Blowback" with "The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic." The last book in this trilogy, published in 2010, is "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic."

As the years go by, the argument darkens:

We are on the cusp of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire. Once a nation is started down that path, the dynamics that apply to all empires come into play --- isolation, overstretch, the uniting of forces opposed to imperialism, and bankruptcy. 'Nemesis' stalks our life as a free nation.

What would liberate us from this image of global cop?

What harm would befall the United States if we actually decided, against all odds, to close those hundreds and hundreds of bases, large and small, that we garrison around the world? What if we actually dismantled our empire, and came home? Would Genghis Khan-like hordes descend on us? Not likely. Neither a land nor a sea invasion of the U.S. is even conceivable.

Would 9/11-type attacks accelerate? It seems far likelier to me that, as our overseas profile shrank, the possibility of such attacks would shrink with it.

The message that our military has exported for the last half century --- America as a super-nation, as the exception to all rules --- has made its way around the world and has returned home. Too bad so few of us have read Chalmers Johnson. Even worse, too bad that nobody who wields power does.

[Cross-posted from]