Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Book review: Blowback, by Chalmers Johnson

Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson (2000)

Johnson, an American economist and East Asia specialist of some repute (co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute, did consulting for the CIA on Maoist China) wrote this book well before the events of September 11th, 2001. Although recognized when it was first published, it quickly shot up the bestseller lists during the "War on Terror", most likely because Johnson saw something like 9/11 coming.

"Blowback" is a term used by the intelligence community to describe unintended consequences of covert operations. Because the general public is kept in the dark about covert operations, when violent consequences result, the public is generally surprised and believes the aggression was without cause. Being so uninformed, the general public feels they have been unfairly targeted by freedom-hating evil-doers, not understanding that their government has ravaged the homeland of the evil-doers through economic or military imperialism and a severe disregard for the native culture.

Writing in very accesible style, Johnson makes his points with clarity and vigor. He largely confines the discussion to areas of his expertise: East Asia and economics. Johnson begins with the tale of US military bases in Okinawa. Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has maintained a military presence in Japan, ostensibly to keep the Soviet Union and Maoist China in check and to prevent the spread of communism into the rest of East Asia (see Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations to see how well that worked during the Cold War). The vast majority of US bases in Japan are based on the island of Okinawa, which was an independent nation until its occupation by Meiji Japan in the late 19th century. It was the site of perhaps the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific War, and after spilling the blood of thousands of Marines on its soil, the US military never left. However, the arranged marriage between the Okinawans and US military personnel was hardly harmonious. Johnson relates a series of offenses perpetuated by US servicemen, starting with the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl in 1995 by three military personnel, and moving on to pollution, deadly traffic accidents, violence, land appropriation, extraterritoriality, and overall cultural insensitivity.

In subsequent chapters, Johnson relates American support for East Asian dictators throughout the Cold War and afterwards, noting examples of the CIA undermining democratically-elected governments in favour of compliant strongmen.

Johnson's thesis is that since the end of the Cold War, with their enemy defeated and the reason for supporting military bases, covert operations and brutal dictators around the world gone, US foreign policy now has the goal of transforming the economies of all other nations into mirrors of its own. Not accepting the possibility that Japanese or Korean capitalism might be organized differently than American capitalism, the US uses the World Bank and the IMF to force "globalization" (ie, Americanization) on foreign markets. Also, in the post-Cold War world, the US relies more and more on military and economic dominance to get its way, while diplomacy is tossed aside (clearly the foreign policy of the current Bush administration is almost the culmination of Johnson's fears).

Essentially, Johnson feels that this is naught but American imperialism. American foreign policy no longer seeks to contain Soviet influence, so it must manufacture new reasons to justify military bases around the world, and economic and political interference in every other nation's affairs. These justifications are forcing the rest of the world into the American economic system, and policing the world against "rogue states" (Axis of Evil, anyone?), whose ability to actually threaten American power is practically non-existent. (Lest I sound heartless, there could be 10 more 9/11s, and America would still be the lone superpower. Far less stable governments have endured far more.) Pre-9/11, you would have added the threat of China to that list, even though China has little military capability beyond its own borders (though extensive economic influence through Chinese expatriate communities in East Asia) and likely little desire to exercise military might: history shows China only seems to be concerned with territory it believes it has historical claims to--Taiwan and Tibet, and not much else. And yet, there is threat exaggeration. Whether motivated by greed on the part of the military-industrial complex, or some kind of messianic idealism on the part of American foreign policy, Johnson feels this is imperial overstretch, and there's no way the United States can continue on this trajectory without serious blowback (and not just violently, but economically or diplomatically as well).