Asia-Pacific

Terrorism...or Merely "Blowback"?

The Central Intelligence Agency uses a curious word when terrorists strike at the United States: “blowback.” That occurs when U.S. foreign policy enrages its opponents so much that they strike back at the U.S. heartland with devastating violence.

The stupefying demolition of the World Trade Center and a section of the Pentagon last week represents a form of blowback against America’s Middle East policy. It was directed by Islamic terrorists aggrieved by America’s support for Israel and emboldened by their former close ties to the CIA, which had funded them in the early 1980s to undermine the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The Bush administration is now putting together an international coalition to crush Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the bombings. No one would want to downplay the need of our American friends to bring justice to the terrorists and their backers. Yet, rather than engaging in a global orgy of violence against Muslim peoples, President George W. Bush should consider a diplomatic solution.

A big push to solve the Palestine-Israel issue would go a lot further to remove the threat of Islamic terrorism than a massive and unjust reprisal. If the United States starts killing innocents in the Middle East as part of its new global anti-terrorist policy, there is no guarantee the attacks will stop in the United States or not extend to a country like Australia.

That factor is probably weighing on the minds of the U.S. leadership, which has been waffling for months over the merits of missile defense when it should have been looking at the risks of blowback from its Middle East policy.

If the United States pressured Israel to provide some justice to the Palestinians, even Islamic fanatics like Osama bin Laden would come under pressure from other Muslims to modify their actions.

Chalmers Johnson, a renowned American political scientist, has published a book on how blowback was generated by the vast array of U.S. global interests, which he called America’s informal empire [Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, Holt Metropolitan Books, 2000.—WPR] He said: “[Blowback] 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.”As an example of blowback, Johnson cited the blowing up of the Pan Am jet over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988. That bombing, he said, was a revenge attack for former President Ronald Reagan’s decision to bomb Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 1986.

Johnson also warned that the conditions for blowback were being laid by America’s Middle East policy, citing in particular the longstanding sanctions against Iraq, which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.

At the time, Johnson’s views on blowback were ignored. They were regarded as paranoid and polemical. After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, they seem like common sense.

George W. Bush’s father pushed for a peace deal in the Middle East after the end of the Cold War and the war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. His son should do the same. Osama bin Laden and the odious Taliban should be brought to justice if they committed the atrocity. But the United States must realize that the terrorist attacks were not the work of apolitical types.

That Osama bin Laden and his buddies are upset with the United States in no way justifies the horrible crime, but it serves as a clue to the long-term diplomatic policy the United States should adopt as a solution. Arab terrorists hate America for a variety of reasons. Their main grudge is that Washington supplies Israel with the arms and moral support to attack Palestinians and steal their land.

The Bush administration has largely turned a blind eye to Israel’s current policy of officially assassinating its Palestinian enemies and has not taken an active role in brokering a peace deal. In retrospect that was a serious mistake.

It contrasts with former President Bill Clinton’s bold move to bring Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak to the peace table at Camp David last year, when a peace deal that would have given back to Palestinians more than 90 percent of the West Bank was nearly sealed.

The activities of Bin Laden represent blowback in another sense of the word. His group knows the Americans and their working methods. This former closeness has given them the confidence in staging a major attack in the United States. They don’t believe the United States is willing to sacrifice their own people for political causes.

One thing that will hold America back from finding a just and diplomatic solution to the problem is that the American people are to a large extent kept in the dark about the impact of their foreign policy.

American television coverage of the terrorist actions seemed sound enough on the basic facts, but there was very little to answer the underlying question as to why anyone would plan and execute such violence. As far as a lot of American commentators were concerned, the culprits were just a bunch of irrational maniacs striking out at a “perceived” enemy. The U.S. media and the Bush administration have a responsibility to educate their public about what might be driving Islamic terrorism. That political naïveté is characteristic of America, where foreign policy is often dressed up in fancy ethical guise. As Johnson put it in his book, “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. 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.”

Americans will support violent retribution, but will they look to the deeper causes?

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