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Engelhardt writes: "Washington created what was, in effect, a never-ending blowback machine. In those years, while the distant wars went on and on (and terrors of every imaginable sort grew in this country), the United States was transformed in a remarkable, if not yet fully graspable, fashion."

A soldier watches oil wells on fire in southern Iraq. (photo: Getty)
A soldier watches oil wells on fire in southern Iraq. (photo: Getty)

The Ultimate Blowback Universe, a Planet Boiling With Unintended Consequence

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

01 March 18


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-Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch]

The Ultimate Blowback Universe
A Planet Boiling With Unintended Consequences

ou want to see “blowback” in action? That's easy enough. All you need is a vague sense of how Google Search works. Then type into it phrases like “warmest years,” “rising sea levels,” “melting ice,” “lengthening wildfire season,” or “future climate refugees,” and you’ll find yourself immersed in the grimmest of blowback universes.  It’s a world which should give that CIA term of tradecraft a meaning even the Agency never imagined for it. 

But before I put you on this blowback planet of ours and introduce you to the blowback president presiding over it, I want to take a moment to remember Mr. Blowback himself.

And what a guy he was!  Here’s how he described himself in the last piece he wrote for TomDispatch just months before his death in November 2010: “My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her.”

He wasn’t being immodest.  He had, in many ways, seen the shape of things to come for what he never hesitated to call “the American empire,” including -- in that 2010 piece -- its decline.  As he wrote then, “Thirty-five years from now, America's official century of being top dog (1945-2045) will have come to an end; its time may, in fact, be running out right now. We are likely to begin to look ever more like a giant version of England at the end of its imperial run, as we come face to face with, if not necessarily to terms with, our aging infrastructure, declining international clout, and sagging economy.”

You know how -- if you’re of a certain age at least -- there are those moments when you go back to the books that truly mattered to you, the ones that somehow prepared you, as best anyone can be prepared, for the years to come.  One I return to regularly is his.  I’m talking about Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.

The man who wrote that was Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant and eminent scholar of modern Asian history, who would in that work characterize himself in his former life as a “spear-carrier for empire.”

Blowback was published in 2000 to next to no notice.  After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, it became a bestseller.  There was so much to learn from it, starting with the very definition of blowback, a word he brought out of the secret world for the rest of us to consider. “The term ‘blowback,’ which officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use,” he wrote, “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.”

And if “unintended consequences” isn’t a supremely appropriate title under which to write the misbegotten history of the years that followed 9/11 in the era of the self-proclaimed “sole superpower” or, as American politicians love to say, “the indispensable nation,” what is?  Of course, in the best blowback fashion, al-Qaeda's attacks of that day hit this country like literal bolts from the blue -- even the top officials of George W. Bush’s administration were stunned as they scurried for cover.  Of all Americans, they at least should have been better prepared, given the warning offered to the president only weeks earlier by that blowback center of operations, the CIA.  (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” was the title of the presidential daily brief of August 6, 2001.)

Osama bin Laden would prove to be the poster boy of blowback.  His organization, al-Qaeda, would be nurtured into existence by an all-American urge to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam, what its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, would later call its “bleeding wound,” and to do so in, of all places, Afghanistan.  In October 2001, 12 years after the Red Army limped out of that country in defeat and a decade after the Soviet Union imploded, in part thanks to that very wound, Washington would launch a “Global War on Terror.” It would be the Bush administration’s response to al-Qaeda’s supposedly inexplicable attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.  The Taliban’s Afghanistan would be its first target and so would begin America’s second Afghan War, a conflict now almost 17 years old with no end in sight.  Yet in our American world, remarkably few connections are ever made between the present war and that blowback moment against the Soviets nearly 40 years ago.  (Were he alive, Chalmers Johnson, who never ceased to make such connections, would have been grimly amused.)

Giving Imperial Overstretch New Meaning

Talk about the endless ramifications of blowback.  It was bin Laden’s genius -- for a mere $400,000 to $500,000 -- to goad Washington into spending trillions of dollars across significant parts of the Islamic world fighting conflict after conflict, all of which only seemed to create yet more rubble, terror outfits, and refugees (who, in turn, have helped fuel yet more right-wing populist movements from Europe to Donald Trump’s America). Tell me it’s not a blowback world!

As it happened, bin Laden’s 2001 attacks brought official Washington not to its knees but to its deepest post-Cold War conviction: that the world was its oyster; that, for the first time in history, a single great power potentially had it all, a shot at everything, starting with Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, then much of the rest of the Middle East, and sooner or later the whole planet.  In a post-Soviet world in which America’s leaders felt the deepest sense of triumphalism, the 9/11 attacks seemed like the ultimate insult.  Who would dream of doing such a thing to the greatest power of all of time?

In an act of pure wizardry, bin Laden drew out of Bush, Cheney, and company their deepest geopolitical fantasies about the ability of that all-powerful country and, in particular, “the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world,” the U.S. military, to dominate any situation on Earth.  The early months of 2003, when they were preparing to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, may have been their ultimate hubristic moment, in which imagining anything other than success of a historic sort, not just in that country but far beyond it, was inconceivable.

Until then, never -- except in Hollywood movies when the bad guy rubbed his hands with glee and cackled that the world was his -- had any power truly dreamed of taking it all, of ruling, or at least directing, the planet itself.  Even for a globalizing great power without rivals and wealthy almost beyond compare that would prove the ultimate in conceptual overstretch. Looking back, it’s easy enough to see that almost 17 years of ceaseless war and conflict across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and even parts of Asia, of massive destruction, of multiplying failed states, of burgeoning terror outfits, and of blowback of every sort, have given the old phrase, “biting off more than you can chew,” new geopolitical meaning.

Washington created what was, in effect, a never-ending blowback machine.  In those years, while the distant wars went on and on (and terrors of every imaginable sort grew in this country), the United States was transformed in a remarkable, if not yet fully graspable, fashion.  The national security state now reigns supreme in Washington; generals (or retired generals) are perched (however precariously) atop key parts of the civilian government; a right-wing populist, who rose to power in part on the fear of immigrants, refugees, and Islamic extremists, has his giant golden letters emblazoned on the White House (and a hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue that no diplomat or lobbyist with any sense would dare not patronize); the police have been militarized; borders have been further fortified; spy drones have been dispatched to American skies; and the surveillance of the citizenry and its communications have been made the order of the day.  Meanwhile, the latest disturbed teen, armed with a military-style AR-15 semi-automatic, has just perpetrated another in a growing list of slaughters in American schools. In response, the president, Republican politicians, and the National Rifle Association have all plugged the arming of teachers and administrators, as well as the “hardening” of schools (including the use of surveillance systems and other militarized methods of “defense”), and so have given phrases like “citadel of learning” or “bastion of education” new meaning. In these same years, various unnamed terrors and the weaponization of the most psychically distraught parts of the citizenry under the rubric of the Second Amendment and the sponsorship of the NRA, the Republican Party, and most recently Donald Trump have transformed this country into something like an armed camp.

It seems, in other words, that in setting out to take the world, in some surprising fashion this country both terrorized and conquered itself.  For that, Osama bin Laden should certainly be congratulated but so should George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and all their neoconservative pals, not to speak of David Petraeus, James Mattis, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, and a host of other generals of America’s losing wars.

Think of it this way: at what looked like the height of American power, Washington managed to give imperial overstretch a historically new meaning.  Even on a planet without other great power rivals, a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East, no less the full-scale garrisoning and policing of significant parts of the rest of the globe proved far too much for the sole superpower, no matter how technologically advanced its military or powerful and transnational its economy.  As it turned out, that urge to take everything would prove the perfect launching pad for this country's decline.

Someday (if there is such a day), this record will prove a goldmine for historians of imperial power and blowback.  And yet all of this, even the fate of this country, should be considered relatively minor matters, given the ultimate blowback to come.

Humanity Nailed to a Cross of Coal

There was, in fact, another kind of blowback underway and the American empire was clearly a player in it, too, even a major one, but hardly the only one.  Every place using fossil fuels was involved.  This form of blowback threatens not just the decline of a single great imperial power but of humanity itself, of the very environment that nurtured generation after generation of us over these thousands of years.  By definition, that makes it the worst form of blowback imaginable.

What I have in mind, of course, is climate change or global warming.  In a way, you could think of it as the story of another kind of superpower and how it launched the decline of us all.  On a planetary scale, the giant corporations (and national fuel companies) that make up global Big Energy have long been on the hunt for every imaginable reserve of fossil fuels and for ways to control and exploit them.  The oil, natural gas, and coal such outfits extracted fueled industrial society, still-spreading car cultures, and consumerism as we know it.

Over most of the years such companies were powering human development, the men who ran them and their employees had no idea that the greenhouse gasses released by the burning of fossil fuels were heating the atmosphere and the planet’s waters in potentially disastrous ways.  By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, like scientists elsewhere, those employed by ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, had become aware of the phenomenon (as would those of other energy companies).  That meant the men who ran Exxon and other major firms recognized in advance of most of the rest of us just what kind of blowback the long-term burning of oil, natural gas, and coal was going to deliver: a planet ever less fit for human habitation.

They just didn’t think those of us in the non-scientific community should know about it and so, by the 1990s, they were already doing their damnedest to hide it from us.  However, when scientists not in their employ started to publicize the new reality in a significant way, as the heads of some of the most influential and wealthiest corporations on Earth they began to invest striking sums in the fostering of a universe of think tanks, lobbyists, and politicians devoted to what became known as climate-change denial.  Between 1998 and 2014, for instance, Exxon would pump $30 million into just such think tanks and similar groups, while donating $1.87 million directly to congressional climate-change deniers. 

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize that, from its inception, this was the functional definition of the worst crime in history.  In the name of record profits and the comfortable life (as well as corporate sustainability in an unendingly fossil-fuelized world), their CEOs had no hesitation about potentially dooming the human future to a hell on Earth of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and ever more extreme weather; they gave, that is, a new, all-encompassing meaning to the term genocide.  They were prepared, if necessary, to take out the human species.

But I suspect even they couldn’t have imagined quite how successful they would be when it came to bringing the sole superpower of the post-9/11 world on board.  In a sense, the two leading forms of blowback of the twenty-first century -- the imperial and fossil-fuelized ones -- came to be focused in a single figure.  After all, it’s hard to imagine the rise to power of Donald Trump in a world in which the Bush administration had decided not to invade either Afghanistan or Iraq but to treat its “Global War on Terror” as a localized set of police actions against one international criminal and his scattered group of followers. 

As it happened, one form of blowback from the disastrous wars that were meant to create the basis for a Pax Americana planet helped to produce the conditions and fears at home that put Donald Trump in the White House. 

Or put another way, in the face of the evidence produced by essentially every knowledgeable scientist on Earth, on a planet already feeling the early and increasingly extreme results of a warming atmosphere, millions of Americans elected a man who claimed it was all a “hoax,” who was unabashedly dedicated above anything else (except perhaps his “big, fat, beautiful wall” on the Mexican border) to a fossil-fuelized American planet, and who insisted that he would run an administration that would make this country "energy dominant" again.  They elected, in other words, a representative of the very set of lobbyists, climate deniers, and politicians who had, in essence, been created by Big Energy.  Or put another way, they voted for a man who pledged to bring back the dying American coal industry and was prepared to green-light oil and natural gas pipelines of whatever sort, open the nation’s coastal waters to drilling, and lift restrictions of every kind on energy companies, while impeding the development of alternative sources of energy and other attempts to mitigate climate change.  As the ultimate President Blowback, Donald Trump promptly filled every last faintly relevant post in his administration with climate-change deniers and allies of Big Energy, while abandoning the Paris climate accord. 

In other words, President Donald Trump has dedicated himself to nailing humanity to a cross of coal.

Where's Chalmers Johnson now that we really need him?   

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower WorldHis next book, A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books), will be published in May.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse's Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. your social media marketing partner


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+26 # Moxa 2018-03-01 14:40
This is written with a historical perspective, even the parts about what Donald Trump is currently doing to our country and planet. It is as if seen from a distant historical vantage, the absolute lunacy of such machinations against life on this earth can not be missed or misunderstood. We wonder, "How is it they could not see that their imperialism would lead to their own ruin, as it has to every other imperialist nation?" Yet it is that very blindness and lack of insight, that very hubris which made this world, that now prevents it from seeing what is has become.

History repeats itself. The big difference of course, is that as things are going, there may not be any more history to recount in future.
+7 # wrknight 2018-03-02 18:46
Note: Rome, at its height, was also the "sole superpower" that had no great power rivals. And Rome was not the only superpower in history that rotted from within.
+14 # dbrize 2018-03-01 14:52
Blowback continues: from Justin Raimondo today at

"The destruction of Syria – which was carried out by the rebel-supportin g Obama administration and the Gulf states – has turned that blood-soaked land into the Balkans of the Middle East. I mean that in the pre-World War I sense – the country is a tinderbox of warring factions and their foreign sponsors waiting to explode into a much wider conflict.

Let’s take a look at the actors on the Syrian stage: the US, the Kurds, the Turks, the Turkish-backed Islamist rebels, the Israelis, the Russians, the Syrian government forces, Hezbollah, and Iran. The Turks have launched an all­-out invasion of Syria, aiming their blows against the Kurds, whom they fear and loathe, and in support of the head-chopping Islamist “rebels” formerly supported by the US – now ditched in favor of the Kurds. The Kurds, for their part, are chiefly responsible for ridding the region of ISIS, and are being heavily backed by the US. So what we have here is undeclared war between two NATO “allies”: the US and Turkey."

Global warming cannot be dealt with until our disastrous empirical foreign policies are changed and the national security state dismantled. End of story.
+15 # librarian1984 2018-03-02 08:10
And who doubts that war itself contributes to the damage. What's the carbon footprint of wars?!
+8 # dbrize 2018-03-02 10:36
Quoting librarian1984:
And who doubts that war itself contributes to the damage. What's the carbon footprint of wars?!

Well said.
+24 # chrisconno 2018-03-01 18:51
I could see this coming the day of 9/11. Everything about it was suspicious and the Bush administration seemed poised for such and open door. We are doomed by our greed that has been allowed to corrupt every part of our experimental democracy. Thank you for this piece while the thought of leaving our children something better was a pretty picture we can only regret. Wish we could have done better.
+13 # economagic 2018-03-02 06:58
The neoCON "Project for the New American Century" was certainly itching for some imperialistic fights, although their plan for a "Hundred Year Reich" showed them for the pikers and amateurs they were. Their idea of a "new Pearl Harbor" as the fuse to their plan is perhaps the best evidence that the administration at least had knowledge of the attacks and allowed them to occur.

But changes in this country in the 60 years between between the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and those in September, 2001, made it clear from the moment the attacks were publicized was that the US response would NOT be systematic and focused as its response in 1941 had been, but akin to the blinded Cyclops striking out ineffectively in all directions.

Like certain other countries, in significant ways we had become what we had given our all to defeat.
+3 # futhark 2018-03-03 23:33
Yes, I would venture to speculate that not all the negative consequences of seemingly idiotic policy decisions made subsequent and consequent to 9/11 have been "unintended". The business opportunities resulting from perpetual international turmoil and low-level warfare are just too damned attractive to be ignored by heartless profiteers. The New American Century neocCONS did not hesitate to outdo the Japanese in inflicting American casualties with their "new Pearl Harbor" and could hardly be expected to show compassion for foreign nationals.

Opportunities for profits in weapons manufacture, in supplies and construction, and in mercenary services not even imagined before 2001 have become the new reality of American politics. And most astounding of all has been their ability to manipulate the flow of information in mainstream media to accept their official narrative as gospel truth and to brand skeptics as unpatriotic fellow travelers of the "axis of evil".
+12 # sashapyle 2018-03-01 19:38
Brilliant. Scary. Sad.
+3 # Robbee 2018-03-01 19:45
The Ultimate Blowback Universe, a Planet Boiling With Unintended? Consequence, TomDispatch, 01 March 18

"It was bin Laden’s genius -- for a mere $400,000 to $500,000 -- to goad Washington into spending trillions of dollars across significant parts of the Islamic world fighting conflict after conflict, all of which only seemed to create yet more rubble, terror outfits, and refugees (who, in turn, have helped fuel yet more right-wing populist movements from Europe to Donald Trump’s America). "

it was bush2cheney"s genius to

- so mismanage intelligence services that bin laden obliterated the self-congratula tory "world trade center" of capitalism in new york city

- so misoccupy iraq that our mic and homeland insecurity are primary, permanent, growth industries, as are those of the middle east and north africa and, to some, often-lesser extent, everywhere else

- so militarized our country that it won bush2cheney another 4 years as prez

between them bush2cheney and bin laden broke open pandora's box and, if ever, closure is not foreseeable - and really, all it took, was to mismanage our intelligence services not to communicate some risk posed by 19 saudis training to fly jets

bow dickhead's tariffs threaten world economy - everything old is new again? - will dickhead's equally absurd genius win him another 4 years as prez? the kock bros are betting so!

and the risk is less dire than, just to win a 2nd term, to start any more new wars?
-45 # brycenuc 2018-03-01 20:19
Trump is a narcissist, a blow hard and a lot of bad things. But one thing he has right, perhaps completely by accident, is his stand on climate change. World history refutes in every way possible that carbon dioxide has no control over our climate.

+6 # Thomas Martin 2018-03-01 22:12
" thing he has right, perhaps completely by accident, is his stand on climate change. World history refutes in every way possible that carbon dioxide has no control over our climate" ... I don't understand - the double negatives are confusing.

+7 # economagic 2018-03-02 11:59
The person who posts as "brycenuc" has been said to have some engineering credentials, but is known to be a whacko w/r/t global warming. This latest post suggests some cognitive impairment, possibly temporary (e.g., resulting from drugs either prescribed or recreational such as alcohol).
+8 # Moxa 2018-03-01 23:09
If your last sentence is true, your second sentence is false. I'll go with the last sentence, even if it was a Freudian slip.
+2 # Caliban 2018-03-02 00:49
"World history refutes in every way possible that carbon dioxide has no control over our climate".

Say what? Clarification, please.
+18 # draypoker 2018-03-02 05:37
You keep repeating this nonsense. It doesn't become true just by repetition. The science of the effect of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere has been known since the 19th century.

Humans must develop sources of energy that do not increase the CO2 in the atmosphere. That means stopping burning oil and coal.
+3 # economagic 2018-03-02 12:01
Also natural gas and wood, especially in pellet form.
+2 # janie1893 2018-03-02 01:45
I believe that the extinction of humanity will occur in the near future. But as I ponder this unthinkable event, I realize we have created and nurtured our replacement intelligence that makes us dispensable in any case. I am using it to post this message.
+14 # Wise woman 2018-03-02 06:44
We have 8 months to begin the process of undoing the negativity of the trump administration. Without congress at his beck and call, trump will be unable to continue along the path of destruction that he seems to enjoy. If every able bodied citizen doesn't get out and vote, then we deserve to endure our endless follies. There will be suffering and losses to be sure, but the alternative is total disaster.
+2 # krazykwiltkatt 2018-03-03 17:44
I like that phrase 'pure wizardry of Bin Laden' as I well remember watching the collapse of the towers and saying to myself 'I can't believe this'. Later, 2003 I believe I read an article by a German titled 'Muslims suspend the Laws of Physics' and although I did not understand the equations he stated, I got the implications. Ah well, we are still in the wars that 9/11 conveniently started and have destroyed most of the countries that were on Unocal's list, Syria being the last. And yes, the planet is now boiling. This was predicted back in the 80's I believe. No one listened. they are still not listening. In the end that won't matter. Hopefully you have all read enough SF to prepare for this.
0 # draypoker 2018-03-04 19:28
"This was predicted back in the 80's I believe."

The 80s of the 19th century.

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