The Costs of Being Boss

Chalmers Johnson reviews the ill effects of misguided U.S. foreign policy.

"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 price--individually and collectively--for their nation's continued efforts to dominate the global scene." -- Chalmers Johnson

On September 11, 1973, a coup d'etat funded and orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Chile. In light of last year's events occurring on the same date, an interesting contrast might be established between the cynicism which permeates the corridors of power the world over (most notably among policy analysts in Washington, D.C., and the Pentagon) and the civilians who, in one form or another, bear the burden of pursuing profit and power at any cost.

More than 25 years later, in October 1998, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opposed the extradition of Augusto Pinochet--the general whose dictatorship in Chile was owed entirely to the tactical military support of American covert operations--to Spain where he would stand trial on charges of torturing, murdering and "disappearing" citizens of that country. Few Americans were fully informed about the hidden nature of United States' support for that repressive regime and, therefore, had little context in which to understand news of Spanish legal intrigues or American reasons for stonewalling them.

In Blowback, Chalmers Johnson explores the remunerative costs of decades of foreign policy machinations that have too often utilized covert operations to achieve its ends. The title of the book is a CIA-coined phrase referring to retributive actions undertaken by foreign actors in response to secret U.S. policies since the end of World War II. These include such seemingly disparate subjects as the loss of the manufacturing base in the United States, the rise of the "miracle" economies of East Asia in the 1980s and their following collapse along with the Brazilian and Mexican economies in the 1990s, and the roots of the al-Qaida network in Saudi Arabia.

This book is a timely introduction to the concept of American empire: a rigid ideological hegemony with satellite countries spread over the globe. This collection of employee states was ostensibly created as a bulwark against communism but, in the years since the fall of the U.S.S.R., has subsequently been maintained and expanded for the express purpose of enriching trans-national companies whose profit margin prospers in asymmetrical relationship to real social and economic progress for the world's majority. These arms dealers, weapons manufacturers, extractive industries and finance capitalists are the primary architects, and beneficiaries, of "globalization" as we know it today.

Published in 2000, Johnson's book predicted continued attacks by Osama bin Laden and cited numerous other areas of foreign policy ripe for fostering blowback. These include the bombing of the Chinese embassy during the Bosnian intervention, the housing of more than 100,000 troops in Japan (primarily in Okinawa where the rape of Okinawan girls and women has continued unabated since 1945, despite the presence of 55,000 prostitutes for the express "enjoyment" of U.S. servicemen), and the enormous military and fiscal support of Israel and Turkey despite their questionable records on human rights abuses.

Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, whose doctoral dissertation charted the communist revolution in China, has special insights into the ramifications of Japanese colonialism in that country.

The phrase "in light of the tragic events of September 11th" has become a thematic opening in the mass media to discussion of American foreign policy since the terrorist acts of last year. It is an easy sign that the opinions or reportage to follow will clarify the happenings of the day and render the implications somehow comprehensible. After such beginnings, one would hope to find a retroactive appraisal of relevant regional events that might be acknowledged as underlying this tragedy. Instead, there appears to be a unanimous sentiment that the hijackings emerged from a causal void. Thus, depictions of the terrorists as men without reason, fanatical and blind to the reality of the modern world, can be disseminated with little critical reflection on U.S. policy. Chalmers Johnson's work can begin to remedy the deleterious effects of mass media's derogatory treatment of truth and manipulation of history.

To the citizens of Chile in the early 1970s, the actions of the CIA were inarguably terrorist ones. The revelations of involvement by the highest levels of U.S. government and military officials in the sale of illegal drugs in American cities strips most legitimacy from the $1.3 billion Plan Columbia package doled out to the military of that country. The continued existence of the recently renamed School of the Americas stands as a highly visible symbol of hypocrisy by most Latin American citizenry, as being the base where the U.S. trained and supported corrupt, anti-democratic and viciously violent military and paramilitary forces within their countries. As Johnson argues, the policies pursued by the United States in the decade-plus since the end of the Cold War have ensured that discontented peoples the world over have reason to strike back at the "world's sole superpower." He points out that acts of vengeance must necessarily take the form of so-called terrorist acts due to the impossibility of overt aggressions against such an overwhelmingly superior military entity.

Johnson's book is lucid and thankfully free of the fetters of academic writing. In 10 succinct chapters, he provides a compelling overview of how the United States came to empire status and what that means in a post-Cold War global scene. The picture isn't idyllic; especially in light of this ill-conceived war in the Middle East, the continued marketing of theater missile defense systems, Star Wars and newer and deadlier weapons technologies, this book is an antidote to the a-historical nature of modern news-punditry.

History is murdered everyday in America, there is no yesterday outside of tonight's headlines and this death-by-ignorance represents our collective failing. Yet we remain, to some degree, innocent, because much like the employees of Enron or members of our armed forces, America's citizens have not been privy to a fuller understanding of empire. As the tragic events of September 11 (both of them) have shown, it is incumbent upon us to become informed of what our government is doing, for we are the ones who will pay the price for their secrets.