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Blowback and the Sorrows of Empire: Interview with Chalmers Johnson
Chalmers Johnson is a professor of political science and has taught at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. He founded and is currently president of the Japan Policy Research Institute in Cardiff California. He is the author of many books on Japan as well as two books on U.S. imperialism. His first, Blowback, spoke of coming retaliation for past U.S. intervention in all corners of the world and was released only a year and a half before September 11, 2001. His second, The Sorrows of Empire, revolves around militarism in the United States.
DALFORNO: Shortly after September 11, the dialogue began about why anyone might hate us enough to carry out these atrocities. Would you explain the term blowback, and the part it may have played on September 11?
JOHNSON: Blowback is CIA jargon. It means the unintended consequences of American covert actions abroad against foreign governments that were kept secret from the American public. It was a term first used by the CIA in a report on the overthrow of the government of Mohammed Mossadeq, the prime minister of Iran in 1953, basically to serve the interests of the British Petroleum Company. It was instead put out that Iran and the government of Mossadeq was Communist dominated, which was not true and was absurd.
In the report, the CIA said we are likely to see some blowback from this operation and that this retaliation may take the form of terrorist attacks. Terrorism involves attacks on the innocent in order to draw attention to the crimes of the invulnerablethe president, his advisors, and his private armythe CIA. When the innocents are attacked, they have no context, they have no sense of cause and effect, and it does lead to questions such as, Why do they hate us?
Having written a great deal on American covert operations and proxy wars, do you have insider sources for this type of information?
I dont want to claim special knowledge, but I do have some. Between 1967 and 1973 I was a consultant to the office of national estimates of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was an old system that Kissinger and Schlesinger broke, but it existed from the early days of the Cold War. The CIA brought in about 20 outside experts, gave them very high security clearances and allowed them to read everything they wrote to test whether there was an internal house bias. The problem with intelligence estimates is that you can always be misled by some preordained idea, some theory, and some expectation. Intelligence estimates are based on three things: past behaviors, current capabilities, and intentions. Intentions are the hardest things to estimate.
The experience gave me some insight into how information is never neutral. Its probably an error in the National Security Act of 1947 that created the Central Intelligence Agency, which was the misconception that you could produce information for the president that would be totally objective. The information is important to vital interests, such as interests of the military industrial complex, and bureaucratic interests within the armed forces. Of course, they look for information that they want to hear and they try to disprove or suppress information they dont want to hear. It happens all the time and it requires a great deal of scrutiny and attention on the part of the president and his advisors to test and confront the information they are getting.
Moreover, there was real competition because the Department of Defense was about to create its own intelligence agency. They were largely getting their information from unbelievably suspect sources that the CIA had already denounced.
Ahmed Chalabi, who heads an Iraqi group in exile, was quite clearly inventing the intelligence that he thought the Pentagon wanted to hear. How do I know this? The most obvious reason is the difference between what we were told before the war with Iraq, and what we know today. There is such a huge discrepancy. We were told by the president that we were in acute danger of a mad lunatic in Iraq who possessed weapons of mass destruction. He spoke of drones that could be flown from Iraq to the United States. This is absurd once you start thinking about it; how would the drone even get across the Iraqi border.
The secretary of state may have destroyed any credibility he may have as a result of his performance at the United Nations on February 5, 2003. He came in pretending he was Adlai Stevenson in 1961 showing the famous U-2 pictures of Soviet missiles in Cuba that led to the confrontation with the Soviet Union. He seats George Tenet immediately behind him, so that any picture you take you see the director of the CIA. He never once winced as he listened to things that the secretary of state said what he knew were outright liesto a world audience on television in every country, not just the United States. He talked about 6,500 tons of VX nerve gas. No, it hasnt been buried or anything else, thats something youd find. Youd find it pretty damn fast, given how fast we invaded the country.
I know what classified data looks like and Ill tell you the chief reason its classified is that it is so banal and is usually classified to protect somebodys bureaucratic interests against somebody elses bureaucratic interests in our own government, not from some enemy who is trying to uncover our secrets. Secrets actually need not be classified. Genuine secrets are simply closely held by prudent people. Its not the stuff that comes out in the mountainous piles of junk that is called classified information.
Many still believe that military service is an honorable undertaking. What would you say to a young person joining the military today?
I believe that they are misled into believing they are performing an honorable function by the United States playing an Imperial role. It is not combat to sit 20 miles off shore in a cruiser and fire a cruise missile into a poor country like Afghanistan. Most of the commanders in the Iraq War were located 300 miles from the front, in the city of Qatar, sitting in air-conditioned tents looking at cathode-ray tubes and giving their orders. This is a very peculiar kind of warfare and one of the things it doesnt include is combat. What it does include is slaughter of the innocent. The Geneva Treaty on war crimes says specifically that you do not attack civilians. The United States has been systematically attacking civilians since high altitude bombardment began in WWII.
In Blowback, you speak of the massive amount of influence held by the military. Explain the role of the military today.
The military are perhaps the most important institution in our society. The entire intelligence budget and 40 percent of the defense budget is secret. It makes it impossible for Congresspeople, U.S. citizens, anybody to make informed decisions on foreign policies when the most elemental information is unavailablecontrary to an article of the Constitution, which says, Annually, the American public must be given a full accounting of how their tax dollars are spent. That has not been true since the Manhattan project, since the building of the atom bombs during World War II. Right now, in our budget devoted to international affairs, 93 percent goes to the Pentagon, 7 percent goes to the State Department. Our military has 1.4 million people, with a huge apparatus of camp followers, dependents, and Department of Defense civilians spread all over the world from Iceland to Japan. I dont see the need for it. Above all I know that the United States is never going to need a total mobilization again that would actually draw upon the citizens to defend the country.
We now have something we recently created called the Northern Command, which is a large military command located in the United States. It is very powerful, very influential and, more or less, unconstrained by the Congress.
what you believe to be the Sorrows of Empire.
I think four sorrows inevitably accompany our current path. First is endless war. The vice president has spoken of 50 countries he would like to invade. The president has spoken of 60 he would like to invade. That is a long record. Second is the loss of constitutional freedoms as we know them. As it stands right now, since 9/11, Articles 4 and 6 of the Bill of Rights are dead letters. They are over. You are not secure from searches in your home and your private life. Habeas Corpusthe demand that government must spell out charges against you if they arrest you, they must give you the right to defend yourself, have an attorney help you prepare your defense, let you see the evidence offered against youdoesnt apply right now if the president exercises his totally arbitrary powers to declare you an enemy on his say so. If you are either an enemy combatant, or another phrase he likes to use, a bad guy, he could put you in a federal prison and throw away the key. The third thing is a tremendous rise in lying and deceit.
That is what we have been talking about here in the case of the Iraq war. The difficulty to believe anything that the government says any longer because they are now systematically lying to us on almost every issue. The fourth is bankruptcy. Attempting to dominate the world militarily is a very expensive proposition. The United States may be the worlds largest military power, but it is assuredly not rich enough to do what it is claiming to do. The British Empire on the eve of the World War I had a trade surplus running at 7 percent of the GDP. The United States, for the last 15 years, has had trade deficits running at 5 percent every year. We are on the edge. If the rest of the world decides not to cooperate with us or just the rich people of East Asia decide the Euro is a better currency to put their money in than the dollar, we become a junkyard almost at once. The stock exchange would collapse and we would have a howling recession. All four of those things are likely to prevail.
If we were having this conversation in 1985 and I said to you, the other super power, the Soviet Union, is going to disappear. Youd think I was not very reliable. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Why? The Soviet Union was brought down by three things. The first was ideologically driven economic contradictions that made their domestic institutions almost impossible to reform. They had an overly rigid interpretation of Marxism and Leninism. Do we have that in the United States? Thats Enron, thats Anderson, thats World Com, thats Tyco. Ten, twenty years ago a chief executive officer in an American company maybe made fifty to seventy times more than the lowest ranking employee in his firm. Today, the number is around 450 times. There is no explanation for it except for outright theft.
Second, imperial overstretch. We have been doing it too long, we have too many commitments, too may places that simply sap our resources. That is why I keep citing that the Department of Defense, with every incentive to disguise what it is doing in its annual reports, acknowledges 725 American military installations in other peoples countries. I send my students to Korea to study at Yonsei University. Young men write back that if you are a young man in Seoul today, the very first thing you must do is grow a ponytail. Make sure you look like a hippie, not like you belong to the Second Infantry Division. If you wear shined shoes and something that looks vaguely like a military hair cut and you come up on the street and meet three young Korean men, they will just beat the living crap out of you with great thrill. They dont like having these military-looking foreigners in their country anymore than we would like a couple of Turkish military divisions located in downtown San Diego. That is imperial overstretch.
The third is the inability to reform. I think it is quite easy to imagine the defeat of George Bush as president. I do not find it easy at all that any successor to George Bush would make any difference. I believe he would, like Gorbachev dealing with the vested interests built up over the Cold War in the Soviet Union, run into the military industrial complex. The Pentagon, the intelligence services, people who have been living off the warfare state so long, would do anything in their power to stop him and probably would succeed. As a historian of national relations of the Soviet Union, I understand that the CIA devoted $28 billion to study the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1980s, they never noticed that the place was collapsing economically. This is the greatest waste of money that I can imagine.
Once the Soviet Union disappeared, we started to get these neo-conservative characters in our government today who are talking about how we are the new Rome. We are not constrained by anything, by anybody, by international law, by the United Nations. We dont need allies. The Europeans were never going to unite until they had something to unite against. They do now, it is the United States. It is hard to believe that France is the leader of the free world. The English have no, they are out of it.
One could imagine a different outcome. A resurrection of democratic reformist thought in America that causes people to take back Congress and turn it into a general elected body of representatives of the people. One could imagine that the anti-war and the anti-globalization movement could continue to grow and becomes a mass movement that stops the war machine. I think that it is a utopian thought, though it has gone much further than anyone could have logically predicted, say 10 years ago.
One of the important things that led to my work in these two books was that I was a cold warrior. I believed that the Soviet Union was a genuine menace. I was truly flabbergasted and still am that when the menace of the Soviet Union disappeared, the United States didnt disarm. We instead did everything in our power to shore up the Cold War system. We had to find a substitute for the Soviet Union to excuse our military spending and our Roman pretensions around the world. People were saying the end of the Cold War meant the end of history. It meant that all ideological alternatives to the U.S. way of life had been defeated. Well, they were wrong. The Cold War wasnt the end of history. It is not that history ended, it is that history started again. That leads me to the conclusion that we are probably going to reap what we have sown. That is blowback.
Steve Dalforno is a graduate of ZMI. This interview was conducted for the Community Media Access Project in San Diego, California; www.orgsites.com/ca/cmap.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
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MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
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NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
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MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
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ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
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LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.