"Blowback:” A Review Essay on an Academic Defector’s Guide to America’s Asia Policy

by Walden Bello*

In his 4th of July speech in1821, US President John Quincy Adams cautioned the young republic not to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Such a trajectory, he said, would involve Washington “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars and interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition.” As a result, “she might become dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” (1)

My recollection of Adams’ warning was triggered while reading Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2000). For this excellent piece of engaged scholarship documents how the United States, by ignoring the advice of a long and distinguished line of American thinkers, from Adams to Mark Twain to Senator J. William Fulbright, has indeed become “dictatress of the world,” one that is spinning out of control and is no longer even “the ruler of her own spirit.” This book, one of the most significant works on US-Asia relations to see print in recent years, is important not only for what it says but for who says it. Chalmers Johnson is one of the United States’ preeminent experts on Asia. His Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power was one of the most insightful works on the social bases of the Chinese Revolution. His work MITI and the Japanese Miracle institutionalized the model of Japan as a capitalist economy sui generis whose rise could not be understood using the paradigm of standard neoclassical economics, without reference to the central role of an activist, interventionist state.

And yet, earlier in his career, Johnson and his work were embedded in the American political science establishment, which had very close links to official Washington and for whom the role of scholarship was not just to understand the world but to understand the world so that the US could control events globally. While a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the hotbed of student activism in the 1960’s, Johnson was convinced that “the United States could not afford to lose in Vietnam.” Now, he believes that that was “a disastrously wrong position,” and, in retrospect, “I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement.”

In this volte-face, Johnson follows George Kennan, the formulator of the strategy of Containment, and Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, in adopting a more critical view of US policy upon their retirement from public service. But Johnson goes beyond both Kennan and McNamara to characterize US behavior both during the Cold War and the post-Cold War period not so much as mistaken as “imperial.” This sea change he attributes to the greater knowledge he has gained in the last few years of the real workings of the US government, particularly its Department of Defense.

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America’s Asia

The picture he paints of America in Asia and the world is unremittingly negative. Why does the US maintain 39 bases in Okinawa, a small island the size of Los Angeles? To protect Japan? To contain Japan? Neither. The real reasons range from the mundane—Okinawa affords US military personnel a luxury lifestyle that would be unaffordable in the United States—to the transcendental: “to project American power throughout Asia in the service of a de facto US grand strategy to perpetuate or increase American hegemonic power in this crucial region.”

Why is the US in Korea? To achieve the Pentagon’s trinitarian formula of securing stability, promoting the peace, and protecting democracy? Hardly, since the massive US military presence actually promotes instability, ensures that the peninsula is constantly on the knife-edge of war, and--having helped bring to power and main authoritarian regimes in the last 50 years—and certainly has nothing to do with protecting democracy. Washington is in Korea for the same reasons it remains entrenched in Okinawa, and a North Korea that is portrayed as an unpredictable rogue regime provides an important rationale for keeping 30,000 troops on the peninsula. Keeping Korea structurally divided, Johnson implies, is part of the Pentagon’s game plan for perpetuating its half-century-old toehold in mainland Asia.

A military establishment that is out of control is today the determining force behind US foreign policy in Asia. And not only in Asia: witness, says Johnson, the way the Pentagon scuppered Washington’s support for an international criminal court to bring to justice soldiers and political leaders charged with crimes against humanity and vetoed the US’s signing the landmark December 1997 treaty banning land mines. The Defense Department also runs a semi-clandestine military training operation that gives it close operational ties with armies throughout the world—including the notorious Kopassus unit of the Indonesian military that was responsible for numerous human rights abuses during Suharto’s rule. And the Pentagon stands at the apex of an extremely profitable military industrial complex, one of whose activities—massive arms sales—is one of the great

forces of destabilization in the post-Cold War era.

Strategic Power

Johnson’s emphasis on the role of the Pentagon is a healthy balance to the views of those analysts who emphasize the primacy of corporate interests in determining US foreign policy. Indeed, even when he examines developments in the regional economy, Johnson finds geostrategic considerations of central importance in explaining US behavior. In the case of the Asian financial crisis, for instance, one can interpret the American policy of promoting free markets and the free flow of capital as stemming either from a naive, indeed utopian, project to remake Asia’s economies in America’s image. Or alternatively, “one could conclude that having defeated the Fascists and the Communists, the United States now sought to defeat its last remaining rivals for global dominance: the nations of East Asia that had used the conditions of the Cold War to enrich themselves. In the latter view, US interests lay not in globalization but in bringing increasingly self-confident competitors to their knees.” This explanation, Johnson indicates, is the more credible one, and as one who has looked at the crisis in more than superficial terms, I would have to agree with him that there is a lot going for it.

Adopting a geostrategic perspective does not have to mean, however, that one holds that the military has the upper-hand in determining US foreign policy in all or most foreign policy debates on Asia, as Johnson appears to imply. Sometimes corporate interests are the leading force, and the agenda of US transnational corporations may sometimes conflict with the military’s preferences. The case of the recent battle over permanent trade status for China, for instance, was a tactical victory for corporate forces driven by the illusion (for illusion it is!) of cornering the China market under the umbrella of an “engagement” approach and a setback for those, including key elements at the Pentagon, that are in favor of a “containment” strategy that would limit China’s access to the foreign investment and the export markets that are central to strengthening that country’s geostrategic position.

Missing Dimension

Johnson’s obsession with the US military as a foreign policy actor also precludes him from subjecting to more than just superficial analysis the ideological dimension of Washington’s global hegemony. The ideological dimension is, in my view, an equally central pillar of empire, for the US is driven not only by the pursuit of military power or economic power but also by a missionary idealism that is out to remake the world in America’s image. When geoeconomic goals, like weakening or opening up America’s economic competitors in Asia, are justified by invoking free-market ideology, this is not simply instrumental. When “exporting democracy” is invoked as a central consideration in US policy towards Haiti, Burma, Iraq, or Indonesia, it is not simply as a smokescreen for US strategic or corporate interests.

The slight attention paid to ideological factors leads Johnson to totally neglect the US move, from the mid-eighties onwards, to shift its support from authoritarian dictatorships to formally democratic regimes from Manila to Santiago. Supporting the establishment of elite democracies modeled procedurally along Westminster or Washington lines performed several objectives: defusing revolutionary movements without changing conservative class structures, creating new and broader bases of local support for the US, and making American foreign policy more in line with the self-image of America as a bastion of democracy.

It is against this ideological dimension, this sense of a global mission, however misguided, that we must interpret Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s statement cited by Johnson: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.” Or sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset’s claim that the US remains the “exceptional nation.” (2) Or New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s assertion that the US is the “world’s role model” in the era of globalization. (3)

This volatile and sometimes unpredictable interaction of semi-autonomous military, corporate, and ideological drives that oftentimes move together but sometimes conflict is what makes US imperialism so complex, so dynamic, so destabilizing, and so confusing for the rest of the world. When democracy, as a mechanism of manufacturing “consensus” from the dominated, becomes an essential weapon of the empire, we are dealing with a force that is very different from the old imperial powers. This is ultimately an imperialism that is driven not simply by the search for strategic primacy, not only by corporate expansionism, but also by the drive for global ideological hegemony—a feverish complex that ultimately stems from the contradictory origins of America as a relentlessly expansionist settler colony of white Europeans rebelling against the British Empire in the name of achieving and spreading “freedom” and “democracy” understood in 18th century terms.

Pointing out that Johnson’s work has limitations in helping us unravel the dynamics of the American empire must not, however, detract from the critical importance of its central message that in the post-Cold War era, Washington has become more unilateral, less constrained by a respect for international law and institutions, more destabilizing, and more out of control.

“Blowback”

But although seemingly at the apogee of its power, the US actually finds itself, claims Johnson, in a condition of “imperial overstretch,” a term he borrows from Paul Kennedy. Past deeds and policies are coming home to roost, whether in the form of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York by Islamic Mujaheddin terrorists that were formerly supported by the CIA in Afghanistan, the export of cocaine to the US by “contras” that had been trained by Washington to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or the debasing of democratic discourse in official Washington’s justification of its foreign policies, which has led to greater citizen distrust of suspicion of government. “Blowback,” a CIA term for the boomerang effect of past policies, is turning the US into a Gulliver that is bleeding from a thousand and one cuts. And more blowback is in store for Wall Street and Washington: “The Americans buying… foreclosed properties in East Asia may believe that they are merely responding to the signals of market forces, but they would be fools to believe that the sellers agree with them.” Indeed, “it is only a matter of time until the small nations of East Asia get rid of this American bullying and find a suitable leader to create an anti-American coalition.”

To prevent the dislocations for Asia and America of the inevitable resistance to US power and Washington’s mailed-fist response to that resistance, Johnson suggests that the US withdraw its land base forces from East Asia, and, in the case of Korea in particular, couple its disengagement with support for the unification of the peninsula. Such an enlightened policy, Johnson says, would actually stabilize the region because a “unified, economically successful Korea would help ensure a genuine balance of power in East Asia rather than the hegemony of either China, Japan, or the United States. Such a policy would also be a more effective way of instilling prudence in the foreign policy of an emerging China than our current pretense that we have the will, money, or patience to ‘contain’ China.”

“Vision 2020”

Great. But how much chance does Johnson have of being heeded by Washington? Virtually zero, if we are to believe a recent Washington Post report on the Pentagon’s recent “defense guidance.” In this still unreleased document, titled “Joint Vision 2020,” the Pentagon envisions Asia instead of Europe as the prime focus of US military in the coming decades, identifies China as a “peer competitor,” and projects an indefinite military presence in Korea and Japan, even if the “threat” from North Korea disappears. (4)

There are now more attack submarines deployed to Asia than to Europe and more war games and strategic studies focused on Asia. In addition, the Pentagon has been busy constructing the diplomatic and political framework for the US military’s “reentry in Southeast Asia.” In this connection, notes the Post report, the revamped US military relationship with the Philippines represented by the Voluntary Forces Agreement (VFA) may be a model for Southeast Asia. Instead of building Okinawa-type bases “with bowling alleys and Burger Kings that are off-limits to the locals, US forces will conduct frequent joint exercises to train Americans and Filipinos to operate together in everything from disaster relief to full-scale combat.” (5)

And to what end? As always, to “maintain regional stability,” to use three of the most overused words in the Pentagon lexicon. Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback blows this cover: the reality undergirding “Vision 2020” is that, after over 50 years of being deployed in Asia, America’s legions are loath to go home, and their chiefs will do anything, even create new enemies, to create the illusion of their indispensability.

(1) Cited in Walter McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p.p. 11-12.

(2) Seymour Martin Lipset, “Still the Exceptional Nation?,” Washington Quarterly, Winter 2000, pp. 31-45.

(3) Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), p. 352.

(4) Thomas Ricks, “Changing Winds of US Defense Strategy,” Washington Post Service reproduced in International Herald Tribune.

(5) Ibid.