TCS Daily


Reflections on 'Blowback'

By Lee Harris - December 12, 2007 12:00 AM

Some time back Republican candidate for President Ron Paul stirred up considerable debate by arguing that 9/11 was "blowback" for the United States' foreign policy toward the Muslim world over the past half century or so, going back to the CIA engineered coup in 1953 that ousted Iranian leader Mossadegh. The term blowback had earlier been used by Chalmers Johnson as the title of a book whose sub-title made Ron Paul's point even more aggressively: "The Costs and Consequences of American Empire." In both instances, blowback refers to the negative consequences of America's foreign policy that could presumably have been avoided if the United States had pursued a policy that avoided either imperialism (Johnson's term) or interventionism (Ron Paul's.)

The term "blowback" comes from the jargon of espionage: it originally meant the unintended negative consequences of a covert operation. By extension, blowback came to be used to apply to the unintended consequences of American foreign policy, including both covert operations, like the removal of Mossadegh, and quite open operations, such as stationing American troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. But the concept of blowback remains morally ambiguous. For example, if a man robs a bank, and, as a result of his robbery, gets thrown in jail, we will say that the negative consequences, i.e., his time in jail, are the robber's just desserts, or, to use the vernacular, we might say that "he had it coming." Many critics of American foreign policy on the left, especially those who talk of American imperialism, belong to the "We had it coming" school in their analysis of 9/11. According to their perspective, imperialism is a self-evident evil, and those who engage in it must expect to suffer some kind of negative moral consequences. The underlying idea here goes back to the Greek historian Herodotus who sees history as a constant overtaking of hubris, or arrogance, by nemesis, or retribution. If Ron Paul meant that 9/11 was morally appropriate retribution for America's foreign policy, then it is little wonder that his statement has received so much verbal blowback.

But, as the Book of Job made clear once and for all, bad things also happen to good people. While Job's comforters kept insisting that Job must have committed some secret transgression in order to explain away his afflictions, the reader of the story has been clearly notified that this interpretation of events is false: Job, as we know, has done nothing wrong. But the same thing can be said of the professor at Virginia Tech who attempted to shield his students from being massacred by a madman with a gun. His heroic action got him shot to death. Was this, too, blowback?

Osama bin Laden claimed that 9/11 was revenge for our decision to station American troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. But American troops were in Saudi Arabia not to steal their oil, but to keep Saddam Hussein from getting it. We were willing to risk the lives of American soldiers to protect the oil wealth of the Saudis, instead of risking their lives to seize this wealth for ourselves, as a genuine imperialist power would have done. So if Osama bin Laden can be believed, 9/11 was our reward for standing up to violent aggression. If this is blowback, then the death of the professor at Virginia Tech should also be judged as blowback, in which case the term blowback would refer to the unintended negative consequences of virtuous actions as well as those of vicious actions.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Ron Paul was not making the crass argument that on 9/11 we had it coming, and that for him the concept of blowback carried no moral implications, so that both good actions as well as bad ones are susceptible to the unintended negative consequences called blowback. The question then becomes, What was the point of talking about blowback at all? Was Ron Paul merely observing that all human action, by its very nature, will produce unintended consequences, some positive, others negative? And if this was his only point, then what are its foreign policy implications?

Here it is important to recall two things. First, we must keep in mind that Ron Paul is a libertarian. Second, we must understand that what is known as the law of unintended consequences has traditionally been used by libertarians to argue against government interference of any kind. Consider, for example, the following argument made by the nineteenth century historian and libertarian thinker Thomas Buckle: "...in all matters, whenever politicians attempt great good, they invariably inflict great harm. Overreaction on one side produces reaction on the other, and the balance of the fabric is disturbed....the rulers of mankind cannot be brought to understand, that, in dealing with a great country, they had to do with an organization so subtle, so extremely complex, and withal so obscure, as to make it highly probable, that whatever they alter in it, they will alter wrongly...."

The argument here is quite simple. All actions on a complex, subtle, and obscure system will risk the production of blowback, i.e., unforeseen negative consequences. The reason for this has nothing to do with good or evil intentions on the part of those who undertake these actions, but stem from the cognitive constraints on all human actors, namely, their inability to foresee all the effects of their actions on complete, subtle, and obscure systems. Therefore, it is better for politicians not to intervene in the workings of any social system that is simply too complex for anyone to comprehend enough to manage intelligently.

For Buckle, however, the cognitive constraints on the action of politicians and leaders were not something to lament. The solution was not to obtain greater knowledge of the system, but to recognize that complex systems were better off when no one tried to run them from above. Buckle, as a good libertarian, believed that if people were permitted to make their own decisions in their own local affairs, all things would work for the best. "A great country," he wrote, "undoubtedly possess[es] within itself a capacity for repairing its injuries, and that to bring such capacity into play, there is merely required that time and freedom from the interference of powerful men that too often prevents it from enjoying." Leave well enough alone, and social ills will mend themselves in a healthy society.

Buckle's critique was aimed at government interference in domestic affairs, but the same argument can be applied a fortiori to government interference in foreign affairs. If politicians are doomed to produce only negative unintended consequences when they attempt to do great good in their native land, it is absurd to think that they could possibly do a better job if they begin to mess in the affairs of other nations in the world. If the organization of a single nation is too subtle, too complex, and too obscure for its own leaders to hope to manage rationally, then the interrelationship of a multitude of nations acting and reacting on each other will be completely beyond the competence.

This conclusion, however, poses a radical dilemma. A libertarian can plausibly argue that politicians should not interfere with domestic affairs, since these affairs can manage themselves, so to speak. But the libertarian cannot make the same argument about foreign policy. The individuals of a society can decide, on a one by one basis, what is best for them at home, but they cannot decide on the same basis what policy they will have toward other nations in the world. Nations alone can have foreign policies, and these policies must inevitably be devised by those who have been designated to act on behalf of the society as a whole and to represent its interests in international affairs. The rule of laissez faire can never be the basis of a foreign policy.

This obvious fact, when coupled with the libertarian argument from complexity, leads to the melancholy conclusion that no nation can be safe from disastrous blowback effects the moment it tries to devise any kind of foreign policy whatsoever. Even those nations whose leaders only desire to pursue peace, and to keep from meddling in the affairs of other nations, will be exposed to the same risks of blowback as the nation that desires to expand its territory and to dominate its neighbors. If a policy of disarmament and appeasement turns out to increase the power and prestige of nations ruled by warmongers, this is every bit as much a case of blowback as the defeat that an aggressive nation unexpectedly brings on itself when it precipitately goes to war. Mere good intentions are not spared from yielding bad consequences, either in domestic or foreign affairs.

A libertarian like Buckle can recommend a policy of non-intervention in domestic politics and recommend it with a clear conscience; but a policy of non-intervention in international politics is another matter. We may persuade our own government not to intervene, but what have we achieved if other nations do not follow suit? Dean Acheson used to say: "Don't just do something—stand there." His point was that by just doing something, we often find ourselves confronted with the unexpected negative consequence of our action. Yet it is a beguiling illusion to think that by standing there and doing nothing we can manage to avoid blowback. When another party commits an act of aggression, and we take no action against it—as the English and French took no action against Hitler's march into the de-militarized Rhineland in 1935—we will inevitably find that our passivity has only served to embolden the aggressor to behave even more aggressively, which was precisely what happened in the case of Hitler.

This brings us back to Ron Paul's remark. If the inherent complexity of the world exposes any foreign policy to the risk of blowback, then it would be absurd to criticize a nation's foreign policy simply because it led to unintended negative consequences. Furthermore, such criticism would be unwarranted in direct proportion to the degree that the behavior of other players on the world stage was unpredictable and inscrutable, since any factor that increases the complexity of a system makes it more difficult to manage intelligently. Given the fact that the behavior of radical Islam is on an order of unpredictability and inscrutability that eclipses all previous geopolitical challenges that our nation has faced, it is a utopian dream to imagine that the United States, as the world's dominant power, could possibly escape blowback by any course of action it tried to pursue. We are both damned if we do, and damned if we don't.

We may agree with Ron Paul that our interventionist policy in the Middle East has led to unintended negative consequences, including even 9/11, but this admission offers us absolutely no insight into what unintended consequences his preferred policy of non-intervention would have exposed us to. It is simply a myth to believe that only interventionism yields unintended consequence, since doing nothing at all may produce the same unexpected results. If American foreign policy had followed a course of strict non-interventionism, the world would certainly be different from what it is today; but there is no obvious reason to think that it would have been better.

If the concept of blowback is to serve any constructive purpose in our current debate over our future foreign policy, it must not be used to beat up those whose decisions turned out in retrospect to be wrong, but to remind us of the common lot of those sad creatures, known as human beings, who are constantly forced to deal with the future without ever being able to see into it.

Lee Harris is author of The Suicide of Reason and Civilization and Its Enemies.


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