What goes around ...
An interview with Chalmers Johnson
by Jeff Shaw
In These Times magazine, October 2001
Chalmers Johnson saw the September 11 catastrophe coming.
A renowned Asia specialist and founder of the Japan Policy Research
Institute, Johnson is the author of more than a dozen books about
world politics. His 2000 book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences
of American Empire, argued that U.S. interventionist foreign policy
and military overextension would lead to unintended and unpredictable
consequences. A year later, his warning seems eerily prescient.
Johnson spoke with In These Times on September 13.
Is what happened on September 11 an example of blowback? Of
course it is. That's exactly what my book was written for: It
was a warning to my fellow Americans, a year ago, that our foreign
policy was going to produce something like this. It's important
to stress, contrary to what people in Washington and the media
are saying, that this was not an attack on the United States:
This was an attack on American foreign policy. It was an example
of the strategies of the weak against the overwhelmingly powerful.
Osama bin Laden has been named the primary suspect in these
attacks. In the first chapter of Blowback, you talk about earlier
American attacks on Osama bin Laden as an example of "a spiral
of destructive behavior."
I heard Sen. John McCain say this morning that the people
of Afghanistan have nothing to worry about if they would just
turn over Osama bin Laden and cooperate with us.... Where was
he during the '80s, when we and the Soviet Union were destroying
Afghanistan? Our efforts were to hire people like bin Laden to
come from Saudi Arabia and help give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-like
Don't get me wrong. Everyone understands that the people
of New York, the people of Washington, the people on the airplanes
were innocent bystanders-and that is the nature of this kind of
warfare. Our Department of Defense invented the phrase "collateral
damage" to deal with the dead Iraqis and the dead Serbs as
a result of our bombings of their countries.... I know it sounds
cruel to say, but the people of New York were collateral damage
of American foreign policy. It was inevitable that something like
this would come back.
You implied that this type of terrorist warfare seems to be
the warfare of the future. I assume that you would expect to see
No nation can hope to beat the United States on American
terms. Therefore you must devise a strategy that essentially makes
our overwhelming military capability worthless. I think they have
managed to do so.
People in Washington are continually talking about declaring
war-but declaring war on whom? They don't know. If they are going
to go out and attack Afghanistan, it will simply produce a further
cycle of blowback and retaliation. In the meantime, it will also
even further inflame the entire Middle East.
If not military force, what could be effective against this
type of terrorist warfare?
What we need to find out is, what are we doing that is provoking
this? Is there any flexibility in our policy? Couldn't we alter
our policies somewhat? Couldn't we make it our business to try
to stay out of fratricidal and hate-laden conflicts? And then,
to the extent that we are still the victim of terrorism-which
we always will be-then we need a much greater analytic effort
to defend ourselves against that. And that would not be impossible
Clearly, what happened on September 11 was an almost catastrophic
failure of intelligence by extremely expensive agencies that do
not do anything. And so far, the American reaction seems to be
to target the Bill of Rights more than anything else. Retaliation
is not the answer. It hasn't worked for Israel, it has only exacerbated
the situation. It won't work for us.
Is it possible that blowback may take place internally as
well as externally?
The greatest danger we have now is militarism in America.
We have this huge, overpowering, unbelievably expensive military
establishment. It is something from the days of Washington's farewell
address to Eisenhower's invention of the phrase "military-industrial
complex" that seasoned U.S. Ieaders have warned against-the
threat of a huge military establishment to the liberty of our
I fear that from this we are going to get even more militarism.
That is, more and more functions-including domestic police functions-will
be transferred from civilian institutions to the military, and
the military will have ever greater authority in our society.
We know how that will end. We're talking here about imperial overstretch,
and the weaknesses of the imperial structure that will ultimately
lead to a collapse.
Often in times of crisis, there are opportunities. Might this
be an opportunity for the American public to look itself in the
It is possible that we could have a genuine popular reaction.
I'm not totally pessimistic. It is perfectly possible we will
have a demand from the public that foreign policy becomes important
again. If this attack is an attack on our foreign policy, as I
believe it is, we should be looking much harder at what our foreign
policy is. If the United States is now going to go out and bomb
some innocent people in Afghanistan who have already gone through
two decades of living hell- most of it sponsored by our government
and that of the other erstwhile superpower, the former Soviet
Union. Then you must say, we deserve what we're going to get.
11th, 2001 - New York City