Flash back to those fearful days after 9-11 when Susan Sontag told the obvious but inconvenient truth. She was vilified for pointing out that this was "an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions." She was accused of treason, of hating the United States, of justifying the attack. The usual. Never mind that it's only common sense that American violence triggers anti-American violence and that there's ample social science showing it does and that terrorists themselves say it does, to speak of blowback was taboo. Only anti-imperialist cranks like Chalmers Johnson, Ward Churchill, and Ron Paul ventured onto that lonely territory.
Eleven plus years later and we're all Sontag now. Well, not quite, but members of the national security establishment are warning that the "war on terrorism" -- in particular drone warfare -- is breeding anti-American terrorists. The New York Times recently wrote about this trend, highlighting the words of a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In recent months, the criticism from human rights activists, United Nations officials and some friendly foreign governments has been joined by a number of former senior American military and intelligence officials who argue that the costs of the drone program might exceed its benefits. In the latest example, Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a favored adviser during Mr. Obama’s first term, expressed concern in a speech here on Thursday that America’s aggressive campaign of drone strikes could be undermining long-term efforts to battle extremism.Blowback is a term favored by critics of empire, so it's striking that Cartwright uses it. Striking but not surprising. After all, the CIA coined the term.
“We’re seeing that blowback,” General Cartwright, who is retired from the military, said at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”
"Blowback" is a CIA term first used in March 1954 in a recently declassified report on the 1953 operation to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government's international activities that have been kept secret from the American people.Speaking of the CIA, the former head of the agency's counterterrorism center, Robert Grenier, has been airing concerns about blowback for many months.
"It [the drone program] needs to be targeted much more finely. We have been seduced by them and the unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences."...But of all the security leaders warning about the potential results of American violence overseas, none has done so more vividly that General Stanley McCrystal:
"We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield. We are already there with regards to Pakistan and Afghanistan."
..."[A]lthough to the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain, at the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly – I don’t think we do, but there’s always the danger that you will – then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with.".Taken together, their comments represent a significant shift in accepted and acceptable opinion. But there's little indication it's influencing the counterterrorism policies of the Obama administration, which continues to wage drone-heavy dirty wars in Pakistan and Yemen and expand its the terror war into North Africa. There's simply no chance that more than a decade of American war won't spawn disaster for the United States.
Although it's not always (usually not?) security concerns that drive American national security policy, its self-destructiveness is nonetheless astounding. For example, the United States has reestablished a military presence in Saudi Arabia, a drone base. You'll recall that the American military presence in Saudi Arabia topped Bin Laden's list of grievances. It's as if the United States is trying to trigger another catastrophic terrorist attack.
And when it does, will these national security leaders make like Sontag and tell the truth, inviting vilification, or will they join the chorus calling for a massive military response that will only perpetuate the cycle of American violence and blowback?
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