Blowback is a term invented by the Central Intelligence Agency to describe the unintended consequences of policies kept secret from the American people. Originally intended for internal use only, blowback today increasingly characterizes global reaction to American policies in and out of the Middle East.
In the aftermath of 9-11, President Bush told the world you are either “with us or against us.” He then offered a far-reaching moral vision for the Middle East with democracy as the core ingredient. He saw a free Iraq serving as a catalyst for peace in the region, setting in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state. In pursuit of these objectives, the United States turned to force, rushing to war in Iraq and condoning, if not supporting, draconian Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank. In ruling out the peaceful settlement of disputes, American policies legitimized and provoked terror.
Three years later, the number of people “against us” has grown exponentially. The popular view of the United States throughout the Middle East and the broader Islamic world is dark and hateful. Standing governments and legitimate opposition movements alike have come to see U.S. policies as a major obstacle to home-grown efforts to promote political reform. In the Islamic world, close association with the United States has become a kiss of death – figuratively and literally.
While the CIA originally conceived of blowback as limited to the unintended consequences of U.S. policy on Americans, it has long enjoyed a wider application. Chile, Guatemala and Iran are only a few Cold War examples where CIA involvement in the domestic politics of another country had disastrous consequences for local citizenry. What was true during the Cold War is doubly true today.
The March 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people, are one example of blowback from U.S. policies affecting non-Americans in Europe. The November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a young Muslim is another. In a country known for toleration and openness, Van Gogh’s murder set off a wave of retaliatory attacks on more than 20 Islamic sites, including mosques and schools.
The full extent to which the policies of the Bush administration are producing blowback outside the Western world is less well known. The October 2002 bombing of two Indonesian nightclubs on the isle of Bali left more than 200 dead, many of them young Australian vacationers. Those attacks were followed by the suicide bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003. A massive explosion in front of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004 later killed at least nine, wounding more than 180 others. Most observers agree the embassy attack was meant to influence elections in Australia against an incumbent prime minister who had made his country a strong American ally. Terrorism thrives on symbolism, and terrorists find Indonesia offers easier access to Western targets than security-conscious Australia. Unfortunately, innocent Indonesians often die in the process.
In Thailand, the invasion and occupation of Iraq fueled Muslim separatist movements in the southern part of a largely Buddhist state. The Thai government overreacted, savagely slaughtering 105 students. Six weeks later, the government mishandled largely peaceful demonstrations, arresting more than 1,000 and killing 87 more protestors. Almost 600 people died in southern Thailand alone in 2004.
As the Thai case demonstrates, blowback is seldom limited to a single event or action. Too often, it leads to more blowback, resulting in a prolonged, downward spiral of destructive behavior. The policies of the Sharon government in Palestine offer an excellent example of the downside of blowback.
Elsewhere in Asia, recent attacks on high-ranking officials suggest Pakistan could be losing its grip on extremists. And China continues to use anti-terrorism as a pretext for suppressing political and religious dissent in the largely Muslim region of Xinjiang. In the Philippines, officials finally conceded the February 2004 explosion on Superferry 14 was a terrorist attack, the worst since the 2002 Bali bombings. Finally, United Nations officials visiting Cambodia in late October 2004 described it as a “breeding ground” for terrorists.
In Saudi Arabia, a shadowy terror campaign has killed well over 100 people in the last 18 months. Many Saudis express increasing anger at the United States, arguing the U.S. occupation of Iraq is the signal event behind escalating attacks in the kingdom. The early December 2004 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah should thus be seen as a manifestation of extreme discontent within the Saudi sociopolitical system.
In the wake of the recent presidential campaign, the media focused on the causes and consequences of a polarized America. Little attention was placed on the increasingly polarized world in which we live. The real danger to America today comes from its ideological rigidity and the blowback it is producing around the globe. The problems now facing the United States – and the world – are radically different from those faced in 2001, in large part due to the foreign policy of the Bush administration. What is desperately needed is a global strategy to reduce, not increase, terror.