Blowback

Drag up Kyoto these days and you risk the charge of being anti-American. It’s as if we have entered a new, Orwellian world where our personal reliability as comrades in the struggle is measured by the degree to which we invoke the past to explain the present. Suggesting there is a historical context for the recent atrocities is by implication to make excuses for them. Anyone who is with us doesn’t do that. Anyone who does, is against us.

John le Carr, A War We Cannot Win

The line between understanding and excusal is thin, and easy to transgress. This is a problem for us all, but a special problem for those of us who have managed to claim, in any way at all, the honors of activism. We must speak, and from time to time we must speak clearly of the big picture. And even in America, people, many of them anyway, are prepared to listen. This is, as they say, a “teachable moment.”

And this, dear friends, presents us with a challenge. Because as the US administration and its allies gird for a protracted war, we find ourselves, even at the risk of position and reputation, with no choice but to try to understand, and then to try to explain. It comes, finally, to this: vile as the attack was, astonishing as it was in its particulars, September 11 was not really a surprise.

An Oil War, but not Just an Oil War

Greens have long prided themselves on connecting the dots. “Everything,” as the old saw goes, “is connected to everything else,” and its notable that, after decades of easy banality, this is no longer an effortless clich. Indeed, if connecting the dots means drawing the links between SUV culture and the September 11 atrocities, then it carries quite a heavy price; if people don’t actually hate you, they’re quite likely to think that you’ve lost all sense of proportionality, that you’re nuts.

So, first up, let’s not be reductionist, for oil isn’t the whole story. But let’s also be clear: one of the chief goals of US policy in the Middle East is continued access to cheap oil. Were it not for oil, we wouldn’t have those bases in Saudi Arabia (it has one quarter of the world’s oil reserves, and the US consumes one quarter of the world’s oil), nor would our leaders be so consistently willing to subordinate the interests of the broader Middle Eastern populations to those of their current rulers. America would still be the hated enemy of those who Christopher Hitchens has charged with Islamic Fascism but it sure wouldn’t be as tall a lightning rod.

There are plenty of ways to say this in less direct a fashion. We can talk about renewable “energy independence,” and the “brittleness” of nuclear and fossil energy systems. And we should, without end. But at some point we have to turn to another kind of power – the geopolitical variety – and talk of what our own elites, sometimes with our connivance, have done and are doing to keep oil cheap. At some point we have to face the depth of our involvement in the long, bloody history of the Persian Gulf, and admit that too much talk of religious madness obscures a point that enviros in particular must place front and center: It’s the Oil, Stupid. The bottom line, or certainly a key bottom line, is that this is, as peace and security expert Michael T. Klare insists, a resource war. And not the last one.

Are these simple, necessary truths, or is this only an ill-advised amble onto barren ground Attend, please, to the difference between “the truth” and “the whole truth,” and to the need for balance. This is an oil war, and yet oil alone does not explain the atrocities of September 11. Religious madness also plays a role, as does Sam Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, and there are those among us who think the insistence on geopolitics, and oil, to be an inexcusable stupidity. Some of them argue, as Andrew Sullivan did in This is a Religious War, that Islam was, in effect, doomed to become radical Islam. As if, even in another world, one in which the capitalist revolution was and had always been conducted humanely, Islam would still have led to the nihilism we see in Al Qaeda. As if fascism is somehow immanent in Islam, or at least Islam in a time of secular modernism.

Such claims are nonsense, and enviros, in particular, are going to have to sort them out. We are, like it or not, the party of the whole, the ones who insist that poison here causes cancer there, that overconsumption yields starvation, that our benighted petroleum civilization predictably engenders hatred and madness and war. In effect, we insist, as we must, that history is comprehensible, and that real chains of causality – chemical, climatologic, and, necessarily, economic and political – can be traced along its lineaments.

You may disagree, but do note the method here, and the challenge it poses to civilization as usual. Even the New York Times, no bastion of radical criticism, has made the link. In a article entitled Silver Bullet-ism: Technology Runs to the Rescue, it skimmed lightly over an interview with Edward Tenner, author of “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences,” and then summed his message thus:

“The ultimate goal should be improving the hardiness of a nation’s infrastructure, creating buildings less likely to collapse and planes less likely to crash, and devising standards that keep weapons like bombs and bugs (biological and computer related) from being built. And this can be accomplished only by patiently, thoroughly rethinking how society functions.”

Which is, of course, exactly true. And our point is simply that, once we’ve started connecting the dots, we can’t stop just because they lead to inconvenient places. The linguist George Lakoff put it well, arguing, in a web-based discussion on the implications of September 11, that there are three types of causes for such atrocities, and that a morally responsible response must take all three into account. The three, by the way, are:

* Worldview: The Religious Rationale

* Social and Political Conditions: Cultures of Despair

* Means: The Enabling Conditions

It comes to this: “religious madness” is a necessary but insufficient explanation. And the same can be said about the “oil war” theory. Call either of these “the cause” of September 11 – or drop either from the equation – and you’ve sinned the sin of reductionism. Instead, take Tenner’s advice, by “thoroughly rethinking how society functions,” but don’t stop with the mechanisms of bombs and planes and pathogens. Remember, too, that there are a billion Muslims, and that most all of them are desperately poor. And remember that Saudi Arabia, the primal home of Al Qaeda, is not only an American protectorate; it is also a tense and repressive land in which decades of oil revenues have gradually pumped Arabic feudalism into strange and distended shapes.

Madness, like everything else, must have its origins. Were the hijackers mad It all depends on your definition. They were, certainly, the products of a cultural desolation that left them willing, and even eager, for martyrdom. It’s a kind of madness, sure, but it’s a peculiar, Clausewitzian madness; like war, it is politics by other means. And Islam, be very clear about this, was not doomed to such a fate, no more that Christianity was doomed to Jerry Falwell.

As for the hatred, it too is comprehensible. The problem is that, to understand “why everyone hates us,” we have to go beyond the clash of civilizations and understand how America looks from the impoverished, politically repressed streets of the Muslim world. This may be a lot to ask of Americans, an overfed people lost in gated communities and 500-channel networks, but it is, nonetheless, the price of realism.

Connecting the Dots, and Refusing to

By now, the passions have settled into frames. We stand by our flag, and our leaders, and we fear to offend the sorrow of those who have sustained personal losses. Old stories, all of these. But burrow beneath the media-amplified jingoism and you’ll see that the discussion has already had its essential bifurcation. In fact, it almost seems like the willingness – or the refusal – to search for causes, and to understand our role in those causes, is the real political divide:

There are, in effect, two parties.

* There is, first, the party that insists that “what goes around comes around,” that “as you sow, so shall you reap,” that causes have effects, and that the hijackings and the bombings must at some level be understood as “blowback” – a CIA neologism that we’ve all, unfortunately, learned to understand.

* And then there are those who say, one way or another, that the very notion of blowback is offensive, that American is innocent, that Al Qaeda is a unique evil, that the effort to understand comes, in the end, to an effort to excuse.

One US-based NGO with a long-time interest in the social and environmental roots of war – Berkeley’s Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development – had a rude reminder of the facts here. When, soon after September 11, Nautilus started an online forum with the question, “What may have been the role of previous U.S. foreign policy decisions in precipitating this event, and what new policies should be implemented to prevent a repeat” it received “lots of hate mail.” It was as if, Nautilus Executive Director Peter Hayes told us, “even raising the issue of blowback was disrespectful.”

It was difficult, just after September 11, not to step in it. People got careful. The protests against the World Bank, slated for Washington DC, were called off, as organizers concluded that their protests would be doomed to interpretation as complicity with terrorism. Greenpeace USA canceled its 30th anniversary celebrations. The Sierra Club stopped all mass communications – advertising, phone banks and mailings. There was even talk that COP7 would be cancelled.

But that brief time, too, is history. The Taliban has collapsed, and here we are, still standing, after the end of the end of history. And what shall we say That the attacks were horrific crimes against humanity This they clearly were; no sane person would deny it. But shall we insist on context Shall we add that, on that same September 11th, as on the day before it and the day after, more than 35,000 children died of starvation around the world, and that many of them must properly be seen as the casualties of the geoeconomic policies that the US (and its allies) assiduously and forcefully promote And shall we peel back the onion further and suggest why we pursue these policies Shall we desecrate the memories of the dead, even while lower Manhattan is still manifestly ground zero, by noting that we few (4% of the world’s population, isn’t it) consume 25% of the world’s resources, and that we don’t always come by them fair and square

Again, we must tread a line here. Reductionism will not do. This is not simply a resource war. But it most assuredly is a resource war, and if we will not say so, it’s not clear that anything else we say is of any great significance.

It’s clear that the choice here, to talk seriously about causes, or to refuse to do so, is a fundamental one. And it’s notable, and extremely encouraging, those as the months have worn on, a lot of people, in the South and in Europe, but in the US as well, have decided to connect the dots. You wouldn’t know it from TV, but if you get your news from the Internet, or indeed from the better papers, you’ve seen a lot of acute reporting.

And the story isn’t over yet.

Blowback Proper, and a Distinction

Back in January of 2001, Chalmers Johnson, previously known as an authority on Japan and its economy, published Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. He obviously didn’t expect very large sales, for he used the term “American Empire,” and in his title no less! In so doing he chose to be frank about the truth as he saw it, even if it meant stepping outside the charmed circle of American self-regard:

“For any empire, including an unacknowledged one, there is a kind of balance sheet that builds up over time. Military crimes, accidents, and atrocities make up only one category on the debit side of the balance sheet that the United States has been accumulating, especially since the Cold War ended

“To predict the future is an undertaking no thoughtful person would rush to embrace. What form our imperial crisis is likely to take years or even decades from now is, of course, impossible to know. But history indicates that, sooner or later, empires do reach such moments, and it seems reasonable to assume that we will not miraculously escape that fate.”

Taken abstractly, such messages are of little consequence. We know that empires vanish into sand, as we know, most of us, that the ecological crisis is likely to hasten the decline of this one in particular. But Johnson did not trade exclusively in generalities. He wrote of the drug war, and of neoliberal globalization, and of Third World debt, and he spoke of the poor and their long memories, and of bombings past, and bombings yet to come.

The blowback, Johnson warned, would be a hard one, and it would not spare the homeland. His histories, and his speculations, were quite specific. And he clearly had a purpose – to appeal, if you will, to our sense of self-preservation. His message was, as it remains, that we must connect the dots.

Johnson, of course, was only a messenger; he gets points for prescience, but today the message is everywhere. Its details, gruesome and heartbreaking, are available in a thousand different voices, in the papers, and on the Internet turned electronic teach-in, and many of them address the difficult issues of cause and consequence. Johnson’s’ The Lessons of Blowback is there, as are countless others. For example, there’s The Algebra of Infinite Justice, by novelist and anti-dam activist Arundhati Roy, an early and still impressive attempt to capture September 11’s causes and horrors in one synthetic text. In it, Roy reviewed the whole gruesome story, from Al Qaeda’s origins to America’s post-attack incomprehension to, finally, modern terrorism as the globalization of the powerless. It has its weaknesses, and there are many who will say it’s soft on the terrorists. But, then, Roy’s directness has its own virtue:

“It must be hard for ordinary Americans, so recently bereaved, to look up at the world with their eyes full of tears and encounter what might appear to them to be indifference. It isn’t indifference. It’s just augury. An absence of surprise. The tired wisdom of knowing that what goes around eventually comes around.”

You may not agree, but you no doubt have your own favorite Jeremiad. We’ve all taken a crash course in international relations. We all know, again, that we’re part of the world, and that we had best get used to it; and this, really, is not such a bad place to stand. Our self-satisfied sense of immunity is past, and good riddance. America, too, can suffer. America, too, will pass. We know this, or we may, once the adrenaline is gone. It’s a new world. The question now is what we’ll make of it.

In all this, we’d like to propose a key distinction.

Blowback is usually taken to mean geopolitical blowback, wherein it is argued that we must pursue justice, if only as a matter of self-preservation. This is Johnson’s focus, not blowback as “reactions to historical events” but rather as the “unintended consequences of covert special operations kept secret from the American people and, in most cases, from their elected representatives.”

The distinction, however, is not really so clear. Sometimes, when talk turns to blowback, the issue is deeper and more controversial than covert operations. This is true, for example, when we talk about the geopolitics of oil-dependence (which constrains, and perhaps even dooms US foreign policy) or the structural blowback that rises from poverty and hopelessness, that rages against the often-intolerable indignities of capitalist modernization.

In both cases, of course, “what goes around comes around.” That’s the point – blowback implies cause and consequence. It implies, in the case of the September 11 attacks, that the “evil” that’s been visited upon America is a comprehensible result of other actions, other decisions, many made long ago, but many made today, in Washington, and by our allies, our corporations, our preferred institutions of global governance. Blowback implies that it will not do to attribute sole responsibility to the terrorists, as if the system they acted within, and the world that made them, carried no weight at all.

Am I, by saying all this, seeking to relativize an “evil” Consider this. In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then the US ambassador to the United Nations, was asked on national television what she felt about the fact that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of US economic sanctions. She replied that it was “a very hard choice”, but that, all things considered, “we think the price is worth it”.

Her words require no commentary.

The Management of Terror

Time, now, to take the future – and futurism – seriously. Not because we can hope to know what will happen, but because we know what must not be allowed to.

This isn’t the place for a literature review. It is, though, a fine place to note that futurism has come a long way since George Orwell dismissed it as “trend chasing.” The IPCC’s Third Assessment Report, for example, depends heavily on the new SRES Scenarios, and these in turn depend on a refined method in which emissions scenarios are grouped into “storylines” which can be evaluated, more or less independently from the science, and against moving, living history. Not surprisingly, the SRES storylines are pretty familiar, and fall into four quadrants, defined on one axis by the choice between Globalization on and Regionalization and on the other by the choice between an Emphasis on Material Wealth on an Emphasis on Sustainability and Equity.

The division is almost inevitable, but it has been noted far too rarely. As has this: uncertainty about how much the climate will change derives far more from the fact that we can’t know which “story” will come true than it does from any uncertainty about general circulation models. The models, after all, are already pretty good. But the future, well the future is a real problem.

Just now, the future is defined by war: imperial war, asymmetric war, and, in the grimmest case, war without end. In this context, one other essential point must be made: We may not make it to equity and sustainability, but if we do, the entire journey will be troubled by another possibility, a looming possibility that can flare at any time. It’s helpful, in this regard, to follow the Global Scenarios Group and think in terms of three broad pictures of the future, one of which, of course, must be very dark. Boston’s Tellus Institute, in a fine little book called Halfway to the Future: Reflections on the Global Condition , called these three futures “Conventional World,” “Fortress World,” and “Great Transformations,” and these names will certainly do. The key point, though, and the one to remember, is that the way forward will be marked out as a series of historical branch points , and that’s why we’ll always be just one dirty bomb away from the great reckoning.

Think, then, not of “the terrorists,” but of the party of the fortress world. And know two things about them: the fortress warriors are a minority, even among the elites, and they are quite wrong in thinking that their way solves the riddle of history. In 1960, the richest fifth of the world’s population had a total income 30 times as great as the poorest fifth; in 1990 the ration was 60 to 1. In 1998, it was 74 to 1. This is a fact, and a rather chilling one, and without it no library of treatises on Islamic fascism will explain Al Qaeda.

We have no choice but to manage terrorism. And just because we have no choice, it must be said that the word – “management” – does not inspire confidence. It has for far too long named the instrumental logic of the mercantile (and modern military) mind. It does not imply an honest confrontation with “root causes.” And yet, we really have no choice. The dirty bombs must not go off, and the impoverished and humiliated people who cheer their builders must be won over to another way.

In all this, what is at stake is realism, a much-maligned notion usually claimed by the likes of Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, and, on the enviro side, Robert Kaplan. But staring as we are, into the abyss, the shape of a new realism is getting clearer. You can see it in the best of the sustainable development literature, the honest stuff, and in activist texts like Foreign Policy in Focus’ A New Agenda to Counter Terrorism. And you can see it in the pronouncements of politicians like Tony Blair, who seized his moment to implore the Americans to rejoin Kyoto, even as he eagerly bent his shoulder the war effort.

Tony Blair, of course, is a hypocrite. But then again, he is a politician, so his hypocrisy is part of his brief. The more immediate issue is the one we face in our own pronouncements, our own careful parsings of difficult truths. It is difficult for us to say that the September 11 attacks were to a real degree the consequences of our histories, our policies and arrogations, for doing so requires us to strain for unusual subtleties, and it is dangerous, dangerous indeed. But here’s the point: it’s also necessary, a matter of realism as well as morality. Without it, there is no hope.

We may get bin Laden, and we may, if we’re very lucky, suppress Al Qaeda. And we may, as the years go on, if we are wise as well as lucky, succeed in managing the new terrorism: marginalizing it to the point where it does not, in effect, call the tune. If we do, however, it will be because the fortress warriors are no longer in command, because we finally persuaded the party of business-as-usual, or at least its more enlightened members, to stare into the eyes of darkness, and because they decided, finally, to connect the dots.

The ancient Greeks considered prudence to be a cardinal virtue, and we, too, could bear a moment’s meditation on its demands. Begin by admitting that the easy-street illusions of the post-Cold War boom have dissipated, that our real conditions of life our becoming hard to avoid seeing. And note that they seem strangely reminiscent of the exterminist logic of Mutual Assured Destruction, save that now some new players are at the table. This time around, MAD isn’t a game of East and West, but one of North and South. This time it’s the rich and the poor who are locked in a deadly embrace.

This is a small planet; we cannot escape each other. There will be no merely military victory in the “war against terrorism.” And, not at all incidentally, there will be no global warming solution that does not face the facts of global polarization, and provide for the aspirations of the poor as well as the weight and power of the rich, and-one other thing-do so without reducing the ecosystem to rubble. Given this, we have choices to make, many, many choices.

— Tom Athanasiou