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Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

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Reaction on Capitol Hill and from Bush administration officials was swift and angry, as government officials fairly fell over themselves to vow military retaliation against those responsible for Tuesday’s attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. [includes rush transcript]

Congresspeople raised the disturbing specter of restrictions on civil liberties as they called for an investigation into the military and intelligence failures they say made the attacks possible.

The media and politicians overwhelmingly portrayed Tuesday’s tragic events as an attack on the U.S. because of its virtue, because the United States is a “beacon of freedom,” in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But there was almost no reflection about U.S. foreign policy and what might have prompted someone to undertake such a desperate and catastrophic act, or about the growing resentment over U.S. power around the world.


  • Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld


  • Chalmers Johnson, a leading scholar of Asia and U.S.-Asian relations, and author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And just as that sunset was taking place, Donald Rumsfeld and the military command were holding a news conference at the Pentagon. This is the Secretary of Defense.

REPORTER 1: Mr. Secretary, could you tell us what you saw?

REPORTER 2: Mr. Secretary, do you consider what happened today, both in New York and here, an act of war?

DONALD RUMSFELD: There is no question but that the attack against the United States of America today was a vicious, well-coordinated, massive attack against the United States of America. What words the lawyers will use to characterize it is for them.

REPORTER 3: Mr. Secretary, today we say military planes both in New York and in Washington. How much more of a military presence will we see, now that this incident has occurred, for the next week?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Those kinds of decisions are made day to day. It is correct that we had aircraft flying protective missions at various places in the United States today, and they will do that as appropriate.

AMY GOODMAN: And that is Secretary of Defense, or War, Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at the Pentagon late yesterday. We’re joined on the phone by Chalmers Johnson, a leading scholar of Asia and U.S.-Asian relations. In his book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, he writes, “I believe it is past time…for Americans to consider why we have created an empire—a word from which we shy away—and what the consequences of our imperial stance may be for the rest of the world and for ourselves. […]

“The byproducts of this project are likely to build up reservoirs of resentment against all Americans—tourists, students, and businessmen, as well as members of the armed forces—that can have lethal results.

“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.”

How do you think these words that you wrote years ago in your book Blowback, Chalmers Johnson, apply to today?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, that’s exactly what has happened. This morning’s New York Times says, “A Day of Terror.” I’d have to say it was a day of revenge, a day of blowback. It is—it reflects the loss of hope among a great many people around the world in the face of our overwhelming power.

I, like everyone else, am angry, effected with despair and helplessness, over the scenes in New York City. At the same time, one has to ask, why us? What have we done? That is this issue of—they just asked Donald Rumsfeld, should we declare war? The important issue, precisely, is declare war on whom, and over what? I believe it is imperative that we engage in some self-reflection; that we try to restore in this country some sense of diplomacy, some sense of ourselves as a model for the rest of the world, rather than simply a hegemon; that we move away from our creeping, not so creeping, militarism. I fear that the unintended consequences of these events on September 11th will be more militarism. So that it’s not—I’m not gratified to say that the book that was published just last year, and was written as an intended warning to my fellow citizens, and based on—I’m 70 years old—on my life as a student of international relations—I’m not at all pleased to see it come true, but I can’t say that I’m surprised.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in your book, “What we have freed ourselves of is any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe.”

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Yes. I received a message yesterday from a colleague in Okinawa. That’s 38 American military bases on an island smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. He said to me, “We didn’t do it, but we’re not sorry.” I’m sorry to say, an awful lot of people around the world went to bed last night not sorry, that it was time the biter was bit, that the people of America now know what a bombed city looks like, have some hint of Hiroshima. I mean, after all, we were bombing Serbia from 50,000 feet only two years ago in pursuit of our particular foreign policy. So that the President vows to exact punishment for evil. Is it evil that we are talking about here? And if it is evil, whose evil? I believe we partake in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, as you listen to Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of war, as you listen to President Bush—


AMY GOODMAN: —what were your—what was you response?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: I thought they were hopeless hypocrites, I’m sorry to say. It simply is—when the President speaks of the moms and dads of America who lost their lives yesterday, or their friends, that’s also true of moms and dads in Afghanistan, the West Bank, Okinawa and other such places. If this did originate—and these are huge ifs, one doesn’t know, there are so many potential candidates around the world for people who could have plotted this not terribly high-tech, even if well-coordinated, assault—that if it did originate in Afghanistan, we must also remember that we contributed to the Afghan disaster, that after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, we then armed every known mujahideen we could find with some of the most dangerous weapons on earth, and in order to give the Soviet Union their own little experience of a Vietnam-like encounter, which indeed they were defeated, but the unbelievable toll in Afghanistan of dead and refugees.

This is, after all—yesterday was not the first time that the World Trade Center has been attacked. It was attacked in February 1993 also by people outraged by what had been done to their country as a plaything almost between the two super powers, so that I guess when you say, what’s one’s reaction as we listen to one’s leaders, what we must hear at some point is some understanding of the world we live in, that we are responsible in. I mean, what have we been doing for the last eight months, except conveying to the rest of the world that we are unilateralists, that we will walk away from treaties we have signed, that we want to build a ballistic missile defense in violation of treaties that we’ve signed and advice of virtually all allies that we have around the world—

AMY GOODMAN: Chalmers Johnson, on that note, we have to wrap up. I want to thank you for being with us, author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, Professor Emeritus at University of California, San Diego.

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