ROBERT SIEGEL, host: In an address to a Labour Party conference last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had this to say about the events of September 11th.
Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): Understand the causes of terror. Yes, we should try, but let there be no moral ambiguity about this. Nothing could ever justify the events of 11th of September, and it is to turn justice on its head to pretend it could.
SIEGEL: In the intellectual debate over how the US should respond to terrorism it is not simply hawks vs. doves, nor is it as simple as those who would restrict the focus to Osama bin Laden vs. those who advise also going after states that support terrorism, like Iraq or perhaps Syria. There is another divide, as NPR’s Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER reporting:
Although it was pretty much ignored when it was published last year, there’s a book that’s been selling briskly ever since the September 11th attacks. The book is called “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.” The author, Chalmers Johnson, is a former cold warrior and Asian scholar at the University of California, now retired, who believes that now that the Soviet Union is no more, America must pull back from its overextended reach. The term blowback, says Johnson, was coined by the CIA in the 1950s to refer to unintended consequences of covert operations that come back to haunt the United States. At the time the term was coined, he says, the prime example was the assassination of Iran’s premier, Muhammad Mussadegh.
Mr. CHALMERS JOHNSON (Author, “Blowback”): The result of this egregious interference in the affairs of Iran was to bring the shah to power and 25 years of repression and tyranny, leading finally to the holding of the entire US Embassy in Tehran hostage for over a year and the revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
ADLER: Turning to the current crisis, another instance of blowback would be helping the mujaheddin in Afghanistan and fostering extreme Islamic movements in the fight against the Soviet Union. As Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT and a longtime critic of US policy, puts it…
Professor NOAM CHOMSKY (MIT): I mean, the US bears major responsibility for what happened in Afghanistan in the last 20 years.
Afghanistan was exploited for US purposes as a base for a war against the Russians. And that’s the source of the terrorist networks, the blowback that Chalmers Johnson’s talking about correctly. In the 1990s, when the Russians were out, that country was just torn to shreds by warring militias, a lot of them which we had supported and often continued to support.
ADLER: And by not rebuilding the country and supplying aid, Chomsky argues the United States further fueled Islamic movements leading to the Taliban. Countering the blowback thesis in an article in The New Republic, editor Peter Beinart argues that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan did most of the funding and training of the mujaheddin. Perhaps if we had intervened more, he argues, we would have averted this crisis. He agrees partly with Chomsky about US responsibility for the Taliban in the 1990s after the Cold War.
Mr. PETER BEINART (Editor, The New Republic): When the Soviets left, the country fell into civil war and it was that hideous civil war that the United States washed its hands of that allowed the religious students from the Pakistani border to move north and capture more and more territory until eventually they got to Kabul.
ADLER: In fact, Beinart argues that the US abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet Union’s demise was of a piece with its abandonment of Liberia, Somalia and the Congo. In each instance, he says, our lack of intervention provided a fertile ground for terrorism.
For Chalmers Johnson, the idea of blowback puts things in historical context. This is the cost of empire. This is not America’s new war, as certain media organizations have called it.
Mr. JOHNSON: A large number of people around the world obviously believe they’ve been at war with us over the last 20 years and finally just scored.
ADLER: In an editorial in The Washington Post, Michael Kelly calls the idea that the United States is reaping the fruits of imperialism a position that condones evil. And columnists such as Charles Krauthammer, William Kristal and Christopher Hitchens have said much the same. But none has articulated this position as concisely as New York’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, in his address to the United Nations on October 1st.
Mayor RUDOLPH GIULIANI (New York City): You’re either with civilization or with terrorists. On one side is democracy, the rule of law and respect for human life. On the other is tyranny, arbitrary executions and mass murder. Those who practice terrorism lose any right to have their cause understood by decent people and lawful nations.
ADLER: But Chomsky argues that the resentment of the United States in much of the Middle East is not based on a hatred of democracy and freedom; it is based on America’s lack of support for democratic governments. Chomsky points to US ties with Saudi Arabia, America’s support of what he calls apartheidlike practices toward Palestinians in Israel, and the impact of sanctions against Iraq on children and civilians.
Prof. CHOMSKY: It has nothing to do with our values. In fact, they’re objecting to the fact–openly and overtly, to the fact that we oppose democracy in the region. One of the main things stressed by the monied Muslims is US opposition to democratic tendency.
ADLER: Peter Beinart refutes these arguments one by one. Take the charge that US sanctions against Iraq have led to the death of innocent children. Iraq, he argues, has enough oil for export to fill its hospitals with medicine and the bellies of its children with food.
Mr. BEINART: You can look at the case of the Kurdish-UN run areas in the north, which are subject to exactly the same UN sanctions regime but where hostel supplies are not resold for arms and to build houses as they are under Saddam, but are in fact used for the people’s benefit. And you see, in fact, the infant mortality rates are better than they were before the start of the Gulf War. So I vehemently reject the idea that just because people in certain parts of the world hate us means we deserve hatred. And that seems to me, I must say, a certain particular pathology of the American left.
ADLER: But it is not only the left that sees negative consequences from America’s expansive reach. Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. While Carpenter is supportive of strategic US military action in response to the September 11th attacks, he accepts much of the blowback argument.
Mr. TED GALEN CARPENTER (Cato Institute): Has American policy increased the risk of terrorism? I think that needs to be a key question. When we decide to intervene, we now know what the potential cost might be. And it’s not just intervention in the Middle East.
Could a Balkan extremist someday attack a target in the United States?
If we’re honest with ourselves, there’s going to be a much shorter list of things that we might do in the world that we’re going to judge will truly be worth incurring that kind of risk.
ADLER: Even before the US bombing of Afghanistan, many conservatives berated the left for its pacifism. Many on the left countered, ‘Where were you when we were defending women against the Taliban?’ Now they argue that bombing Afghanistan gives bin Laden the very holy war he wants. But what’s striking about this debate is that it’s not only taking place in small magazines like The Nation and The National Review. It’s appearing in national newspapers like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today. As Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair wrote in their left magazine CounterPunch two weeks ago, ‘If Americans utterly decline to think about their history, that would imply a sense of absolute moral and historical self-assurance equivalent to that of bin Laden. So far,’ they said, ‘that has not happened.’ Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.