The Unz Review - Mobile
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 BlogviewTom Engelhardt Archive
The Ultimate Blowback Universe
A Planet Boiling With Unintended Consequences
🔊 Listen RSS
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information


Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Troll, or LOL with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used once per hour.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
Search Text Case Sensitive  Exact Words  Include Comments
List of Bookmarks

You want to see “blowback” in action? That’s easy enough. All you need is a vague sense of how Google Search works. Then type into it phrases like “warmest years,” “rising sea levels,” “melting ice,” “lengthening wildfire season,” or “future climate refugees,” and you’ll find yourself immersed in the grimmest of blowback universes. It’s a world which should give that CIA term of tradecraft a meaning even the Agency never imagined for it.

But before I put you on this blowback planet of ours and introduce you to the blowback president presiding over it, I want to take a moment to remember Mr. Blowback himself.

And what a guy he was! Here’s how he described himself in the last piece he wrote for TomDispatch just months before his death in November 2010: “My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her.”

He wasn’t being immodest. He had, in many ways, seen the shape of things to come for what he never hesitated to call “the American empire,” including — in that 2010 piece — its decline. As he wrote then, “Thirty-five years from now, America’s official century of being top dog (1945-2045) will have come to an end; its time may, in fact, be running out right now. We are likely to begin to look ever more like a giant version of England at the end of its imperial run, as we come face to face with, if not necessarily to terms with, our aging infrastructure, declining international clout, and sagging economy.”

You know how — if you’re of a certain age at least — there are those moments when you go back to the books that truly mattered to you, the ones that somehow prepared you, as best anyone can be prepared, for the years to come. One I return to regularly is his. I’m talking about Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.

The man who wrote that was Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant and eminent scholar of modern Asian history, who would in that work characterize himself in his former life as a “spear-carrier for empire.”

Blowback was published in 2000 to next to no notice. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, it became a bestseller. There was so much to learn from it, starting with the very definition of blowback, a word he brought out of the secret world for the rest of us to consider. “The term ‘blowback,’ which officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use,” he wrote, “refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign acts of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.”

And if “unintended consequences” isn’t a supremely appropriate title under which to write the misbegotten history of the years that followed 9/11 in the era of the self-proclaimed “sole superpower” or, as American politicians love to say, “the indispensable nation,” what is? Of course, in the best blowback fashion, al-Qaeda’s attacks of that day hit this country like literal bolts from the blue — even the top officials of George W. Bush’s administration were stunned as they scurried for cover. Of all Americans, they at least should have been better prepared, given the warning offered to the president only weeks earlier by that blowback center of operations, the CIA. (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” was the title of the presidential daily brief of August 6, 2001.)

Osama bin Laden would prove to be the poster boy of blowback. His organization, al-Qaeda, would be nurtured into existence by an all-American urge to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam, what its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, would later call its “bleeding wound,” and to do so in, of all places, Afghanistan. In October 2001, 12 years after the Red Army limped out of that country in defeat and a decade after the Soviet Union imploded, in part thanks to that very wound, Washington would launch a “Global War on Terror.” It would be the Bush administration’s response to al-Qaeda’s supposedly inexplicable attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The Taliban’s Afghanistan would be its first target and so would begin America’s second Afghan War, a conflict now almost 17 years old with no end in sight. Yet in our American world, remarkably few connections are ever made between the present war and that blowback moment against the Soviets nearly 40 years ago. (Were he alive, Chalmers Johnson, who never ceased to make such connections, would have been grimly amused.)

Giving Imperial Overstretch New Meaning

Talk about the endless ramifications of blowback. It was bin Laden’s genius — for a mere $400,000 to $500,000 — to goad Washington into spending trillions of dollars across significant parts of the Islamic world fighting conflict after conflict, all of which only seemed to create yet more rubble, terror outfits, and refugees (who, in turn, have helped fuel yet more right-wing populist movements from Europe to Donald Trump’s America). Tell me it’s not a blowback world!

As it happened, bin Laden’s 2001 attacks brought official Washington not to its knees but to its deepest post-Cold War conviction: that the world was its oyster; that, for the first time in history, a single great power potentially had it all, a shot at everything, starting with Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, then much of the rest of the Middle East, and sooner or later the whole planet. In a post-Soviet world in which America’s leaders felt the deepest sense of triumphalism, the 9/11 attacks seemed like the ultimate insult. Who would dream of doing such a thing to the greatest power of all of time?


In an act of pure wizardry, bin Laden drew out of Bush, Cheney, and company their deepest geopolitical fantasies about the ability of that all-powerful country and, in particular, “the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world,” the U.S. military, to dominate any situation on Earth. The early months of 2003, when they were preparing to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, may have been their ultimate hubristic moment, in which imagining anything other than success of a historic sort, not just in that country but far beyond it, was inconceivable.

Until then, never — except in Hollywood movies when the bad guy rubbed his hands with glee and cackled that the world was his — had any power truly dreamed of taking it all, of ruling, or at least directing, the planet itself. Even for a globalizing great power without rivals and wealthy almost beyond compare that would prove the ultimate in conceptual overstretch. Looking back, it’s easy enough to see that almost 17 years of ceaseless war and conflict across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and even parts of Asia, of massive destruction, of multiplying failed states, of burgeoning terror outfits, and of blowback of every sort, have given the old phrase, “biting off more than you can chew,” new geopolitical meaning.

Washington created what was, in effect, a never-ending blowback machine. In those years, while the distant wars went on and on (and terrors of every imaginable sort grew in this country), the United States was transformed in a remarkable, if not yet fully graspable, fashion. The national security state now reigns supreme in Washington; generals (or retired generals) are perched (however precariously) atop key parts of the civilian government; a right-wing populist, who rose to power in part on the fear of immigrants, refugees, and Islamic extremists, has his giant golden letters emblazoned on the White House (and a hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue that no diplomat or lobbyist with any sense would dare not patronize); the police have been militarized; borders have been further fortified; spy drones have been dispatched to American skies; and the surveillance of the citizenry and its communications have been made the order of the day. Meanwhile, the latest disturbed teen, armed with a military-style AR-15 semi-automatic, has just perpetrated another in a growing list of slaughters in American schools. In response, the president, Republican politicians, and the National Rifle Association have all plugged the arming of teachers and administrators, as well as the “hardening” of schools (including the use of surveillance systems and other militarized methods of “defense”), and so have given phrases like “citadel of learning” or “bastion of education” new meaning. In these same years, various unnamed terrors and the weaponization of the most psychically distraught parts of the citizenry under the rubric of the Second Amendment and the sponsorship of the NRA, the Republican Party, and most recently Donald Trump have transformed this country into something like an armed camp.

It seems, in other words, that in setting out to take the world, in some surprising fashion this country both terrorized and conquered itself. For that, Osama bin Laden should certainly be congratulated but so should George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and all their neoconservative pals, not to speak of David Petraeus, James Mattis, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, and a host of other generals of America’s losing wars.

Think of it this way: at what looked like the height of American power, Washington managed to give imperial overstretch a historically new meaning. Even on a planet without other great power rivals, a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East, no less the full-scale garrisoning and policing of significant parts of the rest of the globe proved far too much for the sole superpower, no matter how technologically advanced its military or powerful and transnational its economy. As it turned out, that urge to take everything would prove the perfect launching pad for this country’s decline.

Someday (if there is such a day), this record will prove a goldmine for historians of imperial power and blowback. And yet all of this, even the fate of this country, should be considered relatively minor matters, given the ultimate blowback to come.

Humanity Nailed to a Cross of Coal

There was, in fact, another kind of blowback underway and the American empire was clearly a player in it, too, even a major one, but hardly the only one. Every place using fossil fuels was involved. This form of blowback threatens not just the decline of a single great imperial power but of humanity itself, of the very environment that nurtured generation after generation of us over these thousands of years. By definition, that makes it the worst form of blowback imaginable.

What I have in mind, of course, is climate change or global warming. In a way, you could think of it as the story of another kind of superpower and how it launched the decline of us all. On a planetary scale, the giant corporations (and national fuel companies) that make up global Big Energy have long been on the hunt for every imaginable reserve of fossil fuels and for ways to control and exploit them. The oil, natural gas, and coal such outfits extracted fueled industrial society, still-spreading car cultures, and consumerism as we know it.

Over most of the years such companies were powering human development, the men who ran them and their employees had no idea that the greenhouse gasses released by the burning of fossil fuels were heating the atmosphere and the planet’s waters in potentially disastrous ways. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, like scientists elsewhere, those employed by ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, had become aware of the phenomenon (as would those of other energy companies). That meant the men who ran Exxon and other major firms recognized in advance of most of the rest of us just what kind of blowback the long-term burning of oil, natural gas, and coal was going to deliver: a planet ever less fit for human habitation.


They just didn’t think those of us in the non-scientific community should know about it and so, by the 1990s, they were already doing their damnedest to hide it from us. However, when scientists not in their employ started to publicize the new reality in a significant way, as the heads of some of the most influential and wealthiest corporations on Earth they began to invest striking sums in the fostering of a universe of think tanks, lobbyists, and politicians devoted to what became known as climate-change denial. Between 1998 and 2014, for instance, Exxon would pump $30 million into just such think tanks and similar groups, while donating $1.87 million directly to congressional climate-change deniers.

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize that, from its inception, this was the functional definition of the worst crime in history. In the name of record profits and the comfortable life (as well as corporate sustainability in an unendingly fossil-fuelized world), their CEOs had no hesitation about potentially dooming the human future to a hell on Earth of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and ever more extreme weather; they gave, that is, a new, all-encompassing meaning to the term genocide. They were prepared, if necessary, to take out the human species.

But I suspect even they couldn’t have imagined quite how successful they would be when it came to bringing the sole superpower of the post-9/11 world on board. In a sense, the two leading forms of blowback of the twenty-first century — the imperial and fossil-fuelized ones — came to be focused in a single figure. After all, it’s hard to imagine the rise to power of Donald Trump in a world in which the Bush administration had decided not to invade either Afghanistan or Iraq but to treat its “Global War on Terror” as a localized set of police actions against one international criminal and his scattered group of followers.

As it happened, one form of blowback from the disastrous wars that were meant to create the basis for a Pax Americana planet helped to produce the conditions and fears at home that put Donald Trump in the White House.

Or put another way, in the face of the evidence produced by essentially every knowledgeable scientist on Earth, on a planet already feeling the early and increasingly extreme results of a warming atmosphere, millions of Americans elected a man who claimed it was all a “hoax,” who was unabashedly dedicated above anything else (except perhaps his “big, fat, beautiful wall” on the Mexican border) to a fossil-fuelized American planet, and who insisted that he would run an administration that would make this country “energy dominant” again. They elected, in other words, a representative of the very set of lobbyists, climate deniers, and politicians who had, in essence, been created by Big Energy. Or put another way, they voted for a man who pledged to bring back the dying American coal industry and was prepared to green-light oil and natural gas pipelines of whatever sort, open the nation’s coastal waters to drilling, and lift restrictions of every kind on energy companies, while impeding the development of alternative sources of energy and other attempts to mitigate climate change. As the ultimate President Blowback, Donald Trump promptly filled every last faintly relevant post in his administration with climate-change deniers and allies of Big Energy, while abandoning the Paris climate accord.

In other words, President Donald Trump has dedicated himself to nailing humanity to a cross of coal.

Where’s Chalmers Johnson now that we really need him?

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. His next book, A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books), will be published in May.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Donald Trump, Global Warming 
Hide 11 CommentsLeave a Comment
Commenters to FollowEndorsed Only
Trim Comments?
  1. Wally says:

    He’s nothing more then the typical ‘green on the outside, red on the inside’, anti science control freak.

    This dimwitted guy is a fill blown Marxist who wants the energy sector of the economy under communist control. They will try & say anything.

    It’s always been about money & political power for the Marxists.

    Real science doesn’t hide it’s data.
    Real science doesn’t need to alter data.
    Real science produces ‘models’ which generate real, observable results.
    Real scientists don’t get nailed in Climate Gate.
    Real science doesn’t try to silence differences of opinion.
    Real science doesn’t advocate the arrest of those that disagree with them.

    Most Massive Scientific Fraud In Human History

    100% Of US ‘Warming’ Is Due To NOAA Data Tampering

    NASA Data Proves Trump Right to Exit Paris Climate Accord

    Now 400 Scientific Papers in 2017 Say ‘Global Warming’ Is a Myth
    The fake ‘97% climate consensus’ crumbles further with 485 new papers in 2017 that debunk it

  2. The offhand blowback reference to 9/11 is deceptive. When the article quickly pivots to the unrelated topic of global warming, the effect is to suppress critical attention to the fabricated official story in the 9/11 commission reports.

    Overwhelming open-source evidence shows that 9/11 was not erroneous ‘blowback’ but an armed attack on the US civilian population carried out by Saudi and Israeli cutouts coordinated and infiltrated into the US by CIA.

    9/11 turned out very well for CIA: COG invocation gave them firm control of the US government; they established and entrenched municipal-law precedents for impunity for serious crimes of concern to the international community; and they rolled out their Vietnam-template Phoenix Centers as ‘fusion centers’ nationwide.

  3. TG says:

    Interesting article – although it really seems like two articles, one on geopolitical blowback and the other on coal. Let me address the first one.

    Indeed, agreed, well said. But here is another perspective: those trillions of dollars on pointless endless foreign wars are also, to a great extent, a consequence of our post-1970 cheap labor immigration policy.

    Consider: 9/11 was largely committed by illegal immigrants. Just a decade or two earlier that attack would have been impossible, because the laws against illegal immigration were actually enforced, and legal immigration from countries like Pakistan etc. was very sharply limited.

    The world is a big and messy place. Even if the United States was the most benevolent nation in history, there will always be any number of extremist groups that hate us, either specifically as a nation or more generally for our religion or race or political system or culture etc. In the past, these people would have stewed in their own misery and mostly killed each other. Now then can just come here almost no question asked, and suddenly the only way to have security is to monitor and break up ALL extremist groups over the ENTIRE world. Which is, of course impossible.

    Suppose that in 1941, we had allowed anyone from Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan to come here no questions asked? Even then, most would have been good people but there would have been so many saboteurs and terrorists etc. that we would have had to make up for a lack of external security with police-state internal security. As we are doing now.

    The Wall Street Journal’s rallying cry is “There Shall Be Open Borders.” The subhead is that now all of the world’s manifest conflicts and hatreds are our concern, like it or not.

    • Replies: @Agents
  4. I am not sure enough can be said about Mr Chalmers’ or his book,


    Few people acknowledge that our invasions were exactly what Osama Bin Laden wanted. In my v iew he continues to outwit and out goad us even from his grave.

  5. Agents says:

    The 9/11 arms and legs were not ordinary illegals. Ordinary illegals don’t have CIA agents to infiltrate them into the country, issue irregular visas, and spring them when they get caught. They don’t have the protection of eyes-only intelligence liaisons with Mossad.

    • Replies: @Fidelios Automata
  6. @Agents

    Hear, hear! It aggravates me to no end to hear truthers muttering on about a hypothetical and (in my view) extremely unlikely use of controlled demolition on the Towers. Occam’s razor, people. All we needed was the credible threat of a horrific terrorist attack to turn America into a police state. The big question of 9/11 has always been “who knew in advance”? That there were those who knew — besides just the dim-witted conspirators — is, in my view, an indisputable fact.

  7. Tom is, as usual, right about the problems and wrong about the solutions, except one — stop meddling in other nations’ business!

  8. If you can keep your head
    while all about you are losing theirs
    and blaming it on
    … ” somebody, anybody, just point that finger and you’ll be sure to get an audience.

    There are plenty of examples of misfeasance and malfeasance in the world, but it is still just a world that is overpopulated by a fractious social animal with the power to do immense damage to itself and its environment.

    You can spend your time and energy playing the blame game or you can spend them thinking about how you are going to survive the cull.

  9. Talk about the endless ramifications of blowback. It was bin Laden’s genius …blah blah… In an act of pure wizardry, bin Laden blah blah

    Ahh, blow it out your ass, Tommy Boy….

    I really resent all this pathetic left gatekeeper bullshit about the “genius” of the patsy Bin Laden and the so-called “blowback” phenomenon. It’s just a bunch of discredited bullshit that has no place in a serious forum for honest discussion. I don’t know whether this Engelhardt is just stupid or is an intel agency asset spreading disinfo as part of his job. I can’t prove it one way or the other and there is the argument that one should give people the benefit of the doubt, but my gut sense increasingly is that this kind of person is a shill of some sort.

    • Replies: @EliteCommInc.
  10. @Jonathan Revusky

    I have no comment about whether or not Osama Bin Laden was a genius.

    It is on the record that he engaged in acts of terror as an attempt to get the US to pursue him. He believed that outside of her normal defensive territories, he could expose her weakness, even defeat her.

    Now if you are in the camp that is convinced the entire affair was a government cabal — then it doesn’t really matter, in your view.

    • Replies: @Jonathan Revusky
  11. @EliteCommInc.

    I have no comment about whether or not Osama Bin Laden was a genius.

    Well, the whole Bin Laden conversation is just a distraction and a waste of time.

    If you want to understand what the JFK assassination was about, it is a total waste of time to study Lee Harvey Oswald. Similarly, if you want to study 9/11, this Bin Laden character is just a distraction. This just leads you nowhere.

    These people are just the patsies in the story. Anybody who makes a serious in-depth study of these events understands this. So, I was wondering what is up with an author like this Engelhardt putting out these kinds of red herrings. I think he’s some sort of shill.

    It is on the record that he engaged in acts of terror as an attempt to get the US to pursue him

    They’ve been telling us this story for 16, going on 17 years now. But where is the proof? Maybe you’d like to summarize the strongest evidence available that this Osama Bin Laden character was really behind the 9/11 attacks.

Current Commenter

Leave a Reply - Comments on articles more than two weeks old will be judged much more strictly on quality and tone

 Remember My InformationWhy?
 Email Replies to my Comment
Submitted comments become the property of The Unz Review and may be republished elsewhere at the sole discretion of the latter
Subscribe to This Comment Thread via RSS Subscribe to All Tom Engelhardt Comments via RSS
Personal Classics
Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) American Achievements of the Twenty-First Century
How the Security State’s Mania for Secrecy Will Create You
Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower