The Price of Empire


One can understand the shock, the horror, the unbelief as the war most Americans didn’t know was going on or didn’t choose to acknowledge came home in such a brutal, deadly fashion in lower Manhattan and the Pentagon. This was obviously a coordinated attack, carried out with skill and stealth. Its success reflects a failure of Intelligence and intelligence on a massive scale.

In short, the United States, as a government and to some extent as a society, seems to have no idea how it is perceived in much of the world and no effective defense against the most dangerous threats to the continuing functioning of our society. It is hardly unique in history for officials to spend their time and spin their wheels preparing for the last war, or operating on assumptions that haven’t been valid for decades. The attacks in Washington and New York é and possibly attacks planned elsewhere that either failed or were thwarted é demonstrate that official intelligence in this country is sadly ineffective.

The media have been full of speculation about which groups, organizations or states might have been involved in these terrorist acts. I talked with Geoffrey Kemp, Middle East expert at the Nixon International Center in Washington and hardly a dove. Knowing a good deal more than most people about the people, players and organizations in the Middle East, he simply refused to speculate. He believes it could take several days for the first intelligence breaks that could be viewed as reliable to come through.

While the operation was clearly well-coordinated, highly professional, and had to have at least some kind of cooperation from what Mr. Kemp referred to as foreign “entities,” it is simply impossible to be sure at this point who carried out these terrorist attacks. A talk-show host in New Orleans with whom I spoke, Ed Butler, suggested that Colombian narco-traffickers might have been behind them, and they just might have the resources and the capability.

It is difficult to wait for reliable information, especially insofar as you understand that it might never become available. But to respond without reliable information é to target, just to take a recent example, an aspirin factory rather than a real terrorist headquarters é would be worse than ineffective. It would increase resentment.

Given that we don’t yet know and might never know exactly who perpetrated these terrorist acts, it might be appropriate é even though it might be early in the game for most Americans to be ready to consider them é to ask questions about our own policies and posture in the world.

I talked with Chalmers Johnson, political scientist, authority on Japan and author of Blowback: The Costs of American Empire, published last year by Henry Holt. He was saddened but not surprised by the attacks. His book had come close to predicting roughly similar attacks on American soil as resentment, hatred and hopelessness become more commonplace around the world that the United States tries rather desultorily to run.

Certain pertinent questions have been studiously ignored in most of the media and in most of the centers of policy-making and analysis, says Chalmers Johnson. Why was the United States a target? Why was the World Trade Center the target? Was it a symbol of capitalism or a symbol of American hegemony? What have we done é or what has the government done in our names é to create such intense and organized hostility?

“We have 65 major U.S. military installations in other peoples’ countries right now,” Johnson told me, and not everybody in those countries is happy about those bases’ presence. Although plenty of people have speculated, for example, that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national who is supposedly estranged from the Saudi government, has been behind numerous terrorist acts and masterminds a worldwide terrorist network, nobody has suggested that the United States withdraw its troops or bases from Saudi Arabia. If we were simply considering possible alternatives without preconceptions, that would certainly be at least on the table as an option.

The remarkable success of the terrorist assault é the ability to get hijackers through airport security and onto four or five different airplanes, to hijack all these airplanes simultaneously, to have people available who could not only fly an airplane reasonably competently but were willing to undertake a suicide mission é suggests a catastrophic failure of intelligence. But it is not just a failure of information-gathering but a failure of imagination and understanding of how the world is, rather than how it was.

Chalmers Johnson maintains that US defense and intelligence services have seemed incapable of imagining the world as it really is for at least a decade, maybe longer. He thinks that the Cold War actually ended, in terms of the Soviets posing a genuine threat, before the Soviet Union deteriorated. Even if that’s arguable, however, the world changed profoundly in 1989 and our defense and intelligence agencies, whether through bureaucratic inertia or the comfort of old preconceptions or a number of other reasons, still don’t understand é and haven’t even tried very hard to understand é the new shape of the world.

Thus we are almost completely unprepared for the dispersed, decentralized kind of terrorist threat that was proven, yesterday, to be capable of creating incredible destruction.

Even more important, however, is a failure to understand just how deeply hated the United States is in many parts of the world é and hated by people ready and able to take desperate and ruthless actions. It’s not just that most CIA analysts have never even been to the countries they are supposed to be analyzing, nor that they often don’t speak the language. It is that we are careless and arrogant in our ignorance, that we exercise our hegemony without much forethought, analysis or intelligence.

Blowback” is a CIA term referring to an operation that comes back to bite you, often in unpredictable and certainly unintended way. The terrorist operations against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon can be seen as blowback, the unintended consequences of American hegemony, the costs that have finally begun to be paid by Americans, on American soil, for our leaders’ casual and often thoughtless form of empire-building and maintenance.

The temptation US leaders will struggle with in the next day or so is to respond intelligently and in a measured fashion rather than blindly and disproportionately. It is almost certain, for example, that airport security will be significantly tighter, that access to government buildings and major office building will be more difficult. Some of these measures may be required but some may be overdone.

Plenty of people have compared this attack to Pearl Harbor , and in terms of casualties and the surprise element the comparison may be apt. Chalmers Johnson reminded me, however, that one of the responses to Pearl Harbor was what he called a “racial pogrom” against Japanese-Americans, almost all of whom had nothing to do with the attack and had no sympathy for their former country. (It is a point of pride to me that the Orange County Register was one of the few newspapers to oppose the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1943 and 1943 rather than years later.)

It also can be said that Pearl Harbor (and other affiliated activities) led to the formation of the intelligence services that became the CIA. Perhaps the World Trade Center assault, which exposed the ineffectiveness of the CIA as it is presently constituted, will lead to a deconstruction of the CIA and the building of a better information capability from the ground up. I don’t think that’s likely, but I do think it would be desirable.

Chalmers Johnson points out one more phenomenon that makes such attacks, especially suicide attacks, feasible.

What we have seen é perhaps most notably in the Middle East but elsewhere as well é is a loss of hope among wide swaths of people. It is not too difficult to understand that a lot of Palestinians have lost hope that anything positive is likely to happen in their lifetimes. It is also becoming more the case that Israelis are losing hope also.

When people have no hope or see no possibility of a decent life for themselves and their children, then war and even suicide become less unthinkable, less unlikely. Insofar as increasing numbers of people have lost hope for the future, perhaps we will see more people willing to engage in what most of see as incredibly desperate acts of violence and terrorism.

I hope Chalmers Johnson is wrong about that one. But there is little question now that the United States has begun to pay the price in bloodshed at home for the arrogance and breastbeating of our almost breathtakingly ignorant foreign policy leaders. One may hate those consequences, but until we begin to recognize that retaliation against innocents is among the consequences of our foreign policy, we will make little progress either in understanding September 11 or avoiding more attacks in the future.

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register, a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily and a regular contributor to