193 of 206 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2003
I'm of two minds about Chalmers Johnson's Blowback. On the one hand, it's probably the best critical introduction to US foreign policy in Asia. On the other hand, Johnson too often chooses polemics over nuance and has a somewhat confused approach to imperialism and what to do about it.
The first thing to know is that both the title and subtitle are misleading. This is a book almost exclusively about US imperialism in East and Southeast Asia. It rarely explores other regions or what's usually termed blowback. What Johnson does do is much more valuable - he explains America's military and economic policies toward Asia without getting stuck in the stultifying prose of security experts or the bewildering technical jargon of economists.
It's not a pretty picture. We see the destructive legacy of American bases in Okinawa and elsewhere, the US complicity in the South Korean military's atrocities on Cheju (after World War II) and Kwangju (1980), the US arming and training of Indonesia's death squad military, the relentless push for a militarized Asia by the American military-industrial complex, and the horrible consequences of American economic priorities. We also learn a good deal about the recent history and politics of the region's major states.
Johnson's strength is in recounting the specificities of US foreign policy; he's much weaker at an overall understanding of imperialism. He seems to think that American policymakers have naively built up the economic strength of their Japanese, Korean, and now Chinese competitors by focusing on maintaining their own military power. This is an old critique, resting on the notion that imperialism hurts the imperialists.
But Johnson is relying on the idea that "America" is a unitary entity, so that the hollowing out of industry hurts "America", not specific social groups within the country. In reality, US foreign policymakers work to advance the interests not of "America", but of those same business elites that have benefited from turning Asia into the world's sweatshop and undermining the unions that built their strength on American industry. American economic imperialism is not a failed conspiracy against the people of Asia, but an alliance between American elites and their Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, and Chinese counterparts - against the potential power of the working majority in all those countries. But it's more complex than that, too, since the US seeks to prevent the emergence of an independent military challenge (especially China, but also Japan) to its Asia hegemony while seeking to expand the power of American commercial interests in the region, even as it tries to keep Asian elites happy enough with the status quo to prevent their rebellion against it.
In other words, the US system in Asia is more complicated than Johnson conveys, and defending America's mythical "national interests" will never address its fundamental injustices. While Johnson seems to have abundant sympathy for the people of Asia, his nationalist framework prevents his from proposing the only real challenge to American hegemony: a popular anti-imperialist movement that crosses the barriers of nation-states.
65 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2001
"Blowback" is an important and timely critique of America's over-extended and obsolete empire not from a moral perspective but from practical considerations of the nation's future well being. The term "blowback" is derived from a CIA reference to American foreign policy decisions that generate unforeseeable, negative consequences. For example, following the Gulf War in 1991, the United States stationed more than 35,000 soldiers in Saudi Arabia to deter any further hostility from Iraq. An unexpected consequence of this decision was the sudden fomenting of intense hatred toward America on the part of radical Islamic fundamentalists including Osama Bin Laden.
Johnson argues that while most great powers exploit their empires, America, is actually exploited by its own. During the Cold War the United States justifiably sought to create a buffer of Pacific satellite nations to cope with the threat of Soviet expansion in Asia. While this may have been an effective deterrent, it also came with a price. According to Johnson, the United States effectively bribed Japan with favorable economic conditions that fueled phenomenal growth in that country while largely destroying the manufacturing base in America. Although this may have been a prudent strategy during the Cold War, Johnson asks why the United States continues to sacrifice its productivity and living conditions at home in order to maintain a troop presence in Asia.
Where American troops were once stationed abroad as a buffer against Soviet expansion, they are now used to influence the countries they occupy or to train governments in counter insurgency and political repression. Johnson points out that in several cases American intervention on behalf of a repressive government merely turned American protectorates into implacable enemies. Johnson sites Vietnam and Iran as two examples of this failed strategy, and he warns of impending identical results in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The tragedy of America's misguided foreign policy, according to Johnson is that while it drains enormous resources from America, it fails to provide the nation with beneficial results.
Instead of continuing its obsolete Cold War strategy, Johnson calls on the United States to reevaluate its strategic requirements and to formulate a new foreign policy. An honest evaluation of American objectives according to Johnson would probably result in the recall of most American troops stationed abroad. Johnson foresees enormous resistance to such change from the military, which is the chief beneficiary of America's global military deployment. Johnson also argues that America is much better off accepting and working with China's inevitable economic surge and its increasing political status than attempting to contain the inevitable.
To anyone who is wondering why citizens of many foreign countries hate the United States, this book is a must read. In case after case, Johnson demonstrates the negative impact of American military bases on local communities such as Okinawa and parts of the Philippines where, rape, crime, noise, disease, and environmental contamination are routine byproducts of American military presence. Add to this American complicity in atrocities such as the Kwangju massacre (South Korea 1980) or the inept reorganization of foreign economies by American controlled institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank and foreign hostility toward the United States ceases to be a mystery. Written prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, this book accurately predicts increasing blowback against the United States both at home and abroad in response to its late 20th Century foreign policy. The American challenge in the 21st Century according to Johnson involves dismantling the American empire and coping with blowback.
This book is also a must read for self-styled Machiavellians, or believers in Real Politic. Johnson effectively argues that blowback is not a unique American phenomenon but is the product of expansionist nations in general. To this day, for example, Japan must tread carefully in its political dealings with nations such as South Korea and China that retain bitter memories of Japanese conduct prior to the end of the Second World War. To argue that American imperialism in its current form is realistic and necessary is to ignore historical examples that demonstrate the failure of empires that displayed similar arrogance, aggression, and a distinct inability to comprehend the perspective of their protectorates.
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2006
In this hard-hitting analysis, Chalmers Johnson explains the goals and the hidden (from its inhabitants) functioning of the US hegemon: an empire based on military power and the use of US capital and markets to force global economic integration on US terms at whatever costs to others.
On the military front, the US population forgot G. Washington's warning: `avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty.'
The US intelligence and military establishment is close to being beyond civilian control and becoming an autonomous system, whose colossal budget with its juicy cost-plus contracts is only controlled by vested ideological and financial interests. This book shows clearly that US presidents, like Carter or Clinton, had not the power to oppose the Pentagon's designs: perpetuate and develop the Cold War structures in order to consolidate its power. The ends justify all means as numerous intelligence or military interventions in the world show, which sponsored dictatorships, genocidal campaigns, war crimes, state terrorism and paramilitary death-squads. 90 % of all US weapons were sold, not to democracies, but to human right abusers.
On the economic front, globalization US style provoked economic disasters in South-Asia and South-America, throwing millions of people into poverty. However the US still urged its `allies' to buy weapons! This kind of globalization, which provoked still more economic inequality, will not be forgotten for a long time (see W. Bello: Dilemmas of Domination.).
By overstretching its financial means (weapon systems are profligate economic waste), the US risks a long lasting downfall of the dollar.
The US and its population need an industrial not a military or intelligence policy, because a new rival hegemon points at the horizon: China, which will be the superpower of the 21st century. China will not be contained. The US will have to adjust to it.
In a world of hypocritical and gagged media, Chalmers Johnson's much needed voice proposes human solutions for the world's problems: `bring most overseas land-based forces home and reorient foreign policy to stress leadership through example, economic aid, international law, multilateral institutions and diplomacy, instead of military intervention, economic bullying or financial manipulation.'
With its surprising comparisons, Chalmers Johnson sent a solid warning to the actual US establishment. A nation reaps what its sows. The blowback could be horrendous.
This book is a must read.
74 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2000
Chalmers Johnson in this book is informative, factual and unbiased as he recounts our american approach to dealing with the post W.W.II situation and the Cold War. We as Americans would do well to reflect upon the validity of continuing to interact with our neighbors, friends and allies in this manner in the future.
Having spent 30 years overseas in the places he describes, Viet Nam (68-71, Okinawa (71, 86 to 90), Japan, Saudi Arabia (Gulf War), Iran (during the Sha), Indonesia (in 97), Malaysia (98-99), Singapore (97-99) as both an instrument of U.S. policy (USMC) and a businessman I concur with his view of the situation.
This book should be required reading for all federal government officials (elected or appointed) and all state department personnel.
Chalmers Johnson in this book is a candle raging against the darkness.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2005
Wow, this is a great book. Chalmers Johnson has written a major foreign policy critique that is well documented, well reasoned, and well written. The book deserves more than 5 stars. The next President of the United States, be he/she a Republican or Democrat, would be well advised to read this book.
When I read, I underline unique and insightful observations by the author. In this book, over 85% of the book was underlined when I finished the last page.
I would like to give you just a few of the points that Johnson offers in the book:
Johnson believes that our recent foreign policy has been handled poorly and that in fact our policies are stimulating our enemies around the globe to organize against us. Johnson produces considerable amounts of evidence and analysis to indicate that our foreign policy has come to be dominated by our Department of Defense and the CIA at the expense of the State Department. Though Johnson never brings us the subject, it reminded me of the argument presented in Margaret Tuchman's Guns of August that this happened in World War I, where military actions were taken unilaterally with little diplomacy prior to the war. The generals out-maneuvered the diplomats and was was the result.
Johnson shows careful documentation and analysis to indicate that this faulty foreign policy is a holdover from the Cold War, which the Soviets lost 15 years ago, but which the United States may lose in the future because of our clinging to Cold War military, foreign, and economic policies. This is the actual core of the book and Johnson offers tremedous documentation of how this is true with examples regarding our relationships with Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Phillipines, Singapore, Malysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Cambodia. The chapters on Japan, the two Koreas, and China demonstrated some of the most unique and thoughtful and documented analysis that is currently being offered to the general American public.
Blowback is a CIA term for unintended consequences of foreign, military, or clandestine policies. Johnson warns us that unless we awaken to the effects our policies have on the other nations that we will continue to invite contempt and terrorist solutions against us. He further points out that we are in a Blowback period, a post Cold War period, in which we have not yet recovered from Cold War thinking. The power of the US Military is one example. Johnson would even argue that the US Military is barely under the control of the Congress and the President, threatening to dictate national relationships and dynamics independent of the State Department.
An example of fully realized Blowback is when the CIA overthrew Iran's prime minister in 1953 and set up Shan Pahlavi, only to have the Shah eventually overthrown by his people in favor of a Moslem fundamentalistic theocracy. We are still experiencing Blowback from that series of events.
A second example of Blowback that is very recent is the US efforts to train and support Islamic fundamentalists in Afhanistan during the Carter,Reagan, and Bush administrations so as to assist them as they fought the Soviets, only to see these same strategies and weapons turned against us in the 9-11 crisis. He quotes from Brezezinski: What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?" A good argument prior to 9-11, but now increasingly seen that we traded one form of Communist resistance against our Empire for another form of resistance from the world of Islam. Johnson would argue that we have not yet received the blowback for our involvment in Afghanistan where there have now been 1.8 million Afghan casulaties, 2.6 milion refugees,and 10 million unexploded landmines between the Soviet invasion and the 9-11 aftermath that overthrew the Taliban.
In the first edition of the book, President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Albright and Secretary of Defense Cohen are repeatedly identified for disasterous policies. However, in the second edition, Chalmers Johnson added an updated introduction, where he clearly reveals that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, NSC Advisor Rice, Defense Secretary Rumsfield, and Assistant Defense Secretary Wolfowitz are just as calamitous if not more so than the previous administration. His critiques go beyond partisan issues and focus on the current schizophernic policies we maintain where we act as one nation trying to live in a happy neighborhood with our other nation neighbors when in fact our policies are the policies of empire. Gore Vidal has long argued that there is no real difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to the policies of American Empire building and maintenance, and Chalmers Johnson certainly reveals the evidence and the analysis to support this argument.
In the new Introduction of the book, Johnson points out that the Saudi Royal family is in danger of losing control of their country as part of the pattern of Blwback against US policy that supports this corrupt monarchy so long as they keep the oil pumping for our SUVs. Johnson conducts an analysis of terrorism based on its strategic objectives which usually has a goal of overturning the structures that are viewed as most unjust by converting them to unstable revolutionary situations. However a goal of terrorism is to provoke ruling entities to over-react, the more military the overreaction is in nature, the more potential it has of alienating the masses.
The chapter on Okinawa, an island virtually owned by the US Military, reveals the degree of business advantage we will give the Japanese in order to keep this massive military island. Japan has grown to the be second largest economy in the world through strategic alliance with the USA. Our industrial infrastructure has virtually disappeared while Japan has taken advantage of every trade agreement to keep US products out of Japan. We sacrificed Ford, GM, US Steel, and Republic Steel for Japan's alliance and continued support for our bases on Okinawa.
Our partnership with a corrupt South Korea and our continued misunderstanding of the concerns and dynamics of North Korea has led us to prop up corrupt military puppets in one nation and miss multiple opportunities for dialogue with the North. I was amazed at how the press has collaborated with our military elites to create an image of North Korea that does not account for the concerns and potentials for interaction of the North.
The chapters on China were some of the most fresh analysis of the evolution of the revolution. China has learned lessons from the fall of the Soviet Union and we should expect the markets developing there to be Chinese in nature, not weak copies of US capitalism.
Our relationship with Japan is extremely complex and Johnson certainly does a great job of unraveling this complexity so that the reader sees the high cost of winning the Cold War for the US. The Soviet Union may have lost Poland, but we lost Detroit. Japan was the real winner of the Cold War.
Military power does not constitute Leadership of the World. our poor un-informed American Public continues to think of our nation as benevolent. Yet the simple fact that 70% of our foreign aide goes to Israel for purchase of weapons, while we give 10% to Jordan and 10% to Egypt for not attacking Israel. The final leftover 10% goes to the continuing crises in the Carribean, African, Asia, and Latin America.
We rely on military power and economic manipulation rather than diplomacy, true economic aid, and use of multilateral institutions to exert our leadership.
We won the Cold War, so lets move on, change our militaristic strategies before our military budget sinks our entire nation the way the Soviet military expenditures sunk their empire.
China learned from Gorbachev, don't expect them to go down the same road as the Soviet Union. By 2020 they will have by-passed the United States as the world's largest economy. We are not ready, our head is in the sand, and we have no idea how to deal with the future that is fast rushing toward us. Johnson offers thoughtful strategies but they requrie rethinking our military empire and more willingness to accept monitary policies and interpretations of state managed captialism that our supply-side economists have yet to comprehend.
I can't wait to read another book by Johnson.
39 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2000
Although some of the reviewers of this book believe that Johnson has stepped beyond his realm of knowledge, as someone who has researched these issues in depth, I can say with certainty that he has not
This book has placed forward a very important thesis on the current state of American affairs, and a rather accurate one. Cruise Missile foreign policy and economic brinksmanship have certainly dominated U.S. policy in this decade, and it is a very dangerous game to play. If anyone doubts Mr. Johnson's theory, then they should perhaps take a closer look at the countries and situations he had included into his writing, from China and Japan, which he knows intimately, to the politics and policies of the end of the Cold War. Johnson is not an isolationist, and neither am I, but the fact remains that America is in a new stage of psuedo-imperialism, only without even the containment justifications of the Cold War. You need only to look at Iraq and the Balkans to see the truth. That, and the economic information that the author provides is excellent.
In the end, I do not agree with all of Johnson's statements, such as the brief analysis of Pentagon spending (his statement concerning the F-15 fighter being unmatched is flawed, consideringt he proliferation of agile Su-27/33 fighter in China). However, his thesis holds up, and his opinions are fundamentally sound. Not a single statement is made that cannot be backed up with hard evidence and plain old history.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2000
Some people may rant and rave about this and that aspect of this book, but it is really a fine piece of scholarship. The whole point of this book is East Asia and America practice capitalism very differently. America has, due to the Cold War, persued a military course of action. Now that the Cold War has ended, America is having a difficult time shifting. During the Cold War America bullied, cajolled, pushed, and manouvered Asian countries to follow a certain course. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, America is now trying to shove its version of Capitalism down the throats of various Asian nations and in the process causing tremendous financial strains in Asia and fostering deep resentment there. This anger by many Asian nations could develop into some kind of revolt against America in the future. Hence America's short term policy of today may cause a "blowback" that will come back to bite America in the future.
Mr. Johnson challenges conventional thinking. He calls America an empire and after reading his well reasoned book, I agree. America is having a hard time shifting from its last 50 year role as the chief Cold Warrior to a more equal partner with Asia. It has difficulty in understanding that different peoples and cultures do business differently. America sometimes behaves like a bull in a china shop.
My only critism of BLOWBACK is his conclusion early on in the book of who caused the Pan Am flight to be blown up over Scotland. Ignoring that, the book gets better and better the further you read. If you want a quick education about Asia and how it operates in business and how the U.S. responds, read this book.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2000
I am not a scholar nor military expert. My only credentials to justify this review would be many years of living and working in Asia with both military and civilians from the United States who represented us there in the late 60's and early 70's. While some may take issue with certain factoids, the underlying charge that America views Asia and Asians with myoptic arrogance is right on target! As a study tool for those involved in the formation of U.S. Asian Foreign Policy, this book is indispensable.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2007
This book deserves five stars, but I can tell you it's nothing like listening to this man speak in person. As in "Blowback" he lays it all out on the table. Sadly he says, "We just may have gone pass the point of no return." Americans now know that authors like Chalmers Johnson, Norm Chomsky, Webster Griffin Tarpley and Paul Waldman are not just over-educated nay sayers. We know that we're in real trouble, we just don't know what to do about it. If 9/11 proved nothing else, it proved that aircraft carriers, F16's, and smart bombs are useless against terrorists and apathy.
Dr. Johnson summarizes the status quo: "We have a strong civil society that could, in theory, overcome the entrenched interests of the armed forces and the military-industrial complex. At this late date, however, it is difficult to imagine how Congress, much like the Roman senate in the last days of the republic, could be brought back to life and cleansed of its endemic corruption. Failing such a reform, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits patiently for her meeting with us."
I am without the education to travel in the circles of the aforementioned authors, but I can in my own way address my fellow blue collar workers... The media has dubbed me one of America's most controversial writers. I think it's because I criticize my own party, the Republican Party, instead of the Democrats. This unorthodox approach of mine gives people the wrong idea about me. I don't hate predators. If there weren't hawks in this country, those in other countries would show up here. Do not misinterpret "Hawk" to mean I approve of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney and their Hermann Goering protégés in the Pentagon. Bush is a mouth and a pen; he's in a different league altogether than his vice president. Cheney is a vulgar, immoral, sadistic subhuman. Does that make me a Libertarian?
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2001
"Instead of demobilizing after the Cold War, the
United States imprudently committed itself to
maintaining a global empire." With this opening
remark Chalmers Johnson introduces his prediction
written in 1999 that the global interventionist
policy of the U.S. Government inevitably would
provoke justifiable resentment.
"Ja, and dot's dah vorst kind, too."
Yes, it is the worst kind. For if the "justified"
part is true, then we are embarked now on yet another
venture that will sink us deeper into the morass.
So, who is this Johnson, anyway? An officier of the
U.S. Navy stationed in Japan in the 1950s, graduate
of the ROTC program at Berkeley, he learned Japanese
and began what evidently became a lifelong study
Seeking to dismiss Johnson's thesis as conspiracy
theory, some have used the ad hominem approach,
attacking the author rather than the issue.
Not a good sign. While Johnson may not have it all
right, indications are he may not have it all wrong.
Some unfortunate New Yorkers might still be alive
if we had paid him some mind when the opportunity
first presented itself.
Johnson's message is simple. The best way to be
rid of the Osama bin Ladens of the world is to
stop creating them. This isn't rocket science.
Who's creating Osamas? We are. Osama bin Laden
was trained by the CIA. And that's the least
damaging part of the story. You needn't take my
word for it. Read the book.