Blowback, or Impossible Dilemmas of Declining Powers

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Common Dreams

Blowback, or Impossible Dilemmas of Declining Powers

Blowback is a term coined by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that originally meant the unintended negative consequences to a country of its own espionage operations. For example, if a secret CIA operation led to a revenge attack on U.S. individuals who were unaware of the CIA's operation, this was considered "blowback." But these days, many of the operations are not all that secret (for example, the U.S. use of drones in Pakistan or Yemen). And the "revenge" attacks are often publicly avowed. Nevertheless, countries don't seem to cease engaging in such operations.

We need a more useful definition of blowback to explain how and why it's occurring all over the place. I think the first element is that the countries engaging in such operations today are powerful, yes, but less powerful than they used to be. When they were at the acme of their power, they could ignore blowback as minor unintended consequences. But when they are less powerful than before, the consequences are not so minor, yet they seem to feel the need to pursue the operations even more vigorously and even more openly.

Let us look at two famous instances of blowback. One concerns the United States. In the 1980s, the United States wished to push the Soviet Union's military forces out of Afghanistan. They therefore supported the mujahidin. One of the most famous leaders of the groups they supported was Osama bin Laden. Once the Soviet troops withdrew, Osama bin Laden created Al-Qaeda and began to attack the United States.

A second famous instance concerns Israel. In the 1970s, Israel regarded Yasser Arafat and the PLO as its principal opponent. Seeking to weaken the strength of the PLO among Palestinians, they gave financial aid to the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as Hamas. As Hamas grew, it did weaken the PLO somewhat. But at a certain point, Hamas became an even more vehement and effective opponent of the Israeli state than had been the PLO.

Today, everyone knows these instances. Others involving Great Britain and France could be cited as well. Nor does this end the list of blowback countries. Why then do they continue to behave in ways that seem to undermine their own objectives? They do this precisely because their power is declining.

We need to look at it as a matter of temporalities in state policy. Blowback occurs when the declining power engages in behavior that, in the short run, achieves some immediate objective but, in the middle run, makes their power decline even more and even faster, and therefore in the longer run is self-defeating. The obvious thing to do is not to go down this road any more. The covert operations no longer really work in terms of the long-run objectives of the country.

To stick with my examples: Don't President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu understand this? And if they do, why are they continuing the operations, even boasting about them? Actually, I think that both these men do understand the ineffectiveness of these operations, and so do their intelligence agencies. But they face immediate dilemmas.

First of all, they are politicians, intent in each case to remain in power. Both are faced with strong political forces in their countries who think they are not hawkish enough. And neither is faced with strong political forces who want a radical revision of national policies. In shorthand, the extreme right in each country is very strong, and the left, even the moderate left, is weak. The underlying reason for this is that public opinion in neither country accepts the reality of the relative decline of the country's power.

What the leaders can do at most is to be covert about dragging their feet - a little bit. But given the de facto transparency of their intelligence activities, they can do this only for a while. And then they find that they must pursue the policies they know won't work in the long run in order to stay in power in the short run.

There is another reason. Obama hasn't given up on one impossible dream - restoring the United States to a position of unquestioned hegemony. And Netanyahu hasn't given up on another impossible dream - a Jewish state of Israel in the entire former British Mandate. And if they won't renounce these dreams, they certainly cannot assist their peoples into coming to terms with the new geopolitical realities of the world-system and to the realities of their country's decline in relative power.

Immanuel Wallerstein

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World (New Press).

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