Blowforward: Why Failure Doesn’t Daunt the National Security State
Years ago, Chalmers Johnson took a term of CIA tradecraft, “blowback,” and put it into our language. Originally, it was meant to describe CIA operations so secret that, when they blew back on this country, Americans would be incapable of tracing the connection or grasping that the U.S. had anything to do with what hit us. The word now stands in more broadly for any American act or policy that rebounds on us. There is, however, another phenomenon with, as yet, no name that deserves some attention. I’ve come to think of it as “blowforward.”
In a way, this is what Nick Turse has been documenting for the last two years at TomDispatch as he’s covered the way the U.S. military and its Africa Command (AFRICOM) “pivoted” onto that continent big time. As in his latest piece, he—and he alone—has continued to report in graphic detail on a level of operational hubris and pure blockheadedness that might be considered unparalleled in our era—if, that is, we didn’t have the disastrous story of post-9/11 U.S. military operations throughout the Greater Middle East eternally before us. In Africa, as he reminds us today, when the U.S. military first started moving onto the continent in a significant way, there were almost no Islamic terror organizations outside of Somalia. Now, with AFRICOM fully invested and operational across the continent, count ‘em.
This is no less true of the relationship between American invasions, occupations, wars, raids, interventions, and drone assassination campaigns, and the growth of terror outfits (and the fragmentation of states) in the Middle East. That someone should draw a lesson or two from all this and not do essentially the same things over and over again may seem reasonable enough on the face of it, but evidently not in Washington. The question is: Why? Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon I’ve started calling blowforward.
Before the disaster of 9/11, America’s intelligence agencies managed to gather much information on and yet see little of what was coming. The result of their blindness was, of course, the unparalleled growth of those same agencies and the national security state. Moreover, those in key positions who might have been held responsible for missing 9/11 paid no price at all. Instead, they were generally promoted and honored in the years that followed. Ever since, every new terror group or hideous video or newly proclaimed caliphate that surfed in on a wave of American wars and interventions has blown forward on that security state, spurring phenomenal growth, enhancing its prestige, making countless careers, and offering new kinds of power. In short, what might otherwise be seen as failed policies actually strengthened the hand of a shadow government in Washington that had an endless set of get-out-of-jail-free cards at its disposal.
In other words, each disastrous American move that bred yet more of the insecurity the national security state is supposed to prevent has proved anything but a disaster for the movers. Each has translated into more funds, more power, more independence, more prestige, and greater reach. As Turse descibes in his new piece about the growth and increased reach of AFRICOM, bad news from the African front after the U.S. military moved onto the continent in a big way only led to a further “swelling of bases, personnel, and funding”—and, of course, no blowback at all when it comes to the officials directing all of this. For them, as Turse’s reporting makes clear, it’s a blowforward world all the way.