The Big Blowback
When the late Chalmers Johnson introduced the word “blowback” to the analysis of Washington’s relations with the rest of the world, he did not refer simply to the victims of the U.S. imperial intervention striking back on American soil. More importantly, he saw as the most dangerous blowback the destabilization of American democratic processes by the multiple consequences of Washington’s adventures abroad.
Seen in this light, Donald Trump’s “M&M’s Campaign” (“Ban Mexicans and Muslims”) to clinch the Republican presidential nomination is unquestionably a disturbing blowback from Washington’s policies abroad. Trump launched his campaign with a plan to build a wall along the 2,111 kilometer U.S.-Mexico border while deporting, wholesale, undocumented migrants and their families.
After the San Bernardino shootings on December 2, where a Muslim couple killed 14 people, Trump pushed for the U.S. to stop accepting Muslim migrants and visitors to the United States. The two proposals go against the U.S.’s character as a country of migrants, and threaten to unleash a tide of hatred against Mexican-Americans and Muslims, and put them on notice that their rights are fragile. They have resonated with large sectors of the Republican base, with extremist rhetoric now a staple, not only of the Trump campaign, but those of his rivals as well.
How U.S. policy created ISIS or ISIL, fear of which now drives U.S. domestic and foreign policy, is relatively well documented. The U.S. invasion of Iraq threw the lid off Iraqi society, which had been a pressure cooker of sectarian rivalries contained by the regime of Saddam Hussein.
An Extremist Sunni Movement Rises
As a Shia-dominated regime took over in Baghdad, an extremist Sunni movement, al-Qaida in Iraq, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, rose to fight the government and its American sponsors. Zarqawi found many receptive recruits among the hundreds of thousands of Sunni soldiers in Saddam’s army, which had been disbanded by the Americans shortly after their takeover. Adherents were also nurtured in U.S. prison camps, among them Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After the death in battle of Zarqawi, Al Baghdadi emerged as the leader of the group, which has now assumed the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). At first, ISIS was seen by western intelligence as focused mainly on establishing a Caliphate in the Middle East, for which it undertook a sophisticated international recruitment campaign via the Internet. Then concern developed that ISIS was not simply recruiting young people from Europe and the U.S., but training them to perform terrorist acts in their home countries.
The Paris massacre in mid-November that saw a handful of shooters kill some 130 people in a sophisticated coordinated operation hitting seven targets was seen as the “ultimate blowback.” That is, until the San Bernardino shooting two weeks later, which U.S. authorities saw as the most scary blowback of all: shooters carrying out uncoordinated individual actions inspired by ISIS propaganda dis- seminated on the net. The blowback process from Mexico is less well known but equally documented. One trigger was political intervention. The Mexican drug syndicates were relatively small-time affairs until the 1980s.
The Mexican Blowback The CIA Connection
It was the Central Intelligence Agency that made the drug syndicates big-time. In the Reagan administration’s efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, it engaged in unconventional fundraising operations to evade congressional scrutiny. One was the so-called Iran-Contra deal, where top Reagan administration officials facilitated the sale of arms to Iran—then the object of a U.S. arms embargo—then diverted part of the proceeds to fund the anti-Sandinista guerrillas known as the “Contras.”
Another method was to use Mexican drug syndicates. In her brave exposé of the rise of Mexican drug cartel, “Narcoland: the Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers,” the celebrated Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez, writes that when the Boland amendment prohibited use of government money to fund the overthrow of the Sandinistas, the CIA made a deal with the cartel to allow large- scale cocaine sales into the U.S. but on condition that part of the proceeds would be diverted by the cartel to support the Contras. Indeed, CIA complicity in fostering the rise of the Mexican cartel, which eventually displaced the Colombian cartels as the main supplier of cocaine to the U.S. is, in fact, documented not only by Hernandez, but by a number of U.S. journalists. Among the key beneficiaries of the CIA connection was the Sinaloa Cartel, which produced the lord of drug lords: “El Chapo” Guzman.
Mexican Blowback NAFTA
The other source of the Mexican blowback was economic. Following the Third World debt crisis in the early 1980s, the U.S., via the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, began an ambitious effort to restructure the Mexican economy along free-market lines. The cutting back of government support for many agricultural services, along with a program of privatization designed to reverse communal ownership of land institutionalized by the Mexican Revolution, resulted in widespread suffering in the countryside, with many peasants thrown off their lands. But even more devastating was Mexico’s integration into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which quickly became a program for dumping subsidized U.S. corn and other agricultural products into Mexico.
According to a 2003 report of the Carnegie Endowment, imports of U.S. agricultural products under NAFTA threw 1.3 million farmers out of work. For these peasants, the choice became either the shantytowns of Mexico City or “El Norte,” with vast numbers opting for the latter. By 2006, roughly 10 percent of Mexico’s population was living in the United States, some 15 percent of its workforce was working there, and 1 in every 7 Mexicans was migrating to the U.S.
There was a strong element of truth in the sardonic comment that, owing to NAFTA’s savage impact on peasant agriculture, Mexico’s peasantry simply moved to the United States. U.S. policies in Mexico and Central America thus had a dramatic dual blowback effect. On one side, the CIA godfathered a powerful cartel whose massive exports of cocaine devastated inner cities from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. On the other side, U.S.-sponsored structural adjustment and NAFTA ruined Mexican peasant agriculture, leading to the migration of millions to “El Norte,” where they have become scapegoats for the U.S. economic trouble. Study after study has refuted claims that migrants take jobs away from the non-migrant workers or that they don’t pay their taxes. Yet, Mexican migrants are continually blamed by opportunistic politicians on the make, like Trump and his Republican colleagues. It is unfortunate that this opportunistic, demagogic game of playing on physical fear (“Muslim terrorists out to take your life”) and economic fear (“Mexican workers out to steal your jobs”), has resonated among many of the country’s white population. Trump, whose anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican rhetoric is most brazen, leads his opponents in the Republican presidential race by a wide margin in the surveys.
Instead of challenging the Republican candidates’ inflamed rhetoric and pointing to U.S. political and economic programs in the Middle East and Mexico as being responsible for these multiple blowbacks, most liberal leaders are on the defensive. Only Bernie Sanders, among the country’s leading politicians, is pointing to the real roots of America’s foreign policy and domestic crises; in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, continues to push for more military intervention in the Middle East and is reluctant to finger Wall Street as the source of the country’s economic troubles.
The country seems headed towards an even less liberal democratic order than now exists, one marked by more religious intolerance, more restrictions on civil liberties, and more immigration rules designed to keep out migrants. And that, as Chalmers Johnson so presciently warned, was really the ultimate blowback.