Skip to comments.Lee Harris: Reflections on "Blowback"
Posted on 12/13/2007 7:32:53 AM PST by Tolik
The following is a conclusion of a long article by a philosopher Lee Harris where he is deconstructing a frequently heard lately charge of "blowback" to US actions in the world (i.e. that 9/11 was a "blowback" for the United States' foreign policy toward the Muslim world over the past half century or so, going back to the CIA engineered coup in 1953 that ousted Iranian leader Mossadegh, and that "we had it coming" as a response to "American imperialism")
...This conclusion, however, poses a radical dilemma. A libertarian can plausibly argue that politicians should not interfere with domestic affairs, since these affairs can manage themselves, so to speak. But the libertarian cannot make the same argument about foreign policy. The individuals of a society can decide, on a one by one basis, what is best for them at home, but they cannot decide on the same basis what policy they will have toward other nations in the world. Nations alone can have foreign policies, and these policies must inevitably be devised by those who have been designated to act on behalf of the society as a whole and to represent its interests in international affairs. The rule of laissez faire can never be the basis of a foreign policy.
This obvious fact, when coupled with the libertarian argument from complexity, leads to the melancholy conclusion that no nation can be safe from disastrous blowback effects the moment it tries to devise any kind of foreign policy whatsoever. Even those nations whose leaders only desire to pursue peace, and to keep from meddling in the affairs of other nations, will be exposed to the same risks of blowback as the nation that desires to expand its territory and to dominate its neighbors. If a policy of disarmament and appeasement turns out to increase the power and prestige of nations ruled by warmongers, this is every bit as much a case of blowback as the defeat that an aggressive nation unexpectedly brings on itself when it precipitately goes to war. Mere good intentions are not spared from yielding bad consequences, either in domestic or foreign affairs.
A libertarian like Buckle can recommend a policy of non-intervention in domestic politics and recommend it with a clear conscience; but a policy of non-intervention in international politics is another matter. We may persuade our own government not to intervene, but what have we achieved if other nations do not follow suit? Dean Acheson used to say: "Don't just do somethingstand there." His point was that by just doing something, we often find ourselves confronted with the unexpected negative consequence of our action. Yet it is a beguiling illusion to think that by standing there and doing nothing we can manage to avoid blowback. When another party commits an act of aggression, and we take no action against itas the English and French took no action against Hitler's march into the de-militarized Rhineland in 1935we will inevitably find that our passivity has only served to embolden the aggressor to behave even more aggressively, which was precisely what happened in the case of Hitler.
This brings us back to Ron Paul's remark. If the inherent complexity of the world exposes any foreign policy to the risk of blowback, then it would be absurd to criticize a nation's foreign policy simply because it led to unintended negative consequences. Furthermore, such criticism would be unwarranted in direct proportion to the degree that the behavior of other players on the world stage was unpredictable and inscrutable, since any factor that increases the complexity of a system makes it more difficult to manage intelligently. Given the fact that the behavior of radical Islam is on an order of unpredictability and inscrutability that eclipses all previous geopolitical challenges that our nation has faced, it is a utopian dream to imagine that the United States, as the world's dominant power, could possibly escape blowback by any course of action it tried to pursue. We are both damned if we do, and damned if we don't.
We may agree with Ron Paul that our interventionist policy in the Middle East has led to unintended negative consequences, including even 9/11, but this admission offers us absolutely no insight into what unintended consequences his preferred policy of non-intervention would have exposed us to. It is simply a myth to believe that only interventionism yields unintended consequence, since doing nothing at all may produce the same unexpected results. If American foreign policy had followed a course of strict non-interventionism, the world would certainly be different from what it is today; but there is no obvious reason to think that it would have been better.
If the concept of blowback is to serve any constructive purpose in our current debate over our future foreign policy, it must not be used to beat up those whose decisions turned out in retrospect to be wrong, but to remind us of the common lot of those sad creatures, known as human beings, who are constantly forced to deal with the future without ever being able to see into it.
Lee Harris is author of The Suicide of Reason and Civilization and Its Enemies.
Lee Harris's articles at the TCSDaily are archived here: http://www.tcsdaily.com/Authors.aspx?id=218. His ideas may be controversial at times and are not always easy to digest. I disagree with him often enough. But take time to read some of his classics -- the following articles are the reason why I started paying attention to what Lee Harris says. I am sure you will find these articles interesting.
The Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing http://www.policyreview.org/dec02/harris.html
America-bashing has sadly come to be the opium of the intellectual, to use the phrase Raymond Aron borrowed from Marx in order to characterize those who followed the latter into the twentieth century. And like opium it produces vivid and fantastic dreams.
***The rule of laissez faire can never be the basis of a foreign policy.***
Ron Paul should take note.
A political vacuum in the World will be filled, always. If we withdraw, somebody else will take our place. Who is going to provide a better stewardship? China, Russia, Islamic world? No, thanks.
"Given the fact that the behavior of radical Islam is on an order of unpredictability and inscrutability that eclipses all previous geopolitical challenges that our nation has faced, it is a utopian dream to imagine that the United States, as the world's dominant power, could possibly escape blowback by any course of action it tried to pursue. We are both damned if we do, and damned if we don't."
Our current enemies are less predictable than Nazis, Japanese imperialists and Soviet communists ever were. Radical Islam lives in a fantasy world and acts in the real word with fantasists expectations. We've got to be nuts to let them get away with that (unfortunately we were and are).
See his articles linked above.
Just one small example: maritime safety. Without US leadership and fleet presence everywhere, world wide shipments would be subject to world wide piracy.
We take so many things for granted, when in reality our freedoms were/are paid in sweat and blood.
Excellent point. I wholeheartedly agree.
World conquest seems pretty clear to me.
He's misusing Marx's metaphor. Marx used it primarily because the proletariat used religion to dull their pain and distract themselves from their hopeless condition.
He was not referring so much to the addictive and recreational aspects of opium use, which are the parts of the metaphor that apply to America-bashing for intellectuals.
I’m not equating any government with God, but a lot of blowback we’re dealing with now doesn’t have to do with previous intervention, so much as it does with our lack of intervention. If we were the good guys & the most powerful nation in the world, why didn’t we use some of that power to make their lives better? Why didn’t we throw down all of the evil dictators instead of dealing with them?
It has left a perception that we are a) weak or b) evil. If we withdrew from the world into fortress America, both choices a & b would remain. If we continued to arm ourselves to defend fortress America, many would think we're gathering strength to strike. If we didn't continue to arm ourselves, we'd be sitting ducks.
Good article. Thanx for the ping.
I think this article is good but does not go far enough. The muslim world has had no more generous friend than the United States. Whether liberating muslims in Kuwait, Afghanistan or Iraq, we have suffered for the well being of muslims. If one only looks at the oil trade, no larger exchange between rich and poor has ever taken place in world history. All of this trade primarily benefits allegedly muslim fiefdom lords. US provides direct security assistance to a variety of muslim nations such as Egypt and Jordan.
Blowback is an absurd metaphor which presumes that the US has done something to offend or harm the muslim world. That is positively absurd.
“If we were the good guys & the most powerful nation in the world, why didnt we use some of that power to make their lives better?”
Yes. Its for real. There are utopian expectations of what US can do. When it does not happen, or not quickly enough (like in reconstruction of the abused ran down Iraqi infrastructure) - its because we don’t WANT to do it.
Exactly! Even in domestic affairs you'll see that kind of thinking. New Orleans isn't put back to the way it was before Katrina yet?
Lee Harris is such a fine writer and thinker.
Spiritual emptiness would qualify as a "hopeless condition." But that brings the analogy full circle.
If a policy of disarmament and appeasement turns out to increase the power and prestige of nations ruled by warmongers, this is every bit as much a case of blowback as the defeat that an aggressive nation unexpectedly brings on itself when it precipitately goes to war.
Certain Europeans who have been adamant about appeasement, negotiation, and against deployment of missile defense are about to find themselves within range of the missiles of a country that is simultaneously pursuing nuclear weapons. A policy of denial is suicidal.
On the broader topic of foreign policy, it should be fairly obvious that it is affected by factors different from those of economic policy, especially when the latter are governed by any degree of laissez faire. Harris points this out from a theoretical basis; I simply note that whether it is theoretically true or not that difference is demonstrable in application. The economic policies of certain other Europeans in promoting the progress of Iran in both the nuclear and the missile technology arenas run directly contrary to the putative foreign policies regarding non-proliferation. A good deal of ineffective legislation attempts to mediate between the two. There may be a model under which laissez faire might produce a successful foreign policy but I humbly suggest it hasn't much congruence with the real world, and all the self-righteous rhetoric coming from its proponents is most unlikely to change that fact.
Have you seen this Lee Harris’ article?
No, they're not. Just like the Nazis, Japanese imperialists, and Soviet communists, they're telling and showing us exactly what they have in mind.
The problem is that, just as in those earlier cases, we cannot actually believe that people will act that way; and we therefore ignore the reality of what they're doing, and we're afraid of the possible bloody consequences of action -- which will only make bloodshed inevitable. The barbarity of radical Islam is such that we want to pretend that we don't understand what they're doing.
That doesn't mean that our only options at present involve massive bloodshed. But what it does mean is that we need to do two things. First, don't be shy about stating what it is that Radical Islam is doing. And second, don't be shy or reticent to defend and proclaim our culture.
And, most deadly of all to Islam, free their women.
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