How Could This Happen?

Instead of clamoring for revenge, Americans need to assess past mistakes to avoid repeating them.

It is not hard to understand why retaliation was on the lips of American politicians before the dead could be removed from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thousands of innocent people had been brutally murdered. Mind-boggling acts of sabotage had leveled the tallest skyscrapers in the country's biggest financial center and crushed one of the five sides of our military headquarters. The surviving populace demanded retribution against the perpetrators, whoever they might be. Grieving and angry, Americans had trouble comprehending the source of the hatred that fueled this astonishing suicidal mayhem.

In recent years, U.S. missile attacks on Arab countries had become ho-hum. They barely rated mention on network newscasts or in The New York Times anymore. The missiles occasionally missed intended targets and killed innocent civilians, victims of what the Pentagon might dismiss as "collateral damage." Were we oblivious to this type of faraway suffering? Did we care who caused it?

Chalmers Johnson was right in stride with the American foreign policy establishment during 30 years of teaching international relations at the University of California.

A Central Intelligence Agency consultant from 1967 to 1973, Johnson sternly lectured anti-war protesters during that time. This hawk supported the Vietnam War almost until the last U.S. helicopter lifting off the Saigon embassy roof.

But Johnson's thinking has changed. That is quite evident in his latest book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, published in March 2000.

""Blowback' means the unintended consequences of foreign operations of the U.S. government that have been kept secret from the American public," Johnson told Weekly Planet during a telephone interview a day after the World Trade Center and Pentagon carnage. If the Sept. 11 skyjackings are conclusively tied to fanatically anti-American Arabs, Johnson said it would be "a perfect example of "blowback.'" The book derives its name from a CIA-engineered coup that is part of a chain of events that may have finally ushered mass-scale, overseas-directed terrorism onto American soil.

"The title of my book is a CIA term," said Johnson. It first appeared in a government report on the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, he said.

Mossadegh had angered the American and British governments by attempting to nationalize Iran's oil assets, according to a secret CIA history of the coup that was published by the Times last year.

The CIA recruited a reluctant Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi to replace Mossadegh. He conducted a reign of terror against the Iranian people for more than 20 years. The Shah eventually fled Iran as his regime fell to Islamic fundamentalists, who paid us back by taking our embassy in Tehran hostage.

The 1953 CIA operation, Johnson said, "turned out about as disastrously as anyone could ever imagine, ending up with the hostage crisis and everything else, and greatly discrediting the pretensions of democracy on the part of the United States in an important part of the world. "

Some experts believe the CIA-inspired toppling of Mossadegh served as a blueprint for later coups in places such as Chile. U.S. intelligence aided the violent removal of elected or at least popular rulers who happened to threaten American corporate investments within their realm. Our government then installed pliant tyrants who slaughtered their own citizens.

The American public seems indifferent to history, said Johnson, directing the conversation back to Sept. 11. "What we have to ask ourselves is why this occurred. The thing I like about the term "blowback,' better than "terrorism,' is that it begins to provide some context and links with the past."

Johnson said he was bewildered by President George W. Bush's statement that America was targeted this month "because we're the brightest beacon of freedom."

"That's not why we were targeted," said Johnson. "We remain the major backers of Israel. I'm not necessarily saying we shouldn't. But I deeply oppose the idea that we endorse every single thing the Israeli government does in imposing its growing state on an otherwise defenseless people on the West Bank.

"It's those kinds of things that almost certainly guarantee why we have been targeted."

University of South Florida scholar James F. Strange said Americans don't realize that, unlike this country, theology and politics always mix in the Middle East.

"There is no distinction between church and state," said Strange, a distinguished professor of religious studies. "They don't say: "Let's talk about religion and politics.' They say: "Let's talk about life.'"

Most Muslims hold Islam to be a peaceful faith.

Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who has been fingered as a terrorist mastermind, used the continued presence of our troops in his native country long after the Gulf War to rally his Islamic followers against the United States.

"They see our military as an infectious element," said Strange. To some devout Muslims in the Middle East, he added, "the U.S. is the embodiment of evil. We sleep around. We eat pork. We use alcohol."

Ahmed Sattar, a close associate of suspected Arab terrorists, provided some insight into the militant Muslim mindset during an interview for the Public Broadcasting Service's Frontline documentary series last year:

"People, especially in the Arab and Islamic world, look at you the same way they looked at the British and the French occupation forces," Sattar told Lowell Bergman, a Frontline correspondent who worked with The New York Times on a televised investigation of bin Laden.

"How can you say that?" Bergman asked. "We sent our troops to defend you."

"You went there to protect your own interest," said Sattar. "You went there to protect some corrupt regimes that are working against their own people. So do not give me that you were there to protect the people. Your policy in this area has nothing — and I mean nothing — to do with the people."

Americans would never tolerate a foreign power occupying their country. Yet they have no idea how resentful others are that the United States maintains sizable military forces within their borders, Johnson said.

"This is a nation that, by the Department of Defense's definitions, has 65 major — and they stress major — military installations around the world in other people's countries," he said.

Johnson quoted Bush calling the destruction in New York and Washington "an act of evil." Johnson would never dispute that, but he added: "There's plenty of evil to go around and a good deal of it is perpetrated by us." Using our own civilian aircraft against us, in Johnson's judgment, was "the means of the weak to attack the self-proclaimed world's sole superpower." America has a seemingly boundless capacity for self-delusion about our uncanny knack for transforming potential allies into implacable enemies. That won't serve us well in the days ahead, Johnson fears.

"Whatever we do, even when it fails as in the Vietnam War, "our intentions were good,'" he said. "We have a deep and abiding commitment to giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt and find it extremely difficult to put oneself in the place of other people."

The unilateralist Bush administration has perfected that outlook. Treaties are abandoned for space shields. United Nations conferences are boycotted while dues go unpaid.

But our superpower arrogance has blinded us to danger, too. Intelligence analysts have missed terrorist threats.

Even before the jet explosions at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, The Atlantic Monthly was reporting what became tragically obvious on Sept. 11: The CIA doesn't really know the Middle East.

A former senior Near East Division operative for the agency is quoted in the Atlantic: "The CIA probably doesn't have a single truly qualified Arab-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist and who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan."

Johnson said that is troubling. "We don't have a soul who would really be competent on what is being thought throughout this huge arc of mankind and also where much of our fuel comes from," he said. "Instead, we have people talking about declaring war."

Johnson's pessimistic prediction: "Instead of a more reasoned reaction, we will get more militarism that we even have now."

That will call for another round of body bags on the other side of the world.

Contact Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].