Thursday 5 July 2007

Tackling the blowback theory head-on

Following on from this post:

I’ve suggested on various occasions that there are what we might call ‘psycho-political’ reasons for the insistence by some on the Left on the so-called ‘blowback’ theory of Islamist terrorism. These reasons include:

- an inability to step outside an anti-imperialist/conspiratorial paradigm in which the West is ultimately to blame for most of the ills of the world

- a tendency to see any movement that claims to be anti-western, however reactionary its rhetoric, as ‘radical’ and as an ally in the global struggle

- a skewed anti-racism (actually an inverted form of racism) which claims to feel sympathy for minority groups, but prefers to cast them as oppressed victims and can’t allow that they might have ideas and motives of their own

- in the wake of the collapse of socialist idealism, a barely-suppressed fascination with and sneaking admiration for the revolutionary zeal of Islamism.

Those with a passing knowledge of the history of pre-war Europe will recognise similarities (brilliantly described by Nick Cohen) with the ways in which many liberals and leftists consistently misconstrued and underestimated the threat posed by the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

But suppose for a moment that we take what the blowback theorists say seriously. Suppose there is some truth in the arguments of Seumas Milne and others, and it’s possible to prove a causal link between the interventions by Britain and the US in Afghanistan and Iraq and the terror attacks here at home. Would establishing that link actually tell us anything useful?

Imagine a different scenario. Suppose that in the late 1940s, the British Labour government, appalled by the stories emerging of oppression and torture in Franco’s Spain, had decided to launch a war to liberate the Spanish people from this distasteful fascist regime (unlikely I know, but stick with me). Imagine that, as a result of this attack on his country, an enraged Franco launched secret underground cells of Falangists to set off bombs in British cities, causing death and mayhem. How do you think the British Left would have responded: would they have blamed the government for launching the war and making Britain a target? would they have complained about ‘Bevan’s bombs’ and demanded an end to the war? Unlikely. And why? Because they would have supported the war against Franco, would have regarded the terror attacks as tragic but the inevitable price of a just war, and because they would have believed that it was wrong to allow British foreign policy to be dictated by violent fascists.

Imagine another scenario. Suppose there’s another terrorist attack on London in a few years time, but this time it’s a number of gay pubs that are targeted (not unprecedented, unfortunately: remember the nail bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan in 1999), causing many deaths and injuries. The bombers, from a previously unknown extreme rightwing group, release a video claiming the attack was in response to a new law giving gays and lesbians greater equality. This would be a clear case of ‘blowback’ – of simple cause and effect – in which a link could be proven between government policy and a terror attack. So would the comment pages of The Guardian be filled with talk of ‘Brown’s bombs’ and demands that the government repeal the new equality law instantly? Hardly. Why not? Because liberals and progressive would agree with the new law and would argue that government policy should not be dictated by violent fascists.

Why, then, don't today’s blowback theorists take a similar line? Because they think that government policy shouldn’t be dictated by violent fascists – unless it’s a policy they disagree with, in which case it’s perfectly acceptable to give in. Then again, they don’t really believe that the terrorists are fascists, but at worst a variety of misguided freedom fighters. So all that the blowback theory really tells us is: its proponents don't like the war. Nothing more.


This post has generated the most hits of anything I've written in my three and a bit months of blogging, thanks mainly to a link from Pootergeek (cheers). Getting a lot of comments makes you wish you'd said some things differently. So, just to clarify: yes, of course I'm aware that most people on the Left were fully aware of the threat of fascism in the Thirties and that by far the most apologists were on the Right. What I was referring to was something Nick Cohen highlights: that some on the Left, too, including some pacifists, were willing to play down the evils of fascism and argue that the fascists and their own governments were equally bad - something that finds echoes in today's attempts to 'understand' the anger of fundamentalist terror gangs.


Anonymous said...

That's pretty cute. I especially like how you managed to link gay rights to what we are doing in the middle east.

Unfortunately for you, your entire argument rests on the premise that people in the middle east hate us because we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. That is just the most recent grievance in a long and well established list.

For example, you neglected to mention the failed coup the CIA orchestrated in Iran back in the 1950's. Before you write me off, let me state that I do not believe the current government Iran or any thereafter are freedom loving governments. With that being said, we overthrew a democratically elected government (albeit an intolerant one) and inserted the Shah of Iran back into power and he proceeded to torture and massacre his people.

It wouldn't be so bad if we actually invaded Iraq to liberate their people. But we didn't go there for that. Source: (look at the names of the contributors please.) I myself dislike the oil argument because it smacks of irrational conspiracy theories.

The crux of my grievance with your opinion isn't that we shouldn't defend ourselves against those who seek to destroy us. I just think that the problem that we are currently facing is a drastic difference of ideology. Ideology cannot be changed by the use of guns and bullets. We need not dictate to the rest of the world how to lead their lives by employment of our military, but to promote the free exchange of ideas and liberty. This can be accomplished by bringing the educated classes from Iran, Iraq, etc to America and educating them in what we really value. By not having a dialog with the people of the middle east and promoting the exchange of idea's they are left to only make their decisions based on 1) The passed interventions of America into the middle east and 2) What their governments tell them about us.

So in short, yes we do feel the repercussions of our expeditions in the middle east in the form of radicalism and misinformation about America. Not having a dialog with the people of the middle east isn't helping this. Nor does it make sense because we do plenty of business with China, Saudi Arabia, and refuse to intervene in Darfur. Our government has repeatedly shown that it doesn't object to harsh dictatorships, so nitpicking about Iran or the rest of the middle east really doesn't hold water with me.

Anonymous said...

"the left" ? that entrenched us-vs-them term mentality is so 2004. Also, I believe the term 'blowback' is mostly in the news due to Ron Paul's education of Gulliani about the 9/11 commission report. Gulliani is obviously a lot more to 'the left' than Paul.

Blowback isn't an immediate effect, it takes place over generations. It's not Saddam's supporters who are planning terror attacks now - it's people pissed off about all of our meddling during the cold war. Remember who trained Osama? The orphans and others with legitimate grudges today will be planning attacks anew in thirty years.

Iraq was not have been a nice place before we meddled, but at least it had order. You can't force freedom - the people have to fight for it themselves.

Martin said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure that listing western misdeeds in the Middle East across the centuries really helps here. Yes, I too have read Stephen Kinzer on the 1950s coup in Iran and of course it was appalling etc. But saying such events are responsible for today's terrorism (rather than the actual perpetrators) is rather like letting Hitler and the Nazis off the hook because they were feeling sore about what the western allies did to them at Versailles after WW1. Historical causes, and historical responsibility are two different things.

CFD Ed said...

Interesting post.

Re: This can be accomplished by bringing the educated classes from Iran, Iraq, etc to America and educating them in what we really value.

That would be like the Medical Doctors who went to the UK and tried to blow up bits of London and Glasgow then – good plan inviting then to the US ;-) Much safer for the UK.

Re: you neglected to mention the failed coup the CIA orchestrated

And what about the crusades? That seems to be one of their main bugbears when they run out of anything else. They are always talking about Western ‘crusader’ forces. I suspect it is to try and force some sort of excuse and equivalence with Jihadi terrorism.

The Crusades by the way were began, at the request of the Byzantine Empire, as an attempt to recover Jerusalem and the sacred "Holy Land" after Muslims expansion into Anatolia.

capo said...

Let's keep it simple. One thing you left out of your "scenarios". Let's say I move into your house permanently and start slapping your family around. What would you do? Exactly.