By Immanuel Wallerstein
ntelligence Agency (CIA) that originally meant the unintended negative consequences to a country of its own espionage operations. For example, if a secret CIA operation led to a revenge attack on U.S. individuals who were unaware of the CIA’s operation, this was considered “blowback.” But these days, many of the operations are not all that secret (for example, the U.S. use of drones in Pakistan or Yemen). And the “revenge” attacks are often publicly avowed. Nevertheless, countries don’t seem to cease engaging in such operations.
We need a more useful definition of blowback to explain how and why it’s occurring all over the place. I think the first element is that the countries engaging in such operations today are powerful, yes, but less powerful than they used to be. When they were at the acme of their power, they could ignore blowback as minor unintended consequences. But when they are less powerful than before, the consequences are not so minor, yet they seem to feel the need to pursue the operations even more vigorously and even more openly.
Let us look at two famous instances of blowback. One concerns the United States. In the 1980s, the United States wished to push the Soviet Union’s military forces out of Afghanistan. They therefore supported the mujahidin. One of the most famous leaders of the groups they supported was Osama bin Laden. Once the Soviet troops withdrew, Osama bin Laden created Al-Qaeda and began to attack the United States.
A second famous instance concerns Israel. In the 1970s, Israel regarded Yasser Arafat and the PLO as its principal opponent. Seeking to weaken the strength of the PLO among Palestinians, they gave financial aid to the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as Hamas. As Hamas grew, it did weaken the PLO somewhat. But at a certain point, Hamas became an even more vehement and effective opponent of the Israeli state than had been the PLO.
Today, everyone knows these instances. Others involving Great Britain and France could be cited as well. Nor does this end the list of blowback countries. Why then do they continue to behave in ways that seem to undermine their own objectives? They do this precisely because their power is declining.
We need to look at it as a matter of temporalities in state policy. Blowback occurs when the declining power engages in behavior that, in the short run, achieves some immediate objective but, in the middle run, makes their power decline even more and even faster, and therefore in the longer run is self-defeating. The obvious thing to do is not to go down this road any more. The covert operations no longer really work in terms of the long-run objectives of the country.
To stick with my examples: Don’t President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu understand this? And if they do, why are they continuing the operations, even boasting about them? Actually, I think that both these men do understand the ineffectiveness of these operations, and so do their intelligence agencies. But they face immediate dilemmas.