The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term “blowback” as “an unforeseen and unwanted effect, result, or set of repercussions.” It is widely associated with the areas of intelligence and foreign policy, and according to Merriam-Webster, its first known use in this context was in 1973. Usually it plays out like this: the United States (or other global power) clandestinely aids a government, faction, or movement with the goal of benefiting the national interest. As things unravel, any number of unintended consequences of varying degrees of severity may result. In other words, blowback is a giant facepalm moment for the intelligence community. It is important to note that the general public is unaware of the questionable actions and decisions that were made by their government that may have caused the blowback event. As a result, the typical emotional responses of the masses are confusion and anger…then, as more details are revealed later through the declassification (or leaking) process, it becomes a monumental facepalm moment for all of us.
There have been many high profile examples of blowback in US foreign policy. One of the most notable was related to our role in the Iranian coup d’état in 1953. After Iran nationalized its oil industry, the United States and Great Britain (along with Anglo-Saxon Oil…now BP) decided something must be done to restore western access to Iranian oil. Ultimately, it was decided that the United States should support the overthrow of the Prime Minister and replace him with the Shah who would act as a puppet for western powers, and more importantly, give us oil at cut-rate prices. What we didn’t expect was that the Shah would run the country in a particularly cruel and authoritarian style that led many Iranians to resent him and, more importantly (for the purposes of this story), the United States for putting him in power. Fast forward to 1979 when fifty-two Americans were captured and held hostage for 444 days during the course of an uprising that ended with the overthrow of the Shah…and we were left with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Oops! Now, fast forward a few years (but stay in Iran). The Reagan Administration, anxious to help out Contra rebel groups fighting the communist government in Nicaragua, tried to find money to fund their “good fight.” Unfortunately, further assistance to the Contras (an exceptionally violent group that was known for using questionably sadistic tactics) had been prohibited by the Boland Amendment. In order to bypass the congressional denial of assistance, the executive branch devised a plan to sell weapons to Iran for the purposes of fighting the Iraqis in order to secretly raise money to send to the Contras (negotiating the release of American hostages elsewhere in the Middle East was an added bonus). Later, we found that significant quantities of the illicit drugs entering the United States were coming from smugglers associated with the Contras…funded by…you guessed it, the secret money from the Iranian weapons deals. Ironically, this was going on at the same time that First Lady Nancy Reagan was circling the country on her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. Interestingly, we also provided Saddam Hussein with weapons (including chemical weapons) to fight the Iranians at the same time we were providing Iran weapons to fight the Iraqis. Ultimately, those weapons would be turned against his own people in the north and us in Desert Storm and the Iraq War. Let’s not forget the time that we gave the Pakistani government tons of money and weapons to distribute to warlords and mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s for the purposes of fighting the Soviet Union. Later, there was evidence that some of those exact weapons were used to shoot at some of our own helicopters in 2001 (in Afghanistan and elsewhere). While I will not go into it at great depth, it’s worth noting that there is also speculation that this western involvement with a number of warlords in Afghanistan (namely Osama bin Laden) may have been one of the mistakes that led to the attacks on September 11, 2001.
We seem to think that weapons expire after our intended use for them has been accomplished. When the truth is, anybody that has that old rifle that your daddy’s daddy gave him and he gave to you knows better. It is primarily for these reasons that I believe that President Obama’s recent decision to arm the Syrian rebels is flawed at best…perhaps even catastrophic. The president has been very clear that his “red line” for involvement was evidence of the use of chemical weapons. However, even after that occurred, he seemed reluctant to jump into another conflict while we are still recovering from Iraq, trying to wind down in Afghanistan, and licking our wounds from Benghazi. But in a remarkable display of weakness, President Obama jumped on the opportunity almost immediately after former President Clinton basically called him a “wuss” for not acting in Syria. Apparently, his “red line” was more closely related to his honor being questioned by former presidents than chemical weapons in Syria. I am of the opinion that war and conflict should be avoided whenever possible, as it is an ugly, disgusting enterprise. However, I am also of the opinion (given the historical precedent above) that if you want to kill somebody, you need to do it yourself. History and logic tell us that providing other people with the means to kill other people also provides them with the means to kill you. Therefore, if you don’t have the strength, resolve, or commitment to directly involve yourself in Syria, perhaps it’s best you just stay out. Furthermore, (in case the other examples of blowback weren’t enough evidence of the poor judgment in this plan) it is important to note that the people we are arming in Syria are exactly the same people who attacked the US Embassy in Benghazi and are members of the same Al-Qaeda groups that traveled to fight us in Iraq. Should we really be arming the very people who have been carrying out attacks on the United States as recently as last fall? This conflict has every opportunity to become another long-lasting, expensive, deadly conflict. That possibility is only amplified by the fact that the Syrian government has been receiving weapons from Russia, who has more than enough money and weapons to drag this thing out for some time and milk the United States in some kind of proxy war (further complicating US-Russian relations). Only time will tell what kind of blowback this decision might have, but it is safe to say that history tells us that western involvement in these kinds of conflicts in the Middle East, while sometimes well-intended, has often been ill-fated.