I hate the word “blowback”. Once upon a time, it meant an action that created unintended consequences; the CIA overthrows a government, and the new regime turns out to be even more inimical to American interests. Ha, ha, the joke’s on us!
But now blowback means that if anything that anybody does has negative consequences, that person is an idiot that should have known better. It’s a great philosophy if you’re a Time Lord hopping between past and future in a magic telephone booth. But for those of us stuck in a universe of linear time, the inability to foresee consequences is called being human.
Someone should tell this to former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, whose Guardian column claims that the roots of the current Afghan mess are not to be found in the Soviet decision to invade in 1979, but rather in Jimmy Carter’s decision to supply weapons to the Afghan guerrillas. It’s a curious argument that’s sort of like claiming that the current Iraqi mess isn’t rooted in George Bush’s decision to invade but rather Tehran’s decision to support the Shia militias.
Kinzer suggests that we should have known that supporting the mujahideen would turn Afghanistan into a magnet for zealots like Osama Bin-Laden. I suppose we should have known that just like we should have known that helping the Soviet Union defeat Nazi Germany would enable Moscow to occupy Eastern Europe. One reason I don’t like this kind of historical backbiting is that it is selective. We don’t know what would have happened had Carter and the CIA chosen not to support the Afghans. The war didn’t bring down Communism – a failing economy and a new generation of Soviet leaders did that – but quagmire did play a role in discrediting the old regime.
What really troubles me about Kinzer’s argument is that it is a call for inaction. Any decision – whether made by Presidents or peons – runs the risk of blowback. Blowback is inevitable, because every decision has positive and negative consequences. As I type this, I’m sipping a glass of water that keeps me hydrated, yet may also contain pharmaceuticals that have contaminated the water supply. Flipping my office light switch assists my vision but consumes energy that could effect global warming (see Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” for a wonderful story of unintended consequences). What’s the only guaranteed way to avoid blowback? Never do anything.
The best we can do is do the best we can with the information that we have at the time. George Bush and his advisors were fools because they should have anticipated that dismantling Saddam’s regime would result in chaos unless a functioning government was quickly installed. But Jimmy Carter in 1979 should have anticipated Muslim terrorists flying airliners into New York skyscrapers? I’m not a hawk, but if I had been in the White House back then, I would have supplied weapons to the Afghans, and so might Mr. Kinzer. In the context of Cold War rivalry, it made sense, which is why Moscow had generously supplied weapons to North Vietnam that kept the U.S. embroiled in a bloody war for a decade. If ailing Soviet leaders had felt emboldened by a successful invasion of Afghanistan, who knows what they would have done next in other areas such as Poland, where the Solidarity movement threatened Moscow’s Eastern European empire? Who knows what would have happened when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989?
Had Carter known that Bin Laden would come along, no doubt he would have hesitated. But until we elect leaders with crystal balls implanted in their brains, the unintended consequences of blowback will always be a consequence.