The Dismal “Physics” of Blowback and Overstretch


Countering Scientism with Scientism

Another sort of “physics” has emerged, right from within the same establishment of military and political institutions that produced “force multipliers”. If this other physics has attained the prominence that it has, such that it now has a foothold in academia and is a firm part of popular discourse in the US primarily, it is due at least in part to the social prominence and respectability of the false physics that it counters, and the false physics it is itself. By this other physics I mean the concepts of “blowback” and “overstretch” which, like “force multipliers,” are useful for descriptively pointing to certain “real-world” phenomena, but are impoverished half-attempts at theory. I return to the question of theory, and theorization, in the concluding paragraphs of this series of articles (the next and last instalment).

Blowback in Its Restricted Sense

Blowback is a reaction to force: a reaction to “hard power,” and particularly a reaction to covert operations. The term originates from “a classified government document in the CIA’s post-action report on the secret overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953” (Johnson, 2004, p. xii). As Chalmers Johnson explained further, “blowback” was invented by the CIA “to describe the likelihood that our covert operations in other people’s countries would result in retaliations against Americans, civilian and military, at home and abroad” (Johnson, 2004, p. ix). As a former CIA analyst, Johnson would have been familiar with CIA terminology, and he did a great deal to popularize the term. From the CIA, it became the centrepiece of academic analysis with Johnson. In its “most rigorous definition,” blowback does not mean “mere reactions to historical events but rather to clandestine operations carried out by the U.S. government that are aimed at overthrowing foreign regimes, or seeking the execution of people the United States wanted eliminated by ‘friendly’ foreign armies, or helping launch state terrorist operations against overseas target populations” (Johnson, 2004, p. xi). Thus a reaction against force multipliers is also implied by blowback. “As a concept,” Johnson adds, “blowback is obviously most easily grasped in its straightforward manifestations. The unintended consequences of American policies and acts in country X lead to a bomb at an American embassy in country Y or a dead American in country Z” (2004, p. xi). In a broader sense, “blowback is another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows” (Johnson, 2004, p. xi). Thus far the concept appears simple enough, blending very basic action-reaction with common moral approaches to human affairs, rooted in biblical proverbs.

The idea of blowback hinges on the motivation to retaliate. As Johnson puts it, “American policy is seeding resentments that are bound to breed attempts at revenge” (2004, p. 65). Without resentment there is no compulsion to seek revenge; without an effort made to exact revenge, there can be no blowback. “The most direct and obvious form of blowback” has tended to occur “when the victims fight back after a secret American bombing, or a U.S.-sponsored campaign of state terrorism, or a CIA-engineered overthrow of a foreign political leader” (Johnson, 2004, p. 9). Blowback involves the creation of force multipliers in reverse. The Defense Science Board (1997, p. 15) resists identifying US intervention as a cause for retaliation, but nonetheless stated the following highly suggestive conclusion based on the data it accumulated:

“Historical data show a strong correlation between US involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, the military asymmetry that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United States drives the use of transnational actors”.

Blowback in Its Extended Sense

Blowback is also understood in an “extended” sense by Johnson, one that departs from what he calls straightforward examples. Blowback in this broader sense “includes the decline of key American industries because of the export-led economic policies of our satellites, the militarism and arrogance of power that inevitably conflict with our democratic structure of government, and the distortions to our culture and basic values as we are increasingly required to try to justify our imperialism” (Johnson, 2004, pp. xi-xii). This can be a more productive approach to blowback, one that can link to a series of related theses describing the wider fallout of US interventionism, and not just the covert kind. In words that echo those of former President Dwight Eisenhower and Senator J. William Fulbright, Johnson laments the extravagant growth of a self-seeking military establishment nearly beyond civilian control, and an increasingly impoverished citizenry forced to pay for perpetual wars and bailouts (Johnson, 2004, pp. 218, 221, 222). Andrew Bacevich makes similar points, tying blowback into overstretch:

“as events have made plain, the United States is ill-prepared to wage a global war of no exits and no deadlines. The sole superpower lacks the resources—economic, political, and military—to support a large-scale, protracted conflict without, at the very least, inflicting severe economic and political damage on itself. American power has limits and is inadequate to the ambitions to which hubris and sanctimony have given rise”. (Bacevich, 2008, p. 11)

One of Johnson’s primary conclusions is that “more imperialist projects simply generate more blowback” (2004, p. 223)—simple, and even inevitable, he maintains: “efforts to maintain imperial hegemony inevitably generate multiple forms of blowback” (2004, p. 229). Inevitability is scaled down to “in all likelihood,” when Johnson argues that world politics in the twenty-first century will be driven primarily by blowback from the second half of the twentieth century, “that is, from the unintended consequences of the Cold War and the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post-Cold War world” (2004, p. 229). In words that foresaw the current US and NATO conflict with Russia, Johnson offered some wise words:

“The American empire has become skilled at developing self-fulfilling—and self-serving—prophecies in order to justify its policies. It expands the NATO alliance eastward in part in order to sell arms to the former Soviet bloc countries, whose armies are being integrated into the NATO command structure, with the certain knowledge that doing so will threaten Russia and elicit a hostile Russian reaction. This Russian reaction then becomes the excuse for the expansion”. (Johnson, 2004, p. 92)

(Indeed, in the self-serving jingoism of North American politicians and mass media, and not a few “progressives,” the term imperialism is often–dishonestly and inaccurately–used exclusively to define the Russian reaction to what is in fact our imperialism.)

As previewed above, Johnson like Bacevich also carried over the implications of blowback into his arguments about what calls overstretch. Since the US is reaching the limits in what it can afford in terms of its ongoing military deployment and interventions, it has begun to extract “ever growing amounts of ‘host-nation support’ from its clients, or even direct subsidies from its ‘allies’. Japan, one of many allied nations that helped finance the massive American military effort in the Gulf War, paid up to the tune of $13 billion. (The U.S. government even claimed in the end to have made a profit on the venture.)” (Johnson, 2004, p. 221). Here we see a formulation that derives from the “science” that has been proffered by military and intelligence elites: because “overstretch” results from “blowback” (in the broad sense), the US needs to lean more heavily on “force multipliers”.

Is Blowback a Useful Concept?

If we take blowback in its restricted sense, it appears to be a useful concept—when actual blowback happens. It is a simple, arguably simplistic, concept that derives its credibility from Newtonian physics. Isaac Newton’s “third law of motion,” as most readers can recite already, is that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. But is there?

Since the attacks of “9/11” are seen by writers following Johnson as “blowback”—then there should have a very long line of culprits if the concept really worked. Everyone from Chileans to Argentinians, Uruguayans, Bolivians, Colombians, Nicaraguans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Filipinos, Japanese, Germans, Italians, Russians, Serbians, Libyans, Congolese, etc., etc., should have been plotting multiple attacks for decades. In fact, given the wide array of grievances and resentments, spread near and far, if there is one conclusion that can be safely derived is that, understood in its restricted sense, blowback almost never happens. When such blowback does happen, then of course it is a relatively easy thing to call it a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and to appear convincing. We should be cautious about assuming blowback to be either simple, or simply inevitable (as Johnson tends to do), since it offers another falsely scientific, mechanical formulation that does not stand even the most basic empirical testing.

It is far more useful to broaden blowback, but to do so in a manner that goes beyond Johnson’s attempt. When blowback is understood in cyclical, socio-economic and cultural terms, alternating between external and internal events that sometimes operate in tandem, in a nation-state where blowback was already to be found before any given external actions, where new domestic effects are generated by the importation of the techniques of war and domination, with mounting political and economic costs, then we have the foundation not for a productive concept, but a theory. For example, the security spectacle produced in US airports, the militarization of the police, the increased number of riots in African-American inner cities, the bankruptcy of whole cities, the excessive production of violent movies and games, and many other phenomena, can all be taken as constituting blowback.

Otherwise, what embarrasses the simple concepts of blowback and force multipliers, is the apparent reality of some of the US’ own force multipliers becoming the vectors of blowback, such as a Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda, and numerous “Islamist militias” in Libya. Blowback, in Johnson’s formulations, also rests on the common assumption of “unintended consequences”. It is increasingly difficult to find US security and international relations writers mentioning consequences without qualifying them as “unintended”. Why must they always be assumed to be unintended, even in cases where a battery of officials have testified before Congress about the likely outcomes of US military intervention in cases such as Libya? While neither the idea of an omniscient, ubiquitous and all-powerful US, nor a perfectly innocent and ignorant US, is convincing, we must allow some room for cases where chaos, disorder, and fragmentation were the unspoken and actual aims of US interventions abroad. Chaos can be very profitable, especially for those who have turned permanent war into a lucrative industry. Even understood in Johnson’s broad sense, blowback can be profitable. Bacevich (2008, p. 173) argues that some wish to maintain US dependence on imported oil, imported goods, and foreign credit:

“The centers of authority within Washington—above all, the White House and the upper echelons of the national security state—actually benefit from this dependency: It provides the source of status, power, and prerogatives. Imagine the impact just on the Pentagon were this country actually to achieve anything approaching energy independence. U.S. Central Command would go out of business. Dozens of bases in and around the Middle East would close. The navy’s Fifth Fleet would stand down. Weapons contracts worth tens of billions of dollars would risk being canceled”.

Overstretch: The Unnatural Limits of Imperialism

Overstretch, like blowback, forms part of a publicly acceptable American way of speaking of the “dilemmas” of “global leadership,” and has been the case at least since the 1966 publication of The Arrogance of Power by then US Senator J. William Fulbright. Fulbright, referring to the history of “great nations,” noted that they have always set out upon missions to police the world, “and they have wrought havoc, bringing misery to their intended beneficiaries and destruction upon themselves” (Fulbright, 1966, p. 138). There is an implicit idea of blowback, in the broad sense. What is now called overstretch, Fulbright called overextension:

“America is showing some signs of that fatal presumption, that overextension of power and mission, which has brought ruin to great nations in the past. The process has hardly begun, but the war which we are now fighting [in Vietnam] can only accelerate it. If the war goes on and expands, if that fatal process continues to accelerate until America becomes what she is not now and never has been, a seeker after unlimited power and empire, the leader of a global counter-revolution, then Vietnam will have had a mighty and tragic fallout indeed”. (Fulbright, 1966, p. 138)

Overextension stemmed from “our excessive involvement in the affairs of other countries,” excessive in part because US empire was now “living off our assets and denying our own people the proper enjoyment of their resources” (Fulbright, 1966, p. 21). The “excessive preoccupation with foreign relations over a long period of time” is a “drain on the power that gave rise to it, because it diverts a nation from the sources of its strength, which are in its domestic life” and Fulbright warned that, “a nation immersed in foreign affairs is expending its capital, human as well as material” and faced the prospect of ruin by expending its “energies in foreign adventures while allowing…domestic bases to deteriorate” (Fulbright, 1966, pp. 20-21). Repeatedly in his book Fulbright argued against a foreign policy that involved the US “in the affairs of most of the nations of the world while its own domestic needs are neglected or postponed” (Fulbright, 1966, p. 134), emphasizing his warning that “an ambitious foreign policy built on a deteriorating domestic base is possible only for a limited time” (Fulbright, 1966, p. 217).

The concept of imperial “overstretch” is now regularly associated with the work of the historian Paul Kennedy (1989), which describes a situation that arises when a state’s engagements and presence beyond its borders result in mounting costs, while the ability to meet such costs begins to diminish. This concept of empire living beyond its means has also become popularized, largely as a form of safe critique: imperialism is to be rejected, when it becomes too costly to the imperialists. Overstretch seems to stand out, after the fact. However, there is clearly a concern among political and military elites in Washington that overstretch is a distinct possibility, either right now or in the near future, hence the growing proliferation in usage of the force multiplier idea, of spreading costs, and “sharing the burden” as Hillary Clinton put it. Johnson also links overstretch to blowback: “the duties of ‘lone superpower’ produced military overstretch; globalization led to economic overstretch; and both are contributing to an endemic crisis of blowback” (2004, p. 215). Some root the problem of overstretch in policies that began to take shape from the start of the 1960s, with an increased US emphasis on maintaining a “forward presence,” to be “forward deployed,” and thus ultimately able to project power anywhere on earth (Bacevich, 2010, pp. 22, 150, 162). The “American credo of global leadership” commits the US to what is in effect “a condition of permanent national security crisis,” or constant “semiwar” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 27). This placement of US “interests” everywhere on earth, an effective territorialization that parallels older forms of colonialism, is best expressed in the words of then CIA Director Allen Dulles in 1963:

“The whole world is the arena of our conflict….our vital interests are subject to attack in almost every quarter of the globe at any time…[it is essential] to maintain a constant watch in every part of the world, no matter what may at the moment be occupying the main attention of diplomats and military men”. (Quoted in Bacevich, 2010, p. 40)

Bacevich also anchors the dynamics of overstretch in an extended critique of the perceived moral qualities of all Americans, in terms of their hubris, sanctimony, convinced of their own exceptional qualities and as destined to lead the world, their overconfidence and arrogance, and so forth. His analysis relies heavily on the works of a theological scholar, Reinhold Niebuhr. There is very little in the way of a materialist analysis, of discussion of capital and labour, trade and investment, production and consumption, or even inequality as Bacevich speaks of “Americans” as a largely undifferentiated and unitary entity, with shared moral qualities (or defects) and shared understandings. Rather than the rigorously imitative scientism of his former colleagues in the US military, Bacevich indulges in theology and morality. Empire exists in his work largely as a quality of the mind, and secondarily as expressed by military action. It is an argument that resonates with the Christian, anti-big government crowd of libertarian Republicans (Bacevich professes to be Republican)—and thus what is largely excluded is any discussion of the role of “big business,” which is shielded from his critique.

This is not to say that there is little to learn from Bacevich’s works, as much as they tend to repeat each other, and that one should ignore the ideological and cultural dimensions of imperialism, such as the civilizing mission, universalism, and assimilation. His critique can also be useful as a corrective to the mainstream propaganda—here he is quoting Niebuhr:

“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun”. (Bacevich, 2008, p. 12)

While his critique is more political-military than economic, Bacevich as a senior officer and insider offers much that is valuable concerning the state’s practice of global interventionism and the reigning ideology.

Going back to Fulbright, one may also detect an assumption that US imperialism was meant to be profitable to all US citizens, like an investment that promised returns, only these returns are now failing to materialize. Moreover, the resources needed to sustain this global overextension are dwindling (Fulbright does not object to extension as such, only to an undefined excess of it). This is a view that differs sharply with understandings of imperialism found in the works of Marxists, or in anthropological writings such as Kapferer (2005). Thus Fulbright does not admit that imperialism need be profitable only to a select few (Kapferer’s corporate oligarchy), that exploitation and inequality at home is fully consistent with imperial extension, and that the resources to sustain empire may be dwindling at home, but expanding abroad.


Bacevich, A.J. (2008). The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company.

————— . (2010). Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company.

Defense Science Board. (1997). The Defense Science Board 1997 Summer Study Task Force on DoD Responses to Transnational Threats. Volume 1, Final Report, October. Washington, DC: US Department of Defense.

Fulbright, J.W. (1966). The Arrogance of Power. New York: Random House.

Johnson, C. (2004). Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. New York: Holt Paperbacks.

Kapferer, B. (2005). New Formations of Power, the Oligarchic-Corporate State, and Anthropological Ideological Discourse. Anthropological Theory, 5(3), 285–299.

Kennedy, P. (1989). The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Vintage Books.

zaniv5smExtracted from:
Force Multipliers: The Instrumentalities of Imperialism
Edited by
Maximilian C. Forte
Montreal, Alert Press, 2015
Available in print, or as a
Free E-book

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