The 'blowback' effect

What do people overseas have against Americans?

We stand reeling as if from a surprise punch to the gut that's knocked the wind out. Our collective consciousness flashes back to Pearl Harbor. In 1941, the American public likewise reacted with disbelief and confusion over the attack, at a loss to grasp why the U.S. had been targeted in a conflict in which it seemingly was not involved.

Amid the anguish and anger, Americans undoubtedly are asking themselves a question that can sound embarrassingly naive when vocalized: What do people have against us? When news of the terrorist attack causes impromptu celebrations to erupt in Palestinian villages, we've got to wonder why these people, and others around the world, hate Americans.

If we don't ask these questions and educate ourselves enough to understand the answers — not rationalize them, perhaps, but understand them, just as we were forced to do with the L.A. riots and the Oklahoma City bombing — we can't expect to prevent or even anticipate future attacks on American soil.

"Among a lot of people for a long time, Americans have been viewed as arrogant, that we didn't pay attention to other countries, says Gordon Newby, executive director of the Institute for Comparative and International Studies at Emory University and a professor of Middle Eastern studies. "Why don't people like us? We're viewed as the big bully who's unaware of problems in the rest of the world.

Of course, the United States wasn't attacked by the world at large, or for vague, indefinable grudges, but by a fringe network of Islamic extremists based in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and for some very specific reasons, real or imagined.

However, it would be a mistake to view prime suspect Osama bin Laden and his followers simply as a sociopathic cult that, with enough force and fire power, can be successfully excised from the world like a tumor. Do we hunt him down? Certainly. And pressure other nations to stop tolerating and harboring terrorists? Definitely. But we need to understand that wiping out bin Laden won't erase the threat.

"Terrorists make up a small part of any population, Newby says, "but what they feed on is a climate of despair and anger.

This anger has grown out of a list of grievances against this nation that have flown under the radar of many Americans, among them the crushing economic sanctions against Iraq that the U.S. and Britain continue to enforce a decade after the Gulf War. While Saddam Hussein remains firmly in power, the sanctions and sporadic bombing have been blamed for the deaths of more than a half-million children in that country and devastating poverty that has outraged many fellow Arabs and Muslims.

Then there's our continued, staunch support for Israel during a time of heightened tension and violent conflict between that country and the Palestinians, who have the unqualified sympathy of the rest of the Muslim world.

"Islamic solidarity is much stronger than with any other religion, explains Marius Deeb, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a Christian of Lebanese descent. "So, even a Pakistani, who doesn't speak Arabic, believes everything Israel does is wrong and everything the Palestinians do is right. It's not rational, but it's real.

The very day before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the British newsweekly The Economist ran an online editorial warning that the Bush administration was courting disaster in the Middle East through its "hands off attitude toward the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Most Arabs believe that the status quo favors Israel, and therefore that American disengagement is tantamount to continued support for Israel, and a callous disregard for the plight of Palestinian civilians, the editorial contends.

Newby puts it more bluntly: "From the Arab point of view, every bullet that kills a Palestinian was paid for by an American.

Finally, at the root of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East is the perception — right or wrong — that the U.S. has long sought to control the politics and economy of the region, says Laura Drake, professor of international relations at American University in Washington D.C. and a Middle East expert.

For example, she says, it's now acknowledged that the CIA engineered a 1953 coup in Iran that allowed the deposed Shah to reclaim power, ousting a democratically elected government whose socialist policies were at odds with American interests. That action helped create a generation of U.S.-hating Iranians who struck back by capturing our embassy in 1979. The Iraqi sanctions could have even a more profound effect in that country, Drake says, amounting to a time bomb that could explode in another decade.

The CIA has a word for this form of cause and effect.

"'Blowback' means the unintended consequences of foreign operations of the U.S. government that have been kept secret from the American public, says Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant and retired professor of international relations at the University of California who last year published Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.

If the Sept. 11 skyjackings are conclusively tied to fanatically anti-American Arabs, Johnson says it would be "a perfect example of 'blowback.'

Similarly, bin Laden's maniacal hatred of America stems largely from his belief that the kingdom of his native Saudi Arabia is a puppet state controlled by the U.S. Why then not strike at the Saudi rulers? "It is said you hit a snake at the head, not the tail, Deeb says.

Bin Laden's followers come from different nations and may harbor a variety of grievances, but they possess a shared objective: destroying the U.S. or, at least, breaking its grip on the Middle East. "In bin Laden's mind, he and his supporters defeated the atheistic Soviets in Afghanistan and now he's taking on the Americans, whom he dehumanizes as infidels, says Deeb, adding that the effectiveness of last Tuesday's attack can only win him more converts.

American University's Drake scoffs at the notion voiced by politicians and pundits over the past week that the attack was an assault on the Free World as a whole, on the very principle of democracy.

"This is not about Western civilization, she says. "It's about U.S. hegemony, which is concentrated in that part of the world more so than any other. When you take sides in other people's wars and get involved in their politics, you're going to make enemies.

It's important to keep in mind that scholars of history and geopolitics don't look at world events and conflicts in terms of good and evil; they turn to analysis rather than give voice to outrage and sorrow. Their words can seem callous in contrast to the elected officials and church leaders seen on network TV in recent days.

But, with anti-Americanism on the rise over the past year and relations deteriorating with some of our strongest allies, our perceived posture of isolationism and a societal disinterest in global politics must give way to inquiry and skepticism regarding foreign relations and America's future role in the world.

We should leverage our influence with reluctant ally Pakistan with the knowledge that that fundamentally Muslim country is equipped with nuclear weapons, capable of "blowback only hazily imagined.

Americans took a greater interest in world affairs after Pearl Harbor, and the same response is required of us in the wake of last week's act of war.

Says Emory's Newby: "We need to be more aware of our impact in the world before we can understand what people think of us.

Francis X. Gilpin, a staff writer at the Weekly Planet in Tampa, contributed to this report.??