Blowback: Why Going Balls Deep Sees Us Coming Up Short

Ron Paul

I don’t often agree with Owen Jones, primarily because someone might realise I look like him and I’ll get added to the ever growing list of politicos from organisations including the Lib Dems , ASI and Guido Fawkes who look like Owen Jones. However, in his analysis of Mali, Owen makes a lot of valid points. He grasps the key issue that the US, Neo-Cons and the West in general haven’t: Blowback.


What is blowback? Simply put, it is the foreign policy equivalent of Newton’s third law: that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It is the understanding that foreign policy is not a board game or a computer simulation – that real people remember attacks, sanctions and slights. If you attack other people, sooner or later they will somehow attack you.


As I analysed in my article ‘The West is Wrong on Iran‘, blowback has been a major cause of the vast majorities of problems the west has had, not only in the Middle East but also in general foreign policy terms. So called ‘liberal interventionism’ is only the most modern variation of an interventionist foreign policy that for America dates back over 100 years and for Europe dates back many centuries.


Blowback is well-known to some. The official 9/11 commission report quotes Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg, who argued that attacks in Afghanistan offered ‘little benefit [and] lots of blowback against [a] bomb-happy US.’ Former CIA chief of the hunt for Bin Laden Michael Scheuer backed Ron Paul for President precisely because of his knowledge of blowback, whilst the former Chief of Mossad has come out on record advising against attacking Iran because of the blowback it would cause. Sadly on the foreign policy scene these voices of intelligence and reason are far too often drowned out.


It  is not a new phenomenon. One of the major factors in Hitler’s rise was the anger at the Treaty of Versailles – blowback from the harsh terms imposed by the victorious powers. The Spanish Armada was a response to British privateers as well as British support for the Dutch revolt. In modern times the anti-western, anti-US stance of many South American countries can be traced to repeated involvement by the US in the region, not to mention the Middle East.


People remember when they are bombed and when sanctions mean they struggle to find food. They remember when their democratically elected governments are overthrown with western funds and oppressive dictatorships are put in place. They remember when their fathers, sons, brothers, husbands and friends are killed by drone strikes and by western solders.


The impact of wars and military action to protect western security almost always end up causing even worse threats to the safety of our people – by urging the use of force the hawks cause more dangerous problems than they solve. Humanitarian interventionists however are no better than neo-conservatives. Foreign intervention does not spread democracy; in fact it does the opposite. Studies by Mesquita and Downs of 35 U.S. interventions from 1945 to 2004 concluded that only in the case of Colombia did a “full fledged, stable democracy” develop within ten years after the intervention. Pei Amin and Gaz argued that nation building in developed countries usually unravelled four to six years  after American intervention ended. Pei, based on study of a database on worldwide democracies called Polity, agreed with Mesquita and Downs that U.S. intervention efforts usually don’t produce real democracies, and that most cases result in greater authoritarianism after ten years.


A fundamental misunderstanding of the impacts of foreign intervention, be it direct military action, funding domestic terrorists or coups, or sanctions and economic pressure, means that an alliance of neo-cons, humanitarian do-gooders and special interests constantly demand Western actions into countries we have no place being in. When blowback, which can simmer for decades, erupts into violence the war-hungry misdiagnose the problem as hatred of the West for being free, or as an unprovoked attack.


The best recruitment tool Al Qaeda or any other anti-Western organisation has is action by the West. While those at the top of these organisations may have an ideological hatred of the West, their foot soldiers are recruited thanks to anger at western involvement. Terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda spent many years focusing on domestic governments, especially the House of Saud. The West propping up and supporting dictatorships, Monarchies and corrupt and abusive Governments turned the ire of the terrorist organisations onto us. Military action of course has done further damage. Sanctions, bombs and bullets don’t endear the West to those that feel their impact. Whilst the studies show you can’t drop freedom from 30,000 feet, you definitely can’t buy friendship with bombs.


There is no simple answer to how we handle foreign policy. The unintended consequences and blowback of action in this area are the most vast and most deadly. The West and American in particular has built up a reputation of military action that is hard to shake off; we will be feeling the impact of our foreign involvement in the past for many a year to come. The solution, however, is not to carry on with the same failed practices of action and retaliation. If we want a more peaceful world we need to stop what doesn’t work and try something new; diplomacy, negotiations and treating other people and countries with respect as equals. Historical examples of diplomacy show that it is an effective tactic. Foreign policy guru Lee Jenkins has shown the folly of the interventionist approach and the benefits diplomacy can bring.  It won’t solve our problems overnight, but if we can lead the way for peace we might just leave our children (and cats) a safer world.


  1. […] is easy to show the more trigger happy elements of war socialism that their ideas do not work. Blowback – both the narrow and wide definition of the word – shows that their views don’t work on a practical level; just look at Iran for example. […]

  2. “Government making introductions leads to the BAE bungs scandal that happened.”

    That’s a pretty sweeping generalisation based on one case. Private organisations are more than capable of acting improperly on their own, see Enron and the recent PPI scandals for evidence. Corruption will not be solved by removing Government from the equation any more than it would be by adding more Government. The only way to solve it is for people to be held properly to account for their actions. In BAE’s case, that happened both in the courts (but not the SFO) and in terms of their global reputation, which took a huge hit. In the case of PPI, the banks stand to lose billions in compensation for their impropriety, and Enron paid the ultimate price for the corruption of its executives.

    As Lee has already said, international trade cannot happen in a vacuum without Government support, not even between the UK and the EU or the UK and the US. As much as we may not like it this is a fact of life and will remain so until such time as every country on Earth either adopts a stance of absolute free trade or we become a globally governed utopia like in Star Trek.

  3. I am seeing a lot of ‘if’ and ‘should’ rather than ‘are’ and ‘is’.

    Nobody would like to see government removed from the sphere of trade as much as I, but until every state decides to voluntary dissolve itself, a blanket policy of non-interventionsm remains confined the realm of political theory.

    No country, rich or poor, is going to sign a trade agreement that sees it indigenous industry wiped out, simply to satisfy an ideological demand for free/fair trade.

    Oddly, I don’t think we actually disagree on too much. You’re arguing for what you would like to see in an ideal world, whereas I am arguing how best to operate in the world as it is now.

  4. The problem with the trade issues you point out are corporatism again. Government making introductions leads to the BAE bungs scandal that happened. I happily argue against Government setting tariffs etc. We should not prop up our farming industry if African farmers can provide it food cheaper. Equally if we remove the Government from the international sphere then there is no recongising at all.

    Domestic factors were a catalyst in Mali as were international. They attacked their Government because that was their main enemy.

    No Government should be stealing from its people to fund any form of military action, its morally bankrupt to forcibly take money from people who disagree with military action.

  5. Olly,
    Also on my phone so a similar disclaimer about the quality of the response.
    Germany and Japan are relevant. The US remained as an occupying power long after the war, and maintains a military presence in both countries. Where the guerrilla attacks on GI’s occupying Germany and Japan? Why weren’t German and Japanese communities in the US carrying out acts of terrorism there?
    The US rebuilt the counties after the war not out of altruism but out of a desire to secure these strategically important counties as both geopolitically friend nations, and a as secure markets for US companies.

    You also ignored the cases of South Korea and Taiwan. Been keen to see your ideas for why Blowback was absent there.

    I agree that the Libyan war was a mistake, but there was an insurgency against the govt of Mali before Libya. I don’t think we disagree that outside actions contribute to recruitment of terrorists, but I would argue that domestic factors are by far a more potent catalyst.

    The distinction between dealing with and propping up is in the eye of the beholder. Recognizing a foreign govt immediately grants them legitimacy. So would you refuse to recognise a corrupt govt like Mubarak or Pinochet? Is trading with them propping them up?

    You have also make the mistake that many libertarians do, which is to think that trade occurs in a vacuum. Companies can only trade with one another if their respective governments let them. For this, governments agree bespoke treaties on different types of trade, all with their own interests in mind. For example we trade with sub sarahan Africa for food stuffs, but our government imposes tariffs to protect British farmers against cheaper competition. We are able to secure such favorable treaties because our govt aggressively defended and promoted our interests, which in this case was a secure markets for British exports, with protection for British producers.
    Trade is not independent of governments. Permits, licenses and tarrifs are all agreed by governments, not businesses. This is why companies employ armies of lawyers to go over cross border trade legislation.

    I did nother mean to paint you as an isolationist, but it is important to recognise that what goes on in the world effects you. You can either influence that process or sit on your hands and hope somebody else sticks up for you.

    Putting any ideology at the heart of FP is folly as it backs you into a corner. This goes for gun-ho interventionists and those who preach no intervention anywhere, under any circumstances.
    My take on international relations is devoid of any self imposed moral or ideological constraints. I would rather we take each case on its on merit. If the situation demands we take actions (such as Iran blocking the straits of Hormuz) then we act. However if its some despot grinding his people in to the dirt, I am happy to let him crack on rather than topple him and then hope for the best.

  6. Lee is quite right regarding blowback. The origins of ill feeling between countries around the world are far too broad and complex to say that they are a result of “blowback” from any one policy or set of policies. Mali, for example. Yes, the Islamists there got weapons from Libya after the fall of Gadaffi, but there’s also the effect of the Government’s incompetence and the subsequent military coup. China is a result of many things, from Taiwan back to before the 1949 revolution and even earlier. Often it is not traceable to a specific act or policy from one country, but an ideology or a clash of cultures. Much of China’s resentment towards the US is down to the distrust of their Government towards the ideas of freedom and democracy. The same goes for al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists. They may shout about Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan, but their hostility to the West predates that. When you dig a little deeper you find that it is a clash of cultures and ideologies that has subsequently led to conflict.

    On the subject of Germany and Japan, there is some resentment of the US, particularly in Japan, that is a blowback to US actions, however largely they are as Lee says, a success story for a well-planned intervention. South Korea and Taiwan are the same. That is not to say that military intervention is the answer in all cases because it is not, and one of the fundamental problems of our recent interventions is that we haven’t done what we did in Germany and Japan. We didn’t completely smash up the old regime and the help build a new one. There were no proper plans for a post-war Iraq or a post-war Afghanistan, and as a result we are left with the situation we have today.

    On the subject of trade, unfortunately the real world does not work in the way you would like. International trade often relies on the involvement of Governments because in many parts of the world (particularly in the Middle East) that is where the relationships are held and that is the way business is done. Companies can and do negotiate directly with other companies in other countries, however setting up operations requires a lot of investment and to justify that investment they need assurances that the local Government isn’t going to do anything to hinder their operation. Equally, the local Government is going to want assurances that the foreign company isn’t going to exploit their country and that they aren’t going to have any problems back home (for example export licensing). This is where Government contacts come in. They provide the reassurance that both sides need to do the business and make the investments. This happens as much with the US and EU as it does with the Middle East and the BRIC countries.

    Another aspect to this is the fact that often a Government will decide that it wants the country to trade more with another country to build ties with them. In these cases, they are best placed to establish what kind of trade and make the introductions. The private businesses then make the deals, with the Governments provided the necessary assurances as detailed above.

    As for the definition of our “national interest”, this is driven largely by trade, even for liberal interventionists like Tony Blair. It is in our interest to protect our trading partners as it secures existing trade and builds positive relationships to facilitate further trade. That doesn’t mean we should be invading countries to get cheap oil, but it does mean that we should work with countries with whom we trade and we should be willing to help defend them if they are attacked and ask for our help. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example of how this kind of policy can (and should) work. Not only that, but a positive, mutually beneficial trade relationship can lead to long-term benefits for the people in those countries. Investment creates jobs, which is key in the Middle East where the economy is solely based on oil and Governments are desperate to diversify in order to get their young people into work. By supporting that, we help their economies to grow, which in turn means more money to spend on our goods. It’s win-win.

  7. Your third point – i agree that not all cases ever are due to western action. Governments besides ours are equally effective at upsetting people. We arent the only ones that cause blowback. The mali situation can be put down to in part our actions in libya driving certain groups into Mali. Again unintended consequences of war.

    When looking at ‘dealing’ with other governments. Trade is between people not government – let the traders get on with that. We can aquire things like extradition treaties etc without propping up, giving aid or support to corrupt oppressive regimes. You make the error of suggesting I want Isolation. I don’t. Theres a big difference between dealing with and propping up. We deal with France – we propped up Gaddafi, Mubarak, Pinochet etc

    Interests are also another nebulous term. What are British interests. If its trade – why use Government to help business – that smacks of corporatism. To protect British people and soil we dont need to ally or help the corrupt or evil.

    Non interventionism not only fits reality, its the only ideology to really comprehend blowback and unintended consequences. It is the war mongers whos ideas are simplistic. The world is not as simple as remove people we dislike put people we do in – no consequences or impact. Reality doesnt work that way. Pretending we know the ultimate reaults of our actions is naieve to the extreeme.

  8. Jenko as Im on my phone at a train station do excuse the quality of this reply

    Firstly – I think your definition of blowback is too narrow. While direct measurable blowback is obviously rasy to measure and clearly demonstratable I do not think you can discount the ill will factor. Long term blowback if you will is still present in say Russia or Chinas dislike of the US. Even in the rivalries still seen in western Europe – those arent as serious but a small remnant of previous feeling is still there. The long term consequences are significant and misunderstood

    Secondly – Germany and Japan were different as they were aggressors not the US. America didnt go with the intention of nation building – it was attacked and obliterated Germany so that it had to be rebuilt. Not only is the scale of the destruction one of the moat costly conflicts in terms of money and humans the world has ever seen but such a unique circumstance where the US is attacked hasnt really been repeated. If the US wiped out every country it invaded in such a way the blowback would be incredible.

  9. I feel a little guilty for picking holes in this after the author called me a guru, but here goes.
    -Firstly you definition of blowback is too broad. It refers to a specific reaction to a specific policy, such as arming the mujuhadden only to have those weapons turned on you. It it not, as you have alluded too, a general ill feeling towards a country following a general FP paradigm.
    -Secondly, you cited a piece that claims that Columbia was the only success story of US interventionism. This is a deliberately narrowly defined study, because it chooses to ignore several glaringly obvious success stories; Germany and Japan are two of the most prosperous and stable democracies in the world because of US military intervention and the imposition of democracy. South Korea is a prosperous and free democracy because of US military involvement. Taiwan became a prosperous democracy because the US very publicly propped up its undemocratic government between 1947 and then facilitated ending of the KMT dictatorship. It remains free today because the colossus of the US military has vowed to defend it.
    -Thirdly, you claim that outside military action causes the rise of extremist groups. Though certainly a factor, this is a wildly over used card. Local factors have a far greater impact on the growth of revisionist groups. For example there was no US or Western bombings in Mali, nor was there support for the local govt. Instead, this govt failed to provide adequately, was toppled by a army who then proved to be no better. The Naxalite rebellion in India is on of eh largest in the world and is not the result of Western bombings or support for a corrupt government, but is instead, again, the result of local factors.
    -And finally, humanitarians and non-interventionists alike have long claimed that our supporting corrupt governments causes blowback and resentment. However if you withdrew support and recognition for every govt you deemed corrupt or unrepresentative, you’d find yourself dealing nobody outside the G7. This is clearly a ludicrous position to hold. You deal with the neighbors you have, not with the ones you want.

    -British, Western, and increasingly Indian, Chinese and Brazilian interests are effected by what goes on in other parts of the world. Governments are duty bound to defend and promote those interests. It stands to reason, therefore, that in the absence of a supreme world authority ensuring everybody ‘plays nice’, States will use all methods and tools at their disposal. The idea that if we stay out of the affairs of others, every other country will do the same, is a fantasy. Non-interventionism is a lovely idea, but it takes an ideology and tries desperately to make reality fit it the idea. Better, surely, the recognition the facts and then use what tools you have to improve that reality.


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