Former Secretary of State Colin Powell used to talk about the Pottery Barn Rule: If you break something, such as a foreign government, you’ve bought it. He was referring to places like Iraq and Libya, where we intervened and left behind chaos.
Unfortunately, on Mr. Powell’s watch, and in many other administrations going back to Teddy Roosevelt, the United States was a heavy-handed force that left dozens of poor and disorganized countries in a shambles.
This is what I call the Blowback Rule. It leaves us to deal with unintended consequences of our legacy of intervention.
Today, Americans and our allies from Latin America to the Middle East to Asia are struggling and dying in a half dozen countries because of Blowback. We shouldered our way in, tried to make them copy Western governments, and when that failed, we left them in a vacuum.
We fueled the flames of conflict by pouring in money, weapons, military training and intelligence reports. But without accountable local governments, the aid was ripped off, the weapons went to tribes and thugs, and the intervention bolstered the local strongmen to enforce their will.
Blowback countries and movements include the following:
Afghanistan: Since the Soviets invaded in 1979, the United States has been fueling warfare here. The Americans and the Saudis armed the mujahideen guerrilla fighters in the 1980s. We fueled the “muj” to pay back Russia for arming communist forces that killed 58,000 American troops in the Vietnam War. And Pakistan funneled U.S. weapons and cash to the most intolerant religious groups that later formed the Taliban, Al-Qaida and ISIS.
When Russia spilled enough blood and went home in 1989, chaos erupted among guerrilla groups. For 30 years until today, Afghanistan has been at war, and we are still losing troops there. The U.S.-provided weapons even armed Osama bin Laden who attacked us on 9/11, in the ultimate Blowback.
North Korea: Some 24 years ago, the Clinton administration sent diplomat Robert Gallucci to negotiate the Framework Nuclear Accord. North Korea agreed to close its nuclear reactor and get rid of spent fuel rods. In return, it would get fuel oil from the U.S. and electricity from South Korean power plants.
But it all fell apart after Republicans won Congress and decided to rip President Bill Clinton’s framework to pieces (just as Donald Trump is doing to President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear pact). North Korea, perhaps unaware of the nuances of U.S. pendulum politics, then resumed production of nuclear warheads and long range missiles. That is a particularly explosive Blowback.
Honduras: As Honduran women and children ask for asylum along the California border, few of us remember how we messed up their country. After leftist Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan sent weapons and money to support anti-communist Contras based in Honduras. Reagan skirted a congressional ban on funding the Contras by selling weapons secretly to Iran and sending the cash to Honduras. When the war died down in Nicaragua, the legacy of U.S. cash and guns left Honduras awash in violence, another example of U.S. blowback.
Russia: When the Soviet Union splintered, President George H. W. Bush promised Moscow that we would not expand NATO to the border of the old Soviet empire. But each U.S. administration makes its own rules, and the next administrations invited Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Baltics, Bulgaria, etc. to join NATO. That led directly to the rebirth of authoritarian nationalism in Russia, which has become the nemesis of the Western world. Vladimir Putin is Blowback.
The Arab Spring: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to the Middle East with good intentions and told the strongmen rulers that their days were numbered; leaders should govern only with the consent of the governed. This sweet bit of advice attempted to replace killers, parasites and absolute rulers with a democratic process that has never worked in the Arab world.
But young and inspired folks took to the streets and started rebellions in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, an election put the Muslim Brotherhood in office, leading to a military coup. Blowback. Syrians killed 400,000 of their own people, and it’s still ongoing. Blowback.
Blowback means unintended consequences. Yet it is difficult for the U.S. to remain on the sidelines when innocents are massacred and violent thugs seize power. The world once said “never again” to genocide — after waiting on the sidelines as Hitler killed 6 million Jews.
I have been to Halabja, where Saddam Hussein slaughtered 200,000 Kurds, in part with poison gas. U.S. leaders finally intervened to halt the slaughter. But we were sucked into the Sunni-Shiite sectarian civil war, leaving more than 4,000 U.S. troops dead.
It is a cold thing to witness thousands trying to escape violence and enter your homeland — be they Hondurans, Eritreans or Syrians — and to shut them out. But so many times in the past, intervention for a good cause turns out bad. Pushing democracy on Iraq, Egypt, Ukraine and other developing countries has had some awful results. We have yet to figure out how to help countries develop without chaos. And, as the reward for our efforts, we too often face Blowback.
Ben Barber is a foreign affairs journalist, retired editor of the USAID newsletter and author of the photojournalism book “GROUNDTRUTH: Work, Play and Conflict in the Third World.” His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.