"We're on a Destabilizing Planet": Interview with Tom Engelhardt





David Austin Walsh is an editor for the History News Network.

Tom Engelhardt is the creator and editor of The Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com, former Senior Editor at Pantheon Books, and the author of numerous works on American foreign policy, including The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's and most recently The United States of Fear. I talked with Mr. Engelhardt over the phone about a wide range of issues, foreign and domestic.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with HNN.  What's your reaction to the end of the Iraq War? Was the official end truly a meaningful milestone?

Only if you put the right words to it.  And the right words would be “debacle” and “defeat.”  None of the official rhetoric has come close to admitting that.  The president and [Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta said that Iraq was a kind of success and that we’re leaving with our heads held high.

A detail I loved in the heads-held-high category was in the New York Times description of the last unit leaving Iraq.  It left in the dead of night, and before it left, it sent its interpreters out to assure local officials, sheiks, etc., and to basically make appointments for the next week.  That's apropos of a few things.  The last unit leaving Iraq, dealing with Iraqis that were closest to it, pretended that it was staying, and then just leaving without saying goodbye.  Talk about slinking out of Iraq.  

So, yes, if you think about the dreams of the Bush administration as they went into Iraq—the belief that functionally occupying the greater Middle East was the key to future American global policy—and that the “world’s sole superpower” was basically defeated by two separate, distinct insurgencies—Sunni and Shiite—then those dreams have been shattered.  Occupying the greater Middle East to cement American power?  They couldn’t do it.

How does this defeat restrict Washington’s options overseas in the next ten to twenty years?

To understand the answer to that question, we have to talk about the second great debacle of this era:  the war in Afghanistan.  There were debacles on either side of the greater Middle East, and they were genuine debacles.  Let’s take a broader perspective than the past ten years, though:  this is the second time in a half-century that the U.S. has committed itself to a prolonged war on the Asian continent and suffered a defeat.  Obviously, I’m referring to Vietnam, also (obviously) an Asian country.  It’s extraordinary to see it happen twice this way, and to see it happen in each case by under-armed minority insurgencies.  So how will it restrict Washington?  I think when we get out of Afghanistan, which may be sooner than people imagine—

Let me jump in right there.  You just said “sooner than people may imagine,” which is somewhat surprising to me, because one of the major points of many of your essays has been that the United States has planned to stay in Afghanistan and Iraq for the long term.  In Iraq for example, you’ve often referenced the gigantic, fortress-like American embassy.

Well, yes, plans were very clearly laid out on—in that they were spoken of this way by the planners and architects of the war like Wolfowitz—the South Korean model.  The plan as we went into to Iraq was that the United States would have thirty to forty thousand troops garrisoned in Iraq for more or less the foreseeable future.  This is why the war was obviously a defeat, because this didn’t happen.

Afghanistan has the same thing happening—but we're seeing it played out in a kind of slow motion.  There was an article I read recently which said that the U.S. Afghan commander is lobbying for a slowdown in the Afghan timetable (similar to what happened in Iraq in 2010-2011), and that there are ongoing negotiations for an agreement with the Karzai government that would keep American troops there until for up to a decade, possibly more.   It won’t be called “permanent basing,” but they are still negotiating this stuff.  

However, I just don’t see it lasting, and to get back to your earlier question about limitations, I think once we’re off the Asian continent, I don’t see us going back in this way—the whole boots-on-the-ground model.  I think from now on, militarily speaking, we’re going to adopt an offshore model.  We’re talking air power and we’re talking sea power.  The problem with air power—which now means drones—is that it doesn’t matter.  Drones are being called a revolutionary weapon, technologically remarkable—we get endless, awestruck pieces about drones and drone warfare—but the problem is that air power, historically, has not been able to achieve political ends. 

And military power isn’t even the crucial thing in the globe now anyway.  It’s a thing, and it’s not a small thing, but it’s not the crucial thing, and drones aren’t going to do the trick—they’re not going to solve the problem any more than counterinsurgency did.  

So, I think the limits are great, and the striking thing in the world that is that the U.S. looks like a diminished power.  The Pakistanis are acting accordingly. 

Go back to 2001, to that moment when reportedly Richard Armitage walked into the office of Pervez Musharraf’s Director of Intelligence and said something to the effect of “you’re either with us or against us—against us and we bomb you back to the Stone Age.”  Now jump ahead ten years.  The Pakistanis are throwing us out of a major drone base and closing the border to U.S. supplies, the border without which, in the long term, the U.S. cannot do without and remain in Afghanistan.  Limits will be everywhere.

Part of the problem is that we’re looking at a “multipolar planet”—I would say probably a “destabilizing planet.”  What exactly are drones going to do up against the possibility that, within a few years, we could have not a euro zone but maybe euro zones?  What good will drones do against the possibility of a Chinese real estate bubble burst?  I mean, what can drones do?  It’s true—they can fly around the world and they can target and kill people.  It’s an extraordinary technology, that like most wonder weapons—take the example many of the wonder weapons of WWI: poison gas, the tank, etc.—have an initial shock, but they don’t actually change the balance of things.   The U.S. right now has a staggering lead in drones, but just wait until the first moment when other countries like Russia send their drones after the Chechens of their choice and the China sends their drones after Uighar rebels.  It’s going to look to Washington like a lot uglier world, but even then, drones will not be decisive.

Does Washington appreciate the dangerous precedent the drone wars are setting?  You mentioned Chinese and Russian drones fighting across their borders.

No, I don’t think so.  It’s funny, I have a friend who is a reporter in Afghanistan who had some contact with McChrystal and some of the other top commanders a few years back, and he said an interesting thing to me.  He said that they knew that they were inside some kind of a box—that they couldn’t see Afghan society though they were desperate to see it.  I think Washington is in some kind of a box like that, and thinking in Washington is trapped inside some fairly narrow sets of conventions about how the world works, and I think that makes it remarkably impossible to think outside of those conventions.  Again, just to take the simple example of Afghanistan—we're fighting in a landlocked country in Asia with supply lines thousands of miles long through countries—not just Pakistan, but also Russia—who are not exactly friends.  This seems to be one of more impractical wars the United States could fight and to pour its money into—forget what it’s even doing or what it could do to get at the end point.  It’s a war that seems utterly, strikingly impractical, and it would be be logical for the actual, smart leaders of an imperial power to head for the damn exits without spending a lot more money before ending up in a true disaster. 

But the options being offered and being fought over, often bitterly, in Washington are quite narrow.  Back in 2009 the question was whether to send in twenty thousand troops or forty thousand.  Other options weren’t there.  There’s no fresh air in Washington.  The striking thing about Obama’s appointments since he came into office was the appointed people who represented established Washington thinking—James Jones, Hillary Clinton.  He brought in almost no one who brought anything new to the table.

Are there real, substantive differences between, for example, Obama’s position on Afghanistan and, say, Mitt Romney's?

I think Romney makes clear something that’s been true but less clear under Obama.  Let's go back to George W. Bush for a minute.  George W. Bush was clearly fascinated by was the idea that he (and people joked about it) was the "Decider," but particularly that he was the commander-in-chief.  What’s interesting is that the role of commander-in-chief has changed over the past decade.  Romney and other Republicans who say before we take a course of action, we should first take into account what the generals and top military brass want, make clear that the commander-in-chief of the military has increasingly become the negotiator-in-chief with the military.  That is, the president really isn’t a commander anymore.  Civilian-military relations are clearly in flux, and by so explicitly deferring to military opinion, Romney makes this clearer than Obama.

Is this one of the consequences of an all-volunteer military?

Yes, that’s certainly part of it.  Look back to Vietnam.  The citizens’ army was thrown into chaos as a result of that war, and the generals very clearly said back in the ‘70s, “no, we’re not going to go through that again.”  The transition to a volunteer army was a huge change, and once the draft was taken out of the equation, other things changed as well.  Obviously, the volunteer army is only part of the explanation for this, but military people in this country are treated officially as if they were almost religious icons.  The president now regularly says our wounded warriors are fallen heroes.  Heroes, warriors—there’s this language now that goes with the military that never went with the democratic, conscript military.  The president praises the patriotism of the military.  In my childhood, military people were civilians—they were Americans, you didn’t have to specially say they were patriotic.  When you have to explictly say something, it always implicitly tells you something else.  

This is like American exceptionalism.  When I grew up in the 1950s, the United States was, in the most literal sense, an exceptional nation—it was the single economic powerhouse of the globe.  Period.  Doesn’t matter that there was another major superpower.  The Soviets were never as successful economically and in the 1950s they were still recovering from the utter devastation of World War II.  That was the exceptional moment, but nobody ever spoke about it that way.  Presidential candidates now drone on endlessly about American exceptionalism, but in a way, it’s a weird kind of confession.  The subtext is that, actually, we’re losing—whatever exceptionalism was, it’s gone now.  When you profess something too much, it begins to sound defensive.

I think that’s true with the military, too.  The military is praised too much, and behind all that praise is a striking disconnect between the military and society.  Consequently, society is extremely remote from wars waged on its behalf, wars which are no longer citizens’ wars in any way.  In some sense we feel comfortable with drone warfare because it makes the wars even more remote.

Will drones begin to be used within the United States?

They’re already here.  Police departments are testing drones, drones are flying at the borders.  They’re barely here—we're just at the edge of it—but yes, they’re totally coming.

What does this say about the so-called militarization of the police?  Certainly the images of campus cops in riot gear breaking up Occupy demonstrations unnerved a lot of people.  Do drones accentuate this trend?

Oh, of course.  Any major weaponry handed over to a police force domestically represents something new and different and more dangerous.  Police departments across the country are starting to buy tank-like vehicles—as striking as any drone—and people don’t pay any attention to it.  Take the UC Davis pepper spray incident.  The one thing people commented on least was who was doing it—they were campus police.  Now, in my day, college campus police generally weren’t in uniform, they didn’t carry weapons, they let you into your dorm if you got locked out, if you were drunk they dealt with you.  Contrast this to the police at UC Davis—these are campus police in a sleepy California agricultural town, and they're equipped as if they're about to take on some main force unit of the Taliban.  They’re heavily armored, they’ve got on riot helmets, some of them were carrying rifle-like weapons—

Though presumably those weapons were less-than-lethal.

Right, with beanbags or whatever.  What’s striking, though, is that the last ten years or so police departments have been living in the shadow of 9/11.  Money went flying out to police departments all over the country—it didn’t matter whether they had any possibility of facing a terrorist or anybody like a terrorist or whether terrorism was really a serious domestic problem.  

In New York, I spent some time in Zuccotti Park.  Now, Occupy Wall Street claimed to be occupying, well, Wall Street, but in fact Wall Street is two blocks away from Zuccotti.  Zuccotti is actually right by Ground Zero.  The cops facing Zuccotti Park were facing literally facing Ground Zero.  When I was walking around Zuccotti, it was visibly clear the cops were thinking "terrorist," and they dealt with Occupy Wall Street as if it was practically a terrorist incursion.  The police occupation of the Financial District was stunning.  I traveled around the Financial District and took a fairly careful look.  It was absolutely stunning—there were cameras everywhere.   It was a startling little scene, and it was a kind of militarization that Americans once would have found truly strange.  But no longer.  

I demonstrated in the ‘60s and the striking difference, in New York City at least, between the ‘60s and now is the movable fences the police deploy to keep protests penned in.  It’s almost a kind of street prison.  It was quite claustrophobic at Occupy Wall Street, and that was new.  True, there were some antecedents with the Iraq War demonstrations in New York, but the enclosing of people in those movable fences—no matter where you went, you were kind of locked in.  It was very odd.

But was the same level of police presence the case everywhere?  I went to my local Occupy demonstration in Minneapolis a few times and though I saw plenty of cops and sheriffs there, they were all in standard uniforms.

It was the same, for instance, in New Haven.  It was visibly obvious that fewer numbers of police less well-armed would have sufficed to handle the Occupy protests.  The threat of violence that would necessitate that kind of police presence just wasn’t there.  

The term “national security state” is no longer sufficient to describe this—I now like to call it the national security complex.  The national security complex is an extraordinary development of our epoch.  When we had a superpower enemy with a nuclear arsenal and a giant army, we had a significant national security state.  Then the superpower enemy imploded and our worst enemies globally became rogue states of limited power—North Korea, Iran, Iraq—a few thousand terrorists, and a handful of ethnic and tribal insurgencies.  For this world, we developed a national security complex.  The intelligence bureaucracy, the military, the Pentagon budget, all became bigger than they were during the Cold War.  But with the inflated budgets comes the promise of the national security complex:  that we will be 100 percent safe from terrorism, and there is a lot of pressure on that complex to guarantee that.

Now, post-9/11, terrorism has not exactly ranked high on the list of bad things which are affecting most Americans—compare it to unemployment, foreclosures, food-borne illnesses, car crashes, etc.  But it’s the promise of the national security complex to make Americans completely, 100 percent safe from terrorism, and I think that goes a long way in explaining why police have reacted the way they have to Occupy Wall Street.

Will we ever see a shift away from this mentality?  There was a time after Hurricane Katrina when it seemed like more attention would be paid to natural disasters, but that moment has passed.  It was reported recently that the Transportation Security Agency, the bane of fliers everywhere, is seeking to expand their jurisdiction over interstates and trains—

Yeah, that was bound to happen.  They were bound to move towards buses, trains, etc.   Who knows what the future holds?   I’m struck by the fact that the national security complex has kind of risen off the American planet—if you imagine it as kind of a mother ship rising.  If you or I broke into somebody’s house or did something illegal, we would stand a reasonable chance of being arrested and being brought to trial.  But what is striking is that the national security complex has, in a sense, risen above our American world, and it is no longer accountable.  Nobody in it, seemingly, can be brought to accountability of any sort, no less to trial in a court of law.  I find that ominous.  We’ve entered a kind of a post-legal world.

To go back to the drones for a moment, the questions people are constantly asking about drones—are they legal?—I don’t think that’s an issue that’s going to matter much for the foreseeable future.  The answer is what Washington decides it wants to do in these realms, it will do—legalities or no.  The national security complex will create its own legalities.  That’s what’s been happening for the last decade.  This certainly could change, but I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

So, in other words, this is a twist on the old Nixonian chestnut—if the president decides it’s not illegal, it’s not illegal.

Yes, I think that’s literally the case on many things.  Obama came into office and more or less offered the torturers a free pass.  It wasn’t a pardon.  It wasn’t like he officially did something—he said let’s look forward, not backward, let’s turn the page on this, and that was more or less that.  The Department of Justice had an official investigation of torture issues, but the result was a foregone conclusion and they then looked forward and not back.

How long sustainable is this national security complex?  Just in terms of treasure, it’s awfully expensive.

I have a second life—TomDispatch is the adventure of my later life, you might say—but I remain a book editor.  And one of the people I edited was Chalmers Johnson, and years ago he started wondering this aloud: we know what it means for Argentina to go bankrupt, but what would it mean for the United States to go bankrupt?  And I don’t think we have an answer to that question.  We remain an immensely wealthy country.  In a rational world, which this isn’t, this country could turn many things around, but I think you can also look at the political landscape and say that there’s almost no political combination in Washington that could be imagined between now and, say, 2016 which won’t result in some kind of political gridlock.  It doesn’t matter which combination of what ends up in Congress—if the Republicans lose the House but take the Senate, if they take the presidency—things will change, but in the directions we’re already heading.

How long this can last?  I don’t know.  I’m not an economist, and I have no sense that the economists know.  My fear is that it will last too long.  But then again, the wonderful thing about this year of protest is that there is always somebody out there whom nobody ever notices, somebody that gets it.  I didn’t expect Occupy Wall Street.  I wasn’t sure if anything like it would happen in my lifetime.  I didn’t even recognize it when it first started to happen or understand its significance.  Everyone says the mainstream media took two weeks to recognize its significance.  Well, I don’t know if it took two weeks, but it took a while.  And afterwards, as with the Arab Spring or even the Tea Party, you could go back and you can offer an explanation, and I could offer an explanation, but that’s retrospective.

Well, let’s not try to predict the future, then, because as often as I pressure historians to predict the future, I’m just as often reminded by them that it’s never a good idea.  Let’s talk about the here and now.  Are we in a period of prolonged instability?  By “we,” I mean globally.

Absolutely.  We’re in a period of global destabilization.  The widespread nature of the protests this year can’t be put down to social networks or Twitter or whatever.  Does Twitter explain why there are 100,000 Muscovites in the streets or 30,000 Chinese peasants occupying a highway to stop a coal power plant?  Does Facebook explain why men and women braved bullets and beatings in Tahrir Square?  

Many factors are involved, but two that I can see very clearly is that in the 1990s we sent out our economic jihadis, the shock therapists, abroad essentially to privatize the planet, and they were not ineffective in doing this.  They created a much more solidified global 1 percent and 99 percent (to pick the categories of the moment), and in doing so, they kind of blew a hole in the planet.  In the next decade, our (you might call them) military jihadis, our geopolitical dreamers of the Bush administration, they went out to blow a hole in the Middle East, and these two things together I think certainly were significant in creating a planet that would destabilize and creating the conditions for what is clearly an age of protest.  I can’t think of a similar recent moment—there are some similarities to 1968, of course, and the adventurous can go back to 1848 or whenever, but it’s the global nature of this thing that is striking, and I see no reason to believe that it won’t intensify in the year to come.

Is there a danger in our response to the Arab Spring to idealize it and miss the point?  It seems to be about this being a bad year for the dictators—Gaddafi got the full Mussolini treatment, Kim Jong Il just died, Assad may well be on his way out, Mubarak and Ali were deposed—but is that missing the point of the broader narrative of revolt and instability on a global level?

I think you can only say it was a bad year for the dictators if you also point out that those dictators were the creators and protectors of the 1 percent of their lands.  It wasn’t just people going after dictators, they were going after their 1 percent, and it was the 1 percent that was created out of that decade of privatization and evisceration.  If you look at the Arab Spring as just a struggle for democracy, and that’s no small thing, you’re only catching part of the natural phenomenon.  Remember where the Arab Spring started—it started with a hard-pressed, impoverished Tunisian vegetable seller feeling humiliated and setting himself on fire.  And that it started there, over selling, over food, over impoverishment, over the state—symbolically, that it started there, I think is striking.

Another factor in the protests, certainly in the United States but also true globally, is a broad wave of working- and middle-class discontent and anger over diminishing opportunities.

Let me tell you of my version of this, just domestically.  If you look at the numbers, they’re starting to look worse for, as you say, a middle-class lifestyle, and that was before the 2007-2008 collapse.  But the collapse hit like a thundercloud, like a shock—think of it as economic shock-and-awe.  There was kind of a stunned silence in this country until the Tea Party came to the fore about a year and a half ago.  Most progressives don't credit the Tea Party with much, but I think they were the first group to come out of that shock and take a look.  They were (and are) a completely different demographic than Occupy Wall Street—older, male, to some extent retired, conservative white people.  But the main thing that they grasped, I think, before they were taken over by right-wing operatives—and this carried over to Occupy Wall Street—was that they were in mourning for a lost way of life that they could see was never coming back.  It was purely emotional and intuitive.  Occupy Wall Street comes along, and I think you get same thing happening with the kids.  I think Occupy Wall Street is a post shock-and-awe movement of mourning for a lost world that they will never experience.

I would also add this:  mourning and anger.  And it’s very true of older people as well.

Yes, and oddly enough, the Tea Party again noticed some of this because the Tea Party went after the banks, the government, etc.  Occupy Wall Street went to the heart of American protest DNA—they went for Wall Street, which up and through the Great Depression was functionally the plutocrats’ site, the street of torment, the site of American protest.  So they were very striking, very canny, even if they didn’t fully know what they were doing.  They were smart as hell.  And it represented anger—it wasn’t just mourning for a lost world, but anger at a world that has been ripped away.


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