Books

Is There Any Hope for America to Transcend the Disastrous Thinking of the National Security State?

Tom Engelhardt discusses his new book and the national security state.

Covering war, empire, the national security state, and occasionally culture, TomDispatch features some of the best and most established progressive writers on the block, the likes of Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky and Andrew Bacevich. Tom Dispatch has done so at a remarkably steady pace for over a decade, about 150 essays a year. AlterNet has been proud to publish virtually every article produced by TomDispatch, and we consider it an incredibly valuable resource. It's mainly a one-man show with Tom Engelhardt, known far and wide as a writer's editor for top-flight publishers, at the helm. 

So it was a pleasure to spend a recent morning with Tom Engelhardt discussing his new book, Shadow Government (Haymarket, 2014), and how we will grapple with the worsening effects of the national security state.

AlterNet: Looking back over the past decade, it seems things have gotten worse. True or false?  

Tom Engelhardt: Thirteen years later, it's gotten endlessly worse. What I see as the worst part of it is that -- forget politics for a minute -- there just seems to be no learning curve in Washington. It's like, you know what it reminds me of, but not in an amusing way? That old movie Groundhog Day? Bill Murray wakes up the next morning and it's always the same. Except in this case, each day gets worse.

And now we're at a point where, the national security state—what I call in the title of my book, the Shadow Government—has little accountability whatsoever. If I were break into a house, and I was found and caught, I would be brought to court for it. I might end up in jail. If the Shadow Government breaks into a house, nothing will happen. You can run through the crimes, they range from destroying evidence of a crime they committed, CIA destroying its own tapes, perjury before Congress, to kidnapping and assassination, including the murder of American citizens, torture which we all know about. Every kidnapping which we like to call rendition because it sounds somewhat politer. 

AlterNet: There are basically zero consequences for committing these crimes.

Engelhardt: Not a single person has gone to jail. I always think the torture thing is the telling one. There are 101 cases of torture, CIA torture brought before the justice department. Two of them included the actual deaths, the killing functionally of prisoners in black sites. One in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. Of those 101 cases, not one was brought to trial. The Justice Department dismissed them all. One man however has gone to jail over the CIA torture program is John Kiriakou, who was a CIA agent, and his crime was to release the name of a CIA agent who'd been involved in the torture program. 

You really don't need to know more than that. It's true that Washington always had a certain lack of accountability, but people did over the years get brought up in charges. In this period, no. The federal apparatus is in post-legal America. We're still in legal America. That's a terrible change. 

AlterNet: So how long has TomDispatch been publishing now?

Engelhardt: Well, it started as a small email list just as the Afghanistan war started, October 2001. And you know, it's funny. I think the first thing I would say is that, to go back to the beginning, my initial impulse starting TomDispatch was very modest. I'm no megalomaniac but I made a mistake around 9/11; I had the feeling that 9/11 might open us up to the pain of the world. It didn't. When I started to see the repeated ceremonies around us as the biggest survivor, dominator, victim, of bad guy Osama bin Laden, I was appalled. I had the feeling that this was going to be a terrible moment for this country, the worst with my life, I had the feeling this was going to be a terrible moment. 

I have two kids and I just had that urge not to pass, not to not do anything. I just couldn't imagine passing the world on to them without having done anything. But I had no idea what to do. I was using the Internet at the time, but I didn't know much about the online world. I didn't know you can read around newspapers everywhere. 

Right in that aftermath, I saw an article, describing what it meant for us to bomb Afghanistan. It said, "We're bombing rubble." Because of course, Afghanistan after 30 years of war was already rubble. 

I thought that's an incredible image. I took that article, I made a list of 13 people, some relatives and friends, I sent it out and wrote them, "You've got to read this." 

Then I suddenly realized, the press was narrowing in a way I hadn't seen in my lifetime. I suddenly realized I could go read news at any publication available over the Internet. I started doing just that; I started piling these articles up and the next thing I knew it was the miracle of the online world, the positive side of it. People started asking if could they be on my list. I didn't even know I had a list.

AlterNet: What about blowback? It seems like blowback is inevitable. Almost every major activity and you take in this home range but nobody, it is not even mentioned in the conversation. You think that anybody will factor that in?

Engelhardt: It is real. Listen, we would not be here now, to return to what we're talking about before. If we hadn't decided to give the Russians their own Vietnam in Afghanistan, this was the arming of the mujahadeen in the 1980s, starting in 1979-'80. We decided to give Russia a taste of what Vietnam had been like for us. This was talked about. This isn't like interpretation. If we hadn't decided to do that, there of course would have been no Al Qaeda. There would have been no Taliban. In other words, if you want to really talk about blowback, 9/11 and everything thereafter is one big blowback.  And we can't currently know what the blowback from present operations say in the Middle East will be in the coming decades. 

What we've known from the last 13 years, is that the blowback gets spread around, not just in the USA. Libya is a great example, it's a very good example of what you could call blowback not directly at the United Stated but global blowback. The Obama administration intervened in Libya in 2011. It was a "no-casualties intervention" that has no casualties for us. It was an air intervention. The result of it was, Gadhafi went down and if you look three years later, Libya is a failed state, not a democracy. It's a failed state filled with worrying, ever more extreme, malicious in the leftover of the Libyan army. In the meantime, all of Gadhafi’s arsenals were ransacked and those arms passed all the way to the Sinai, all the way south to Nigeria. Our intervention in Libya has functionally destabilized significant parts of Africa. That's blowback. It doesn't just happen directly to us but it certainly does have major consequences for millions of people.

I think you can argue that with a possible exception of the Osama Bin Laden raid, literally speaking, every single American military action from the day after 9/11 to the present moment has been a disaster. Literally, two failed wars. If you look that in another way, Al Qaeda, if we had not been hysterical at that moment, Al Qaeda was an organization. It had those camps in Afghanistan. It has scattered followers around the world. It had a modest amount of money. It was at that moment, capable of launching operations more or less every year or so. 

AlterNet: That was an essay you wrote that we ran, titled "The Last Empire"—how there's no other great power on Earth than the US, yet it's incapable of exercising its power in traditionally constructive ways.  

Engelhardt: This is the striking thing. We are the unipolar power but we cannot translate that into policy, almost anywhere on Earth. It seems that's quite a factor. Nothing seems to turn out as we want. Even countries like Afghanistan where the country traditionally would have been thought of as a puppet regime. They finally got after two years of push and pull they finally got their bilateral agreement signed that will leave you troops there for the next 10 years which is another disaster.

AlterNet: Does the Internet play a big role in destabilizing the rest of the planet? AlterNet.org and TomDispatch.org are in the Internet business obviously. In the last 10 years we've seen the size of the online progressive community balloon 20-30 million people on any given week reading progressive content. An incredible number. But what does it add up to? Are we just garnish on a surveillance tool?

What do you think about being an Internet publisher in a world where the Internet may be making things incredibly worse?

Engelhardt: I don't know. It's such a Janus-faced thing because part of it is miraculous. I've written about it as a disaster of privacy  and I've written about it as the golden age of reading because at the same time it's a disaster, it's a journalistic disaster for normal newspapers and someone. But never have we had such access to so much good and interesting analysis.

AlterNet: What has it done for us? Are we stronger or weaker?

Engelhardt: I think I'm too close to it to know. This is one I don't think I can answer. Some of the Internet completely appalls me because one of the things that I see about the Internet is it takes certain constraints and taboos off people. I'm always struck by this.

AlterNet: We have a situation where no one has any idea on these questions, it seems. We have the greatest analysts in the world and you're one of them. We have more information than we ever dreamed. But we seem to have less political leverage to do anything with that information.

Engelhardt: There are two different things here. I think one is what's to be done or what could be done and what can be done or will be done and they're not the same thing. In other words, I can say to you as a start. I think you could find people not just on the left or even the center left but on the right who would agree with this. I think we could just start by not doing so to speak. We could not intervene in the next place. This is not very complicated. We could decide that we were going to not be a military-based culture. We could decide that on the next disease pandemic, the thing that we were going to create a civilian humanitarian response and not send 3,000 boots on the ground to Liberia or wherever and create a special SWAT team.

The thing is, I think it's obvious, we could begin to dismantle our imperial presence on the planet which is doing us and nobody else any particular good. There are a lot of things. It's not that I can't sit here and think what could be done. What's unclear to me is how the hell to get any of it done: That's the other question you're asking. That is, where are the combinations of forces that would begin to create the pressure for such things to happen? On that unfortunately, I don't know.

AlterNet: It seems like Obama was really trying hard not to intervene post-Iraq. Circumstances of course with the Islamic State started pushing him out of his position. But then this is enormous pressure. The beheading, the Washington Post pounding him day after day, going down in the polls. It seems like he had no choice. Of course you have a choice, but he seemed to be completely boxed in, had no real allies, no one wanted to sit back and wait. How do you fight that? What's the option for any president?

Engelhardt: If you're just talking about the President, the one thing I would say is he didn't try hard enough. That I would say. This is a man who knows that this doesn't work, arming the rebels isn't going to, etc. he knows all this stuff. He did it anyway. For me, I just think for shame. Take your medicine and stand up for what you actually bloody think. 

The reason it's hard to answer that in a serious way, and a million other important questions like it is, the United States, let's just say post-9/11 has done the same thing over and over and over again. We don't know what it would be like if we hadn't done something. There is no way to answer that because we have no examples, no counter examples to doing the same damn thing that everybody knows isn't going to work. 

AlterNet: That situation Obama was in, and the many others like it where we keep doing the wrong thing—it appears to be impossible to do anything different. All the forces are so far aligned, whether it's government secrecy, whether it's the money for the military, whether it's the thousands of private contractors, or the right wing enabled by the rest of the media. 

Engelhardt: Obama could always get up and address the American people and say, "Look, this is why I'm not doing it. We've done it wrong. Seventeen times and I'm not going to do it. It's going to look bad for a while, I'm going to take heat for a while. The buck stops here." All the things that people are taught not to say, he could have said that. What would they have done? They would have had certain things to do. It happened with Syria, the only example. It was pathetic the way he backed down and finally ended that. He backed down for actually sending the missiles on Syria. We saw. There was also, it's a pressure. It's the same scenario. It was the one time that he backed off and actually stuck to his guns.

AlterNet: With so few examples of this from our elected leaders, what's a way of looking at things and finding some optimism in the value of our enterprise as publishers and editors of independent thought when it comes to war and empire?

Engelhardt: Here's how I actually think about it. Even at my age of 70, I learn. One of my learning experiences had to do with Rebecca Solnit who writes for TomDispatch. She wrote a book called Hope in the Dark. It was based on an essay she sent in to TomDispatch out of the blue in 2003. In that essay which had a profound effect on me, she mentioned, she was involved with an antinuclear movement in the 1980s in Nevada, that failed basically. It was a vigorous anti-nuclear, People's Anti-Nuclear Movement that failed or it felt like it failed. When the Soviet Union fell in 1990, the Kazakhs were left with nuclear weapons. 

Instead of keeping them, the leaders of Kazakhstan at that time decided they would return them to the Soviet Union. They didn't want to be a nuclear power. When they made that announcement, they pointed to the Anti-Nuclear Movement she had been involved in in Nevada as one of the inspirations for their decision. She used that as an example of the fact that you cannot tell when you act in the world as best you can, you can't tell what effect you're going to have on who. You might affect no one in Nevada by working in Nevada for years and somehow affect the Kazakhs, who knows. 

For me, I found this very inspirational. I know what I can do well. I do it as best I can at Tom Dispatch. I always assume, I always hope, that what I do, the attempt to give people new ways, new frameworks for thinking about their world, to look at their world differently, which is kind if what Tom Dispatch tries to do overall. I can't know what effect that's really going to have. I can't know if it's useful or not. I can't know if the internet, if it's part of something that's wonderful, it wouldn't matter if it's just a nothing. But I think that's a reasonable bet to make that it could do something.

AlterNet: That's the only bet you got.

Engelhardt: And hope to hell that it will have an effect than to do nothing. Let me put this another way. Years ago, I edited Studs Turkel. The last book I edited with him, which I always love, after his book on death, was a book on activism which he called Hope Dies Last. What I learned from that book which also taught me something was, in good times, it's easy to be hopeful in your life, it's not a big deal. In bad times, the only way you can really feel hope is to act.

It's a wonderful book about activists, about people who in bad times took that first step and acted. Whatever happened, you never what's going to happen. But I have to say personally, that I think if I weren't doing Tom Dispatch I would be in a state of depression. I really would be in a state of depression.

But Tom Dispatch, just the doing, this I learned from Studs, God rest his soul. The state of doing is brings a feeling of hope. It's important in a world in which things look terrible. To feel some sense of possibility, there are future generations, you've got a child, I've got a grandson and children, you want to feel that there's something both that you can do for them and something that can be done for this world. I am probably a pessimist at heart, but an operational optimist. 

Check out Engelhardt's new book, Shadow Government (Haymarket, 2014).

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Jan Frel is AlterNet's editor-at-large and associate publisher. He is the author of Neighbors from Hell: An American Bedtime Story (Feral House, 2015).