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Tom Engelhardt: Drone Warfare and the United States of Fear

Anis Shivani interviews Tom Engelhardt, creator of, about how today’s political leaders are leading us toward Soviet-era doublethink and decline.

Image from Flickr via james_gordon_los_angeles

In our eagerness for “security,” we have shoved freedom aside like a cheap whore. In his new book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), Tom Engelhardt charts the story of imperial decline over the last decade, making important connections between the economy, culture, and war. Permanent war—the psychological foundation for continued imperial aggression—comes at a very high price, as Engelhardt shows. For Engelhardt, Obama’s ascension—and his continuation of Bush’s fundamental illegalities—has only hastened what he calls the onset of the Soviet era in America. It’s a compelling narrative, not so much sounding a panicky alarm—the time for that seems well past—but painfully chronicling the decline, palpable all around us, couched in Orwellian doublethink. Below, Engelhardt further shatters the mirrors and illusions.

—Anis Shivani for Guernica

Guernica: The United States of Fear seems above all a meditation on the self-generating momentum of permanent war. In the world you describe, the facts on the ground do not alter planning contingencies. But if citizens themselves inhabit a world of simulacra and images most of the time, what would ever equip them to see through this onslaught? Isn’t the reality you describe perfectly suited to passive citizenship?

Tom Engelhardt: As I’ve written recently at TomDispatch, the decision at the end of the Vietnam War to go to an All Volunteer Military, a purely professional army, and do away with the draft was meant to create a passive citizenry (and a non-rebellious army) and I think it succeeded—despite the major demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq—beyond its creators’ wildest dreams. So yes, the present version of American-style war—I’ve called it 1 percent war—has essentially demobilized the population, the citizenry, and mobilized corporations (think KBR, DynCorp, Academi, formerly Blackwater, etc.). As for seeing through this onslaught, the future is unknown and always has its surprises. You just never know. Or I don’t anyway.

Guernica: You mention military Keynesianism early on, and it remains a dominant theme throughout the book. If we put aside your quarrel with the billion dollar embassy in Baghdad—or similar structures in Islamabad and Kabul—what, besides location, is your principal issue with the profligate spending? In Keynesianism, people may dig ditches for the sake of digging ditches—or at least that’s what the theory says. Homeland security is also Keynesian spending of a sort—how different is it really from building McMansions in the middle of empty Kansas landscapes?

The problem with perfect weapons, historically speaking, is that they never deliver on their promises, but by the time they don’t they are already deeply embedded in our world (think the tank in World War I or nuclear weapons as World War II ended), and we can’t get rid of them.

Tom Engelhardt: Isn’t the real estate phrase: location is everything?  Building and spending in wasteful and profligate ways thousands of miles from home isn’t, I suspect, the best way to use our money in terms of the well-being of this country. Let’s say, it gives the phrase “more bang for the buck” a grim new meaning. Ditto Homeland Security spending for the latest tank or drone or surveillance system for our police. It’s not where I’d like my taxpayer dollars spent and I doubt it’s a particularly effective job multiplier either.

Guernica: Many on the left posit irrational planners in the White House and the Pentagon. Can you agree to a version of events where the planners are super-rational? Let’s say I grant you Bush’s temporary overreach in the “greater Middle East”—but let’s say I also presume the overall rationality of empire’s grasp and bullying, if we put it in a larger arc, taking in also Reagan, Bush the First, Clinton, and Obama. Then Bush’s wars become an extreme manifestation of a generally rational trend, whereby empire seeks to preserve illegitimate privilege by any means necessary. Can you sympathize with such an interpretation?

Tom Engelhardt: Actually, I can’t agree on a version of super-rationality. It’s obviously not so—nor, however, would I call Obama administration officials irrational. I think the top figures in the Bush administration were visionaries (of a sort). They were looking decades ahead, planning for a Pax Americana planet and a Pax Republicana domestically for generations to come. They thought about global energy flows and, being former Cold Warriors, pushing back Russia, etc. etc. But they weren’t “super-rational” either. They were utter romantics about military power and completely misunderstood it. As I see it, in fact, their greatest error, from a strategic point of view, was to mistake American military might for global power. It wasn’t. Anything but. They were dreamers, imperial dreamers, and something like mad visionaries. Obama’s officials (like the Robert Gates crew of the last two years of the Bush era) are, it seems to me, not particularly foresightful managers, who have breathed the stale air of Washington geopolitical thinking far too long. I think they’re having trouble seeing three minutes ahead, or even keeping up with events. They are not thinking 50 years ahead, believe me.

Guernica: You and I may be upset at the loss of civil liberties in the illusive search for safety. I’ve seen absolutely no evidence over the last dozen years that the average citizen is bothered by such concerns. Do you agree? If so, who are we addressing with our qualms?

I generally think Americans should suck it up when it comes to terrorism. All over the world—think of the classic images of the British during the Blitz—people have regularly done their best under the worst of circumstances to take terror of one sort or another (including terror bombing) in stride.

Tom Engelhardt: I can’t answer this one. I think it’s hard to know—despite opinion polls—what people really think. (In fact, I suspect that, generally, what we really think is often a mystery to us, that we are the unreliable narrators of our own lives.) So I don’t worry too much about what Americans think or whether I’m having an effect, or whom I’m addressing at TomDispatch or in The United States of Fear. One of the wonderful things, in fact, about the Internet is that you seldom know whom exactly you are addressing and, by the evidence of the emails that come in to me, it’s often a surprising and remarkably varied set of readers. Even in the pre-Internet days—I was a book editor—you never knew where a book would land, whom it would reach. And that unknown quality, that mystery, is a hopeful thing.

Guernica: Every public opinion survey I’ve seen since the war on terror began has shown general disinterest in such niceties as the legal rights of “terrorists.” I’ve long believed that there needs to be public acceptance of some degree of terrorist risk as the cost of doing business. Are you willing to go on record that terrorism should be viewed as no different than any other safety risk? What degree of terrorist damage justifies loss of civil liberties? What will it finally take to put Cheney’s one percent doctrine to rest?

Tom Engelhardt: I agree. I generally think Americans should suck it up when it comes to terrorism. All over the world—think of the classic images of the British during the Blitz—people have regularly done their best under the worst of circumstances to take terror of one sort or another (including terror bombing) in stride. We have been “exceptional”—think of it as a genuine example of American exceptionalism—in making a fetish out of our fear of terror (which, by the way, has been more dangerous to Americans than shark attacks since 9/11 and not much else that we have to fear).  But that fear of terrorism, well fed from Washington, has been what’s funded the building of a national security complex the likes of which is now staggering.

Guernica:It seems too much at this point to grant the “terrorists” the perspicacity to have planned American overreaction all along. You write, “After 9/11, bin Laden commanded Washington by taking possession of its deepest fears and desires and turning them to his own ends, the way a bot takes over a computer.” That seems to abscribe omnipotence to terrorists: their weakness gave them the clarity of mind to foresee that it alone would enable them to win in the long term. Is it possible to visualize the terrorists as just a figment of the American bureaucratic imagination?

Tom Engelhardt: Actually, I have never ascribed omnipotence to al-Qaeda-style terrorism. Quite the opposite. To the best of our knowledge, even they though they lucked out on 9/11 and many of the subsequent attempts at terror here—think of the Times Square bombing, the shoe bomber, or the underwear bomber—were the acts of doofuses. I do think, however, that bin Laden had a sense that al-Qaeda had little power of its own. Even in the best of times the organization was only able to strike every couple of years and in limited ways. 9/11, after all, was relatively cheap. The 9/11 commission estimated its cost at about $400,000-$500,000. Chump change vs. the Pentagon. Bin Laden did, however, seem to have a sense that al-Qaeda’s attacks could lead Washington to overreact massively with its staggering destructive power and so involve itself in a potentially bankrupting involvement in the Greater Middle East. It was only in that sense that I made the comment you cite above or that I spoke of him practicing “the Tao of terrorism.”  Omnipotence, hardly. It was our overreaction that made him and them seem omnipotent.

Guernica: Your book is full of examples of the kinds of illegalities Bush instigated in the permanent state of war and fear, things that have been continued and even escalated by Obama. For those who still haven’t looked hard enough at the Obama administration’s illegalities, can you point out some of them?

Tom Engelhardt: A whole range of actions that followed in Bush’s footsteps: He didn’t close Guantanamo (not totally his fault, of course) and is now maintaining that version of American off-shore justice in a Bushian fashion. As far as we know, he has supported forms of domestic surveillance that once would have been considered illegal; he has overseen a significant expansion of the secret military growing inside the U.S. military—that is, the U.S. special operations forces—and their form of secret war globally. He has supported an expansion of the CIA’s drone war in the Pakistani borderlands to other countries and so has helped turn the globe conceptually into an American free fire zone—and has targeted American citizens for drone assassination, something new in the annals of what is now called “targeted killings” and probably illegal, and so on…

But, as I’ve also written, I see legality as somewhat beside the point in today’s America. It seems to me that the national security complex has entered—without the rest of us—a post-legal America. We know this from the President’s unwillingness, for instance, to prosecute anyone from the Bush years for acts of torture, and from the fact that no act—with the single exception of whistleblowing (i.e. letting the American people know what their government is doing)—has landed anyone in that world in a court of law. As far as I can see, under Bush and Obama, the national security state is no longer accountable to American justice; so, “is it legal?” is a question that’s increasingly beside the point and out of date, which tells you the world about us in 2012.

Guernica: As Attorney General Holder’s justification just last month for assassination of Americans abroad suggests, the drug (of war) is too difficult to give up. Yet the trope of addiction lets citizens off scot-free, shifts the blame to intellectuals and out-of-control bureaucracies. Is militarist fundamentalism not in fact a perfectly logical expectation on the part of economic actors, both at the higher and lower ends—diffused widely through society? When you write, “Sooner than later, Washington, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military will have to enter rehab,” my response would be, No empire has ever voluntarily done that.

Tom Engelhardt: Actually, there’s plenty of blame to go around and so I use two drug metaphors in The United States of Fear. There’s the one you mention above, but also the one that’s in the title of the book.  In other words, fear (specifically of terrorism) was repeatedly shot into the bloodstream of the body politic and it worked like a dream. So I actually don’t think I let Americans off the hook.  All of us (or most of us), top to bottom, were on our own “trips” these last years.

Guernica: Aren’t you pleased that the Arab Spring—flawed and ideologically weak as it is—has in fact occurred? It couldn’t possibly have happened without Bush’s war on the greater middle East. In a sense, it seems like the fulfillment of the warnings Bush the First’s advisers issued against marching into Baghdad, that the Arab street would be inflamed and regimes would topple all over the region. Twenty years too late, but it did happen. Yet you write, with what seems to me some trepidation, “The Bush administration undoubtedly gave the region a newfound sense of unity, a feeling that that the fate of its disparate parts was somehow bound together.” This is all to the good, isn’t it?

Tom Engelhardt: I think you could say that our globalizers, our neoliberal financial jihadis, who were let loose in the 1990s, widened the gap between the wealthy and everyone else and so helped create the sense of a global 1 percent; then our military jihadists, let loose in this century, blew a hole directly through the Greater Middle East. So, yes, our two forms of globalizers helped establish the conditions for the third round of globalization—the one they hadn’t expected—the globalization of protest, including the Arab Spring, which I did find both remarkable and inspirational, no matter the obstacles it’s run up against and its own problems.

But I think it’s hard to say it was “all to the good” and so welcome Bush’s acts joyfully. After all, the invasion of Iraq alone led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, a brutal sectarian civil war, ethnic cleansing in parts of Baghdad, the sending of approximately four million Iraqis (or so the estimates go) into exile abroad or internally, etc. etc.  So “all to the good,” no.

Guernica: Drone warfare—which doesn’t involve any heroics on the part of pilots—is the newest aspect of permanent war. This seems a harbinger of things to come, a corollary to the painlessness we demand of every aspect of our lives. I find it very appropriate to the American psyche, yet it seems to me that it is not without incalculable loss. We may be oblivious, but the targets of our wrath are not oblivious. So we are paying a long-term price in terms of erosion of moral authority.

Tom Engelhardt: If the latest poll I’ve seen is to be believed, then Americans love the idea of drone warfare. It’s been presented here as the coolest, most high-tech, no-pain all-gain way of making war ever to come down the pike—as, in short, the perfect weapon. The problem with perfect weapons, historically speaking, is that they never deliver on their promises, but by the time they don’t they are already deeply embedded in our world (think the tank in World War I or nuclear weapons as World War II ended), and we can’t get rid of them.

And yes, the detachment of drone—i.e. remote control—warfare will cost us something, as is true with our remote wars more generally. They are coming home, literally so in the case of the drone, and in the end I doubt it will be a rewarding experience.

Guernica: I would like to know if you opposed the war in Afghanistan (the alleged “good war”) from the get-go.

Be that as it may, shouldn’t we be cheering the hastening of the decline of American empire? Are you cheering it on? Or is America exceptional even when it comes to that?

Tom Engelhardt: Yes, I did. TomDispatch—then a no-name listserv—started, in part, in response to that war. I opposed it, because it was clear to me from early on that Bush and his officials weren’t just after al-Qaeda, they were out to dominate the Greater Middle East. The invasion of Afghanistan was clearly just the beginning. They weren’t planning to leave, and they didn’t, and we haven’t (not yet anyway). So yes, I always saw it as a disaster-in-the-making.

Guernica: As for Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan, you write, “When it comes to U.S. training programs then, you might conclude that Afghanistan has proved to be the land where time stood still—and so, evidently, has the Washington national security establishment’s collective brain.” Again, I see your argument at war with itself. On the one hand is your idea of a runaway Pentagon in love with the idea of war—and as permanent Keynesianism of a sort—which I like a lot. On the other hand you ascribe escalation to an inability to learn. I’m skeptical of the second explanation. Would you clarify?

Tom Engelhardt: Maybe it’s me, but I don’t really see the contradiction here in the real world. There are always winners in war, even losing wars—and in this case, there have been plenty. Just check out into whose coffers all that war money is flowing. But embracing a state of permanent war and being good at it aren’t the same thing. Rational imperialists might have looked at history and gotten out of misbegotten Afghanistan fast. Instead, we stayed and for years we’ve been doing the same thing over and over again (including the training of Afghan troops) and doing it woefully.

Guernica: The shift in the balance of power between the civilian leadership and the military, which has become really noticeable in the Obama years, is one of the least talked-about recent transformations. Could you speak about how you see things proceeding from this point on?

Tom Engelhardt: You have an urge for me to peer into the future. I’m wary of our general ability to do so (otherwise right now I might be using my personal jetpack to fly through spired cities, as I was promised by the futurists of my childhood). What I notice however, is that in the last years, the civilian/military relationship has been undergoing a sea change. I agree with you that the nature of the militarization of our American world is little discussed. At TomDispatch and in The United States of Fear, however, it’s a regular topic.

And some of the changes are right before our eyes. If any American from my childhood years were to hear any of the Republican presidential candidates (other than, of course, Ron Paul) swearing that they won’t make a military move without consulting with and following the lead of their field commanders they would be puzzled indeed. If I had to put it in a nutshell, I would say that the person we still call “the commander in chief” has, in reality, become the “negotiator-in-chief.”

But who can be surprised that the military has gained power. Look at the money that’s flowed into that institution. Look at the way “our troops” are now treated like religious icons. (When I was young, by the way, this would have been shocking to Americans. Now, we’re unfazed. So they are worshipped briefly, lauded to the skies for their warrior heroism and their sacrifices, and then everyone goes about their business and puts American war and those soldiers out of their minds.)

Guernica: You’re right, a similar deification of police occurred for a couple of decades domestically before the wars started. Now, one of the most appealing parts of your book is the way you describe fundamental terms as having been redefined in the fog of permanent war. Terms like enemy, covert war, permanent bases, withdrawal, corruption, national sovereignty, and indeed, war itself. It seems to me that the 23 men and women who engineered the constitutional coup of 2000 had something very much like this in mind, precisely this reorientation of basic vocabulary, with no going back. Mission accomplished, wouldn’t you agree?

Tom Engelhardt: Linguistically maybe—I mean, once upon a time, the very word “homeland” would have conjured up the Nazis or the Russians and now it’s just an everyday part of our vocabulary. It existed before 9/11, but just in a little right-wing world of defense wonks but was quickly imported into the larger society after September 11. It still sounds utterly un-American to me.

So you’re right, I suspect, when it comes to language. For the rest, if you go back and read the documents those 23 wrote before 9/11, I’m not sure that even they would feel a true sense of “mission accomplished.” Too much hasn’t worked out.

Guernica:I guess the question I’ve been trying to get at throughout this discussion is the thoroughgoing success of the Bush/PNAC/neocon project in terms of redefining safety risks and the means that should be resorted to in defending ourselves. If we weren’t all (or at least half of us) Bushians to begin with, the project would never have succeeded so well. The terror narrative is deeply established—it resonated. Be that as it may, shouldn’t we be cheering the hastening of the decline of American empire? Are you cheering it on? Or is America exceptional even when it comes to that?

Tom Engelhardt: Actually, I wrote a piece back in September 2010, which I titled “One and a Half Cheers for American Decline.” I concluded that our troops would indeed be coming home, just not soon enough, and that the process of decline would prove painful. I wrote: “Since by the time we get anywhere near such a world, our leaders will have run this country into the ground, it’s hard to offer the traditional three cheers for such a future. But how about at least one-and-a-half prospective cheers for the possible return of perspective to our American world, for a significant lessening, even if not the decisive ending, of an American imperial role and of the massive military ‘footprint’ that goes with it.” And lest there be any question about how I felt about this, I ended in the following fashion: “And thank you, George W. Bush (though I never thought I’d say that), you’ve given an old guy a shot at seeing the fruits of American decline myself. I’m looking forward.”

And I still am.

Anis Shivani’s books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (forthcoming, 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (forthcoming, 2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). He has just finished a novel called Karachi Raj, and is writing another called Abruzzi, 1936.

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