Mark Karlin: Your last chapter in so many ways embodies what you have covered in TomDispatch, and what is at the core of our crisis of democracy today: imperial decline. When did our American empire begin to implode?
Tom Engelhardt: Well, I have no doubt that, economically speaking, we've been losing traction for quite a while on that downhill slope, but a crucial “moment” was certainly Washington's decision to follow what I call “the Soviet path.” After all, in those last years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, the far weaker of the two superpowers, threw money into its military while its deficits rose and its infrastructure crumbled – and of course it got mired in a terrible war, a “bleeding wound,” in Afghanistan. It all sounds eerily familiar, no? Washington's decision, in its moment of Cold War triumph, to follow essentially the same path and the Bush administration's wild belief that it could drive U.S. military power unilaterally into the heart of the Greater Middle East and establish a Pax Americana there (the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were only supposed to be the beginning of the process) had a similar effect. Now, of course, we have soaring deficits, rotting infrastructure and unending war in Afghanistan (and elsewhere). It could give you the chills.
MK: How is the instigation of a state of national fear tied into the effort to maintain empire?
TE: I think that the real thing it's tied into is an effort over this last decade to turn what I call the “national security complex” into America's growth industry. Fear – of terrorism and nothing else – has been the “drug” that has powered the national security state to heights and a size it never reached when it had a genuine superpower enemy with a nuclear arsenal. Today, the intelligence bureaucracy dwarfs what existed in the Cold War era; the Pentagon budget is so much larger and so on. Give credit where it's due: it's been quite a feat based on remarkably little when you think about it.
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MK: If 9/11 hadn't been carried out by al-Qaeda, would it had to have been invented to justify the measures that have been carried out to attempt to maintain America's military footprint around the world, at such great expense to our society?
TE: It's a good question that is, of course, impossible to answer. What-if history is fascinating, but always remains what-if. It's easy to forget, for instance, that in the period before 9/11 the Bush administration had essentially rejected Clinton administration and other warnings about terror and al-Qaeda because they considered China the future enemy to grow the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state upon. Without 9/11, many things might have been different. For one thing, to offer an example, on September 10, 2001 the Bush administration polling was lousy. It was already a remarkably unpopular administration in the political doldrums. Had it wanted to do something like set up a Department of Homeland Security, it probably would have gotten all snarled up in Congress and not succeeded. The Patriot Act, never. Etc. etc….
MK: Isn't the concept of an ongoing “terrorist threat” fulfilling the need of an ongoing enemy that we lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union?
TE: Yes, it's played that role. Or put another way, at most a few thousand scattered terrorists and a couple of ragtag minority insurgencies (in Afghanistan and Iraq) with poor arms and limited funds have, miraculously enough, fulfilled the role of an actual superpower! That speaks to the deceptive power of the 9/11 attacks which managed to look apocalyptic – hence the nuclear term “Ground Zero” that was almost immediately applied to the spot in New York City where the towers came down – without being so. Americans dealt with the 9/11 moment as if a major power had hit us with a nuclear weapon and so declared “war” on what? Those who wanted to deal with the event, which was terrible but not exactly civilization-threatening, as a criminal act were laughed out of the room and all the rest followed.
MK: Clearly, you believe that President Obama has not only failed to restore many of our civil liberties taken away under the Bush/Cheney administration, but, in fact, has gone further than the neocons? What happened to his constitutional scholar principles?
TE: Increasingly, I don't speculate much on the motives of the players in our national drama, in part because I think we humans are all like the unreliable narrators of modern fiction, not to be trusted when we claim to know why we do things. We're mysteries – perhaps to ourselves above all. It is clear, however, that the Obama administration, like those before it, hasn't exactly been eager to give up the prerogatives of an imperial presidency, much expanded under the Bush administration and in some cases has been at work expanding them further. This has been the direction the presidency has taken in our lifetime – ever expanding power – whatever the constitutional bona fides of the occupants of the Oval Office.
MK: Obama promised government transparency during his 2008 campaign, but you would argue the maintenance of a shadow government that operates in secrecy is necessary to operate the military-industrial complex. Why is this so and why is Obama going along with it?
TE: I would argue that our ever expanding national security state has, like a mother ship leaving Earth, simply lifted itself out of our world and, surrounded in secrecy (which helps the process along), has entered a space above us all where its denizens need be accountable for nothing and, unlike the rest of us, are assured of never being subjected to the legal system for whatever acts they take – with a single exception: whistleblowing. If you or I break into a house and commit acts of violence, we'll undoubtedly be arrested and brought before a court of law. But if the national security state breaks into another country and does the same, if it kidnaps, tortures, assassinates, those who do it will not be prosecuted. It's essentially a guaranteed. Obama's “sunshine” policies were simply swallowed whole and disappeared almost without a trace into the new national security state.
MK: All of the rollbacks of our constitutional rights taken by the executive branch and government and Congress are being done in the name of fighting terrorism. How serious a threat is terrorism and what are the alternatives for dealing with it?
TE: Since 9/11, even if you include the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the guy who ran his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, terrorism has ranked above shark attacks but below just about anything else that has the ability to harm Americans here in the US. As a comparison, my crude calculations show maybe 25 domestic terror victims, including in the incidents above, whereas some 30-odd thousand Americans a year die on our roads in traffic accidents. Yet terror is the only thing where the government promises us something close to 100% safety. Generally, terror attacks can be tragic, but they are relatively minor dangers for Americans, even if they have been used to engorge our national-security-homeland-security state.
MK: Getting back to the issue of America and empire. Isn't it ironic that the US was founded as a nation in a war against the reigning empire of its time: British military rule that spanned the world?
TE: I don't know how strange it is. Militant republics seem quite capable of becoming empires from Rome to France, no? It is true, however, that the anti-imperial tradition that began with the American revolution here has historically acted as at least some kind of brake on imperial thinking, however modestly. Americans at least didn't like to think of themselves as imperial. It was part of the national self-image – until, at least, the George W. Bush years and when such thinking took hold among right-wing pundits, it was – or should have been – a sign that something was coming unglued.
MK: You discuss drones and advanced military technology in your book and TomDispatch. No technology is exclusive for long. Isn't the American reliance on current superior technological warfare bound to boomerang against us in the end?
TE: “Perfect weapons,” the atomic bomb included, never fulfill the promises made for them, but by the time that's obvious, they've embedded themselves in our world. Something in the range of 40-50 nations now either have drones, are at work designing them, or are planning to buy them. The (un)friendly skies are going to be filled with them and when the first Iranian or Russian or Chinese drones start to take out their version of bad guys, we're not going to be so happy. When the first “suicide drones” hit we're going to be even less happy. What we've done in these years is to create a rationale for overriding national sovereignty and assassinating whomever we care to wherever we care to. Think of it as the globalization of death and, in the end, it will indeed by an ugly precedent for the planet.
MK: Although we are currently in a state of perpetual war, most Americans don't think of us being at war. Why is this so and compare it to the national consciousness of World War II, for example, when everyone was suffused with contributing to the war effort?
TE: After the U.S. Army nearly collapsed in Vietnam – a draft or citizens army, that is – the high command and other interested parties in essence said “never again.” They created the All-Volunteer Army in part to detach the military (and so the wars it fought) from and insulate it from, our society, from citizen pressure. In that they succeeded. Americans, as I (and others) at TomDispatch have regularly pointed out, are now remarkably detached and insulated from the wars fought in our name and, increasingly, even those wars are fought with an eerie detachment, at least the drone part of them. In essence 1% of Americans who run things send 1% of Americans (those in the armed services) out to fight their wars and the other 98% are left out of things. It's not exactly the definition of a democratic republic, is it?