Engelhardt: The World According to Tomdispatch

The following excerpt is mirrored from Tomdispatch.com in celebration of the publication of Engelhardt’s latest edited book,

The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.

The book contains my essay, “Bush’s Napoleonic Folly,” which compares Bush in Iraq to Bonaparte in Egypt, based on my book on that subject.

Engelhardt notes:

Here’s what Howard Zinn says about the newest TomDispatch book (hot off the presses), The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire: “TomDispatch is one of the wonders of the electronic age. A touch of the finger and you get the juiciest, meatiest information and analysis, so rich a feast of intelligence and insight I often felt short of breath. Now, Tom Engelhardt has assembled some of the best of his dispatches, from some of the boldest and most astute commentators in the country. So take a deep breath and read.” Naomi Klein adds: “These are the traits of a TomDispatch essay: unapologetically intellectual, relentlessly original, a little bit dangerous. For many of us, these are the key pieces of analysis that made sense of our post-9/11 world. How odd that many of them have never actually been printed. Until now. . .”

Here is the excerpt from his essay:

TomDispatch is — as I often write inquisitive readers — the sideline that ate my life. Being in my late fifties and remarkably ignorant of the Internet world when it began, I brought some older print habits online with me. These included a liking for the well-made, well-edited essay, an aversion to the endless yak and insult that seemed to fill whole realms of cyberspace, and a willingness to go against, or beyond, every byte-sized truth of the online world where, it was believed, brevity was all and attention spans virtually nonexistent. TomDispatch pieces invariably ran long. They were, after all, meant to reframe a familiar, if shook-up, world that was being presented in a particularly limited way by the mainstream media.

Finding myself on a mad, unipolar imperial planet, I simply took the plunge into an alphabet soup of mayhem and chaos. Let me try, now, to offer you my shorthand version of the world according to TomDispatch.

An Expeditionary Service in an Expeditionary World

In late October 2007, when top-level volunteers for duty in Iraq from the U.S. State Department had long since thinned out, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice threatened to assign diplomats to posts in Baghdad and the provinces, whether they wanted to go or not. This had not happened since the days of the Vietnam War. At an angry “town hall” meeting of career diplomats, a foreign service officer named Jack Croddy denounced the plan. He called it a “potential death sentence.” “It’s one thing,” he said, “if someone believes in what’s going on over there and volunteers, but it’s another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment.”

David Satterfield, Rice’s deputy, responded: “I certainly understand very much that this is extremely difficult for people who have not contemplated this kind of service.” Then he reportedly added, “This is an expeditionary world. For better or worse, it requires an expeditionary service.”

An expeditionary world. An expeditionary service. How typical of those muscled-up, faintly un-American phrases — think “homeland,” “regime change,” “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “extraordinary rendition” — that the Bush administration has made part of our vocabulary. These were years when American men (and a few women) put on the pith helmets they had last seen in imperial adventure films in the movie theaters of their childhoods, imagined themselves as the imperial masters of a global Pax Americana (as well as a domestic Pax Republicana), and managed to sound as if they were surging across the planet with Rudyard Kipling at their side.

In the good old days of 2002-2003, before a ragtag insurgency in Iraq managed to lay low the plans of the leaders of the Earth’s “sole superpower,” the administration’s neoconservative followers and assorted pundits openly touted empire (and, incongruously enough, “freedom”). They spoke glowingly of the United States as a new Rome or a new imperial Britain. The U.S. was to be the last great power on which the sun could never — in fact, would never dare to — set. Commentator Max Boot was typical when he wrote of the U.S. military in 2002, that, in its “full-spectrum dominance,” it “far surpasses the capabilities of such previous would-be hegemons as Rome, Britain, and Napoleonic France.” Of course, back then, a barrel of crude oil was still in the $20 price range.

By that time, the leftover American internationalists, whose weak last hurrah was the Clinton interregnum, had been ousted. Clinton’s eight years had, of course, taken place in the midst of a quarter century-long Republican “revolution” that, in the name of “small government,” had ramped up the powers of the national security state and the profile of the Pentagon, while slowly strangling services to the populace. From George W. Bush on down, the officials of the new administration would, however, prove extreme, even by the standards of that right-wing revolution. They arrived triumphantly in Washington as armed, aggressive isolationists who couldn’t swallow the concept of partnership either in Washington or in the world.

The phrase du jour was “unipolarity.” In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, there was, it was said, only one Great Power “pole” left on the planet and it was firmly embedded in Washington D.C. The job of the rest of the world was to accept that reality and bend a knee to it. Anything else would be considered a form of terrorism or, as the administration put it in one of its Ur-documents, the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: “Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism.” There was an unholy troika for you, a genuine axis of evil.

When Bush’s people sallied forth into the world, they did so without equals, and less as classic imperialists than as imperial looters (in conjunction with crony corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel, and Blackwater USA, to whom they slipped their no-bid contracts). Arm-in-arm with a mob of K-street lobbyists, Congressional power brokers, and assorted right-wing think-tanks and media pundits, they were itching to take the world by storm. These were people who imagined no problems that couldn’t be overcome by a shock-and-awe-style military strike abroad. They saw their toughest enemies, however, not overseas, but in Washington. As a result, they first seized the Pentagon, then Kiplinged the military and the intelligence services, sent the State Department into purdah, and set up the most secretive, yet leak-ridden, administration in American memory.

Unlike any previous administration, they arrived in office with a full-scale allied right-wing media network already firmly in place — their own publishing houses, newspapers, talk-radio shows, and “fair and balanced” TV news. They felt no need to jolly up to, or interact with, the rest of the media. As Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, put it in 2007, “We have endured nearly seven years of the most press-phobic government in a couple of generations.”

In the phrase of critic Jay Rosen, the intent of the Bush administration was to “roll back” the media, pacifying and sidelining the major papers and TV networks; and, with the help of the assaults of 9/11, they were more than successful in doing so — for a time. Never, in fact, had an administration released less news to those covering them. (Most newspapers and the TV news, for instance, gave up even assigning a reporter to cover Vice President Dick Cheney, a man so averse to providing information that his daily schedule was regularly unavailable, while reporters couldn’t even find out the full roster of people working in his “office.”)

The administration’s method of ruling revolved around injecting regular doses of fear into the public bloodstream, while dominating an increasingly powerless Congress. If conquering Washington had been the only thing that mattered, the Republicans might have been titans for decades, though it’s worth remembering that to do so they still needed a little help from their enemies — even ones they didn’t deign to pay the slightest attention to on occupying the Oval Office. After all, they were only conquerors after September 11, 2001. On September 10th of that year, the media was still describing the administration as “adrift”; its Secretary of Defense was believed to have “cratered”; and the President’s polling figures were visibly sagging, thanks to a public which viewed him “not as decisive but as tentative and perhaps overly scripted.”

The President, who had just returned from an overlong, much criticized vacation at his “ranch” in Crawford, Texas, was then being charged by figures in his own party and Republicans in Congress with being “out of touch” and out of ideas. Wielding, in Mike Davis’s vivid phrase, hijacked “car bombs with wings,” al-Qaeda solved that one fast. As the towers fell and that giant cloud of dust and ash rose toward the heavens, the Bush administration found itself swept along by the perfect storm toward its conquest of Washington.

When it came to conquering the world, however, the President’s top officials would turn out to have an excess of faith and not a clue . . .

Tom Engelhardt
Tomdispatch.com

The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire