Iraq, Bush and Writing Long: Interview with Tom Engelhardt

Meet the man behind the obsessional, addictive Tomdispatch.

| Tue Dec. 19, 2006 3:00 AM EST

Tom Engelhardt is that rare 62-year-old who can make people half his age feel old. And young. Old, because, well, if you've got the age advantage, how come he's the one with the all the vigor? Young, because his energy and enthusiasm and commitment are galvanizing—ask the hundreds of writers whose books he's edited over the years (Mike Davis, Adam Hochschild, Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky; the list goes on and on); or the journalism students he's taught and inspired; or, for that matter, just drop in on his web site, TomDispatch, any given day to enjoy his latest gleeful (and always elegant) demolition of the Bush administration or the mainstream media, or both, or the most recent TomDispatch essay by one of the stars of the literary left, who write for the site in part because they know they'll get the best editing around.

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TomDispatch.com started out in November 2001 as a e-mail list of about a dozen friends and family members. Stunned at the Bush administration's post-9/11 course and sensing the calamities to come, Engelhardt started sending around clippings—framed by his own ever-lengthening commentaries—from the world press, offering perspectives on America's global actions largely absent from US coverage. In 2002 the Nation Institute gave the fast-growing list a home as a web site billed as "a regular antidote to the mainstream media." The pieces typically run into the thousands of words ("Sometimes the world just can't be grasped short.") and each week brings two or three new ones. Engelhardt ballparks the average readership of each piece at up to 100,000—not bad for basement operation run by a guy with a day job and one part-time assistant editor.

This past year the site spawned two books—one, "Mission Unaccomplished", a collection of interviews Engelhardt did with an assortment of writers (and not only lefties) whose thought he admired, the other, written by former federal prosecutor and TomDispatch star Elizabeth de la Vega, building a legal case that Bush & co. engaged in a conspiracy to "deceive the American public and Congress into supporting the war." In his introduction to the collected interviews, "Mission Unaccomplished," Engelhardt writes, "I saw my mission, modestly accomplished, as connecting some of the "dots" not being connected by our largely demobilized media, while recording as best I could the "mission unaccomplished" moments I felt certain would come," and this statement stands as a pretty good summary of what TomDispatch has achieved over these past five years.

Engelhardt has written two books, "The End of Victory Culture," and "The Last Days of Publishing," a novel. Vanity Fair's James Wolcott has called Engelhardt "a writer of titanic energy and commitment," and the Middle East expert Juan Cole, of the blog Informed Comment, has written, "Whenever I think that Russell Jacoby might have been right about the passing of the "last intellectuals," I think of Tom and conclude "not yet.""

I recently interviewed Engelhardt at his home in New York.

Mother Jones: You had a couple of pieces at TomDispatch last week arguing for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, something you’ve been advocating basically since the invasion in 2003. Judging from the recent polls, public opinion—unlike, say, the Iraq Study Group—is coming round to that view.

Tom Engelhardt: It’s as if the American people, over a period of time, have conducted their own Iraq Study Group and woken up to the genuine catastrophe. A majority wants all American troops out within two years, on a timeline; and an even larger number would jump at the chance of getting out in a year if the Iraqi government offers us a way out. Perhaps the most interesting thing of all is that a significant majority of Americans think that American troops are not stabilizing the situation but are creating more violence in Iraq. That’s stunning because the mainstream media, inside-the-Beltway view is that only American troops stand between Iraq and civil war.

MJ: How can you be so sure that’s not the case?

TE: Whatever the differences, and there are many, between Vietnam and Iraq, in Vietnam it was said during the whole latter period of the war that we stood between South Vietnam and a bloodbath, of which, when we left, there wasn’t any. The future bloodbath was always the explanation that stopped us from dealing with the present bloodbath. Human beings are terrible on the future, so it’s worth focusing on the present. In the present we know that in the next 12-15 months, based on present casualty figures Americans will die in significant numbers and perhaps 40-60,000 Iraqi civilians will die. That’s the bloodbath of the present. It’s certain that if you pulled American troops out Iraqis would still be fighting. But the motor for a lot of this violence, the American presence, would be gone. I’ve argued since the moment we hit Baghdad that the longer we stay the worse it will be for us and the worse it will be for everybody.

MJ: And what do you think it means for American power?

TE: I think this time the neoconservatives have pushed American power over the edge, because they misunderstood the nature of power in our world. They were blinded by American military power and they really thought they could shock and awe their way to domination over the entire Middle East, the oil heartlands of the planet, with Iraq as just the first stop. They were going to drop the neocons’ favorite Ahmed Chalabi or maybe CIA asset Iyad Allawi there and move on to Syria, Iran, wherever. They misunderstood that American military power is awesome, but mainly as a threat. The minute you pull the trigger, as soon as you invade some militarily third- or fourth-rate country, you’re in trouble. And every day we stay militarily in this situation, doing more of what we’re doing, we’re actually undermining the kind of power we should be attending to, the kind that rests on T-bills, on oil, on all sorts of other things that you can’t blast out of existence.

MJ: And yet there’s still talk—and, one assumes, a live debate within the Bush administration—about whacking Iran.

TE: Well, I was struck by something Robert Gates, the new Secretary of Defense, said at his confirmation hearings the other week. The Bush administration has claimed that, thanks to the Congressional resolutions of 2001 and 2002, they have the right to whack Iran without going back to Congress. But Gates said he doubted they had that right. He also said going to war with Iran would be the “absolute last resort.” You know, in words there are differences. There’s a difference, believe it or not, in political Washington between going to war as a last resort—which is what Bush says—and as an absolute last resort. And in fact unlike the neocons he’s not a mad dreamer; he is a reasonably sane human being, clearly, whatever his flaws are, and he knows that to attack Iran would be madness. He laid it out: To begin with you’d have oil at $150 a barrel in about 30 seconds, and the Iranians can make sure of this—they can take their oil off the market, they can mine the Persian Gulf. Basically, they can significantly impede the flow from the oil heartlands of the planet. They can whack us in Iraq.

MJ: To switch gears a bit: You notched up a first for TomDispatch this month, publishing a book, by Elizabeth de la Vega. How did that come about?

TE: Elizabeth was a federal prosecutor for 20 years, and a reader of TomDispatch. When she retired she wrote me a fan letter -- I think the first I’ve gotten from a federal prosecutor; I was impressed! I’m a no-submissions site, but I was writing about the Plame case and she wanted to give me some or her reactions on the case, and I just thought, Wow, this is so intelligent! Now, TomDispatch is my site, so it’s no-submissions unless I decide otherwise. I wrote her and said, hey, do you want to write these thoughts up? And she’s been writing for me ever since.

I’m a book editor in real life—that’s how I make my actual living—so I was saying to her, Hey, you should write a book about being a prosecutor. Every so often I’d bring this up with her and one day she said, I do have a book I’d like to write. I’d like to do what I’ve always done‹to convene a grand jury, write an indictment, and have testimony about how George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al. defrauded us into the Iraq war.

I thought, what a great idea! But I couldn’t sell it to anybody, so I said, You write it, I’ll turn my site over to you, and I’ll publish it myself as a book. Then she started doing it. I said, Oh my God. But I found a wonderful designer I’d worked with to do the cover and an independent publisher, Seven Stories Press, and they loved the idea. And she wrote it in five weeks, I edited it in two weeks. It was madness. It came out in early December and within a week she was invited onto The Colbert Report and snuck onto the distant end of the New York Times extended paperback bestseller list. Pretty impressive for a TomDispatch.com project!

MJ: Do you see this book ever being used as the basis for proceedings against Bush administration players?

TE: Wouldn’t that be nice! These guys have stepped over every conceivable line. You know, I like to think of myself as an optimist but I’m a pessimist at heart; I know guys like these don’t usually end up in court. We can hope that, as with Kissinger, they won’t be able to travel to Germany or Paris, say, but does George W. Bush want to do that? No! He wants to retire to Crawford and drink Mai Tais for the rest of his life.

MJ: And the de la Vega book isn’t the only book out of TomDispatch this season.

TE: No, there's also Mission Unaccomplished, a collection of TomDispatch interviews. It too was a kind of fantastic happenstance. This is the way Tomdispatch has been since I first stumbled onto the Internet and started a small email pass-on list a few months after 9/11/2001. I can’t claim I’ve thought anything out; it’s all been by urge and happenstance.

I love oral history, and sometime in 2005 I had this urge. I was away for part of the summer and I knew I was near two people, Howard Zinn and James Carroll, the Boston Globe columnist, and I thought, I’m going to have a hard time getting these guys to write for my site, but I wondered what it might be like to interview them. I’d never done an interview for publication. I bought two of the cheapest tape recorders I could find and invited each of them to breakfast. I know their work and I tried to get them to talk in a fresh way about the universe. It was great fun. And this turned into a whole series of TomDispatch interviews, which I think are pretty provocative, all with people whose thought I admire—and it’s a big tent: there’s Andrew Bacevich, who in many ways is on the right, and who I think is brilliant on American militarism and the American empire; Juan Cole, a Middle East expert who’s also very powerful on that subject; Cindy Sheehan, and the encyclopedic Mike Davis, among others.

MJ: There’s also an interview with Ann Wright, one of three diplomats who resigned in protest just before the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq.

TE: I really admire people who resign on principle. We all know from high-school civics classes what the checks and balances in this country are supposed to be. In these years [since 9/11] the Congress disappeared, the courts were generally weak-kneed at best. There wasn’t a check or balance in sight until perhaps the 2006 midterm election. The media, which never was imagined as a check or balance, certainly wasn’t in this case. But the one check--and it’s one the Founding Fathers couldn’t have imagined because they didn’t have a government of this size in mind--was people in the federal bureaucracy, in the military, in the so-called intelligence services, who believed in doing their civic duty in our democracy, who took their jobs seriously, who couldn’t stand what the Bush administration was doing and started pushing back. Civic civil servants, you might say. They argued, they leaked, they were pushed out, they quit. Ann Wright was one of those.

I think at heart my politics are anti-imperial and probably have been in some inchoate form since I was young, and I have all these people who for one reason or another I’ve admired--in the context of the struggle against American empire. They’ve been put together in a book (with an interview with me thrown in). I think they’re out of the ordinary discussions with people whose company you might want to keep.

MJ: You’re an old-school book editor (I mean that as a compliment) who’s really leaped into the online world, and it seems these two book projects draw something from both realms.

TE: Right, they’re two books that have come out in a slightly new way, which I think a lot of mainstream book publishing hasn’t come to terms with. We turned in the de la Vega book in August and it was out Dec. 1! Books don’t come out like that. With any project people aren’t absolutely sure about, big publishers don’t know how to get them out quickly. So these came out in a new way, for better or for worse. They kind of skipped the review process. They leaped online. They come out of smaller, more nimble outfits.

MJ: In a sense TomDispatch has been, since the beginning, a combination of old- and new-fashioned.

TE: What you get at TomDispatch is an old-fashioned thing in a new form, which is really the well-made essay. Everything goes through my editing mill; it goes back to the writer, goes through drafts. This is all happening very fast--I’m the editor, copy-editor, proofreader, and often the writer as well; and mistakes do creep in--but it has to be a well-written, well-made piece; nothing’s just thrown out there incoherently. Nobody’s just yakking. I want each essay to be as elegant, as pleasurable, as graspable as possible, whatever the subject. And if the spelling is bad or you find an error in grammar, at least it’s not because I haven’t tried to make it right!

MJ: And they tend to be long--longer than most stuff that’s online--so no concession to shorter attention spans.

TE: No, actually it’s the opposite. Everyone knows that everything on the Internet is read short. And that may be true. But TomDispatch is my obsession, it has an addictive quality; and you have to be an addict to read an obsessive. I both write and publish long. I commonly publish 3-4,000 words, I’ve published up to 10,000. TomDispatch grew out of my publishing life because the first people whose pieces I got (other than my own) were authors whose books I’d edited over the years. It was like those old Andy Hardy movies where they’d say, Hey, let’s start a band, you bring the drums, I’ll bring the guitar, somebody else’ll sing, Farmer Jones will lend us the barn. That’s TomDispatch.

MJ: And readership keeps ticking up?

TE: I sent out 16,000 email notices to subscribers on every post. I’d say every piece gets perhaps 20,000-plus visitors at the site, because it's up there for a couple of days, and then it zips around the Internet, so if Commondreams puts it up, or Salon, or Asia Times, you add another 10 or 20,000 people a pop. And then there's probably the most interesting phenomenon of all, which is pass-ons. That’s how TomDispatch got started. You can’t count them at all. People write me all the time and say, I loved that piece. I passed it on to 137 friends. But I estimate that the basic TomDispatch piece goes out to a minimum of 75,000 to 100,000 people. But who knows? And in a way I don’t want to know, because I’d do the same thing if--I did do the same thing when--it was going out to twelve people. I just do it because I do it, because I can’t help myself.