Tomdispatch Interview: Mark Danner on Bush’s State of Exception

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[Note to Tomdispatch readers: This is the sixth in an ongoing series of interviews at the site. The last three were with Cindy Sheehan, Juan Cole (parts 1 and 2), and Ann Wright. Tom.]

You Can Do Anything with a Bayonet Except Sit on It
A Tomdispatch Interview with Mark Danner

On a cloudless day, the sky a brilliant, late-afternoon blue, my car winds its way up the Berkeley hills. Plum and pear trees in glorious whites and pinks burst into sight at each turn in the road. Beds of yellow flowers, trees hung with lemons, and the odd palm are surrounded by the green of a northern California winter, though the temperature is pushing 70 degrees. An almost perfectly full moon, faded to a tattered white, sits overhead. Suddenly, I take a turn and start straight up, as if into the heavens, but in fact towards Grizzly Peak before turning yet again into a small street and pulling up in front of a wooden gate. You swing it open and proceed down a picturesque stone path through the world’s tiniest grove of redwoods toward the yellow stucco cottage that was only recently the home of Nobel-Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, but is now the home — as yet almost furniture-less — of journalist Mark Danner, who has said that, as a young writer in search of “a kind of moral clarity,” he gravitated toward countries where “massacres and killings and torture happen, in the place, that is, where we find evil.”

Danner greets me at the door which, thrown open, reveals a bay window with a dazzling vista of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay and through which the sun blazes goldenly. In a rumpled dark shirt and slacks, he ushers me out onto a small stone patio. “This is where the deer hang out,” he says and points to a small area just beyond our chairs where the grass is slightly pressed down. “They lie there contemplating me as I pace on the other side of the bay window. I feel like their ping pong game.”

Facing this peaceable kingdom, Danner has a slightly distracted, out-of-the-washer-but-not-the-drier look to him, except for his face, strangely unmarked, which would qualify as lighting up (even without the sun). He beams in such a welcoming way and there is in him something — in this setting at least — that makes it almost impossible to believe he has reported from some of the least hospitable, most dangerous spots on the planet over the last decades: Haiti in the 1980s, war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and Iraq, which he’s visited three times in recent years, among other spots. He has covered the world for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and especially the New York Review of Books (whose editors have been kind enough to let a number of his pieces be posted at

Danner is now an expert on the torture practices of the U.S. military, the CIA, and the Bush administration (and his primer on the subject, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror, is a must for any bookshelf). A professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, his cup of tea seems to be dicey American foreign-policy situations. His book-writing career began with a now-classic volume, The Massacre at El Mozote, in which he traveled to El Salvador for the exhumation of an infamous site where over 750 Salvadorans were massacred by U.S. trained troops during Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. A new book of his recent writings, The Secret Way to War, is due out in April.

We seat ourselves, a makeshift table with my tape recorders between us, and turning away from the slowly sinking sun, simply plunge in.

Tomdispatch: I wanted to start with an area of expertise for you, torture policy. For me, the Bush administration’s decision to enter this arena so quickly after 9/11 was a reach for power. If you can torture, you can do anything.

Mark Danner: When you look at the record, the phrase I come back to, not only about interrogation but the many other steps that constitute the Bush state of exception, state of emergency, since 9/11 is “take the gloves off.” We hear this again and again. The interesting thing about that phrase is the implication that before we had the gloves on, that the laws and principles that constitute our belief not only in democracy but in human rights left the country vulnerable. The U.S. adherence to the Geneva Convention, the U.S. record of treating prisoners humanely that goes back to George Washington, laws like the FISA law passed to restrict the government’s power to surveil its citizens — all of these constitute the gloves on American power and 9/11 signaled to those in power that the system with “the gloves on” was insufficient to protect Americans. That seems to be their belief.

As you know, very shortly after 9/11, the then-White House counsel [Alberto Gonzales] proposed to President Bush that provisions of the Geneva Conventions had been rendered obsolete, even quaint, by this quote “new paradigm.” The Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, and the federal statutes against torture — these undertakings by the U.S. — represented restrictions that would unduly hobble the country in fighting the war on terror and, by extension, threaten[ed] the existence of the United States. And I think that’s where torture — “extreme interrogation” is the euphemism — goes to the heart of the reaction against the way this country has observed human rights in the past, a reaction in a way against law itself. What we have here is a conflict between legality and power.

Torture is a very direct route from human rights, which is to say, restricted power, to unleashed power. We see a movement here backwards from ideals that were at the root of this country’s founding during the enlightenment: the restriction of government power and the conviction that human beings had certain inherent rights, one of which was the freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment. Under this way of looking at the matter, those enlightenment ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which were given to Americans, were extended through the Geneva Conventions, through the Convention against Torture, to all people — and the administration, in pushing extreme interrogation, in going from a secret abuse of power to a public one

TD: Wasn’t it really less an abuse of power than a proclamation of power?

Danner: Exactly. In what I’ve started to call Bush’s state of exception, we’ve now reached the second stage. Many of these steps, including extreme interrogation, eavesdropping, arresting aliens — one could go down a list — were taken in relative or complete secrecy. Gradually, they have come into the light, becoming matters of political disputation; and, insofar as the administration’s political antagonists have failed to overturn them, they have also become matters of accepted practice, which is where I think we are now. As we sit here, we are approaching the two-year anniversary of the publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs. It would have been the very unusual observer, on seeing those photographs in April 2004, who would have predicted two years later that extreme interrogation would, in effect, have become accepted within the CIA. And though the Senate passed an amendment that forbade it, the President replied with a signing statement that essentially reserved his right to violate that amendment according to his supposed powers as commander-in-chief.

In effect, the President claims to believe that his wartime powers give him carte blanche to break the law in any sphere where he decides national security is involved. An added element is the elevation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The only countervailing power we’ve seen since 9/11 really lay in the June 2004 Supreme Court detention decisions. In one of them, Justice O’Connor declared that the President’s power in wartime was not a blank check. Now, she’s been replaced by an admitted believer in a “unitary executive.” It was Alito when he was at the Justice Department who strongly pushed the strategy of presidential signing statements as a way to mitigate congressional assertions of power.

TD: Weren’t you struck by the fact that, of all the things top Bush officials did, their urge toward torture, toward taking the gloves off, was first and fastest? It was an impulse at the top.

Danner: I think that’s an interesting way to put it, an impulse at the top. The President and the Vice President have said that, after 9/11, they asked the national security and law enforcement bureaucracies to come to them with proposals. What should the U.S. do? Look, it’s time to take the gloves off and every one of you has to show me the way to do it. General [Michael] Hayden said in an interview just the other night that, with the NSA eavesdropping program, he was responding to a request from the White House.

TD: Wasn’t it Rumsfeld, when they were “interviewing” John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, in Afghanistan, who actually told the interrogators to take the gloves off?

Danner: According to a Newsweek report, Rumsfeld had someone essentially telephone the interrogators: Do what you have to do. Go as far as you have to go.

Creating Reality

TD: Torture hasn’t exactly been absent from U.S. government policy in our lifetimes, but one difference, it seems to me, is the degree to which our leaders have been involved. I think Rumsfeld was getting reports on the Lindh interrogation by the hour.

Danner: When we look at the techniques used by the CIA, these things go back a ways. Alfred McCoy and others have written about this. These techniques of torture, developed in the 1950s and 1960s, are reappearing. There is one very important difference: the explicit official approval and the determination to defend these techniques in the case of public exposure and public controversy. And torture has survived its exposure — a critical difference. The clear evidence of intent at the very top of the government is also striking. At a certain point, of course, you have to get into the realm of the psycho-political, which is a very mushy realm.

TD: Let’s do it anyway.

Danner: The central question here is: Why did we have the kind of response we did after 9/11? The Bush administration, which professed itself so strong on national security, had let the United States suffer the most catastrophic attack on its territory in history. We have to remind ourselves of the effect of this. Remember, their major security programs were the Strategic Defense Initiative and confronting China. They thought that terrorism, which they didn’t care about, was a matter for sissies. Like humanitarian intervention, the threat posed by non-state actors — and many other concerns of the previous administration — all this stuff was, as they saw it, a kid’s view of national security, so they ignored it. And afterwards they knew very well that reports existed showing how they had ignored it, most notably the PDB [Presidential Daily Briefing] that was famously entitled “Bin Laden determined to strike in US.” This was a very human thing. Having proclaimed how strong they were on national security, they were attacked. I think that accounted, to some degree, for the ferocity of the counterattack. You don’t need to get too deep to see that. When you look at this idea of the gloves coming off, the implication is very much exculpatory. They’re saying, in effect: Before the gloves were on, so we weren’t able to detect and prevent this attack.

General Hayden has explicitly said, had this [NSA warrantless eavesdropping] program been in place, we would have prevented 9/11. There’s no evidence of that, but when you talk about the psycho-political roots of this stuff, I think it’s very revealing. It also dovetails with the concerns of several prominent officials, especially Rumsfeld and Cheney, that the government had been unduly hobbled during the late Vietnam War era. Cheney has said this explicitly. We’re talking about the War Powers Resolution, which was passed in 1973. FISA is out of the same complex of political concerns, though it was passed under Carter.

TD: They chafed under FISA in the Reagan era.

Danner: Oh, indeed they did. Then there were the Church and Pike hearings of the mid-1970s, which, in their view, disabled the CIA. So part of this has to do with righting wrongs that they believe were committed in an earlier and very traumatic time in their lives. Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense just after the Vietnam War. Cheney was chief of staff in a White House that was under siege. So history is coming back to haunt this era in a personal and vivid way.

TD: You’ve often quoted a piece in which reporter Ron Suskind is told by an unidentified senior administration official that he’s in the “reality-based community,” after which that official says something striking: “We’re an empire now and when we act we create our own reality.” Care to comment?

Danner: I think that quote is immensely revealing. It underlines their policies in all kinds of areas, their belief that the overwhelming or preponderant power of the United States can simply change fact, can change truth. It is quite indicative of their policy of public information inside the United States. They don’t care about people who read the New York Times, for instance. I use that as a shorthand. They don’t care about people concerned with facts. They care about the broader arc of the story. We sit here constantly citing facts — that they’ve broken this or that law, that what they originally said turns out not to be true. None of this particularly interests them.

What interests them is the larger reality believed by the 50.1% that they need to govern. Kenneth Duberstein said this recently — he was chief of staff to Ronald Reagan — that this administration is unique in that they govern with 50.1%. He was referring not to elections but to popularity while governing. His notion was that Reagan would want to get 60-65% backing him, while the Bush people want a bare majority, which means they have a much more extremist policy because they’re appealing to the base. It makes them very hard-knuckle when approaching politics, simply wanting the base plus one.

On empire, what’s unusual about this administration isn’t only its focus on power, but on unilateralism. It’s the flip side of isolationism. The notion that alliances, economic or political, and international law inevitably hinder the most powerful nation. You know, the image of the strings around Gulliver. They said in the National Security Strategy of the United States, the 2005 version, that rivals will continue to challenge us using the strategies of the weak including “international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.” They’re associating terror and asymmetric warfare with international law as similar ways to blunt the overwhelming power of the United States. That represents an attitude toward international law and institutions that, I think, is a real and dramatic break from past practice in the United States. In our history, certainly recently, there’s just no comparison to them — no government anywhere near as radical.

TD: They’re really extreme American nationalists, though you can’t use that word in this country.

Danner: That’s true, and they combine with this belief in great-power America an almost nativist distrust of international institutions. That’s the difference between Truman America and this regime in its approach to foreign policy. They put international institutions in a similar class with terrorism — that is, weapons of the weak

TD: Weapons of mass interference.

Danner: I should add that, in my view, the era of neocon leadership is clearly coming to an end. The impression that they were ever entirely in control is wrong in any event and the vanguard of the neocons has obviously been blunted by the great failure of Iraq — because their assumption of preponderant American power turned out not to be true. Napoleon had this wonderful line that you can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it. Military power is good for blowing things up; it’s good for destroying things. It’s not good for building a new order. It takes a great deal more power, skill, and patience to construct an enduring order in Iraq. The United States doesn’t have sufficient power; it doesn’t have the skill; and we know it doesn’t have the patience. One part of the Axis of Evil has been occupied — you can think of it as the part of the Axis that has sacrificed itself to make way for the greater freedom (freedom from attack, freedom perhaps to build nuclear weapons) of North Korea and Iran. Although I think the U.S. has dealt with Iran rather cleverly in the last few months, they’re playing a very weak hand. After all, the use of military force against Iran is now out of the question in large part because of the disaster next door in Iraq and the way Iran’s hand has been strengthened by that disaster.

TD: Here’s my hesitation: If these people are pushed to the wall, I could construct a scenario for you, I believe, in which Iran, crazy as it might seem, could be hit.

Danner: The difference we have on this just has to do with how willing we are to imagine the utter irrationality of the administration. When I look at Iran now, the upside of a military strike of a kind that they could do, with aerial bombardment, and the downside of such a step seems obviously to be so wildly out of proportion, I can’t believe even they would take that step.

The Age of Frozen Scandal

TD: You’ve talked about our current American world as one of “frozen scandal,” an interesting phrase. When you first used it, we were in the Downing Street Memo scandal and nothing was happening. Now, we’re immersed in the NSA and other scandals and nothing is happening

Danner: The icebergs are floating by. I’ve used the phrase to indicate that a process of scandal we’ve come to know, with an expected series of steps, has come to an end. Before, you had, as step one, revelation of wrongdoing by the press, usually with the help of leaks from within an administration. Step two would be an investigation which the courts, often allied with Congress, would conduct, usually in public, that would give you an official version of events. We saw this with Watergate, Iran-Contra, and others. And finally, step three would be expiation — the courts, Congress, impose punishment which allows society to return to some kind of state of grace in which the notion is, look we’ve corrected the wrongdoing, we can now go on. With this administration, we’ve got revelation of torture, of illegal eavesdropping, of domestic spying, of all kinds of abuses when it comes to arrest of domestic aliens, of inflated and false weapons of mass destruction claims before the war; of cronyism and corruption in Iraq on a vast scale. You could go on. But no official investigation follows.

TD: You get revelation and repetition.

Danner: Yes, R and R. It’s been three years since the invasion and occupation of Iraq and there’s been no official investigation of how the administration made use of intelligence to suggest that the intelligence agencies were certain Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Now, the consequence of this is that we live with the knowledge of these scandals, published in newspapers, magazines, books, but we get no official acknowledgement of wrongdoing and no punishment. Perhaps in the end a handful of people will be punished

TD: minor figures

Danner: who were silly enough to get themselves caught — for example, the military police whose images appear in the Abu Ghraib digital pictures. The actual policymakers responsible for the change in interrogation policy will suffer no punishment whatsoever. In fact, they’re still in their jobs. None of the investigations has reached them. Even the people who actually carried on the interrogations themselves we know very little about.

TD: You’ve interviewed some interrogators, haven’t you?

Danner: Indeed, and I’ve had from them accounts of some of the things that were done. The great problem in the Age of Frozen Scandal is that it’s as if we’re this spinning wheel, constantly confirming facts that we already knew, so the revelations become less and less effective in causing public outrage. The public begins to become inured to it, corrupted in its turn.

TD: I’m going to suggest something grimmer. In what’s likely to be the dirtiest election any of us has experienced, if the Democrats actually took one house of Congress in November 2006 and begin to investigate, I think you’d enter the era of frozen investigation. The administration will claim commander-in-chief rights.

Danner: That’s a good prediction. The Bush administration is already stonewalling extremely timid Republican-led committees when it comes to the response to Hurricane Katrina or NSA eavesdropping. If the Democrats do take control of a house of Congress and mount real investigations, on the one hand, they’ll be very circumspect because they’ll be concerned about jeopardizing their chances in the elections of 2008. On the other hand, you’ll have the overwhelming claim of commander-in-chief power which could completely handcuff investigations.

TD: I came across this sentence today in a piece on the Plame case. “A spokesman for Cheney would not comment for this story, saying the investigation into the leak was ongoing. The spokesman refused to give her name.”

Danner: (laughs) A secret spokesman.

TD: So you’ve got secrecy, lying, and a third thing you’ve brought up before, a bizarre kind of frankness. I was wondering if you could talk about that.

Danner: There’s been an interesting ambivalence in the administration when it comes to all these actions they’ve taken in the name of national security — between the impulse to deny and stonewall and the impulse to come forward and very boldly assert that they took such actions in the name of national security. You see it in eavesdropping, where Karl Rove has clearly indicated a preference for declaring, in a very clever response to the NSA revelation, “If al-Qaeda is talking to someone in the United States we want to know about it. Apparently some Democrats don’t.” Which is basically to say: If you’re concerned about this, you’re weakening the United States. All this human rights, Fourth Amendment stuff is so much hooey.

In essence, this is an assault on the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is in the Constitution because the framers understood that a lot of these rights, especially when under pressure in wartime, are not particularly popular. So they were put in permanently, so as not to be subject to majority control or majority abnegation. It’s politics of the most savagely bare-knuckle and dangerous kind when you use that gap between the country’s precepts as embodied in the Constitution and the fact that many of these become unpopular in time of war to destroy your political opponents, which is what this administration does.

There are many in the administration who want to come out four-square for these things. You saw that impulse also with interrogation. They could have come out after Abu Ghraib — there were hints of this — and said, “Yes, there are a few bad apples, but yes, we use extreme interrogation, we do it to defend the country.” And if they’d done this, they might have pumped up a majority who would, for example, have supported waterboarding.

When I talk about these matters, there’s an ambivalence on my part as well because one becomes extremely upset that they’re lying in public and doing these things in secret and denying them; but, on the other hand, I fear the kind of populist technique they could use if they declared these policies openly to rally support for themselves.

All this, of course, begs the question of a second attack. It’s the assumption of many people that a second attack would punch through everything, that there’d be a much more explicit assumption of powers.

TD: And do you believe this?

Danner: It’s quite possible, sure. If it had happened a year after 9/11, I think that’s exactly what would have occurred. Now that time has passed, I’m not so sure. They’re in a much more defensive political position. It depends on what kind of attack it was, whether it was an attack of a kind that they should have anticipated — that is, one where it was at least conceivable that they should have prevented it.

It’s Not the Information, It’s the Politics

TD: It’s always dangerous to predict the future, but can you imagine, in quite another direction, this administration imploding or unraveling?

Danner: Well, as in so many things, Yogi Berra had it right: I never make predictions, especially about the future. When it comes to raw political power, the ramrod backbone of the administration is clearly national security. 9/11 restored to the Republican Party what they had lost with the end of the Cold War — this persistent advantage in national security. If there is one thing this administration has done brilliantly, ruthlessly, efficiently, it’s making political use of its war on terror. It remains to be seen whether they can go to that well one more time in the 2006 election. There is an opportunity for the Democratic Party, exactly because Americans, after four years of it, are tired of this rhetoric and they’ve been enlightened by the Iraq war, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the Medicare debacle among other things to the general incompetence of the administration and to its corruption.

Could the administration unravel? The notion many people on the left are putting forward about a move toward impeachment — it’s hard for me to imagine that. First of all, we’re coming to a point in the political calendar where Democrats, as at the time of Iran-Contra, are not going to want impeachment to get in the way of retaking the White House in 2008. Democrats also saw what impeachment did to the Republican Party in 1998. For the first time in memory in an off-year election in a President’s second term, the Republicans lost seats — leading, as you’ll remember, to the abrupt fall of Newt Gingrich. On the other hand, if the Democrats did take one house of Congress this November, I think there are a number of areas where an investigation could hurt this administration severely, and it’s hard to predict what the Bush people’s reaction would be if they found themselves the target of aggressive congressional committees actually investigating officials who faced being charged, convicted, and sent to jail. Even with Congress actually doing its job, we would confront the central political reality of our time: Terrorism has embedded itself in our political system, which is to say that fear has become the most lucrative political emotion and the administration would retain a considerable power to promote fear. It has the power to suggest that an attack on the national security bureaucracy is an attack on the safety of the people.

TD: I’d like to turn to Iraq now by backing up to an earlier moment in your career, a terrible massacre in El Salvador in the 1980s, whose aftermath you reported on, a massacre by Salvadoran troops trained and backed by the United States. Could you compare that early age of Reagan moment to today, given that so much of the cast of characters has turned out to be the same, including

Danner: Elliott Abrams

TD: and Cheney, Rumsfeld, Negroponte, and any number of others. I’d also like you to consider a more general question: How does the U.S. get up to its elbows in blood so regularly?

Danner: Oh boy When I look back at the massacre at El Mozote, which happened at the beginning of the Reagan administration, what sticks out is the way it served to signal the renewed determination — of the incoming Reagan officials and the newly defiant Salvadoran military — to draw a line at Salvador and not let that so-called advance of communist interests within the hemisphere continue.

When I compare now and then, I think of the power of a determined government to deny the facts and, if it is ruthless, to make its denials stick. Because what reverberates now about El Mozote is that two reporters, Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto, from the New York Times and the Washington Post, got to that massacre site within a few weeks and filed stories. These were published on the front pages of the two most powerful newspapers in the country

TD: far more so then than now.

Danner: Exactly. At a time of real dominance by the Times and Post, and the administration came forward, denied the massacres took place, and was able to make its views stick. And remember we knew that the death squads were being run out of the Salvadoran government; that the American embassy knew all about this; that it was the public policy of the American government that this shouldn’t be happening and that aid would be cut off if it was. But every time a new outrage took place, the press obligingly reported the denial of the administration, the denial of the embassy in San Salvador that, in fact, they knew anything about the connection of the death squads and the government the United States was supporting.

That leads me to a conclusion I came to then: that in many stories it’s not the information, it’s the politics. It’s not that we were lacking information. It’s that, when that information came out, it was denied and those in power were able to impose their view of reality. Political power decided what reality was, despite clear information to the contrary. When I look at our time I see that phenomenon writ large. It’s gone way beyond a massacre in a relatively obscure Central American country. It’s gone to policies and statements that led the United States to invade a country that had not attacked us, to torture prisoners and deny we’re doing it even when clear evidence says that we are, to domestic spying in which the government is clearly breaking the law and the President declares that he will continue to do so. In all these cases, it’s not the information, it’s the politics. This is a hard thing for journalists to admit because the model of journalistic behavior in our era is Watergate. It’s very hard for journalists to come to grips with the reality that wrongdoing can indeed be exposed, and continue to be exposed again and again with no result, in a kind of tortuous eternal return.

The Yawning Gap

TD: Apply this to Iraq. You’ve been to Iraq three times. It must be startling to arrive in this described land and see the actual country.

Danner: One of the striking things about going to Iraq is the extraordinarily large chasm between what people know about the story here and what the story actually is. First of all, the lurid, security-imposed landscape of the country is very hard to convey to people here: the miles of concrete blast walls, the miles of barbed wire, the constant fear in driving around and trying to report, and the absolute, constant accompaniment of death. Most of the killings in Iraq are not reported here and yet American viewers think that they’re seeing the war when what they’re seeing is a television reporter doing a stand-up on the roof of a heavily guarded hotel, behind blast walls and barbed wire and countless armed guards, who may or may not have exited that hotel that day. Many reporters are doing extraordinary jobs under horrific conditions, but those conditions make adequate reporting, as we know it, nearly impossible.

The result is that the Iraq we see is a tiny, tiny sliver of a very complex, very violent reality, and the constant repetition of the bad news, of the continual deaths there, has been absorbed by the news system of the United States. By that I mean, whereas ten deaths might have made the front page of the paper or been not quote “a tell” but an actual filmed report on a network newscast, now it takes more death than that. The country and the news media are gradually absorbing how badly the war has gone so that the normal pace of death there which, had we predicted it before the war, would have been a horrible outcome — an outcome that, had we known, no one would have supported the war in the first place — this horrible outcome has become the baseline that we take for granted.

For the story to occupy the news space, a particularly catastrophic attack is necessary. Today in the New York Times, there was a striking report about the steady upsurge in the number of attacks since the beginning of the insurgency This has been inexorable, which shows that the insurgency is growing more formidable, despite all these reports about American and Iraqi successes in the war. That story appeared on p. A12 of the New York Times. It wasn’t even news. Accompanying it was a piece about the failure of infrastructure in Iraq. Though the United States has put roughly $16 billion of American money into the Iraqi infrastructure, the number of hours of average electricity available to an inhabitant of Baghdad has gone from 24 hours to 4. All the figures on infrastructure point downward, so that if you’re an Iraqi, you have seen your standard of living steadily decline under the Americans even as you now have a much greater chance of being kidnapped or killed or blown up in an explosion or having your children kidnapped. Very little of this gets through to Americans. In fact, the story has generally been migrating off the front pages and becoming a small version of Orwell’s famed distant and never-ending war between East Asia and Oceania.

I think it’s widely known at the top of the administration that Iraq is a failure. It’s also been recognized by many that, in strategic terms, the Iraq war could turn out to be a catastrophe because it’s essentially created a Shia Islamist government sympathetic to Iran and, among other things, made it impossible for the U.S. to adequately pressure Iran on the nuclear issue. The result of this occupation is going to be a reversal of 50 years of American policy in the Gulf, which has been a reliance on the Sunni autocracies in the area. That policy had an awful lot wrong with it; its support of those autocracies over many decades certainly helped lead to al-Qaeda and its epigones. The fact is, though, that the Bush administration has essentially overthrown that policy with nothing to put in its place.

TD: You’ve written, “I think I became a writer in part because I found that yawning distance between what I was told and what I could see to be inescapable.” Now, that yawning gap is available to everybody. And we’re in a strangely demobilized moment, it seems to me. I was wondering: If you’re a reporter, what’s the story now? Remind me?

Danner: Thank you, Tom, for putting a deeply depressing point in such a deeply depressing way. I congratulate you on that, and indeed that yawning gap is now available to everyone and it’s debilitating, partly because one is perilously close to arriving at the conclusion that reality doesn’t matter. When I look at the pieces on the inside pages of the papers about the stealing of funds in Iraq by American officials, when I realize that no one is likely to be punished for this, I think of the novels of [Milan] Kundera, of his vivid descriptions of what it was like to live in Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s — in the Soviet system where everyone realized the corruption, the abuse of power, the mediocrity of the government, the yawning gap between what was said and what was really going on, but no one could do anything about it.

TD: Are we in a kind of Brezhnev moment?

Danner: I’m not sure I would go so far as that because a Brezhnev moment means we’re talking about a system that has reached its geriatric debility. I’m by no means saying that the U.S. now is equivalent to Eastern Europe back then, but there is a similarity in this gap between what you know is true and officially recognized reality — and in the fact that that gap cannot be breached. On the other hand, the fall in Bush’s approval ratings, and especially the catastrophic decline in the all-important do-you-think-the-country-is-on-the-right-track question shows that this has had a broad effect among a lot of people. And I take some comfort from that.

The Democrats are doing very well in a generic poll about who you would want to run the country. This doesn’t mean the mid-term elections will turn out that way, of course. It does mean people have not been so dulled by fear as not to see that the war has been a mistake and that the administration has done a very bad job when it comes to, say, Katrina or the Medicare program. At the end of the day, the problem is that there needs to be a political alternative that is in some way viable and believable — and the political elite that opposes this administration has been unable to formulate a believable program in opposition to it.

At the heart of this is the problem of national security. Since the end of the Vietnam War, in poll after poll the American people say they trust Republicans more than Democrats to protect them. This is a cliché of polling. At this particular time, it’s been made worse by a paradox. If, with great skill, the Democrats attack the Republican handling not just of the Iraq war but of the more general war on terror — and the Bush administration has been brilliant in connecting those two — if the Democrats succeed in doing this, they are, in effect, igniting the overwhelming political emotion of fear. And the Republicans have been very successful in using fear; fear, whatever its cause, seems to benefit the Republicans and the self-described strong leadership they offer. Their basic strategy in the 2004 election was to say: Elect this guy Kerry with his surfboard, and he’s going to get you killed. Enough people were willing to believe that then. It’s unclear whether that old snake oil will still have as many willing buyers. I tend to doubt it.

TD: As dusk settles in, let me end this way: You’ve reported on some countries in horrific situations over the years. You wrote somewhere that in State Department parlance they are called TFN, totally f–ked up nations. Your mother, when you come home, has a tendency to say, “Can’t you go someplace nice for a change?” So here we are on this patio, the sun going down, the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. This looks nice. My question is: Is it nice, or are you now reporting from and teaching in a TFN?

Danner: [laughs heartily] Oh, you mean, this just a mask, a sunny, picturesque mask over what is, in reality, a totally f–ked up nation? Actually, to reach the point of being a TFN, I think we have a long way to go. We’re at a very low point in the political evolution of this country. I’ve certainly not lived under an administration as radical in its techniques, its methods, and its beliefs as this one. I’ve seen nothing like it in my lifetime.

It’s a difficult time for those of us who care about the truth and who don’t believe, as I think this administration does, that the truth is actually determined by what those in power think. I take comfort from the fact that a lot of people don’t believe that.

There are two borderline dangers here. One is to go off into a state of political debility in which you think that none of this matters. To hell with politics, let’s try to live our lives. And that’s a very natural response, to kind of bow out of political engagement, but I think that would be very wrong and very harmful. The other risk is to equal the administration in their exaggerations and their distortions, in their stunning lack of fidelity to what is happening. To exaggerate, to overstate, to alter the truth in the cause of a political goal — this, I think, is very tempting very tempting. When you see Fox News existing as it does, you want something of the same on the other side. But I don’t think that’s my job and I’m glad it’s not the job of a lot of writers and journalists out there.

You asked a little while ago what reporters should do in a time like this. I think it’s immensely important that people continue, with great determination, to report what is true, to investigate things like the NSA story, to make a record of all of this. Because, at the end of the day, that is what reporters do, and that is why their work is so valuable — so, if you’ll forgive this word, sacred. They try to tell what actually happened.

As I leave him at the now dark doorway and head up the stone steps to my car, he calls, “Watch out for the deer! They tend to be up there at this time of night!”

Copyright 2005 Tomdispatch