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May 2003
Not Your Average Wise Guy

The Satya Interview with Ted Rall



Photo courtesy of Ted Rall

Cartoonist, journalist, political pundit, public citizen, and all-around wise guy. Ted Rall is all of the above, but that doesn’t quite sum him up. Readers may recognize him as a regular guest on Bill Maher’s Real Time and his former show Politically Incorrect. Others may be familiar with his syndicated cartoons and weekly columns.

Rall has studied U.S. involvement in Central Asia for years and has traveled the area extensively, making him something of an expert. Soon after 9/11, Rall and his wife went to Afghanistan to witness first-hand what the U.S. would do in retaliation. What resulted are two unique books. In Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan (iUniverse), Rall brings his file-cabinet knowledge together in a step-by-step explanation of the American obsession with controlling access to oil and natural gas in Central Asia. To Afghanistan and Back (NBM) is a powerful account of what Rall experienced while in Afghanistan, narrated in cartoons.

Here, Rall talks to Catherine Clyne about art, politics, controversy, and the importance of maintaining a sense of humor.

What inspired you to become politically active and why do you think it’s important to be so?
Citizenship is hard work. People who say they don’t have time to read the newspaper have time to watch television and go to dinner, and I think as part of society, it’s our responsibility to be part of the society that we’re in and to take an active role, in whatever form that may be.

I’ve been a news junkie my entire life. My mother lived in France. It’s a given that politics are an important part of everyday life for most Europeans, and she taught me that I needed to keep up on the news. I learned English reading the newspaper and watching the news every night; it just became a habit. It makes a lot of people depressed to watch the news, but I feel you need to know what’s going on, that information is power.

I come from a left-of-center political perspective that tends to be very far left on economic issues in particular, and I’m most interested in discussing issues that I think are being ignored by the mainstream media.

Do you feel artists—particularly today—have an obligation to be politically active?
I wouldn’t say that it’s an obligation. I tend to find political art more relevant, but I certainly enjoy lots of music and films and other forms of art that are purely entertaining or comment on aspects of the human condition that are not explicitly political.

Artists are in a unique position because they have access to the public, but any thinking person has to stand up to fight injustice whenever he or she sees it. I think it’s more important in a time of grave political crisis, as we’re living through now, to make a stand. I’ve had arguments with people who say, “Whatever happened to moderation?” and the answer is, These are not moderate times. If you lived during Nazi Germany, that was not a time to shut up.

How would you describe the current atmosphere for political cartoonists?
People are looking to political cartoons more than ever, in a way because the mainstream media and the pundits are so quiet now. The Democratic Party is in absentia. Cartooning has found a great importance with readers.

Unfortunately editors are quite the opposite, and for the most part—sometimes entirely—have stopped running cartoons in magazines and newspapers. The New York Times’s “Week in Review” seems to be in the process of getting rid of them. Time Magazine stopped running political cartoons entirely after 9/11, and they’ve never come back. The ones that do run tend to be more frivolous than political. So it’s this weird irony—there’s an audience for cartoons, but nobody’s publishing them.

At this point, many people seem to feel the war in Iraq is over. What message do you think peace activists should adopt? “Stop the War!” just doesn’t seem as meaningful now.
No it doesn’t, although I guess maybe they could just erase Iraq from all their signs and put Syria on them. It’s an awful tactical dilemma to deal with that sort of thing.

In a way I think the left is chasing its own tail. Bush sort of subscribes to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which is that if you keep starting new initiatives, your opposition can never really mobilize quickly enough to stop it—you’re starting a new one while they’re still working on the old. Bush’s whole tactic has been to throw so much shit at the wall in an average news cycle that potential political opponents have no idea how to react. In the end, what’s the issue here? Is it really war against Iraq? That’s an issue. But where were these same protesters for the war against Afghanistan, which was every bit as illegal and wrong-headed and immoral as the war against Iraq?

We have a very simple procedure that can solve this entire problem, which is to throw Bush out of office. This guy was illegally installed by the U.S. Supreme Court in violation of the Constitution, which says that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction whatsoever over election disputes. And if you don’t believe the judicial coup d’etat theory, the Constitution does provide for impeaching a president who goes off the reservation. It’s a political process. If enough Americans are just sick of him and what he’s doing—to the economy, starting wars all over the place, running up the deficit and making tax cuts, spying and lying—we can get rid of him. I think that’s really where we need to concentrate—this guy’s got to go.

Why do you think people bought the story that Saddam personally had something to do with 9/11?
My theory is that essentially, people don’t like to think they’re living in a country that’s led by an evil, dictatorial madman. But they are, they are living in Nazi Germany, in Stalinist Russia. Russians and Germans at the time were no different than us, they were patriotic but a little dismayed and worried about the lunatics who were running their country, and similarly, today, we have to understand the problem. We can’t just go along with this. The President and the country are not the same thing. Most Americans were against the war in Iraq, but once it became clear that Bush was going to do it regardless of what the UN or other countries or, for that matter, what the American public thought, I think the sense became, “He’s going to do it anyway, we’re in it, so we might as well support it and win it and get it over with.” This is our armed forces, after all, our country and our flag, and we want them to win. People retroactively think, “Bush must have some secret information that tells him that Saddam was involved.” I got thousands of emails like that. [I’m] like, really? If he has secret information, why doesn’t he say so? That’s just rationalization. People don’t want to think the worst about their own.

I can only imagine the anger that gets stirred up when you compare now to Nazi Germany and Stalinism. How do you respond to that anger?
In a sense, being a political cartoonist and being a person with an opinion means not giving a shit, and you have to be willing to take the First Amendment out for a wild ride every now and then. It’s not something that you should be hesitant to push to 120 miles per hour, so with that comes people who are going to be angry. If I were to say something that didn’t ring true, people wouldn’t feel the need to react to it.

You know a great deal about the history between the U.S. and Afghanistan. What are some of the major points that most Americans aren’t aware of?
I think in recent history, they’re probably most unaware of the fact that al-Qaeda was never headquartered in Afghanistan. It’s headquartered in the northern areas of Pakistan and remains there, and in fact has been strengthened by the war in Afghanistan. They’re probably not aware that we could have caught Osama bin Laden if we had sent commandos to corner him at his camp north of Kandahar and nailed him and brought him to justice, but that the Bush administration made no effort to do so. They’re probably unaware that the whole Tora-Bora battle was just a big stage show and that Osama was never there.

They’re probably also profoundly unaware of the fact that the difference between the old Taliban regime and the Northern Alliance is only one thing: it’s the same laws, same restrictive rules concerning women, except that the Northern Alliance likes to rape people and provides no security whatsoever, it’s a bandit regime. I like to say the equation is ‘Northern Alliance equals Taliban minus law and order.’ We have miraculously replaced the world’s worst regime with one that’s even worse.

It’s impossible to put in a nutshell, but what are some of the most glaring facts that support the accusation that the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are about oil?
I think you have to be on crack to think that the invasion of Iraq is not about oil—what else is it for? The food? Saddam Hussein did not have substantial amounts of weapons of mass destruction, obviously there was no tie between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. You have only to compare it with the North Korean situation to see where we are. North Korea threatened to use an inter-continental ballistic missile on the west coast—a real threat to U.S. security. If I were president, I would seriously contemplate military action; but we’re not. North Korea doesn’t have oil; Iraq does. We can also see what’s going on with all the politically connected corporations, like Halliburton and Bechtel, getting multi-million dollar contracts to “rebuild” Iraq. Obviously, Iraq is about oil.

Afghanistan’s far more complicated, and I wrote a book about it, Gas War, which details the trans-Afghanistan pipeline to get landlocked gas reserves from southern Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean, and out to market. In 1999, the Kazaks made the world’s largest oil strike on the Caspian Sea—turned out they have six times more confirmed oil reserves than Saudi Arabia does. The Bush administration was very fascinated by the prospect of having a pipeline for natural gas and Kazak crude oil that would basically run down the Herat-Kandahar highway. So Bush flew some Taliban reps out to Texas to talk pipeline.

There are people who think that the breakdown of negotiations led to the bombing campaign that began after 9/11. Here we are, more than a year later, and the pipeline project is well underway. If you look at the bestiary of personalities involved, it’s the Unocal deal all over again: Hamid Karzai, the current president of Afghanistan installed by the U.S., was a consultant for Unocal; Zalmay Khalilzad, who has recently surfaced as a special U.S. envoy to the Iraqi National Congress, his last job was consulting for Unocal on the pipeline project. Essentially, the pipeline was a top priority for the U.S. before 9/11, and it became a top priority again after 9/11. It’s the only thing that we’ve actually spent any time working on. We haven’t rebuilt Afghanistan, we haven’t tried to make life better for the people there. In all likelihood it was the main reason why we invaded Afghanistan.

It’s all stuff that we don’t know because there’s just not enough reporting coming out of there, and what reporting there is isn’t being widely disseminated in the U.S. For instance, there was a great article in the NY Times three months ago about how not a single house had been rebuilt in Kabul thanks to international aid, 15 months after the invasion. Or how not a single line of electricity had been strung, not an inch of roadway had been paved. In essence, nothing’s been done. Karzai can’t even afford to pay his government, his employees. Afghanistan has been more than abandoned—we trashed it and we’re abandoning it again.

What’s it like to have all these facts at your fingertips and experiences abroad, yet have ill-informed but powerful media personalities spend so much air time discrediting you and your positions?
It’s funny, the more reaction I get from dillweeds on right-wing talk radio, the more I know I’m having the desired effect. I’ve sent Gas War deliberately to a bunch of right-wing publications but nobody’s touching it. If they could find a hole in it, they’d rip it apart, but they can’t because they know it’s all true.

It’s easy to despair right now. How do you maintain your sense of humor?
Well you know, you can laugh or cry. For the last year I’ve just been furious about what’s going on—really, more angry at my fellow American citizens for not taking any action. About a month ago I started thinking, I’m just tired of being pissed off all the time. It’s true that everything going on is horrifying, but you do have to have a sense of humor to get through life. In many ways, it’s much more effective to ridicule and mock self-important, pompous stuffed shirts like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld than it is to yell at them.

What makes you hopeful?
I think to be a political pundit, you have to be hopeful. You have to hope that people are paying attention and they’re going to change and do something.

I’m a student of history, and if I worry about something, it’s because I’ve read about something in the past that I see as being similar. Some of the optimism I have stems from history as well. The U.S. and other countries have been down the road before, [with] similar problems we face here, and yet cooler heads have ultimately prevailed. The only unfortunate thing, and it’s a big one, is a lot of people get hurt and killed in the process. In the end, people get tired of being mean and wrong, and eventually they listen to reason. It’s just a matter of time. There’s a lot of smart and well-meaning people out there who are scared to talk but as soon as they feel free to speak up, they’re going to.

To learn more about Ted Rall, see his cartoons or read his columns, visit



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