August 30, 2006
Jacqueline and I recently rented last year's movie Syriana (see imdb.com), starring George Clooney. I was aware of the liberal agenda behind it, but the mix of Big Oil, politics, and terrorism looked just too darned intriguing to let it slide forever. It is based on the "novelized" memoir See No Evil by Robert Baer, a retired CIA operative, and as such is bound to contain a lot of unique insights. It is not like all those scandalous tell-all books by Frank Snepp and other former spies in the 1970s, however. Its main theme was simply that American people's continued access to cheap gasoline has come to depend upon a fragile network of crooked arrangements with despots in the Middle East, including some wealthy families with ties to terrorism. No surprise there! Obviously, there is a lot of dramatic license in the way that interactions between diplomats, spies, businessmen, and various Middle Eastern "strong men" (princes, terrorists, thugs) are protrayed. Does our government, in its harried pursuit of short-term national interests, get involved with nasty characters from time to time? Of course it does. That does not mean that such regrettable deeds dominate the overall course of U.S. foreign policy. Please keep a basic fact in mind: It's only a movie! The events portrayed bear about as much resemblance to the real world as an episode of Superman.
What does surprise me over and over is how many Americans seem to live in a dream world in which our foreign policy should be judged by Boy Scout "good deed" standards. Wake up, folks. In the extra material that came with the DVD there were interviews with Mr. Clooney and the director, Stephen Gaghan, who came across like Ken Burns or one of those too-pious PC literary types. That is where the underlying agenda came out loud and clear. And frankly, I would agree that the mergers between oil giants in the last decade are very difficult to explain except as part of a strategy to gain market share (and therefore, pricing leverage) in times of declining supplies: monopoly! There was also a plug for a "progressive" Web site: participate.net. I am very sympathetic to the general goal of energy conservation, but the suggestions offered were sadly futile. As I've always said, until energy prices climb to a high enough level to make people really feel the financial pinch, there will be no significant change in our profligate consumptions habits. It's nothing to feel guilty about, as long as you are not consciously making the problem worse by pretending that a lot of feel-good gestures on the part of individuals will fix things.
This question of "reality" is important because so much of the criticism of the Bush administration's conduct of the war revolves around the alleged "crusading approach" to foreign policy on the part of the Neocons. True, some of those folks have a quite overoptimistic view of the prospects for democratization and peace in the Mideast, but they aren't half as "delusional" as a lot of the "peace" activists you see in protests. Those in the self-styled "reality-based community" (see Wikipedia -- groan...) take pains to mock those in the "faith-based community," but there is really no difference in terms of engagement with the real world. Delusion is generally not an ideological or partisan attribute.
As those of us who study foreign politics on an up close and personal basis know, reality is far more complex and subtle than can be explained in a television news segment. It gets even more complicated when you are dealing with non-Western cultures in countries whose governments are nothing more than a sham, which forces leaders to go to extreme lengths of duplicity just to survive the internal and external pressures. For example, Michael Totten (guest blogging for Andrew Sullivan) cautions that we should take the self-contradictory statements of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora with a grain of salt. Last week he "said he was interested in peace talks with Israel. Today he said Lebanon will be the last country to make peace with Israel." Oh well.
It so happens that Syriana includes some exceptionally riveting scenes purporting to take place in the Hezbollah-controlled slums of southern Beirut. That part was very realistic. Seeing the movie just as the bombs and rockets were falling in Lebanon and northern Israel was quite chilling.
Glenn Reynolds trumpets the latest success of the Porkbusters movement, which he co-founded. A staffer for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) acknowledged that the senator was the one who was holding up legislation aimed at revealing secrets of government contracting. Stevens drew notoriety last year when the frivolous "bridge to nowhere" in his home state came to light.
My brainy, culturally inquisitive sister Connie addresses criminal justice issues and related topics at: nicic.org. (beta version)