Daniel Larison

The Truth Hurts

So far Mr Thompson’s speeches have been a succession of conservative clichés interspersed with long pauses. ~The Economist

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This One Goes To Eleven

For diplomacy to work, we need to dial up [bold mine-DL] our political and economic pressure – not just our tough talk. ~Barack Obama

How do “we” dial up economic pressure beyond the current sanctions regime?  Turn the dial to eleven?  The old Clinton-era caviar export exceptions are, as far as I know, a thing of the past.  His option is divestment, which is a misguided effort. The Europeans might stop doing business with the Iranians–some have made gestures in this direction–but ultimately that just opens up that many more opportunities for the Chinese and Russians to bolster their influence and tie Iran that much more closely to themselves.  Western divestment from companies that do business in Iran would have the same effect–the Iranian market isn’t going anywhere, and other investors will take the place of everyone who divests.  Put this down as yet another Obama proposal in which he tries to be more belligerent than the administration (which he attacks here for its weakness and passivity!) and one where he demonstrates that his foreign policy qualifications really are just as non-existent as you would think they are.

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No Surprises Here

The draft provides a stark assessment of the tactical effects of the current U.S.-led counteroffensive to secure Baghdad. “While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced,” it states. While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged. It also finds that “the capabilities of Iraqi security forces have not improved.” ~The Washington Post

These statements are from a draft GAO report on progress in Iraq.  This is in line with the impressions of the lack of progress that we have been getting from news reports all year long.  During this entire period of almost eight months, war supporters would continually say, “the surge is working, the surge is working, just give it a little more time.”  This seemed like a strange thing to say at the time, since the “surge” pretty clearly wasn’t achieving the goals it was supposed to achieve, or at best only a very few of them.  I could never understand why people who wanted to prolong our presence in Iraq thought exaggerating the success of the “surge” was the smart thing to do.  In the end, this “surge” boosterism would wear out the patience of those parts of the public that had not already turned against the war, and it would reveal (yet again) the poor judgement and analysis of war supporters.  The best way to encourage greater public support for withdrawal was to hype the results of the “surge,” which was never going to be able to do what its proponents claimed.  In the absence of any practicable remedy to the problems in Iraq, public frustration would start to turn into outright public opposition to the war. 

Perhaps they felt compelled to say this as part of the domestic political debate, or perhaps many of them are so deeply deluded that they literally couldn’t recognise that this new plan had not succeeded.  Whatever credibility war supporters still had, if they had any, has been wasted in boosting the prospects of the “surge” as it has become more and more clear that the new tactical plan did not accomplish the (admittedly impossible) mission set out for the U.S. military.  It’s as if a dam had already burst and flooded the valley below, and the administration said to the military, “Go plug up some of the holes in the wreckage of that dam, which will somehow solve the flooding problem.”

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Hubris And Naivete

From President Bush on down, U.S. officials enthused about Iraqi democracy while pursuing a course of action that made it virtually certain that Iran and its proxies would emerge as the dominant political force. ~David Ignatius

Of course, Iran’s main proxy, SCIRI, was always going to be part of “the dominant political force” once that group was allowed to participate in the elections.  Given that the elections were run on a ethnic and sectarian basis, the majority of Iraq and the Iranians belong to the same sect and the major Shi’ite blocs already had Iranian backing, any election outcome that wasn’t blatantly rigged against Shi’ite parties (and we did do some things to minimise Shi’ite electoral dominance as it was) would have led to this result. 

The “hubris and naivete” consisted of having elections in the middle of a war in a country that had not yet been stabilised.  Allowing obviously sectarian lists of candidates didn’t help all that much.  If Shi’ite majoritarianism now strikes some people as an unacceptable consequence of the introduction of “democracy,” it is their enthusiasm for the latter that they ought to be interested in abandoning.  If some people now don’t  want Iran and its proxies to dominate Iraq, they shouldn’t have supported the invasion.  There’s not much to be done about it now.

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Just Imagine

It’s hard to imagine Jacques Chirac, Mr. Sarkozy’s predecessor, speaking this way. (Mr. Sarkozy has also reportedly described French diplomats as “cowards” and proposed “[getting] rid of the Quai d’Orsay.” Imagine the media uproar if President Bush mused about doing the same to Foggy Bottom?) ~The Wall Street Journal

Does anyone outside of the lunatic asylum of the WSJ editorial board think that “getting rid” of either the Quai d’Orsay or Foggy Bottom is advisable?  There is a fairly good pattern down through the years, and it is this: government leaders that openly despise State or Foreign Ministry employees have a curious habit of also being the most amazing foreign policy buffoons.  Despite some initial promise of representing sound leadership, Sarkozy has done nothing to persuade that he is anything other than this.   

There is certainly a kind of irony in Sarkozy’s remarks about China, since Total just put together a very nice natural gas deal with the Russians.  Needless to say, French huffing and puffing about other nations’ “search for raw materials” is about as credible as our own holier-than-thou pundits lecturing Europeans and others about their oil interests in Iraq (because we naturally have no oil interests anywhere). 

I suppose some Frenchmen can be forgiven for mistaking Sarkozy for a neocon with a French passport.  He isn’t one, but he certainly likes to give the impression that he is as much of a foreign policy dunce as they are.

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The Bourne Politics

Ross offers an interesting counterargument on the crucial “Bourne question”:

Okay, but let’s not take this too far. For instance, I would submit that a film like Braveheart (which, like the Bourne movies, I’m very fond of) qualifies as obviously “anti-English” even though it’s technically only critical of the English government and military, or that the infamous Valley of the Wolves is an anti-American movie even though it mainly concerns itself with the wickedness of certain American soldiers (and evil Jewish-American doctors, of course).

All right, I’ll grant Ross that Braveheart really is anti-English (as is almost every historical movie Mel Gibson has ever directed and almost every historical movie he’s starred in) and Valley of the Wolves really is anti-American, but it seems to me that Braveheart, at least, never gives  you any reason to think otherwise and indeed encourages you to despise the English as part of some grand Celtic vendetta for past crimes.  It is partly the anti-English-ness of Braveheart  and partly the nationalist mythology of it that have so disgusted Alex Massie.  There will be no argument over Braveheart‘s anti-English quality, since I’m fairly sure that the director would happily agree that it is anti-English, just as The Patriot is very clearly anti-British (despite the moderately positive portrayal of Cornwallis).   

Now a very different kind of film made by an Australian would be Breaker Morant, which depicts some of the evils of British policy in the South African War and which has a very clear anti-imperialist message, but which is not anti-British as such.  The main character, portrayed mostly favourably, is an English gentleman, and the movie does not show the kommandos in a terribly flattering light.  However, because it recognises that the South African War was a “bad cause,” as Woodward’s Morant puts it, it does not vilify the Afrikaners, either.  It shows the war to be the cynical and senseless waste that it was.  It finds fault with certain individuals and institutions, but it does not condemn the whole of the country.

The two movies Ross mentions were designed to be exactly what Ross says they are, because they are different examples of nationalist filmmaking.  Braveheart is anti-English in a classic nationalist myth-making way where the perfidious oppressor nation with no redeeming qualities is ultimately defeated by the heroic champion of independence.  Similarly, Alexander Nevsky is intensely anti-German and was made with the intention of vilifying Germans as a group.  Valley of the Wolves was designed to be anti-American after a fashion, but mostly by way of providing a villainous adversary to bolster the strong pro-Turkish nationalist themes in it.  Your standard nationalist action/war flicks do not allow for a lot of subtlety in the depiction of enemies, which is why virtually every American and British movie made about WWII shows Germans to be a monolithic group of villains. 

When someone attempts to break with the standards of the nationalist war flick and introduce complexity and humanity into the depiction of enemies, his film typically does not fare very well with the big action movie crowds.  The crowds that turn out for their own versions of Rambo are not interested in making fine distinctions and balanced portrayals, but want very clear-cut affirmations that their people are virtuous and the other guys, whoever they might be, are either nameless, faceless opponents or they are fairly close to evil incarnate

Ultimatum, on the other hand, insists on conveying the message that Americans are not all like the worst people running Treadstone/Blackbriar, and that even those who have been part of the system and those who have been conditioned and brainwashed into becoming killing machines for the government can change and turn against the corruption of the system.  One of the interesting things about the climax of Ultimatum is the complaint that Bourne makes when he said, more or less, “You said I would be saving American lives.”  Implicit in this statement is the notion that, had Treadstone actually been used in some way to help save American lives, Bourne wouldn’t have that much of a problem with it.  Besides the larger argument that there is something basically wrong with the methods being employed, the movie might also be seen as saying that the agency’s real error is in using these “assets” for the wrong things (e.g., assassinating Russian politicians rather than, say, targeting terrorists).  If a movie like that is what passes for “anti-American” these days, I fear that some of us have become hyper-sensitive.



The sound you hear is the last shred of Rick Santorum’s credibility bursting into flames.

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Second Chances

Take two from the world-famous Miss Teen South Carolina:

Personally, my friends and I, we know exactly where the United States is on our map.  We don’t know anyone else who doesn’t, and if the statistics are correct, I believe there should be more emphasis on geography and our education, so people will learn to read maps better.

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What’s Anti-American?

To ask the all-important question, “Is The Bourne Ultimatum anti-American” is a bit like asking, “Is Gladiator anti-Roman?”  Put this way, I think we can immediately see how misguided the question is, since the question makes us say whether the movie is for or against an entire country, way of life or (if you will) civilisation, when the movie in question is pretty clearly an indictment of a corrupt and/or tyrannical government.  “This isn’t us” isn’t quite “there was a dream that was Rome” in rhetorical power, but it conveys a similar idea.     

The first mistake anyone who flings the “anti-American” accusation makes is to equate the government with the society as a whole.  If someone or something is critical of the U.S. government, it is very often deemed anti-American or, if the person doing the criticising is American, unpatriotic.  This plays by the state’s rules: it makes patriotism dedication to the state, rather than to the country, and it makes the state into the embodiment of America.  This is simply not true, and it’s a very good thing at times that this isn’t true.  That doesn’t mean that the citizens don’t have some small part to play in the dreadful policy decisions made by the state (it is our government, after all), but the decisions being taken in Ultimatum are the sort that the public is never supposed to know about because the average citizen of this country would still probably be horrified at ordering the deaths of foreign journalists in the name of protecting some part of the behemoth security state.

This may be why I don’t think the word “anti-American” means very much, at least not as it is used these days.  If it applies to, say, Bin Laden, Gerhard Schroeder and Paul Greengrass in some meaningful way, it seems to me that the word is either far, far too broad to mean much at all or it is used deliberately to obscure what the user is actually trying to say (i.e., “I really don’t like this person’s views, and I’m going to tar him with a really ugly label”).  Here the criticism is that the movie pretty explicitly says that black ops, torture and breeding armies of mindless assassins are all un-American activities (ha!), which can really only offend your sensibilities as an American if you think all of these things are basically necessary and useful tools of the state for the protection of [place whichever buzzword we’re using this week here]. 

Mickey Kaus’ main complaint is that “the film is unredeemed by any sense that America or the American government ever stands for or does anything that is right.”  Here’s the crucial point, since the movie is not concerned with America in general, but is very specifically concerned with one nasty corner of the American government.  It does not, it’s true, spend even five seconds of film time noting the solid work that people in the National Park Service are doing every day, and Matt Damon does not stop his rooftop chase in Tangiers to applaud this year’s charitable giving to hospitals, but I think these things might break up the storyline a bit.  Obviously, I jest, but this sort of thing invites a bit of ridicule. 

Yes, we know that Damon and Greengrass are men with super-liberal politics (Howard Zinn is a Damon family friend, for goodness’ sake), and we know that they don’t understand James Bond (which is their true crime), but what is the basis for charging their movie with anti-Americanism?  That it doesn’t engage in a lot of feel-good, pro-American rah-rah?  This is silly.  I’ll second Chris Orr‘s “jingoistic nonsense” line.

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Remembering The Genocide

Before I go this morning, I wanted to mention that Fisk has an excellent article on the Armenian genocide.

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