Foreign Policy in House of Cards
I was both intrigued and puzzled when I saw the early ads for the new Netflix remake of House of Cards, which premiered last Friday. As a fan of the British original, I didn’t understand why anyone would attempt to remake such a successful miniseries. It made even less sense to me why someone would want to set it in America, since many of the things that made the original interesting wouldn’t translate well to a different political system and culture. The new show’s treatment of the domestic politics of foreign policy issues, especially in light of Thursday’s spectacle, was depressing enough in its plausibility, but it also felt forced and unimaginative. [Warning: spoilers after the break.]
The main character of the story is Francis Underwood, whose position as House majority whip is modeled as closely as possible on that of the original Urquhart character. He expects that he will be nominated as the next Secretary of State as repayment for his support for the president and as an acknowledgment of his supposed foreign policy acumen. Early on, he refers to one of his ideas as “trickle-down diplomacy,” which hardly sounds complimentary coming from a Democrat. Soon after the new year, Underwood learns that he’s being passed over for another candidate, and like Urquhart sets out to get his revenge against the people that have slighted him. (It doesn’t seem to trouble the writers that it is quite rare for sitting Senators to be appointed Secretary of State, to say nothing of members of the House.) He begins by digging up material that is supposedly deeply embarrassing to the new nominee, which in this case is a nearly 35-year old unsigned editorial that refers to Israel’s “illegal occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza that appeared in the college newspaper of which the new nominee was the editor. You can already see where this is going.
It’s supposedly outrageous, unacceptable, and disqualifying for a nominee for Secretary of State to refer to an illegal occupation as illegal. We watch as the new nominee squirms and desperately tries to disavow these comments, which he says he never wrote in the first place, and then we follow Underwood’s lackeys as they find someone who will corroborate the claim that the nominee did write this completely unremarkable description of the occupation. On the one hand, the first two episodes of the show do capture to some extent how all discussion of Israel and the occupation is horribly and dangerously warped in the U.S., but at the same time it is ridiculous to think that a Secretary of State nomination would actually fail because of one decades-old accurate statement that is more or less aligned with official U.S. policy. It’s extremely doubtful that this would happen, and that makes the beginning of Underwood’s plan for retribution hard to take seriously.