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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Obama Flinches at His Own Legacy

A movie produced by the former president tries and fails to grasp the consequences of American empire.

U.s.,President,Barack,Obama,Acknowledges,The,Crowd,As,He,Arrives
Credit: John Gress Media Inc

Before alien invasion stories, there were just invasion stories. At the height of the British Empire, the British public was addicted to novels about their beloved homeland being attacked and occupied. H.G. Wells’s 1879 novel, The War of the Worlds, was famous because it replaced Germans with aliens in an otherwise familiar story.

Invasion literature was always about the anxieties of power. Britons were masters of the world, yet they understood how fragile their domination was and how powerful their rivals were growing. Perhaps one day they would receive the same treatment they had meted out to the rest of humanity.

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“The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years,” Wells wrote. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

A century later, during the War on Terror, American audiences filled theaters to watch themselves become victims of the same science fiction dystopia their government was imposing on the Muslim world. The 2009 film Battle: Los Angeles cast Iraq War veterans as the ragtag resistance against an (alien) invader with overwhelming airpower. The TV series V, released the same year, had an FBI counterterrorism agent try to warn humanity about the (alien) foreigners who brought mass surveillance in the guise of development aid.

Leave the World Behind, the apocalypse flick produced by former president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama, is an inversion of the new style of American power. Over the past decade, the United States has learned to turn its influence over global financial and telecommunications networks into hard power. Obama himself laid the groundwork for a campaign to destabilize Iranian society through economic sanctions, cyber warfare, and covert operations. Now, with U.S. power faltering, he wonders what would happen if the same methods were turned against Americans in a dramatic and decisive way.

The movie is based on a novel by the same name. Written before the coronavirus pandemic, it was published just as pandemic-induced social breakdown was reaching its peak, making it an instant hit. The protagonists, Clay and Amanda Sanford, are a cliche upper-middle-class couple with pointless jobs—English professor and advertising executive—who rent a vacation home outside New York City for the weekend. They are joined unexpectedly by the homeowner, George Scott—a financial analyst fleeing a blackout in the city. The couples and their children must work together as they are isolated by a bizarre series of disasters. Banking and communications fail, planes fall from the sky, and self-driving cars crash themselves.

In the former president’s hands, Leave the World Behind is a much more pointedly political story. (Film director Sam Esmail said in an interview that the former president “read multiple drafts and gave excellent notes,” especially on the U.S. government’s disaster preparedness.) The disasters are revealed early in the film to be the result of a cyberattack. The area is then stricken by a Havana Syndrome-esque sonic weapon. At one point, a drone drops menacing leaflets in Arabic, and Clay speculates that Iran was behind the attack. The messages say “death to America” and include a thinly-veiled threat of nuclear annihilation.

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Later on, the families meet Danny, a survivalist neighbor, who was able to gather scraps of news from before the Internet failed. He explains that Russia had pulled its diplomats out of Washington right before the attacks, and similar flyers in either “Korean or Mandarin” (which Danny can’t tell apart) were dropped on San Diego. “We made a lot of enemies around the world,” Danny says. “Maybe all this means is a few of them teamed up.”

If that wasn’t too on-the-nose, George delivers a long soliloquy about his views on the situation, another line not found in the book:

Because my primary client works in the defense sector, I spend a lot of time studying the cost-benefit analysis of military campaigns. There was one program in particular that terrified my client the most: a simple-three stage maneuver that could topple a country’s government from within. The first stage is isolation. Disable their communication and transportation. Make the target as deaf, dumb and paralyzed as possible, setting them up for the second stage: synchronized chaos. Terrorize them with covert attacks and misinformation, overwhelming their defense capabilities, leaving their weapon systems vulnerable to extremists and their own military. Without a clear enemy or motive, people would start turning on each other. If done successfully, the third stage would happen on its own: coup d’etat. Civil war.

Just like H.G. Wells’s line about the Tasmanian genocide, George is describing the imperialist playbook turned back against the empire. Ironically, the plot of Leave the World Behind is a terrible execution of that playbook. The chaos is clearly enemy action, and the enemy’s “disinformation” announces itself as scary and foreign. (What is the point of spreading propaganda in a language that almost none of the locals can understand, anyways?) The enemy does not try to play off warring American factions or set up front groups calling for America’s “liberation.”

As if by magic, the fighting starts anyways. In the closing scene of the film, Amanda watches with George’s daughter Ruth as fighter jets pummel the New York City skyline. Meanwhile, the Sanfords’ daughter Rose stumbles upon an abandoned doomsday bunker, where a computer screen warns of “rogue armed forces” attacking the White House and “elevated radiation levels” detected in major cities.

The U.S.-led campaign against Iran has been far more subtle. The United States used sanctions to manufacture an economic crisis in Iran while blaming Iranian leaders’ own “corruption and mismanagement.” Covert operatives carried out bombings in the name of mysterious “Iranian resistance” groups, and Washington cultivated real opposition figures that would be willing to cheer on attacks against the government. Hackers disrupted Iranian gas stations and stole bank customers’ private data—the former was a suspected Israeli operation, the latter a confirmed CIA scheme—while also leaking scandalous information about the government. The U.S. military used fake social media accounts to promote both radical pro-government and radical anti-government rumors.

Meticulous care was taken to ensure that Iranians would blame each other for each individual catastrophe. And Iranians have plenty of reasons to do so. There is indeed rampant corruption, incompetence, and hypocrisy in their elite. The government has indeed tortured and killed citizens in order to enforce unpopular morality laws. There are indeed secular Iranians willing to cheer on violent revenge against the religious conservatives who have held them in thrall for four decades. Psychological warfare does not work by conjuring social problems out of thin air, but by aggravating ones that already exist. The same goes for countries like Venezuela facing similar U.S. pressure.

The United States has its own divisions and traumas waiting to be exploited; Leave the World Behind glosses over them. Although the novel delved much deeper into race and class, the film treats the subject briefly and heavy-handedly. Amanda is initially skeptical that George, a black man, could be the homeowner. The closest thing to a working-class character is a Spanish-speaking worker Clay tries to communicate with, then abandons in a panic.

If not misunderstanding, all the conflicts in the movie are caused by stubbornness or distrust. There is no sense of clashing material interests, of real competition over the necessities of life. Everything can be resolved by inspiring talks. Amanda, trying to find her missing daughter and get medical attention for her ill son, has time for a heart-to-heart with Ruth about anger and compassion. Danny, a gun-toting small business owner, learns the virtue of cooperation from Clay’s tearful pleas.

In other words, it’s exactly the kind of fairy tale that Obama would produce for his followers. And where does Obama see himself in all this? After George reveals that his client seemed to have advance warning of the attack, Amanda asks whether the client could have been in league with the attackers. George scoffs at the conspiracy theory:

A conspiracy theory about a shadowy group of people running the world is far too lazy of an explanation, especially when the truth is much scarier. No one is in control. No one is pulling the strings. Sure, there are those like my friend who might have the right kind of access to the right kind of information. But when events like this happen in the world, the best even the most powerful people can hope for is a heads-up.

How convenient. Having said that America “made a lot of enemies around the world,” and hinting at which chickens are coming home to roost, the film lets the country’s leaders shrug their shoulders, pleading powerlessness. Perhaps the “three-stage maneuver” that George mentions was a mirror of U.S. regime change efforts elsewhere. Perhaps it was not.

Although it winks at a subversive message, Leave the World Behind stops short of putting America in the place of its enemies. A real regime change campaign would involve Americans coming to blows over painful domestic issues, and a foreign regime learning to exploit those divides. Unwilling or unable to imagine what that kind of humiliation looks like, the filmmakers instead invent a fantastical story, one that is less unsettling because it is so far-fetched.Of course, the same could be said about any science fiction. War of the Worlds, after all, involved aliens from outer space. Yet it actually depicted how Britons would feel in the place of Tasmanians, and made the comparison explicit. H.G. Wells could imagine the masters of the world and their victims switching places. Obama, it seems, cannot.

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