Killing bin Laden

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It was a great and dreadful day in American history. A man was dead, hunted down and executed in his own home in front of his wife and children without extradition, trial, or sentence. The news was greeted in America by rejoicing. Within hours the terrain from Times Square to Ground Zero was the site of a boisterous springtime New Year’s Eve party, filled with people whooping, cheering, and singing American anthems. My daughter and her husband were among them. Osama bin Laden was dead.

Zero Dark Thirty is an intense, gripping film about the decade-long hunt for bin Laden. It is surprisingly apolitical, presenting the facts of the story in an evenhanded way. The film is told through the perspective of the young CIA agent (Jessica Chastain), identified only as "Maya," who tenaciously investigated a particular lead until she discovered convincing evidence of where bin Laden was living — not in isolated wilderness caves, as we had been led to believe, but in a well-protected compound in the middle of a large city.

That "particular lead" was uncovered through "enhanced interrogation," a sanitized phrase for what amounts to little less than torture. As the film opens, Dan (Jason Clark), an American "intelligence officer," is using severe tactics to elicit the date, time, and location of an expected terrorist attack from a detainee (Reda Kateb). The detainee's face is badly bruised, and he is clearly in distress. Over the next few days he is chained, threatened, thrown around, waterboarded, deprived of sleep, and enclosed in a tiny box. As he resists, Dan tells him, "When you lie, I have to hurt you." Dan appears to enjoy his work.

Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent? I understand the argument that "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and music torture instill fear without causing actual injury; I recognize that breaking bones and cutting off fingers is worse. If there can be such a thing as "humane torture," the American intelligence community seems to have discovered it. Nevertheless, it still feels wrong, and degrading to the Americans who inflict it.

The next scene brings a different perspective. A group of al Qaeda terrorists opens fire on dozens of non-Muslims and Americans in a public mall, gunning them down mercilessly. Suddenly, getting that vital information from the detainee seems worth any cost in human dignity. Director Kathryn Bigelow provides many similar juxtapositions in the film, demonstrating the difficulty of finding the moral high ground, let alone maintaining it.

Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent?

Maya is convinced that someone named Abu Ahmed knows where bin Laden is hiding, based on information gleaned from several detainees who have mentioned this name. Others, however, believe that Ahmed is dead and the lead is a dead end. Much of the film focuses on Maya's indefatigable hunt for this mysterious Abu Ahmed, and her determination to continue with the lead even after her superiors have told her to move on.

Although Zero Dark Thirty is set in a war zone and culminates in an intense 25-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound, this is not a traditional war or spy movie. It is not about big burly men carrying big burly weapons, although there are plenty of big burly men in the cast. But in this film the military and the intelligence community play supporting roles. It is really Maya's story, and in a way it is Bigelow's story too — Maya is a woman working in what is traditionally a man's world, and she manages to pull off the coup of the century. (Bigelow was the first woman to earn an Oscar as Best Director, for her film The Hurt Locker [2008], beating out the front runner Avatar, which was directed by her former husband, superstar James Cameron.) Maya is amazingly young, too, to have this much grit and authority. Recruited by the CIA just out of high school, she is in her twenties as she tracks down her lead.

The film ends with success — the Mountie gets her man — but it does not end with triumph. Too many people have been killed, and too much hatred continues to exist, to suggest that the killing of bin Laden was much more than a symbolic gesture. But it is a powerful film, one that will keep you thinking and talking for a long time. It is likely to garner many well-deserved nominations as this awards season heats up.


Editor's Note: Review of "Zero Dark Thirty," directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Annapurna Pictures, 2012, 157 minutes.



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David vs. Goliath

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After two months of misleading and conflicting White House statements explaining the Benghazi fiasco, more questions have been raised than have been answered. No one should be astonished, therefore, that the recent resignation of CIA Director, David Petraeus, a central figure in the controversy, would be any different in its effects. Only days after the presidential election and only days before he was scheduled to testify at Senate and House Intelligence Committees hearings, the revelation of an extramarital affair abruptly forced Petraeus to step down.

The affair was discovered during an FBI investigation that began in June 2012. Mr. Petraeus first learned of the investigation on September 14. Since the affair had ended in July, Petraeus knew there was no blackmail threat. And he would have known there was no security threat — that no classified information had been leaked to his paramour. Thus, on October 29, Petraeus was not surprised when he was told by the FBI that he would not be charged. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, he planned to stay at his job, believing that his affair, now known to the FBI and Attorney General Eric Holder, would never become known to the public.

Petraeus' adulterous episode had nothing to do with Benghazi — except for the date, September 14. That was the day when, in briefings to both the House and the Senate oversight committees, Mr. Petraeus described the Benghazi attack in a manner consistent with the administration's video-incited mob story. Why would the director of the CIA mislead Congress? As Charles Krauthammer observed, “Here’s a man who knows the administration holds his fate in its hands and he gives testimony completely at variance with what the Secretary of Defense had said the day before, at variance with what you’d heard from the station chief in Tripoli, and with everything that we had heard. Was he influenced by the fact that he knew his fate was held by people in the administration at that time?”

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform the director of national intelligence about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier?

Evidently satisfied that the Obama administration would protect him, Petraeus traveled to Libya, where he conducted his own review of the attack. He told friends that he was looking forward to testifying before Congress. But on the day President Obama was reelected, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told him to resign.

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform Clapper about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier? We are expected to believe that, with the election approaching and almost daily reports pointing fingers of blame at the CIA, it was a trivial matter, not worthy of notifying Congress or the president himself. But as soon as the polls closed, it somehow became critically important for Petraeus to resign. The post-election usefulness of Petraeus is now a White House secret, tightly held by Eric Holder and Barack Obama.

President Obama secured his second term by cynically pushing campaign-damaging problems such as the Benghazi investigations past the election (to name a few others: Fast and Furious, the WARN Act lay-off announcements, the Iranian attack on a US drone, the additional flexibility for Vladimir Putin, the Fiscal Cliff, and the debt ceiling). The Benghazi debacle alone could have ruined his chances.

Prior to the Benghazi attack, the White House promoted President Obama as a bin Laden-slaying leader who had captivated the Arab Spring while deftly engineering widespread al Qaeda attrition. With Libyans ingratiated by Obama's conciliatory Middle East policies, Ambassador Stevens could attend diplomatic meetings and openings of cultural centers in Benghazi, unshackled by boorish security details. Everything was running smoothly. As we were told, often, “al Qaeda was on the run."

The attack revealed that nothing was running smoothly in Benghazi. The sanguine, fictional portrayal was abruptly contradicted by the ugly reality of the murders of Stevens and three other Americans — by terrorists. But President Obama and administration officials (Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, James Clapper, David Petraeus, and such surrogates as Jay Carney and Susan Rice) blamed unruly demonstrators, spontaneously provoked by a "disgusting and reprehensible" video. This was their story. They stuck with it for eight or more days.

Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

Recall that during the attack and its immediate aftermath, intelligence information flooded the White House. There were reports from the Benghazi mission and the CIA station; real-time audio from the mission to Charlene Lamb at the State Department; real-time video from a Predator drone. All of it indicated organized terrorism. Navy SEAL Ty Woods certainly recognized a terrorist attack when he saw one. And there was a State Department email alert sent at 6:07 pm, less than two and a half hours after the attack began, stating, "Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibilty for Benghazi Attack." The FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-affiliated militias. Even Libyan President Mohammed Magarief called it a “pre-planned act of terrorism.”

Accordingly, the White House waspresented with the following possibilities for explaining the attack to the public: (A) planned attack by al Qaeda terrorists, (B) planned attack by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, (C) planned attack by terrorists of unknown affiliation, or (D) we don't know. Rejecting these explanations, the Obama national security team fabricated its own scenario — one of a spontaneous attack by neighborhood protestors. To account for the spontaneity aspect, it was embellished with the anti-Muslim video. No evidence of either the flash mob or the video was contained in any of the reports from Benghazi. Yet the White House went with the video-incensed flash mob story.

The Obama administration's duplicity in garnering credibility for this farce was such that the White House flagrantly altered information reported by Mr. Petraeus. In his testimony to Senate and House Intelligence Committee hearings last Friday (November, 16, 2012), Petraeus stated that on September 11, he immediately knew it was a terrorist attack and described it as such in his intelligence assessment. He further said that after providing the assessment to the White House as talking points, his reference to "al Qaeda-affiliated individuals' was replaced with the term ‘extremist organizations.’"

Why did the White House deliberately advance a synthesized story it knew to be false? Some have suggested fear that news of an al Qaeda attack would be viewed as foreign policy failure. But Mr. Obama believes that his "Light Footprint" strategy will prove the best approach to protecting US interests in the chaotic Middle East, dismissing incidents such as the Benghazi attack as "bumps in the road." It is more likely that the frantic clumsiness was driven by the fear that Obama's indecisiveness would be viewed as leadership failure. For example, an attack thought to be executed by protestors could be expected to end before military support would arrive. An attack thought to be executed by organized terrorists would be expected to last throughout the night (as it did, continuing to the CIA safe house — a facility that would be unknown to mere demonstrators), offering no excuse for refusing to send military forces immediately.

Indeed, it may be the cover-up of indecision that lies at the heart of the Washington DC side of Benghazi. The failure of a president motivated more by politics than concern for American lives had to be covered up at all costs. When their video-as-catalyst excuse began to crumble, the White House moved to a "fog of war" excuse that produced "conflicting accounts" from intelligence sources. With the White House shifting blame to the CIA, and the FBI investigating his romantic affair, David Petraeus may have sensed that he was becoming the scapegoat when, on October 26, he stated, through a CIA spokesperson, "No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” If not Petraeus, who did decide against sending military assets to rescue the besieged Americans? Only the commander-in-chief has the authority to order military forces into another country.

Ironically, Petraeus appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal— if only by Washington standards.

President Obama has said that he ordered his national security team to do whatever was needed to save American lives. However, what he actually did is another White House secret. In a recent press conference, in which he chastised Republican senators who criticized UN Ambassador Susan Rice for her role in disseminating the White House's anti-Islam video story, Obama said that "they should go after me" instead. But when asked (in the same press conference) what he had done to protect American lives in Benghazi, Obama had no answer, referencing investigations and muttering, "We will provide all the information that is available about what happened on that day." Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

During the Intelligence Committee hearings, lawmakers sought to identify the individuals who replaced Petraeus' al Qaeda references, the apparent basis of Susan Rice's vigorous promotion of the video-incensed flash mob story. None in attendance (representatives of the State Department, Defense Department, intelligence community, and FBI) could say. The Obama administration, not represented at the hearings, knows. But it's not talking — still another White House secret.

Atthe second presidential debate with Mitt Romney on October 17, Obama — incredibly — said he knew on September 11 that it was a terrorist attack, but this was not a secret he had kept for over a month. It was something we all should have known since September 12, after parsing his Rose Garden comments that mentioned, generically, an act of terror.

David Petraeus, with career and marriage regrettably in shambles, is gone. Ironically, he appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal, but only by Washington standards. He will likely be back for future hearings. But, given the deluge of Obama administration blame, excuses, and rebuffs to obscure the truth, use of his tarnished reputation to impugn his testimony would not be beneath White House tactics.

There is no urgency to uncover the truth, beyond that expressed by a handful of Republican Senators and Representatives. Democrats, none of whom have left the wagons encircling the president, excoriate them for “politicizing” the tragedy. And the media, for the most part, has disgracefully shown greater interest in distractions such as the sexual escapades of generals and the so-called Susan Rice attack than in the Benghazi attack and the four murdered Americans.

Future hearings, therefore, are likely to proceed at the same exasperatingly slow pace, but now burdened by White House secrets, under the shadow of plausible deniability. Constant, blatant deceit has been the essence of the White House Benghazi story.

Goliath is winning.




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The Fog of Cover Your Ass

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The White House spent almost two weeks in clumsy and confusing attempts to blame an obscure, anti-Muslim video for the attack on the American Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya. By the time it finally admitted that terrorism was the cause, a much larger, immensely more damning, problem emerged: almost daily, reports from security officials and intelligence sources on the ground in Libya began to suggest deep incompetence and negligence in the loftiest offices of Washington DC. The new questions, which focused on security lapses leading up to the attack, were answered with equally delusive attempts at escaping responsibility, as the White House resorted to blame-shifting (we didn't know, we weren't told), stonewalling (wait until our investigation is complete, long after the election), and feigned indignation (that the tragedy could be politicized).

And there is also, of course, "the fog of war," invoked to absolve any national security malfeasance that may have occurred in the chaotic, terrorist hotbed of Benghazi. “Fog” was supposed to excuse the administration's clownish laxity during the attack and to explain the repeated denials of requests for enhanced security in the months leading up to it. But the repeated refusals (by the Department of Defense and the CIA) of military support during the attack are even more troublesome. Absolution for failing to help Americans under siege is obtainable, but absolution for failing even to try, despite the fog of war, should not come easy.

The attack, which lasted over seven hours, began around 3:40 pm ET. Contrary to White House claims of nebulous intelligence information, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb was monitoring an audio feed of the attack (in real time, from its inception), and email alerts of the attack began arriving at 4:05 pm ET (at, among other places, the White House Situation Room). CIA Director David Petraeus was no doubt immediately alerted by the Benghazi CIA safe house. President Obama met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at 5 p.m. ET. The first of two unarmed Predator drones arrived in Benghazi at 5:11 ET.

President Obama's national security team was being inundated (again in real time), with phone calls, emails, radio transmissions, and video from Benghazi. In a recent CNN article, “What really happened in Benghazi?”, William Bennett posed the most gravely consequential question: "Why was no additional military aid sent to secure our personnel, like the president claimed he directed?" Significant military resources were located within one to two hours of Benghazi, some in the city itself. None was dispatched. Bennett's article was aptly subtitled, "The Obama administration fiddled while Benghazi burned and four Americans died.”

Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied.

The gunfire that rang out in the Situation Room was also heard by former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, who was stationed at the CIA safe house about a mile from the Mission. Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied. He was twice told to "stand down."

Disobeying the orders, Woods and his five-man team left for the Mission where they rescued several people and returned to the safe house with the body of Ambassador Stevens’ colleague, Sean Smith. Woods again requested military backup and was again denied. He was soon joined by Glen Doherty, also a former Navy SEAL, in a heroic defense of the safe house. Both were killed by a mortar shell four hours later, nearly seven hours after the attack on the Mission began.

As the truth about Benghazi security lapses leaked into public knowledge, Secretary of State Clinton was first to blame the fog of war. To her credit, she was also the first to show a little backbone. Amid the growing perception that both the White House and State Department lacked concern for the safety of diplomats, Mrs. Clinton bravely stepped forward to shift blame away from the White House, saying, "I'm in charge of the state department's 60,000-plus people . . . the president and the vice-president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals . . ."

Describing an "intense, long ordeal" for State Department staffers as they struggled to find out what was happening, Clinton said the buck stopped with her and not the White House. Ironically, she expressed this concern in an October 15 CNN interview, her first since the attack over a month before, while she was attending a conference on women and entrepreneurship in Lima, Peru — at a time when Barack Obama was attending a fundraiser in San Francisco. The empathy didn't shine through the fog; the buck failed to stop at the State Department.

Initially, David Petraeus appeared to be toeing the Obama line of blaming video-incited demonstrators for the Benghazi attack. On September 13, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated militias. The very next day, incredibly, Petraeus described it as being tied to a demonstration — one he knew did not occur. However, in the case of the safe house attack, he would later state, through a CIA spokesperson, that the CIA had nothing to do with the decision to deny backup requests. Call it the fog of war, but this assertion sent the buck wafting back towards its rightful stop (the president). If Petraeus didn't refuse support, who else had the authority to do so?

On the day of the attack, numerous US military aircraft, including fighter jets and Specter AC-130 gunships, were stationed within an hour's flight of Benghazi. A Marine contingent and two separate Tier One Special Operations forces, including Delta Force operators, were less than two hours away. And there were other, much closer capabilities in the region: armed drones that monitor chemical weapon sites, F-18's, AC-130 aircraft, and helicopters. Indeed, there were British security forces stationed in Benghazi who were more than willing to assist. According to Fox News, the British were frustrated that they were not summoned. Said one, “We have more people on the ground here than the Americans and I just don't know why we didn't get the call."

Had these forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved. Yet Leon Panetta had the forces all stand down. Within the fog of war, he said, “the basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”

But he did have "real-time information." As we now know, Obama's national security team was notified within minutes of the consulate attack — an attack that began in late afternoon, Washington time, when all team members were available. And he had a large window of opportunity in which to insert military forces highly trained in counterterrorism and rescue operations. Panetta also knew, early on, that the threat was not a mob of demonstrators that would soon tire and disperse; it was terrorists — very well organized, armed, and trained — who would execute their attack throughout the night until their objective was achieved.

Had forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved.

We are left to wonder what really went on in the White House situation room that day, the ominous anniversary of 9/11. How did Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus assess the events of Benghazi? What rescue plans did they consider? Which of them concocted the anti-Muslim video narrative? What recommendations did they offer President Obama? And although such questions are important, the overriding question is Obama’s own role. As commander-in-chief, he, and only he, could have made the decision to withhold the military forces. But, as the story unfolds, it seems that nothing gutsy or courageous happened — only a fretful, indecisive, seven-hour wait for the window of opportunity to close. No military forces were sent to rescue the Americans stranded in Benghazi. Not early. Not late. Not a single aircraft. Not a single unit. Not even an attempt.

Alas, there will be no dramatic Situation Room pictures (such as those of the bin Laden raid, which saturated the media for weeks) of President Obama surrounded by his national security team, making the tough decisions. The following morning, in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama decided not to explain his failure, in his own words, to "make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to." After a brief statement eulogizing the four Americans who died in Benghazi, he decided to fly to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus stood by, hapless and indecisive, as other Americans died. Ty Woods, unlike his superiors in Washington, did not hesitate. He risked, then sacrificed, his life to save others. Marine and Special Operations units nearby would have done the same. But what should be done when Americans are being killed by terrorists only hours away from American forces (minutes away from allied forces) that could possibly rescue them? There is no doubt that any decision to place military forces in harm’s way is fraught with risk. There is also the risk of failure and the fear of political fallout. Then, of course, there is morality and honor. Finally, however, there is the fog of war, which will cover the asses of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus, the people who didn't even try.




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Argo F*** Yourself

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One part compelling documentary, two parts zany Hollywood comedy, and three parts suspenseful spy thriller, Argo is one hundred percent excellence in filmmaking.

Although the events depicted in Argo occurred 33 years ago, they could not be more timely. In 1979 we had a likable but inept president whose policies could not avert double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation, and the doubling of gas and oil prices; today we have a likable but inept president whose policies have led to stagnant growth, high unemployment, doubling of the national debt, and another doubling of gas prices. Both presidents dealt with turmoil and crisis in the Middle East as they campaigned for reelection.

When Ben Affleck set out to dramatize a recently declassified covert operation that took place within the context of the Iranian hostage crisis over 30 years ago, he could not have known that a similar crisis would erupt in the same part of the world exactly one month before his film was released. Watching hostages in Argo quake with fear as they are blindfolded by their tormentors and dragged before a firing squad, viewers cannot help but think of Ambassador Chris Stevens being dragged through the streets of Benghazi on his way to a horrifying death just last month. This unintended melding of the two stories adds to the suspense created in this well-made film.

Argo begins with a brisk montage of historic photos, film footage, and newspaper headlines taken from the days and weeks of the Iranian hostage crisis that began November 4, 1979. A young Walter Cronkite and an even younger Ted Koppel report the news from old-fashioned television screens. Many people have forgotten that ABC's “Nightline” began as a temporary nightly update about the hostage crisis; 444 days later, when the hostages were released (on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration), the news show had become so entrenched that it stayed on as a serious alternative to NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and the CBS “Late Movie,” which eventually gave way to Letterman's “Late Show.” Ted Koppel earned his stripes reporting the Iranian hostage crisis and paved the way for all-news cable shows.

As the crisis begins, embassy personnel are busy doing other things: processing visas, filing reports, and interviewing local Iranians who wait patiently in the outer rooms. When angry mobs threaten to storm the building, embassy workers rush to shred documents, burn files, break metal plates used for counterfeiting documents, and destroy computers. Ignoring threats to their own lives, they focus intensely on eliminating all sensitive material that could lead to the torture and death of Americans and local residents who are friendly to Americans. This is absolutely essential for national security and for the safety of regional operatives (local spies) in Iran.

The film deftly portrays the rising panic among security personnel inside the building while angry young men climb the walls and breach the compound. “We need some security, and you’re responsible!” one man screams into a phone, presumably to someone in the State Department. During a security briefing another man warns, “Don’t shoot anyone. Don’t be the one to start a war. If you shoot one person, they will kill everyone in here.” As a result, security personnel seem afraid to act. They hold their guns, but they don’t use them. One goes outside to try reasoning with the mob, but of course that just feeds the frenzy. In short, the fear of being responsible for diplomatic consequences is crippling.

During this confusion, six Americans slip out a back door and run for safety. But in a country overpowered by anti-American sentiment and energized for a fight, where might safety be found? Several embassies turn them away before the Canadian ambassador and his wife (Victor Garber and Page Leong) agree to take them in. But they are still far from being free, or even safe. Forced to hide in a room beneath the floorboards, they cannot leave the ambassador’s residence. They live in constant fear that local domestic workers will reveal their presence to Iranian insurgents, putting Canadian embassy personnel in danger as well. The scene is reminiscent of Jews hidden in attics and basements by friendly neighbors during the Holocaust. Spiriting these six unexpected hostages out of Iran becomes an even stickier problem for the US State Department than negotiating for the 52 publicized hostages.

Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials.

This is where the zany Hollywood comedy comes in. State Department officials come up with such solutions as providing the six Americans with bicycles so they can ride to the border (300 miles away) or pretending that they are part of an agricultural team investigating crops (even though it is winter) or that they are volunteer teachers (even though all Western teachers have been withdrawn from the country). After dismissing these ideas, seasoned CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) suggests pretending they are members of a film crew doing a site inspection for a science fiction flick called Argo.

Mendez turns to makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to act as director and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to act as producer on this bogus film, and together they select a script from among genuine screenwriter submissions. Goodman and Arkin ham up their scenes with insider jokes about Hollywood while also demonstrating that they understand the gravity of the situation. Human lives are at stake, and they know it. They also impishly create a tagline with more zing than "Who is John Galt," a phrase that is reflected in the title of this review.

But the real story of this film takes place in Iran, where Mendez must first convince the six hostages that the plan will work, and then teach them how to play their roles as set designer, director, cinematographer, etc., all in a matter of two days. Tension mounts as time draws near. They must act their parts convincingly and be prepared to answer any question that might come up as they go through airport security. If one person blows it, they all go down. Audience members have to be thinking, “Could I do this? Could I make it through this intense scrutiny?” and this adds to the tension of the film.

Mendez must also convince the State Department not to give up on the plan. At one point a State official says pragmatically, “Six Americans executed at the Canadian embassy is an international incident; six Americans caught playing filmmakers with a CIA spy is an embarrassment.” Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials. I'd like to think they were concerned that CIA involvement would lead to retaliation against the remaining hostages. Mendez, however, refuses to leave without the people he has come to rescue.

To avert retaliation against the American hostages still held in Iran, Canada received all the credit for masterminding the rescue. Now that the case has been declassified, the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez's daring plan for spiriting the six hostages from the Canadian embassy and onto a plane leaving Iran can be revealed. But this should not detract from the gratitude afforded the Canadian ambassador and his wife. They risked their own lives and gave up their residence to help these American strangers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Argo," directed by Ben Affleck. Warner Brothers, 2012, 120 minutes.



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Arab Spring, Winter for Christians?

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In a recent piece, I suggested that the fall of a number of Middle Eastern dictators — most notably Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — actively pushed by the Obama administration, and collectively dubbed “the Arab Spring,” has shown a remarkably ugly side.

One of the ugly features I noted was the removal, in the case of Egypt, of a regime that had been actively fighting the practice of female genital mutilation (the removal of most or all of the clitoris from adolescent girls). Some of our readers were offended by my piece, either thinking, somehow, that I advocated going to war with Egypt, or else shocked that I would dare to criticize the practice at all.

Of course, I was merely commenting on a dubious Obama foreign policy initiative — replacing a disreputable US ally by an unknown force, and hoping for the best.

Well, the situation has developed a more ominous aspect. The Arab Spring is turning out to be not only a winter for women, but also a winter for Christians. Several recent stories bring this to light.

Let’s begin by reviewing the results of the first round of elections for Egypt’s parliament. In a turn eerily reminiscent of what happened in Iran decades ago — when Jimmy Carter, a president as feckless as Obama, withdrew support from the Shah so that “democratic forces” could take over — the resulting elections were victories for hardcore Islamist parties. Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined. The consequence was the mass murder of political dissidents, people deemed “deviant,” and worshipers of religions other than Islam (Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians). It also created a state quite supportive of terrorism abroad.

Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined.

In the recent Egyptian elections, Islamists won two-thirds of the seats. And by “Islamist” I am not exaggerating. The Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme organization, from which sprang Al Qaeda, won about 39% of the seats. But the even more extreme Salafists won an astounding 29%. Together, the two liberal parties (the Wafd Party and the Egyptian Bloc) won a pathetic 17% total of the vote.

So much for the idea that waves of freedom and modernization are sweeping over the largest Arab country.

This should have come as no surprise, since earlier elections in Tunisia and Morocco saw Islamist parties win by large majorities. The results for Christians are ominous. The largest group of Christians in the Arab world — the Coptic Orthodox Church — resides in Egypt, where it constitutes 10% of the population. Mubarak, dictatorial bastard that he was, provided protection for them. He is now gone, and the Copts are at the mercy of the Islamists. Mercy, indeed!

Already reports have come in of the killing of Copts, such as the slaughter of 25 or more during a protest they staged in downtown Cairo recently.

The Copts are now deeply demoralized. If they do as the Muslim Brotherhood does — load supporters on buses and drive them to the polls to vote en masse (Chicago-style voting — maybe that’s why Obama supports the Brotherhood!) — they risk civil war. But if they do nothing, the Islamists will target them and slowly turn up the heat. As an American-based Coptic Christian put it, “They [the Copts] are a cowed population in terms of politics. They are afraid and marginalized.”

This is such a familiar pattern. The Islamists kill off or expel the Jews (if any are left by the time the Islamists take over); then they target other religious minorities (Bahai’s, Zoroastrians, pagans, or whatever). The pressure then mounts on Christians.

This is no less than religious ethnic cleansing.

The Egyptian government has recently taken the necessary first step in setting up the apparatus to carry out religious cleansing. It has raided 17 nongovernmental agencies, including three American agencies that are supposed to monitor the “progress” of “democracy” in Egypt — specifically, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute. One witness to the raid on the Future House for Legal Studies said that a policeman taking part in it held up an Arabic-Hebrew dictionary he found and said it proved the organization was engaged in sabotage against Egypt.

One predictable result of the Egyptian war against minorities is happening already: an exodus of Copts to America. One story reports that thousands of Copts have come to America since Obama’s chosen “democracy” swept Egypt. The emigrants report growing levels of overt persecution and violence. One recent émigré, Kirola Andraws, fled to America on a tourist visa and applied for asylum. He was an engineer, but now works as a cook and a deliveryman in Queens. His story, unfortunately, is likely to prove typical.

The report also notes that already this year a number of Coptic churches have been burned down. Islamist-spawned mobs have rampaged against Coptic homes, stores, and church schools. Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht. Yet the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was recently rebuffed by the Obama administration’s State Department when it asked State to put Egypt on its list of countries that violate religious freedom.

This is only the beginning. Right now, the Muslim Brotherhood only controls the legislature, and it is still held in check by the military. But a very recent article reports that the Brotherhood is planning to run some of its chosen “leaders” for the presidency — something it had earlier promised to do. Should the Islamists take over the executive branch, the military’s influence will rapidly wane, and Egypt will likely go the way of Iran.

The report observes that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have been in a struggle for 60 years, with the military coming out on top, until now. The military controls about a third of the manufacturing industry in Egypt, for example, so is not likely to surrender power easily. The Egyptian liberals, now seen to be a small minority, seem to be rethinking whether the military is at this point the main threat to them.

Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht.

Whether the military will back down and let the Brotherhood take control is unclear. If the military reacts by dismissing the legislature, Egypt could be in for a protracted and internecine civil war. In either case, however, Christians can expect to be demonized and targeted by the Islamists.

Christians are also being targeted by Islamists in other countries besides Egypt. Nigeria — to cite one such place — recently experienced a wave of terror attacks against Christians, with at least 39 killed. Most of them died when Muslim radicals blew up St. Theresa Catholic Church last Christmas. Shortly thereafter a Protestant church was bombed as well.

Christians in Iraq and Syria have been fleeing, as violence directed at them increases. Since the US toppled Saddam in 2003, 54 Christian churches have been bombed in Iraq, and over 8,900 Christians have been murdered. The number of Christians remaining has of course dwindled, down to 500,000 from 800,000 to perhaps 1.4 million in 2003. With American troops now gone, one suspects that this trend will dramatically increase. In an interesting twist, Christians are fleeing other areas of Iraq and moving to the Kurdish-controlled region, because the Kurds have offered them protection. Yet there are Islamists even among the generally pro-Western Kurds, and Christians have faced some attacks in their territory.

There is in the end the law of unintended consequences, in foreign policy no less than in domestic policy. Progressive liberals — and even conservatives — should start paying attention to it. It is all well and good to desire an “outbreak of freedom,” but one ought to be careful about what one desires, as he might just get it. Many on the Left and the Right welcomed the “Arab Spring,” but it may not turn out to be an explosion of tolerant democracy, as it first seemed to them.

Lest any reader mistake this story for some kind of call to arms, let me make my view explicit: I do not advocate going to war against anyone. But should the Muslim Brotherhood complete its takeover of Egypt and continue its vicious religious persecution of the Copts, our high level of foreign aid to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military aid alone — should certainly be stopped. And this should be made clear to the Egyptians in advance.




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Swimming Against the Tide

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At the beginning of the First World War, Robert Frost wrote in Mending Wall (1914), “Good fences make good neighbors” — suggesting metaphorically that borders and boundaries help to prevent war and aggression. But in that same poem he acknowledged,

Something there is that doesn’t like a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Nature herself, he said, works to break down manmade walls through the simple power of water finding cracks and breaking rocks. Nature doesn’t like boundaries.

Borders are good when borders are necessary. They are preferable to war. But more than a century earlier, weary from the destruction and expense of war, Benjamin Franklin recommended wise foreign policy when he wrote: “The system of America is commerce with all and war with none.”

Business brings people together. I may not like your politics, your religion, your clothing, or your neighborhood, but if you produce something I want and I produce something you want, and if we have a justice system that protects our right to property, we will manage to get along, if only for the benefit of mutual exchange. War and aggression may provide short-term solutions to shortages, and walls may keep aggressors at bay. But commerce and free trade promote lasting relationships that increase prosperity and living standards for all. Understanding this simple fact could solve many of the current problems in the Middle East.

Commerce vs war. That's what I thought my review would emphasize when I headed out to see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an indie flick about a British fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to create a salmon fishery in Yemen. What a great a new industry for an emerging nation, I thought. This is the way to be good neighbors and promote peace and prosperity — through commerce! Who needs war?

Sigh. This is what happens when I start writing my review before seeing the movie. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is not about commercial fishing at all, but about a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) who loves salmon fishing at his massive estate in Scotland and is willing to spend £50 million or more to be able to fish in Yemen. He isn’t interested in creating jobs and industry; he just wants to fish in his own backyard. Sheesh!

Nevertheless, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a wonderful little film, one that is well worth seeing. Salmon fishing is actually a metaphor for the uphill relationships presented in this funny romantic drama, which follows two couples who become unintentionally entwined. The fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones, is the very prim and proper husband of Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling), a financial analyst who seems more committed to her job than to her marriage. Meanwhile, the sheik’s consultant in the project, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who entices Dr. Jones with a money-is-no-object offer, is in love with a soldier (Tom Mison) who has suddenly been deployed to the Middle East.

Encouraging them in the fishing project is Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary, who seizes this “goodwill” story as an opportunity to counteract some bad war-related publicity coming out of the Middle East. (Chillingly, Maxwell uses her access to high-security government search engines to scan through private emails for references to the Middle East. And they pop right up on her screen, including the "private" communication to Jones from the sheik's representative, requesting a salmon fishery in Yemen. Yikes!) Normally so drab and serious in her roles, Thomas displays an unexpected talent for humor in this film. With her delightfully droll delivery; she effortlessly steals every scene. And that is no easy theft, for a film in which every actor is so adept at displaying that bemused, self-effacing kind of British humor that always seems to say, “Oh, did I do something funny?” The film is simply charming, through and through.

One of the sheik's chief concerns when Jones and Co. are ready to transfer the salmon to Yemen is whether farm-bred fish that have never seen a river will run, or whether they will just swim passively in circles. This underscores the film’s theme: do people who have been domesticated to the point of emasculation still have the instinct to know when they have been set free? Alfred Jones proclaims, “It’s in the very core of their being to run. Even if they never have. Even if their parents never did!” He’s talking about himself, of course, although he doesn’t know it. Juxtaposed against this hopeful declaration is his wife Mary’s cutting remark, “It’s in your DNA to return to a dry, dull, pedestrian life.” Where is his true home? And how much effort will it take to find it? That's what the film asks its viewers.

Ultimately this is a film about swimming against the tide. As Dr. Jones deliberates on whether to accept the whimsical challenge of bringing salmon to a desert, we see an overhead shot of him hurrying along a crowded sidewalk within a school of gray-suited businessmen. Suddenly he turns and makes his way through the crowd in the opposite direction, to tell Harriet that he accepts the offer. He is swimming upstream (yes, to spawn!), and we know that he will be caught before the film is over.


Editor's Note: Review of "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," directed by Halle Lasstrom. Lionsgate, 2011, 107 minutes.



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Is the Arab Spring a Winter for Women?

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President Obama backed the rebels in Egypt, abandoning our longstanding (and admittedly loathsome) quasi-ally Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptians in the street were, after all, demanding their freedom . . . or so it was presented. When Mubarak fell, Obama of course congratulated himself warmly.

However, some people were nervous at this spectacle. Especially nervous were people who recalled Obama’s spiritual guru, Jimmy Carter, who decided to abandon support for the Shah of Iran to help usher in the new “forces of democracy” there. The result was not democracy, but an even more authoritarian regime — indeed, a totalitarian one, driven by an Islamist ideology and implacably hostile to the United States.

Recent events in Egypt have ominously suggested that we may be seeing a similar devolution there, with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood looking to take control.

A recent story is both a disgusting and worrisome harbinger. It tells the story of a Cairo businessman trying to decide whether or not to “circumcise” (i.e., mutilate the genitals of) his daughter, who is — 12 years old! This procedure is a happy custom endorsed by many conservative Egyptians, and Mubarak’s regime struggled to suppress it. But with the winds of the Arab Spring, it is resurgent again.

Female genital mutilation (given the euphemistic acronym “FGM”) involves removing most or even all of the clitoris, and even the labia minora, followed by stitching up the vaginal opening.

All this, to make sure that young women remain chaste and “pure.” It is already incredibly common in Egypt, and is now likely to become even more so.

The Mubarak regime had banned the practice after a young girl died from it, and Suzanne Mubarak (the dictator’s wife) had spoken out continuously against FGM and had gotten religious leaders to oppose it. But the Muslim Brotherhood opposes the Mubarak ban, and it now appears that prior progress will be rapidly reversed.

We can only wonder what other treats are in store for Miss Liberty as the New Egypt evolves.




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War and Peace

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good movies begin with good stories. By that criterion, Incendies is not just a good movie, it is a great movie. Set within a backdrop of bitter hatred and torturous war, it is nevertheless a brilliant film about love for family and finding a personal peace.

The story begins with the classic Romeo and Juliet conflict: Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), a young Christian Arab woman, is in love with a young Palestinian man, and her family disapproves. What happens next — retribution, abandonment, shunning, and revenge — sets the stage for an alternate story line, 35 years in the future, after the woman has died. In her will she asks her young adult children, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), fraternal twins, to find the brother they did not knew existed and the father they thought was dead. This will require them to leave their home in Canada and return to the land of their ancestors in the Middle East.

As Jeanne heads to Lebanon to begin the search for her father in her mother’s hometown, the film flashes back to the young Nawal and her lover, Wahad. The film continues to switch between the two stories as the brother and sister follow the cold dark trail of the mother they only thought they knew. These alternating points of view allow the audience to know Nawal’s story more intimately and completely than the young siblings do, enhancing our compassion for the protagonist and our growing sense of horror as the two slowly discover the truth.

As war breaks out, young Nawal tries to escape the fighting while searching orphanages for the son her grandmother forced her to give up. Along the way she observes the bitterness and retaliation of both religion-based factions. Two scenes stand out as representative of the senselessness and atrocity of this kind of conflict. In the first, Nawal quickly removes the cross from around her neck and rearranges her scarf to cover her, so she can avoid the wrath of Muslims. In the next scene, she quickly doffs the scarf and pulls out her cross to show rebel guerillas that she is a Christian. But she is still the same person, inside and out; only the label has changed. Changing the label saves her life — but the death and destruction she observes destroy her soul.

Incendies is a thrilling mystery about a family’s quest to reunite itself. But it also has a powerful symbolic message, revealing the bitterness that comes from assigning divisive political and religious labels. What does it mean to be a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew? Beneath the labels, all in the Middle East claim the same ancestry. Arabs (Christian or Muslim) may hate Jews because Ishmael is their ancestor; Jews may hate Arabs because Isaac is their ancestor. But trace their roots back just one more generation, and all honor Abraham as their father. All are cousins under the labels. All are of the same lineage and family.

Incendies is the most engrossing film I have seen since last year's The Secret in their Eyes (also a foreign film). Yes, you will have to read the subtitles at the bottom of the screen — unless you speak French, Arabic, and another dialect I didn’t recognize. But it will be well worth the effort. Don’t miss this outstanding film if it comes to your town.


Editor's Note: Review of "Incendies," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010, 130 minutes.



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Greenbacks and Green Energy

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Larry Kudlow kicked a hornets’ nest when he suggested last month that the riots that were then breaking out in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, and Yemen were caused not just by indigenous anger at tyrannical regimes but by skyrocketing food prices. Kudlow noted that Egypt in particular is the world’s largest importer of wheat, and rising wheat prices had pushed the Egyptian annual inflation rate to over 10%.

Kudlow suggested that the Fed’s easy-money pump priming may be in part to blame. As he noted, commodities are typically priced in our currency, and the Fed has been producing it as fast as rabbits on meth. The CRB food index is up 36% in one year, and inflation is blossoming around the world — in Latin America, Asia (China and India especially), and now even in the EU.

Kudlow was (as usual) quite prescient. Recent stories confirm the increasing squeeze of food inflation. First is the report that the dollar’s rapid descent is hurting many people in undeveloped countries, such as the Philippines. A large percentage of Filipinos work abroad for American employers, or for employers in countries (such as Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia) whose currencies are closely tied to the dollar. As the American dollar loses value, the funds that Filipinos who work abroad send home to help their families also lose value. Considering that remittances from abroad account for about 10% of the country’s economic output, this is causing immense hardship.

The once-lowly Philippine peso has appreciated against the dollar by over 15% in the last three years. So the dollar’s fall is hurting a lot of people. One woman quoted, who uses her husband’s remittances to feed and educate their three children, has seen the number of pesos she gets from him go down by nearly 25% over the last few years.

The problem is the same for China, India, and Mexico, all countries with large numbers of workers paid in dollars or dollar-linked currencies.

Besides the Fed’s endless pump-priming, another cause of food inflation has been the continuing boondoggle called the ethanol program. For years, the federal government has been shoveling tens of billions of dollars at corn growers to get them to produce corn for making ethanol for fuel.

Now, this program has long been criticized as a way of replacing petroleum. It is hugely costly, especially when you consider how much energy it takes, in fertilizers, planting, harvesting, and shipping the corn. Why, even Al Gore — the über-Green — is now questioning the wisdom of the corn-based ethanol program.

Not as much comment has been made on the role our massive ethanol program plays in jacking up food prices. Since now roughly 40% of America’s corn (which means 15% of all corn produced worldwide) is being used for ethanol, corn prices have skyrocketed, increasing food prices in countries (such as Mexico) where corn is a major staple for people or a major source of cattle feed.

Moreover, the billions of bucks shoveled out by the federal government have induced many farmers to switch from growing wheat to growing corn, thus helping to drive wheat prices up even further.

Just as Gore now doubts the wisdom of using corn-based ethanol as a substitute for petroleum, no less a luminary than Bill Clinton is wondering whether the ethanol program isn’t causing food riots and political instability all over the world. He expressed these heterodox thoughts at the Department of Agriculture’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum. While he said he still believes in corn-based ethanol, he urged farmers to consider the effects of their choices on developing countries.

He was being ludicrously timid. The corn-based ethanol program should have its subsidies ended immediately. Then we would see what the real price — set by supply and demand, not by Congress — should be. My bet is that the industry would shrivel up rapidly, freeing grain for human consumption.

As the cliché has it, what goes around comes around. A recent story reports that the global food inflation is now hitting American stores. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that US food prices will jump 3% to 4% this year — hardly news to anyone who has shopped for food lately.

In fact, consumers would have felt the sting of inflation earlier and deeper, except that supermarkets have not been passing on the full hit, for fear of hurting sales. But as prices for food commodities keep rising, sooner or later the full cost of those increases will have to be paid by the American consumer.

At that point, perhaps we will see food riots. Or at least see Obama join Egypt’s Mubarak as a toppled leader.




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Defining Democracy Down

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The subject this time is babies, dictators, and democracy.

Here’s how it fits together. Since the last Word Watch, the Islamic world has been convulsed by revolutions and attempted revolutions. The American media have responded as they usually respond — with the dumbest kind of coverage imaginable, intended for the edification of the dummies, the babies, that they believe the rest of us to be.

Example: on February 22, Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith expressed amazement at the fact that Muammar Qaddafi (the Man of a Thousand Spellings), who has ruled Libya for 42 years and who had, at that point, been besieged by protestors for about two days, had not yet surrendered his power. This, to Smith, was “unprecedented,” shocking, disgusting! What could it mean? When would Qaddafi quit? We’re waiting here!

Smith’s attitude was merely an elongation of attitudes already manifested by his colleagues at CNN and the FCC-regulated networks, not to mention the White House. We’re tapping our fingers . . . still tapping . . . still tapping. Now we're tapping our feet as well. Listen, bub, are you gonna quit in time for the six o’clock news or what?

Well, how dumb can you get? How uninteresting can you get? The passion of revolt, the drama of power, the lessons of history, the contingencies of human emotion, the intricacy of human societies . . . . Forget it. When will he quit? He should’ve quit by now. And the same thing had happened a few days earlier, in the case of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

In this atmosphere, it was nothing for foreign correspondents to morph themselves into incarnations of “the democracy movement,” wherever they thought they had found it, heedless of their foreign citizenship and their glaring lack of political knowledge. “We are all Egyptians now!” proclaimed many American welcomers of Mubarak’s fall. I don’t mind that Mubarak fell, although I would like to know who will replace him. But I am not an Egyptian, nor do I walk like one.

It was nothing for foreign correspondents to morph themselves into incarnations of “the democracy movement,” heedless of their foreign citizenship and their glaring lack of political knowledge.

David Hume, who had an important, though not a crucial, influence on libertarian thought, observed that “in reality there is not a more terrible event than a total dissolution of government, which gives liberty to the multitude, and makes the determination or choice of a new establishment depend upon a number which nearly approaches to that of the body of the people.” I’m not sure that this is true, though I suspect it is. A "total dissolution" of government by the mob is plainly not what even anarchist libertarians ever had in mind, because it is likely to lead to a new and terrible establishment of power. Shouldn’t a more reserved, conceivably more skeptical, point of view be entertained, if only for a moment, when the media report on the furor of “democratic” crowds?

I’ll return to “democracy” a little later. But here’s Shep Smith, in his impatience for the overthrow of Qaddafi: “If the military doesn’t turn on him, we’re looking at a real possibility of genocide.”

Genocide? Did he say genocide? An attempt to exterminate a whole people? Was Qaddafi attempting to exterminate his fellow Libyans, as the Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jews? Of course not. All we saw in Libya was a revolution and perhaps the beginning of a civil war. Insurgents were attempting to overthrow an absolutist government, and the government was responding as such governments are wont to respond.

Now, this rhetorical redefinition of a morally important word, “genocide,” is disgusting in itself. But consider Smith’s summary of the reasons for his attack on Qaddafi: “This man has sent foreign mercenaries out to murder citizens? Come on!”

It is wrong, by definition, to send people out to “murder” other people. But that isn’t genocide. And the claim that it happened isn’t proof that it happened. Maybe it did. It’s the job of the media to report on that, not to provide us with moral labels in place of news. On all the networks and news services, Mubarak and Qaddafi have been habitually identified, for the benefit of Americans who presumably require such identifications, as “brutal dictator Hosni Mubarak” and “brutal dictator Muammar Qaddafi.” I’m not concerned about the insult to Qaddafi, who is certainly a brutal dictator, or about the insult to Mubarak, who may well have been such; I’m concerned about the insult to the audience. Fox’s slogan is, “We report; you decide.” Well, only in some cases. In others, the audience is assumed to consist entirely of babies, who must be told what to “decide.”

An adult listener might still be curious to know how this insane person could possibly have continued in charge of an ancient, populous country for four long decades.

Actual information about the regimes of the North African authoritarians would be of interest, perhaps of compelling interest. But you could spend (and I have spent) many hours watching network coverage of North African events without ever hearing any presentation of political facts that lasted longer than a minute. One example was the treatment provided by Piers Morgan, the new messiah-interviewer at CNN. On February 22, Morgan modestly stated that CNN had “oversold” him to its audience — a claim he had already proven by his long, lugubrious, pointless conversations with people who asserted some knowledge of Libya. Most of these people were just oohing and ahing about how terrible Qaddafi is, but whenever any of them tried to fill the audience in on the nature of Libyan politics — the tribal divisions, the ideological divisions, the historical divisions, the people's inexperience with self-government — Morgan gave them short shrift. He asked no follow-up questions. He asked for no background information. He asked for no supporting facts. He switched to questions like, “So what is Qaddafi really like?”, and he soon tired of answers that went beyond “He’s a brutal dictator.”

His colleague Anderson Cooper was worse. Rather than presenting Qaddafi’s rants as the news they were, and letting them speak for themselves, he insisted on telling his audience how to think — and even not to think — about them. Introducing a one-minute clip of Qaddafi’s February 22 address, Cooper said, “He’s almost comical in his appearance, but don’t be fooled by his buffoonery.” Thanks, Anderson! I’m a baby, so I’m easily fooled. But you’ve kept me from swallowing that rattle.

After the Qaddafi clip, Cooper introduced Ben Wedeman, CNN’s correspondent in eastern Libya. Wedeman wanted to put Americans at ease with the Libyans. About Libyans’ opinion of Qaddafi he said: “They know he’s insane.” Well good; I'm glad to hear it. But an adult listener might still be curious to know how this insane person could possibly have continued in charge of an ancient, populous country for four long decades? Didn’t anybody know he was insane? If people knew, why didn’t they do something about it? If they didn’t know, what does that say about the Libyan body politic? And what does all this tell us about the possibility of a real freedom movement in Libya? These questions weren’t worth pursuing, either by CNN or by its rival, Fox.

Among other things, this is a commentary on the American media’s abject devotion to the great and mysterious idol, Democracy. No questions must be allowed to interfere with the liturgy of this god, as recited daily by its media priests. At the same time, I haven’t heard a single question from the media about the authoritarian language that our own government has been using about recent events in North Africa. What kind of government is it that announces to a foreign nation that its leader “must go”? Answer: the Obama regime, first about Mubarak, then about Qaddafi. If the gentlemen in question had possessed any sense of humor, they would have made speeches in which they proclaimed that Obama “must go!”

No questions must be allowed to interfere with the liturgy of the god Democracy, as recited daily by its media priests.

As readers of this journal may remember, I have zero respect for the idea that the boundaries of dictatorial states are somehow sacred and that no armed forces must ever cross them. Those borders aren’t sacred to me. Yet the arrogance of the Obama administration takes my breath away — despite the fact that there’s a long tradition of this: the Bush administration showed the same arrogance, and so did most other administrations, all the way back to Woodrow Wilson. Arrogance, and hypocrisy. When American administrations demand “democratic reforms” in other countries, they never ask themselves whether it’s democratic for foreigners to dictate to the people who live there.

But speaking of democracy in the Middle East, let’s consider the “democracy” movement in Wisconsin, where state-employee labor unions are desperately trying to block the governor and legislature from passing a bill cutting their funds and limiting their power. The Republican governor was elected, four months ago, on a platform of doing exactly that; the legislature, elected at the same time, is overwhelmingly Republican and prepared to follow through on the scheme, if it can get just one Democratic senator to show up and make a quorum. Well, that’s democracy, isn’t it? But no: in the name of “democracy,” union hordes invaded and occupied the capitol, attempting to shut down the government, and Democratic legislators, unanimously friends of big labor, fled the state. Leftist demonstrators continue parading up and down State Street in Madison, carrying signs likening the governor to Qaddafi and Mubarak. They also carry signs announcing their own righteousness, signs saying, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.”

When American administrations demand “democratic reforms” in other countries, they never ask themselves whether it’s democratic for foreigners to dictate to the people who live there.

We see again the kindergarten approach. What do you think democracy is, children? You don’t know? Well, here’s a pretty picture. But when normal adults see such a slogan, employed by such people, their first impulse is to laugh. Democracy? There was an election; the voters said what they wanted; it just didn't happen to be what the protestors wanted. So who's on the side of democracy — the protestors, or the voters they oppose? And notice, this is a rebellion of people who are getting paid by the voters, people who insist that they have a right to as much pay and power as they can get, no matter what the voters want. Doesn’t that sound more like dictatorship than democracy?

Strangely, however, the protestors’ slogans strike most of the media as cogent indeed. To cite only one of many amusing instances: on February 26, at 3:00 p.m. (EST), CBS Radio’s hourly news offered a report from Madison. It consisted of the following: Young woman’s voice speaking over the noise of demonstrators. Young woman: “This is what democracy looks like. These are the people of Wisconsin, fighting for their rights.” End of report.

The woman may have been one of the demonstrators, or she may have been a CBS correspondent in Madison. The absence of identification allowed listeners to make up their own minds about the provenance of the propaganda. The difficulty of deciding who she was exemplifies how hard it often is to distinguish nonsense from "news," leftist agitprop from normal media blather. Of course no question was asked, no remark made, about any of the brutally obvious issues that the “report” raised. Would you expect there to be? No, not unless the babies in charge of the news were replaced by intelligent people who respected the intelligence of their audience.

You might remark, as many libertarian thinkers have remarked, that “democracy” is not a word that (pace the media) is simply synonymous with “good.” You might make the historical observation that unlimited democracy — democracy without legally enforceable respect for rights or a government of limited powers — has often resulted in predatory regimes. You might record your skepticism about the legitimacy either of crowds shouting in the streets or of dictators who advertise themselves as the embodiments of crowds shouting in the streets. If you did that, you would be expressing nothing more than common sense and common knowledge of the world. But common sense and common knowledge will never get you a job in the information industry of America.




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