October 30, 2006

Syriana

Ali Eteraz started a discussion at Dean’s World about the film Syriana, which I finally recently saw.

The "creation" of the militant suicide bombers is so on point its obscene. It captures perfectly the way alienation is manipulation by the militant overlords and their Mephistophelian recruiters. If you haven't seen it, do. It’s not at all a 'liberal leftist' film. I really expected that given that Clooney was in it, the film was going to apologize for the reprehensible actions of Muslims. It doesn't do that. As a Muslim activist I thought it was kind of a slap in the face. It said to me: what are you "activists" doing to counter these smiling recruiters? What are you "activists" doing to suggest that these tyrants should be shorn of their power? What are you "activists" worth if the most likely killer of your reformists are Muslims themselves (I just gave away the ending).
Ali is right. Syriana is not “liberal” or “leftist” as much as I thought it would be, at least not in a bad way.

Part of the story revolves around powerful oil companies that dictate American foreign policy, which is cartoonish and conspiratorial. (Oil companies, in the real world, lobbied for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq rather than for regime-change in Iraq. They did not get their way.)

This is only one part of the story, however. If you can just let it go and run with it for the sake of the movie, the rest holds up reaonably well on a thematic level. Liberal and reformist Muslims are the good guys. The Islamists are not. The point of the story, as the plot unfolds, is obvious: the United States should support liberal and reformist Muslims in the Middle East for their sake as well as for ours. You could argue, if you wanted, that Syriana is a neoconservative film. The writer and the director don’t think of it that way. But that’s partly because liberalism and neoconservatism are not as far apart as they think.

Syriana Poster.JPG

The people who should be on the defensive about Syriana's politics are leftists like Berkeley professor Judith Butler who openly support Middle Eastern extremists, so-called "realists” like James Baker who think they are part of the solution, and the even more obnoxiously named "realists" like Henry Kissinger who think we can do business with them. Everyone else can relax. The film is not without its flaws, to be sure, but Fahrenheit 911 it ain’t.

UPDATE: As it turns out, Syriana's writer and director Stephen Gaghan was heavily influenced by Paul Berman's brilliant Terror and Liberalism.
SG: A couple of things happened for me. I read TERROR & LIBERALISM by Paul Berman. Well, first I read the excerpt in The New York Times, where he talked about the philosophy of [Sayyid Qutb]. Berman parsed the 26-volume book which is called IN THE SHADE OF THE QUR'AN. It was written by this guy Qutb, who spent time in America. He's Egyptian. Academic. And [Berman] very persuasively showed me that what was going on in the world right now is, there is a war of ideas. That these clerics in the Muslim world had a very serious idea. He says that idea had been cross-pollinated with facism, totalitarian ideology from the West. He shows where it could have happened in Egypt. I don't know if that's true or not. I wasn't 100% persuaded by that. But what I was persuaded by was how seductive the ideas were, and how powerful.
(Hat tip: Wagner James Au in the comments.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 30, 2006 06:41 PM

Comments

It makes me wonder how many people talk about a film without having seen it.

No, wait, I don't wonder. I already know the number is appallingly high. Ah, well.

A little more on topic, one would think that most people are completely ignorant of strategy. Of course you support those elements you want to see triumph, while fighting those elements you'd like to see disappear. Hasn't anyone ever heard the term "power vacuum"?

If Syriana introduces that concept into brains that otherwise haven't encountered it, then good. We know that moderate Islam works— I, for one, have met plenty of moderate Muslims in the US, and they don't seem to have a problem with our political system. Support them and those like them, and by sheer force of numbers they'll squeeze the radical elements out.

Posted by: B. Durbin at October 30, 2006 06:54 PM

Well I found the oil-company bashing beyond cartoonish, and very annoying and idiotic.

Also Syriana depicts a very brutal and callous American foreign policy, and a corrupt CIA that actually targets the Arab liberal reformer and carries out a high-tech assassination via satellite. This was beyond the pale, if America actively engaged in political assassinations, you think Castro, Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il would be alive ?

But I'll grant it one thing - the liberal reformer, and the CIA agent who tries to save him and support him, are truly the heroes of the movie.

Posted by: Jono at October 30, 2006 07:22 PM

I haven't and won't see the film. Enough trusted reviewers, Michael Totten included, have made it unneccesary to do so. Thank you.

Based on these observations, to say the film is NOT “liberal” or “leftist” seems to me that a viewer must purposely avoid gazing at the herd of elephants in the middle of the screen: the oil company conspiracy, horrid foreign policy, despicable administration, corrupt CIA, etc.

Other than that, if you read between the lines, there is obviously a neo-con slant.

I am grateful for each and every liberal or moderate Muslim, but the sheer number of violent and unreasonable Muslims worldwide is frightening and must be considered in any strategy to keep our country (and others) safe from additional attacks. Mere support for moderate Muslims will not adequately solve the problems we face.

We must also actively reduce the numbers intent on killing us. It would be nice if we could just talk and reason with them that their desire to kill us is not acceptable, but that method has been tried and doesn't work. A more forceful approach to reducing their numbers is necessary, especially since they have already declared war on us.

Posted by: E. T. USN 71-78 at October 30, 2006 08:08 PM

It is a very silly film, and not worthy of th hype that it was a "political" movie.

The characters were cardboard and the plot absolutely predictable.

The good guys were just so good and the bad guys just sooo bad.

Of course, there are the big bad guys who really run everything and pull the plug on the really nice guys, who of course realize too late that they are about to get cooked.

It was just too much of a revelation for me that rich guys really run the world.

Go figure.

It is totally light-weight and I rate it 2 out of 10 and but very high on the pseudo-intellectual," Isn't this such an insightful movie, guys'"quotient.

I bestow upon it the American Beauty award for the 'political' movies category.

Posted by: ankhfkhonsu at October 30, 2006 09:44 PM

Don't forget that Hezbollah were represented as "stand up guys" who kept their word at all times. They were portrayed in a much better light than the American gov't and the CIA.

Posted by: Carrie at October 30, 2006 09:56 PM

I didn't think Hezbollah was portrayed in a positive light at all. I found the Hezbollah character very creepy.

This movie is a weird sort of Rorshach Test. Different people see all kinds of things in it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 30, 2006 10:04 PM

Whether you find it neo-con or leftist, Syriana is ultimately guilty of being a very superficial film.

Every characterisation is designed to pander to the confirmed prejudices of an American audience: reasonably good-looking, enlightened Arab son; nasty-faced, wastrel, corrupt Arab son; South Beirut looking like a Moroccan souk with a gunman on every roof.

It won awards as it was designed to do.

Has it changed anything? Of course not. The Israeli jets flying over Beirut this morning say as much.

Posted by: Derek at October 31, 2006 12:10 AM

Michael, you wouldn't be surpised to know the writer/director of Syriana says in writing the script, he drew heavily from Paul Berman:

http://www.aintitcool.com/display.cgi?id=21859

SG: ... A couple of things happened for me. I read TERROR & LIBERALISM by Paul Berman. Well, first I read the excerpt in The New York Times, where he talked about the philosophy of [Sayyid Qutb]. Berman parsed the 26-volume book which is called IN THE SHADE OF THE QUR'AN. It was written by this guy Qutb, who spent time in America. He's Egyptian. Academic. And [Berman] very persuasively showed me that what was going on in the world right now is, there is a war of ideas. That these clerics in the Muslim world had a very serious idea. He says that idea had been cross-pollinated with facism, totalitarian ideology from the West. He shows where it could have happened in Egypt. I don't know if that's true or not. I wasn't 100% persuaded by that. But what I was persuaded by was how seductive the ideas were, and how powerful...

Posted by: Wagner James Au at October 31, 2006 12:33 AM

...It said to me: what are you "activists" doing to counter these smiling recruiters? What are you "activists" doing to suggest that these tyrants should be shorn of their power? What are you "activists" worth...

Those are questions that could stand to be asked a bit more often, IMO.

Posted by: rosignol at October 31, 2006 05:26 AM

Michael,

Of no great import, but it was Ali Etaraz who you are quoting, not Aziz.

Posted by: Lance Paddock at October 31, 2006 08:03 AM

To a large degree, I agree with Jono, even though I don't really consider myself to be a conservative on foreign policy matters. The makers of the film did seem to have a limited understanding of the machinations of American foreign policy, and also the agenda of the American oil industry. Beyond that, there was often a general ignorance about the foreign policy dynamics of the region, and the economical underpinnings of petro-diplomacy.

For example, the idea that the U.S. would get so bent out of shape over the Saudis giving an oil contract to the Chinese was pretty ridiculous, given that the Saudis routinely provide oil contracts to non-American firms (including some to the Chinese), and that only a small percentage of Saudi oil exports end up going to the U.S. (we actually import more from Venezuela, Canada, and Mexico, for obvious reasons). What America really cares about isn't who the contracts go to (though they would like some to go to American firms), but rather how much oil the Saudis end up producing, which in turn has a major impact on the global price of oil.

Likewise, the idea that a Saudi prince would be gung-ho about creating an oil pipeline to Europe that goes through Iran and the Caucasus is also ridiculous, given how fearful the Saudis are of the Iranian regime and its geopolitical and ideological ambitions. Not to mention that much of the terrain such a pipeline would have to cross is highly mountainous, and wouldn't be conducive to building it inexpensively. Maybe the prince would give the go-ahead for a pipeline that goes through Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, but one that heads through the mountains of Persia would be out of the question.

Posted by: Eric at October 31, 2006 08:24 AM

The coup in real life was the liberal son vs old-school father. Qatar in the '90s. Liberal won. Father was exiled. And China lost the deal.

Posted by: DJ Elliott at October 31, 2006 08:36 AM

What America really cares about isn't who the contracts go to (though they would like some to go to American firms), but rather how much oil the Saudis end up producing, which in turn has a major impact on the global price of oil.

If that's true, then why are we conspicuously ignoring the fact that many Gulf states appear to be running low on oil?

Also, why do we rely on some guy in a one-room office in Geneva and our very untrustworthy Saudi "friends" to tell us how much oil they have?

Another Washington "insider" once said of US/Gulf Arab business deals: "never was so much money made by so many people who did so little"

Gulf Arabs are like a drunk stumbling out of a bar with pockets full of cash. "Petro-diplomacy" is just the method used by oil companies and the government (Republicans and Democrats) to roll that drunk. Terrorism, Qutb, America's long term economic welfare and all that other stuff can't compete with easy money.

If anyone wanted to make a film about the real story of petro diplomacy, it would be a remake of Peter Seller's 'The Magic Christian', a satire about the lengths people will go to for easy money. It ends with a group of wealthy people diving into a pool of excrement for cash.

Posted by: mary at October 31, 2006 09:28 AM

You should see this one when you can. We'd like to know what you think.

Posted by: Yafawi at October 31, 2006 10:13 AM

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but your dismiss the relevance of oil deals to our foriegn policy to your own discrediting. It's an openly acknowledged fact that our interest in the Gulf from 1979 through the present was in not having that oil fall into unfriendly hands. We use pipelines as weapons against countries we find unfriendly. The Great Game is real, and we are indeed bribing dictators with our purchases of their oil left and right. See Kazakhstan. I thought that this part of the movie was very accurate.

It may not be liberal - I applaud the director for getting outside of the box - but it's definitely a critique of our policies. We blow the liberal Arab reformer up because - I can certainly imagine this scenario - he's an anti-american liberal.

Hamas is, in some ways, the internally liberal party in Palestine.

Posted by: glasnost at October 31, 2006 11:15 AM

What I found most entertaining of the movie was the storyline. Politics aside, it was nice to see a well-made movie about the Middle East with an intelligent screenplay. On the other hand, some parts were a little cringe worthy with the United States targeting to kill the Democratic leaning son was a prime example. I think a large part of conservatives were turned off to the movie right away b/c it was George Clooney in a Middle Eastern movie to their loss. If you instantly avoid things you think are going to be too liberal, too gay, too conservative, too homophobic. You isolate yourself from any hope of formulating an intelligent opinion; even if what you are watching is not what you agree with. Farenheit 9/11 brought this to a head a few years back. If you disagree, you can watch or get a bootleg (like I did) and you can either concur or take those arguments and systematically refute them. Sorry for the long post, but close mindness is a pet peeve.

Posted by: Mantis at October 31, 2006 11:58 AM

Part of the story revolves around powerful oil companies that dictate American foreign policy, which is cartoonish and conspiratorial. (Oil companies, in the real world, lobbied for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq rather than for regime-change in Iraq. They did not get their way.)

If this is so, and if they did not also lobby for regime change in Iraq, then these companies must have felt that continued access to a diminishingly available resource in that region was less likely if regime change was attempted.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at October 31, 2006 12:45 PM

The Great Game is real, and we are indeed bribing dictators with our purchases of their oil left and right.

Just for curiosity's sake, how do you know? Because you saw it in a movie?

And who is doing the bribing? The US Federal government does not buy oil for the oil companies -- as far as I know, the only oil the US government buys is the relatively small amounts periodically added to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. So who is "bribing dictators right and left" and what are they getting in exchange for these bribes?

And why are you so willing to believe

Posted by: Michael Smith at October 31, 2006 12:47 PM

Ultimately, reading through the comments, I am once again saddened by the realization that people are just happy to live within their bubble. Their system of beliefs. People would rather put blinders on in order to keep their system of beliefs intact, than to question anything. The conservatives will refuse to watch a movie because it's bashing their ideals, the liberals will follow a diametrically opposite course of action, ad nauseam.

Our modern world is truely a disgrace. All this knowledge, all this technology, supposedly there to break down barriers of communication. Yet we seem mired in the dark ages, mentally speaking.

Posted by: Bad Vilbel at October 31, 2006 01:28 PM

What I found most entertaining of the movie was the storyline. Politics aside, it was nice to see a well-made movie about the Middle East with an intelligent screenplay.

Completely agree. Whatever it's faults, one of the good things about Syriana is that it portrayed Arabs and the Middle East more or less in 3D

Posted by: Dirk at October 31, 2006 01:37 PM

Mantis and Bad Vibel:
AMEN!
I am often amazed at the fact/opinion disorder many people have. We are all entitiled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Sometimes it seems that the vast ammount of information that is instantly available on the internet has caused many people to aggresively protect their opinions from any inconvenient invading facts.

Posted by: Lindsey at October 31, 2006 04:54 PM

I completely forgot to say something like "Smart post, mike, out of the box".

Smart post, Mike.

Posted by: glasnost at October 31, 2006 05:17 PM

I did enjoy the movie, though some parts were indeed cringeworthy. It is largely about unintended consequences, such as the merry suicide bomber in the end blowing up (with an American 'disabled' missile) the LNG tanker, probably along with his father and half of the kingdom, as the explosion would be comparable to a small nuke.

That would teach the then-carbonized evil corporate aparatchnicks not to oppress the equally carbonized locals. Nice.

Posted by: Bruno at October 31, 2006 07:19 PM

Smart post, Mike.

You consider that an answer?

I am simply asking for facts. Do you have any to support your contentions? If so, why not give them -- I am always open to facts.

Our modern world is truely a disgrace. All this knowledge, all this technology, supposedly there to break down barriers of communication. Yet we seem mired in the dark ages, mentally speaking.

Indeed we are Bad Vilbel, indeed we are "mired in the dark ages" in one crucial respect.

What caused the dark ages and how did we get out of them? The dark ages represented the triumph of mysticism and the banishment of reason. Since reason is man's means of survival, its banishment meant centuries of stagnation, unspeakable poverty and starvation, endless wars, and all the rest of the horrors of those times.

The enlightenment -- with all of its fabulous achievements such as the industrial revolution and the creation of western civilization -- was the product of the rebirth of reason.

But we never completely shook off the mysticism, and today reason is under assault from all quarters. The left has largely abandoned reason in favor of skepticism and subjectivism -- and the right is rapidly abandoning reason in favor of reason's oldest enemy: faith. So you are right, Bad, we are sliding back to a "mental dark ages". If left unchecked, the slide will not be limited to our mental world-- ultimately, an advanced industrial civilization cannot be maintained by those who deny reason.

Posted by: Michael Smith at November 1, 2006 05:01 AM

All you idjits discussing the merits (or not) of a stupid MOVIE, for crying out loud! Get a life.
Next topic of great import - how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Posted by: Kevin at November 1, 2006 08:49 AM

Kevin:
Geez, who peed in your Wheaties? If you don't like the topic, don't read it, and better yet, don't comment!
-L

Posted by: lindsey, the troll police at November 1, 2006 09:45 AM

I felt the most unbelievable thing about the film is that there is never that little car traffic in S. Beirut.

...if America actively engaged in political assassinations, you think Castro, Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il would be alive ?

Not to nitpick, but the CIA's attempts on Castros life are pretty well documented.

Posted by: Swan at November 1, 2006 11:06 AM

William advises Omar of ITM and I add below and we are all obviously non-expert.=TG

Omar:

Your government, to many in the West who have really studied it is a joke.

It's dominated by the same Islamists that form the core of the terrorist sentiment. Maliki's parte, the Da'wa Party?

Like what you guys really need is a party intent upon a messianic spreading of Islamism...and that seems to be the best you can offer since the next in line, SCIRI might as well call itself the Ahmadinejad party....sheeeeeeshh....

Give me a break.

This is the way whatever sane heads exist in Iraq should look at this.

The ME has been given a chance to step up and police itself, prove that it can play nice with the rest of the world or it's going to suffer the consequences.

You folks have to realize that the West, specifically the U.S. could incinerate the countries where the problem is coming from in an afternoon and not even break a sweat.

If we - the U.S. get hit again - let's say as a result of the game that little louse Musharaff is playing in Waziristan then all bets are off.

The problem is with YOU.

What is going on right now in Iraq and the rest of the ME is a demonstration of the abject and total failure of ISLAM.

The daily spectacle of Shiite and Sunnis butchering each other every friggin day over a 1,400 year old argument simply proves what I have said.

Bush is right, we do not have endless patience because your part of the world is everyday proving that you are simply not worthy.

Sorry to state this, I know you are a good guy but you simply have to understand that this is a lot bigger than most in Iraq can even comprehend.

In the final analysis the U.S. simply will not tolerate this crap forever.
William | 10.26.06 - 11:17 am | #
============
A bit simplistic perhaps, but certainly in the real spirit of truth.

I have heard good things about the Grand ayatollah Ali al - Sitani. He seems to have waited patiently while double-crossers like Maliki come and go.

Once Muqtada and his gang leaders are taken out, someone like Ali al-Sitani could get Iraqis working together to realize some of their latent power.

There is a lot of power for the people of Iraq if only they could stop killing each other long enough to enjoy some of that power and wealth.

Iraq is badly divided and ready to fall while united under Sistani, Iraq could realize a very decent and enjoyable lifestyle.

Oh well, the 40 years of lessons between Israel and Hamas / Hezbollah are not clear enough for the Iraq people to see how endless killing of your enemies really is ENDLESS!

Make your choice. Get to work and make a decent life or join the gangs and trade in bombs and bullets.

Is Muqtada al Sadr very much like Arafat was? Do not join in. It is a terrible waste of your life.

Working for a Conservative majority. = TG

Posted by: TG at November 1, 2006 11:14 AM

I, for one, have met plenty of moderate Muslims in the US, and they don't seem to have a problem with our political system.

How do you know they are "moderate"? I suggest applying this test: ask them what they would do if their son said he wished to convert to Judaism, and whether or not they'd be willing to defend their decision at the local mosque.

Posted by: Solomon2 at November 1, 2006 12:26 PM

I have one problem with reviews about political films: I have discovered that Hollywood makes different cuts for different folks. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" has a very different ending in the Russian version of the movie. Mel Gibson's "Passion of Christ" cut the most offensive lines from the U.S. version. I do not know what different versions of "Syriana" exist. Perhaps Robert Avrech does; those interested might do well to ask him.

Posted by: Solomon2 at November 1, 2006 12:32 PM

ask them what they would do if their son said he wished to convert to Judaism

A fair question, Solomon. And let me ask you this: What would you do if your daughter says she wants to convert to Islam?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at November 1, 2006 12:41 PM

(Spoiler Warning)

I didnt enjoy Syriana from a movie-craft or writting perspective.

When they killed Dr. Bashir at the end it just un-rewarded my previous attention.

I also would have prefered better Beirut shots, they made it look a bit like LA.

And then I found the politics a bit heavy handed.

Posted by: sean at November 1, 2006 12:57 PM

Oh, I know what I would do. Yet I do not think that the answer to my question should depend upon my answer, nor do I think the issue should be avoided by changing the subject.

Posted by: Solomon2 at November 1, 2006 04:38 PM

The question is How do you know they are moderate?

You were given a question to use as an example to make your point.

You sidestepped the opportunity.

Why? = TG

Posted by: TG at November 2, 2006 04:46 PM

sean: "When they killed Dr. Bashir at the end it just un-rewarded my previous attention."

No, he was beamed up to the Defiant moments before the missile struck. Didn't you see the episode?

The wormhole sent the ship back o the 21st century, and Julian had to impersonate a local so George Cloney could bring him a tachyon hartree-fock inductor. O'Brien then used it to fix the warp coil.

One of Brannon Braga's finest moments. Space-time anomalies are such an inovative plot device!

Posted by: Bruno at November 2, 2006 10:00 PM

Smart post, Mike.

You consider that an answer?

I am simply asking for facts. Do you have any to support your contentions? If so, why not give them -- I am always open to facts.

Mike Smith, I was talking to Mike Totten, not you. I didn't feel like it was worth the trouble to substantiate my points through deliberate searches. But I happened across this article randomly today, so consider it an anecdotal example:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15448018/

We buy our military bases. Outright cash payments in contracts are unusual and the tip of the iceberg: oil deals are a more common facilitator.

Posted by: glasnost at November 5, 2006 12:22 PM
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