Archive for March, 2013

Marseille 1973

Marseille 1973

In 1973. Before I get to that, a few words about a story that has been all over Israeli and (mainly right-wing) Jewish websites the past three days, of an apparent physical aggression perpetrated against Israeli filmmaker Yariv Horowitz on Thursday in Aubagne—just outside Marseille—, where he was attending a film festival (and where his film ‘Rock the Casbah’ won an award). The apparent aggression occurred at an ATM and, so reported Israeli news sources—including Haaretz, Ynetnews, and The Times of Israel—, was committed by a group of “Arabs” and who knocked Horowitz unconscious. Ynetnews headlined its Facebook post of the dispatch with one word: Anti-Semitism.

Sounded bad except that I was immediately dubious about the story, not that something didn’t happen—I didn’t imagine that Horowitz would have made it up—but of the details as reported in the Israeli media. First, there was nothing at all on it in the French media, which would not have ignored the incident—au contraire—had it happened the way the Israelis were reporting it. It would have been a news story, and likely a big one. Secondly, I wondered how Horowitz—who did not report the alleged assault to the police or even seek medical care—and his friend knew that the assailants were Arabs (or of Arab origin, as they were most certainly French). Thirdly—and regarding the inevitable mention of anti-Semitism—I rhetorically asked (a) how the alleged assailants could have known that Horowitz was a Jew and (b) why the latter assumed he was attacked for this reason. In the news reports there was nothing to suggest that the incident had a Jew-hating character.

But now we have more information on the incident, via the Aubagne film festival organizers and as reported in the Marseille daily La Provence. Nothing happened the way the Israeli websites reported. Horowitz received exactly one punch, but which did not seriously hurt him. The perpetrator was a minor and whose ethnic identity—as if it matters—was undetermined. There was no indication that he was of Arab origin and the incident clearly had nothing to do with Horowitz being Jewish. This was not a hate crime. Horowitz quickly rejoined the festivities. The incident should have never been the subject of a news story, let alone one with such incendiary allegations. I was going to do a longer post on it but see that blogger Ali Abunimah—who knows the French language, or has a collaborator who does—has already done the spade work and rubbished the story (here and here) as it was reported in the Israeli media. So will the Israeli websites that spread the disinformation—and particularly Haaretz, from which one expects higher professional standards—retract and apologize to their readers?

As for the title of this post—which is not entirely irrelevant to what I’ve written above—, the website Oumma.com has a post with a 55 minute documentary that aired in 2006 on Canal+, “Marseille 1973: les ratonnades oubliées.” In English: ‘Marseille 1973: the forgotten ratonnades‘. There is only one way to translate ratonnade, which is “pogrom against Algerians.” The etymology of the word: raton means ‘little rat’,which was one of the racist terms for Algerian Muslims during the French colonial era, and during which time Europeans settlers and soldiers periodically carried out bloody ratonnades. In the summer and fall of 1973 there was a wave of racist attacks on the sizable Algerian immigrant community in Marseille—with eleven murdered at random during the month of August alone—, culminating in the December 14th terror bombing in front of the Algerian consulate (causing four deaths and dozens injured—many seriously—among the Algerian immigrants waiting in line outside). Only one of the murderers was arrested and tried—receiving a five-year suspended sentence… All the other murder cases were classé sans suite, i.e. closed with no further action. Marseille at the time—and it was hardly unique in that part of France—had a significant population of repatriated pieds-noirs—a certain number of whom had been in the terrorist OAS (the KKK of Algérie française in its dying days)—, as well as military personnel who had served in Algeria during the war. Revanchists of Algérie française—with their violent hatred of Algerian Muslims—were present in force in the city’s institutions, and notably the police, judicial system, and right-wing press organs (most of the racists were on the right—including the recently founded Front National—but some were in the local Socialist party). Marseille was akin to a Mississippi town during the Jim Crow era, and with Algerians and other Maghrebis as the Blacks. What happened in Marseille in 1973 was a pogrom, even if the murders were committed by small groups of men and not rampaging mobs. There is no other word to describe it. I knew the history of this well but hadn’t seen the documentary. It’s very good. Do watch it.

It is, among other things, a reminder that the greatest victims of racist hatred in France over the past six decades have been Maghrebis, not Jews. Anti-Semitism was, of course, a scourge in France through the mid 20th century—and culminating in the collaboration of the French state with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews to the death camps—but it must be mentioned for the record that, with the exception of the Nazi occupation, not a single Jew in metropolitan France, from the Dreyfus Affair to the atrocious 2006 murder of Ilan Halimi, suffered violent death in a manifest hate crime (in fact, I am not aware of any Jews being killed even in the unoccupied zone in the 1940-42 period). Such has not been the case with Algerians, needless to say. During stretches of the 1960s Algerians were murdered in hate crimes somewhere in France at the rate of almost one a week. And it didn’t end with the Marseille ratonnades of 1973. Just a historical reminder. Again, if one’s French is up to it, do watch the documentary.

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invisible michal aviad

In the preceding post I linked to a TV reportage of the rapists preying on Syrian women in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. As it happens, I saw this Israeli film a couple of nights ago, which also has rape as its theme, specifically the psychological trauma suffered by rape victims and decades after the fact. The film is based on actual events, of a rapist—nicknamed “the polite rapist”—who terrorized the Tel Aviv area in 1977-78, raping 16 women before he was arrested. The story is of two victims of the rapist whose paths cross 20 years later (30 years later in fact, for the chronology of the film to make sense). One of the women, Lily (Ronit Elkabetz), is an anti-occupation political activist in her spare time, the other, Nira (Evgenia Dodina), a TV camerawoman who captures Lily in action defending olive-harvesting Palestinians from fanatical army-backed settlers—who are, figuratively speaking, rapists themselves—and recognizes her from 20 (or 30) years earlier. She makes contact, they forge a relationship (difficult at first), and relive the event and its traumatic sequels.

It’s not a bad film and certainly holds one’s attention, though what gave it an additional dimension for me was the discussion-debate in the cinema after it was over—which I had not known was scheduled—, led by the directrice-générale of the CNIDFF, a para-public feminist association that promotes gender equality and women’s issues in general, who called the film one of the most important and accurate that has been made on the psychological trauma suffered by rape victims. She said that she had worked with up to a thousand victims of rape in her career and could attest that the manner in which the Lily and Nira characters dealt with the experience decades after the fact—psychologically, in terms of their relationships with men (problematic in both cases), how they discussed it (or didn’t discuss), etc—was entirely accurate, that she had counseled such women countless times. On this level I learned something from the film—and which also depicted situations I am more familiar with (e.g. of how the police, judicial authorities, and even family members suggest that maybe the women bore some responsibility for what happened to them, if they didn’t outright provoke it). The CNIDFF D-G also revealed that the film’s director, Michal Aviad, had been herself a victim of the “polite rapist,” thus explaining her choice of subject and sticking closely to the historical record of the event. Here’s one review of the film. French reviews, mostly good, are here.

While I’m at it, I should mention an Israeli film I saw early in the winter, ‘Yossi’ by Eytan Fox, which has homosexuality as the theme (as did Fox’s excellent 2007 film The Bubble). The protag, Yossi, is a taciturn, pudgy, mid 30s medical doctor in Tel Aviv and gay, though has not revealed it to his colleagues or most anyone else, and has difficulty assuming his gayness even to himself. In the course of the film one learns that he had had a lover, Jagger, ten years earlier during his military service, but who was killed in Lebanon (dying in Yossi’s arms), and from which Yossi never psychologically recovered. He ends up at the home of Jagger’s parents—whom he hadn’t met—and reveals the love he had had for their son (they didn’t take the revelation of Jagger’s sexuality too well), after which he goes on a road trip to Eilat for some R&R, picks up four soldiers on weekend leave on the way, one of whom is gay—and more exuberantly so than Yossi—, and with whom, once in Eilat, things happen. One learns that homosexuality is more accepted in the IDF nowadays than it was a decade ago. It’s a small film, not essential, though may be seen, particularly if one has an interest in the gay theme. It would also help, I suppose, to see Fox’s 2002 ‘Yossi and Jagger’, which is a prequel to this one—and which I didn’t know about (and have yet to see). A review of ‘Yossi’ is here. French reviews are here.


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Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan (Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images)

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan (Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images)

[update below]

I haven’t had too many posts on Syria over the past year, partly because I don’t have anything particularly original to say about what’s happening there but mainly as I find the mass suffering and death in that country—not to mention the destruction of Syria’s cities and its cultural and historical patrimony—almost too painful to read about, let alone write and reflect on. But this ten-minute report the other day from the UK’s Channel 4 news, “Rape and sham marriages: the fears of Syria’s women refugees,” I have to post (h/t Martin Kramer). The report is from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, just over the Syrian border, which contains over 100,000 refugees (and with many more due to arrive), and focuses on the omnipresent threat of rape, not from Syrian men in the camp but predators from the outside: Jordanians but mainly men from Saudi Arabia—the Evil Kingdom—and the Gulf, who have descended on the camp to purchase temporary “brides,” i.e. disposable sex slaves. And this after many of the women fled Syria partly due to the danger of rape from one side or the other in the conflict. Heartbreaking and an outrage. Watch the report and weep. And be angry.

UPDATE: Lauren Wolfe, director of the journalism project Women Under Siege, has an article (April 3) in The Atlantic on the massive rape crisis in Syria. The lede: “All across the war-torn country, regime soldiers are said to be sexually violating women and men from the opposition, destroying families and, in some cases, taking lives.”

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Armed correlations

Tom Tomorrow 12192012

Great tribune by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, on the NYT’s revelations of Newtown killer Adam Lanza’s home environment and the predictable response of the gun nuts. Gopnik is so good on this issue and says it better than I. Money quote (one of them, as there are several)

If America had gun laws like those in Canada, England, or Australia, it would have a level of gun violence more like that of Canada, England, or Australia. That’s as certain a prediction as any that the social sciences can provide. To believe that gun control can’t work here is to believe that the psyches of Americans are different from those of everyone else on earth. That’s a form of American exceptionalism—the belief that Americans are uniquely evil and incorrigibly violent, and that there’s nothing to be done about it—that doesn’t seem to be the one that is usually endorsed.

At this point in history anyone who supports the NRA’s position is a sick and deranged person. Pro-NRAers are loathsome and despicable people. End of argument. Case closed.

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[updates below]

Saw this terrific film from Chile the other day, about the 1988 plebiscite to allow General Pinochet to serve a second eight-year term—Pinochet’s own constitution, proclaimed eight years earlier, allowing the president only a single term in office. Normally the outcome of a plebiscite in an authoritarian regime is a foregone conclusion but the Chilean junta, succumbing to international pressure—including from the Reagan administration—to conduct the plebiscite freely and fairly, decided to allow the forces for a “No” vote 15 minutes of free, in principle uncensored TV time a night in the month preceding the vote. The opposition to Pinochet—most of which was banned, repressed, and/or in exile—was disorganized and at an obvious disadvantage vis-à-vis the junta in terms of resources (institutional, financial, and otherwise). When the campaign began it looked like the “Sí” would coast to an easy victory, all the more so as the opposition was divided over strategy—over whether to even participate in the plebiscite (which many on the left saw as a farce that could only legitimize the junta)—and didn’t have a good idea as to how to effectively use the free TV time. The latter is the story the film recounts, of a hotshot young executive (René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal), at what looked to be Santiago’s leading advertising agency, who essentially takes over the No’s ad campaign and imposes on the campaign’s skeptical leftist militants modern marketing techniques to win over floating and soft Sí voters to the No—and which of course won a big victory (and laid waste to the Sí’s ad campaign, which was headed by René’s reactionary boss at the agency).

That’s as much as I’ll say about the film, which is one of the best cinematic treatments I’ve seen of the role of communications and advertising in political campaigns—and is quite simply one of the best political films I’ve seen in a long time, period. It is also a fascinating depiction of the slow motion collapse of an authoritarian regime once political space was willy nilly opened up for the opposition to organize (and under international pressure, which was of central importance). The film was an Oscar nominee for best foreign pic, won an award at Cannes, plus several others, all well-deserved. Reviews in the US have been tops (Metacritic’s score was pulled down a bit by the nitwit critic from the New York Post), as they’ve been in France (in addition to the reviews one may read the article in Salon “When Don Draper toppled a dictator“). The reaction to the film in Chile has apparently been mixed. I’ll let those more expert on that country than I explain why (I used to be more or less knowledgeable about South America but it’s been a long time since I’ve read extensively about any country on that continent).

The director, Pablo Larraín, did one other film I’ve seen, ‘Tony Manero‘ (2008), which is set in Santiago in the late 1970s, during the junta’s années de plomb. The film was so relentlessly bleak that I didn’t know how I felt about it.

Another political film from that corner of the world I’ve seen in the past week is the Argentinean ‘El Estudiante’, by first-time director Santiago Mitre, about a student at the University of Buenos Aires (Roque, played by Esteban Lamothe) who hails from the provinces and is more interested in hanging out and racking up sexual conquests than focusing on his studies. But thanks to a young leftist professor—and one of his conquests, but whom he falls for—he gets involved in student politics at the university and becomes a political operative, and which he is clearly a natural. The pic is all about the world of university politics in Argentina, which is pretty intense—public universities are autonomous and university officials (rectors, etc) are elected—and where the student parties (which go by fictive names in the film) are linked to national political parties and movements (here, left-wing Peronists, the extreme left, and Radicals). Reviews of the pic in the Hollywood press are very good (here, here, and here), as are most in France (though the spectator reviews on Allociné are somewhat less enthusiastic). I found the film interesting enough, though also less interesting at points. As one of the reviews I link to mentioned, “it’s easy to get the feeling of becoming lost in the details,” and which is what happened to me. Though the politicking, infighting, and backstabbing one sees in the film are universal, the political context is specific to Argentina; student politics and the organization of universities in the US are completely different, of course, as they are in France (though there are some similarities in the French case, notably with activism in student politics paving the way to a later career in politics, and which is no doubt the case in Argentina). The theme of ‘No’, on the other hand—of political communication in electoral campaigns—, can be understood everywhere. I’ll see ‘El Estudiante’ again at some point but ‘No’ is definitely the more interesting film for those not expert on Chilean or Argentinean politics.

UPDATE: In an email, Robert Barros, who knows Chilean politics better than anyone one is likely to meet, informs me that

there are a couple of factual errors [in the post].  The important ones have to do with the 1980 constitution contemplating the possibility of a second presidential term for a candidate selected by the military junta (didn’t have to be Pinochet, though he probably always saw himself in that role) and that the franja (the provision for free air time) had more to do with the internal development and implementation of the constitution than with international pressure.  These variables in turn had to do with the internal dynamics within the military junta and with Pinochet.

Bob is probably the leading political science specialist in the world—and certainly in the non-Spanish speaking world—on Chilean constitutionalism. His book on the 1980 constitution is the one to read on that subject.

2nd UPDATE: An AWAV admirer outre-Atlantique informs me that he asked a Chilean-born and educated higher-up of a major international NGO what he thought of ‘No’. The response

He liked it both as an entertainment and as a depiction of history.  He was not concerned by critics who complained it was historically inaccurate or that the director comes from a right-wing family.  Like Argo, he said, it’s a good movie.  As for the history, he said it captured the confusion and contradictions within the anti-Pinochet intelligentsia at the time and their realization that they had to move from a negative message to a positive one in order to win the vote.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

el estudiante de santiago mitre - afiche

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death of a princess

a.k.a. Saudi Arabia. Ali al-Ahmed, a US-based Saudi Arabian activist and writer—and opponent of the system there—had a piece in FP a week ago on the execution of the Saudi Seven and which I’ve been intending to post. Voilà the details

on the night of March 12… seven young men — all in their early twenties — were still alive and praying to God for some last-minute grace to save them from facing a firing squad outside the palatial offices of the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Aseer province, Faisal Ben Khalid, who ordered their execution.

Their prayers fell on deaf ears in the kingdom. The men, who were convicted of armed robbery, were executed on March 13, in a move denounced by Amnesty International as an “act of sheer brutality.”

Al-Ahmed continues

Hundreds of people are executed in Saudi Arabia every year — because some executions are carried out in secret, no one knows the real numbers. In 2007, the newspaper Arab News reported that 400 people remained on death row in the province of Makka alone. There are 12 other regions in the kingdom, so the total number of people awaiting execution could easily reach several thousand.

The Saudi government runs one of the most backward and xenophobic judicial systems on the planet. There is no formal legal code. Judges must all espouse the government-approved Salafi version of Islam. Blacks, who make up around 10 percent of the population, are banned from judgeships — as are women and Muslims who observe a different version of the faith — because the monarchy’s religious tradition still views blacks as slaves, other Muslims as heretics, and women as half human. There is only one word to describe such a system: apartheid.

Apartheid…. Hmmm, unless I’ve missed it none of the numerous persons out there who have attached the apartheid label to Israel of late have also thought to do so to Saudi Arabia…

Continuing in this vein, al-Ahmed informs the reader that

The condemned men hail from the southern tribes of Saudi Arabia, which have been a target of the monarchy’s systematic discrimination. Since the foundation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, there has not been a single minister from the south, which composes 27 percent of the population and is inhabited largely by Sunni Muslims who follow the government-sanctioned Salafi doctrine. Before his death, one of the executed men, Saeed al-Shahrani, even refused to provide his photo for this article because he followed the government fatwas banning photos of live objects. That’s more than can be said of the members of the ruling family: The royals in the House of Saud are notorious for plastering pictures of themselves in every place possible.

The body of one of the men, Sarhan al-Mashayekh, was supposed to be put on public display for three days, according to the execution warrant. But because everything in Saudi Arabia is political, that did not happen. The government likely feared that such an act would attract international embarrassment, and possibly a violent reaction by the large southern tribes. The executed men came from five large tribes, and thousands of people gathered to protest when the men were killed — photos provided by an eyewitness showed hundreds of well-armed soldiers and dozens of armored vehicles protecting the scene of the execution.

The young men were sentenced for robbing several jewelry stores at gunpoint seven years ago. No one was killed, and the stolen gold was given back to the owners. Saeed, one of the convicted young men, who spoke to me daily since March 1 using a smuggled mobile phone, told me, “I was 15 and I did not carry a gun. I want to go to my family.”

Poverty was the biggest factor behind this crime. All seven were unemployed and came from poor families, reflecting the severe economic conditions faced by many in Saudi Arabia. The unemployment rate in the kingdom is among the highest in the Middle East — it runs over 40 percent among males and over 80 percent among females.

One gets the idea. Saudi Arabia is an evil, barbaric place. (I’m talking about the political system and socio-religious order, of course, not individuals; as for some of the fine individuals there, see the movie ‘Wadjda‘). The barbarism of those who call the shots in Saudi Arabia is demonstrated not only in the way they treat people but also their own historical patrimony. This is not exactly a recent development but the systematic destruction of the architectural patrimony of Mecca and Medina—of ancient mosques, buildings, monuments—is accelerating (see here, here, here, and here). The Saudis are hardly alone in this world—present and past—in taking bulldozers to their cultural and architectural heritage but still…  What is happening in Mecca and Medina today would be akin to the French state razing the entire Île de la Cité—the Notre-Dame cathedral and all—to build a hotel and shopping mall complex. And brooking no discussion or debate on the matter. As when, e.g., the Saudis announced in 2002 that they were going to raze the 18th century Ottoman-era Ajyad fortress (Ecyad Kalesi) overlooking Mecca, to build a hotel complex. There were protests in Turkey over this but the Saudis told the Turks to fuck off.

BTW, the above photo is from the 1980 docudrama ‘Death of a Princess‘, which is unavailable on DVD, that has practically never been shown on television (and never in a cinema anywhere), and that few have seen (though I did, from a video cassette several years ago). It is a very interesting film and document. At some point I’ll do a post on it.

Mecca: urban renewal

Mecca: urban renewal

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

I just watched it on YouTube. It was a great speech. And the Israeli university students were equally great. They cheered and wildly applauded throughout, including at numerous points during these passages

First, peace is necessary. I believe that. I believe that peace is the only path to true security. You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine. That is true.

There are other factors involved. Given the frustration in the international community about this conflict, Israel needs to reverse an undertow of isolation. And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long term is through the absence of war. Because no wall is high enough and no Iron Dome is strong enough or perfect enough to stop every enemy that is intent on doing so from inflicting harm.

And this truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab world. I understand that with the uncertainty in the region — people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics — it’s tempting to turn inward, because the situation outside of Israel seems so chaotic. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve and commitment for peace. Because as more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace simply with a handful of autocratic leaders, those days are over. Peace will have to be made among peoples, not just governments.

No one — no single step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. No single step is going to erase years of history and propaganda. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and thrive on division. It would make a difference.

So peace is necessary. But peace is also just. Peace is also just. There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is all true. And that’s why security must be at the center of any agreement. And there is no question that the only path to peace is through negotiations — which is why, despite the criticism we’ve received, the United States will oppose unilateral efforts to bypass negotiations through the United Nations. It has to be done by the parties. But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized.

Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own. Living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displace Palestinian families from their homes Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.

I’m going off script here for a second, but before I came here, I met with a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons. I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say,

I want these kids to succeed; I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. I believe that. (…)

Now, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who is dedicated to its destruction. But while I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. I believe that. And they have a track record to prove it. Over the last few years, they have built institutions and maintained security on the West Bank in ways that few could have imagined just a few years ago. So many Palestinians — including young people — have rejected violence as a means of achieving their aspirations.

There is an opportunity there, there’s a window — which brings me to my third point: Peace is possible. It is possible. (…)

Negotiations will be necessary, but there’s little secret about where they must lead — two states for two peoples. Two states for two peoples. (…)

Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn. (…)

Look to the bridges being built in business and civil society by some of you here today. Look at the young people who’ve not yet learned a reason to mistrust, or those young people who’ve learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents, because they simply recognize that we hold more hopes in common than fears that drive us apart. Your voices must be louder than those who would drown out hope. Your hopes must light the way forward.

Look to a future in which Jews and Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this Holy Land. Believe in that. (…)

Again, wild applause at everything Obama said here. I was surprised by these Israeli students. And impressed. I’ve been among those who thought Obama’s I-P trip was a waste of time. On account of this speech and the reception it received, I may revise that view.

UPDATE: Hussein Ibish nails it in an analysis in FP of Obama’s “extraordinary speech,” which he says “was without question the strongest ever made by a senior American politician on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

2nd UPDATE: Yossi Klein Halevi writes in TNR about “Obama’s big Israel breakthrough.” Money quote

Next time the Israeli government announces a settlement expansion, there will likely be widespread opposition, rather than indifference, among the public. Obama has reminded us that, even in the absence of peace, we have a responsibility not to take steps that will make an eventual peace all the more difficult.

I hope he’s right.

3rd UPDATE: David Makovsky of WINEP has an analysis (YouTube) of Obama’s I-P trip. Money quote

Being that [the Israelis] feel more enveloped in the warmer embrace, they were able to hear messages about what’s the compelling case for peace. Obama put the peace issue back on the agenda because it was not considered a major issue until then because people were so despairing of the Palestinian side so I think he has returned this issue to the agenda and has made a compelling and strategic moral case of why the current course is unsustainable for [Israel]…

4th UPDATE: Ian Black in The Guardian writes that “Obama show[ed] emotional and political intelligence with Jerusalem speech,” though he pointed out that

Palestinian and Arab audiences were generally not impressed – not least because the president offered not a single practical proposal to advance the long-stalled peace process

But what could Palestinian and Arab audiences possibly expect here, as every practical proposal to advance the peace process has already been put forth more times than one can count? What more can one say about peace proposals at this point? (I actually have an original proposal, that I will unveil in the near future)

5th UPDATE: Ynet News.com has a wrap up of Arab press reaction to Obama’s trip. The lede

Arab world has slightly different take on US President’s Jerusalem speech, claiming he fawns over Israel and seeks to please Israeli leaders and public.

Zzzzzzzzzzzz. Is this news to the Arab press? Haven’t they figured this out after all these years?

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Baghdad, March 21 2003 (Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images)

Baghdad, March 21 2003 (Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

There have been a number of good articles and retrospectives on the 10th anniversary of the invasion over the past few days. Here are a few.

John Judis has a good piece in TNR, on “What it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003.” This passage is noteworthy

I found fellow dissenters to the war in two curious places: the CIA and the military intelligentsia. That fall, I got an invitation to participate in a seminar at the Central Intelligence Agency on what the world would be like in fifteen or twenty years. I went out of curiosity—I don’t like this kind of speculation—but as it turned out, much of the discussion was about the pending invasion of Iraq. Except for me and the chairman, who was a thinktank person, the participants were professors of international relations. And almost all of them were opposed to invading Iraq.

In early 2003, I was invited to another CIA event: the annual conference on foreign policy in Wilmington. At that conference, one of the agency officials pulled me aside and explained that the purpose of the seminar was actually to try to convince the White House not to invade Iraq. They didn’t think they could do that directly, but hoped to convey their reservations by issuing a study based on our seminar. He said I had been invited because of my columns in The American Prospect, which was where, at the time, I made known my views opposing an invasion. When Spencer Ackerman and I later did an article on the CIA’s role in justifying the invasion, we discovered that there was a kind of pro-invasion “B Team” that CIA Director George Tenet encouraged, but what I discovered from my brief experience at the CIA was that most of the analysts were opposed to an invasion. (After Spencer’s and my article appeared, I received no more invitations for seminars or conferences.)

Judis’s last bit here reminds me of a well-known political science academic MENA/IR specialist, who had been frequently solicited in Washington over the years—and who happened to be a registered Republican—, telling me in the fall of 2002 that when his opposition to an invasion of Iraq became known, he stopped receiving phone calls from his contacts in official Washington. His explanation: “I wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear” (I remember his precise words).

I found this retrospective by David Frum—who was one of Bush’s speechwriters at the time (“Axis of Evil” etc) and not exactly an opponent of the war—to be interesting and worth reading. One important observation he makes—and which has been largely overlooked—is the central role played by Tony Blair and Ahmed Chalabi in winning over Democrats and liberals to the pro-war cause. This was before many of Blair’s early admirers had become cynical about him, so he had a lot of cred at the time in center-left circles. (Quant à moi, I remember listening live on the BBC World Service to Blair’s September 2002 House of Commons speech attacking Saddam Hussein and liking it, though he wasn’t overtly advocating war at the time).

Mother Jones’s David Corn has a good piece on “Iraq 10 Years Later: The Deadly Consequences of Spin.” And then there’s this MSNBC commentary from last night by the always excellent Rachel Maddow, on how the “Architects of [the] Iraq disaster [are] still running from history.” Please take 7 minutes and 56 seconds of your time to watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

Entre autres, Rachel M. examines the American Enterprise Institute’s current spin on the war. A bunch of pathetic SOBs they are. À propos, I note that The Weekly Standard and National Review Online have had nothing on the 10th anniversary. Nor has the prolific blogger and geopolitist Walter Russell Mead, who was a war cheerleader and Dick Cheney fan back then. Radio silence.

In thinking about that miserable time, I am reminded of the line attributed to Condoleezza Rice in the spring of 2003, “Forgive Russia, ignore Germany, punish France.” And of Bush displaying the New York Post’s infamous cover of the “Axis of weasels” (France and Germany) on his Oval Office desk. What a bunch of arrogant a-holes. Who do these people think they are? And to speak of a great nation and one far older than America—and that has always stood with America in its real hours of need—in this way? France was right to tell the Bush-Cheney administration to f— off.

University of Chicago historian Orit Bashkin has a good article in the lefty academic webzine Jadaliyya on “The Forgotten Protagonists: The Invasion and the Historian,” in which she discusses advances in the historiographical knowledge of Iraq over the past decade but also of what has been irretrievably lost with the looting and destruction of Iraq’s archives (National Library etc) and architectural patrimony (and which happened under the US’s watch).

On present-day Iraq the FT’s Roula Khalaf has a lengthy article on “Iraq: 10 years later.” And here’s a 23 minute report on Al Jazeera English on “The Green Train: A journey through the heart of modern Iraq – a country struggling to put itself back together.”

UPDATE: The Nation has two not bad articles: “The American Legacy in Iraq” by Patrick Cockburn, who was one of the best informed journalists reporting from Iraq over the past decade, and “The Iraq Invasion, Ten Years Later” by Jonathan Schell.

2nd UPDATE: Here’s a short, very good commentary by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker, on “How we forgot Iraq.”

3rd UPDATE: Mark Lynch has a good piece in FP on “What’s missing from the Iraq debate.” Answer: Iraqis.

4th UPDATE: The Boston Globe has a portrait of Kanan Makiya, who “has no regret about pressing the war in Iraq” (his views influenced those of certain liberal hawks). I was an admirer of Makiya’s books Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence, but wasn’t on board with him in his 2003 war cheerleading.

5th UPDATE: Kathleen Geier of The National Memo has a very good article dated March 22nd—and praised by Paul Krugman—, “The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq,” in which she skewers some people who richly deserve to be skewered.

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Here is the file of emails on I wrote on Iraq in 2002-03, that I was going to publish in the preceding post. As I didn’t have a blog at the time I wrote blog post-type letters (usually collective) to friends, family, and associates on Iraq. In 2005 I put a selection of them together in a Word file (ten pages), so I could look at them in the future and see if my analyses stood the test of time. Though I was wrong about a few things—who wasn’t?—I was right about a lot more. On the whole, my views have stood up pretty well if I may say so. I don’t expect too many people—or maybe anyone—to read through them—the file is long and there’s some repetition—but I’m using the tenth anniversary of the war to publish them, for posterity and the public record.

From: Arun Kapil
Sent: 10 August 2002 18:11

Re Iraq, the Vietnam analogy is not accurate (or won’t be, should the US intervene there). An eventual US military operation in Iraq will be relatively short in duration (i.e., nothing like the eight year engagement in Vietnam) and so won’t divide American society in the same way. I don’t think a war in Iraq would be undertaken for domestic political reasons, as a way for Bush and the Republicans to win re-election. This is not what’s going on. There are ideologically driven power centers in the Administration which want to intervene because they sincerely believe Saddam Hussein poses a mortal danger to the US and its interests. They have other geostrategic and economic reasons as well. I personally think “regime change” in Iraq is an (more…)

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The tenth anniversary of the launching of the Iraq war is tomorrow and it seems that everybody and his uncle are weighing in on it, and with the inevitable question posed by mainstream commentators: “was it worth it?” (answer: for the US, a categorical NO; for Iraq, I would say categorically NO as well but only Iraqis themselves are qualified to answer that one). I have much to say on the subject—in short: the war was America’s biggest ever foreign policy disaster, caused the violent death of up to 200,000 Iraqis and suffering for millions, cost the American taxpayer over a trillion dollars and with upwards of 40,000 Americans killed or wounded—but will not get into a lengthy discourse. What I will do, though, is publish my analyses and views of the time, between August 2002 and September 2003 (more on this below). In the meantime, a few comments.

First, I was opposed to the war. Period. But I wasn’t opposed 100%. My tenacious hatred of Saddam Hussein and his regime—dating from the 1980s—was such that a part of me—let’s say one-third (33%)—was not opposed to the idea of a military intervention to free the Iraqi people from the yoke of the criminal Ba’athist tyranny. I supported 100% the 1990-91 intervention and war from Day One—from the moment I heard the news on August 2, 1990, that Iraq had invaded Kuwait (I was in France, the US, and Algeria during that period)—and somewhat regretted that the 101st Airborne didn’t go all the way to Baghdad at the end of that one (though knew it wasn’t realistic or in the cards; though I did condemn Bush 41 for allowing the Republican Guard to slip away and doing nothing while the latter crushed the Shia uprising). I likewise 100% supported the post 9/11 intervention in Afghanistan (but then, everyone in America and France outside the hard left did). These two interventions were no brainers IMO and I had little patience with those who opposed them (and who included numerous American leftist and Maghrebi friends, and with whom I had numerous arguments).

But the 2003 Iraq war—a war of choice and entirely fomented by the Bush-Cheney administration—was different. The notion that Iraq possessed actual weapons of mass destruction and ergo posed a threat to the US was bulldust, as was its purported links to Al-Qaida and “international terrorism.”  In 2002-03 Iraq did not even pose a threat to its neighbors, let alone to the US and Europe. IMO the only halfway legitimate argument for intervening was regime change and for the benefit of the Iraqi people (I emphasize IMO, as no intervention could have ever been justified—either legally or with American public opinion—on this basis alone). I could have gone along with an intervention if I had been certain that such would have been swift and relatively painless—with minimal death and destruction inflicted on Iraq—, and followed by a quick US withdrawal and smooth transition to a pluralistic political order. But, as I explicated at the time, I knew that it wouldn’t happen this way, that the war and its aftermath would be a fiasco, that the US had no justification in launching an unprovoked war, and was too arrogant, ignorant, and incompetent for anything good to come of it (and as a Lebanese friend rhetorically asked me at the time, what right did the United States have to drop bombs on Iraq and sow death and destruction, when Iraq had done nothing to provoke it?). So while a third of me was for an intervention—and that would momentary spike when seeing televised images of the imperious Saddam and his psychotic sons around a conference table, with government ministers or army generals dutifully taking notes like schoolchildren and while quaking in their boots—two-thirds of me (67%) was hostile to it. And since 67 is greater than 33, I was against. Period.

Though opposed to the war I did, however—and for the record—, feel satisfaction at the fall of the regime on April 9th, cheered Saddam’s capture in December, and gave the thumbs up to the termination with extreme prejudice of his wretched sons the following July. Sorry but no apologies for this.

My opposition to the war was fueled in part by revulsion at the nationalist hysteria in the US at the time, stoked by the Bush-Cheney administration and its shock troops in the media. Or its lemmings. While visiting the US in late ’02-early ’03 I watched Fox News every evening (Bill O’Reilly etc), to study the phenomenon, as it were. And I regularly tracked various right-wing organs on the web, notably The Weekly Standard and NRO. To get the kind of jingoism and militarism in France that was standard fare on the American right, one would have to go into Front National territory. And even then. I will say nothing more here about the chicken hawk commentators on the American right except that in their beating the drums for war—and denigrating and slandering anyone who disagreed with them—they couldn’t have cared less for the Iraqi people. It was all about America and nothing but America—of the need for America to, in the words of the unspeakable Michael Ledeen, “pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” (any takers on the American right for throwing North Korea against the wall? hey, that’s a little country! and why doesn’t America pick on a country its own size, like China or Russia? yeah, sure). As I’ve said before, if Bill O’Reilly and others of his American right-wing ilk—and including the women (Ann Coulter et al)—had been Italian in the early 1920s, they would have worn black shirts and carried black truncheons.

This being said, I was convinced at the time—and remain so—that the Bush-Cheney administration was not lying about the WMDs, in that they really believed their rhetoric on this. They did not knowingly recount falsehoods. There were enough reports in the years following the invasion (by Seymour Hersh, among others) that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al were certain that Saddam had CBWs and was trying to develop a nuclear bomb, and that if there wasn’t any clear evidence on this, they were going to find it. And in the post-9/11 nationalist hysteria, they easily swept up most of Washington—Congress, think tanks, MSM—in their alternate reality, and where discordant or dissenting views were dismissed or simply not listened to. It was groupthink. The phenomenon was as much psychological as political.

It was likewise on the link between Saddam and 9/11. In January 2001, the American Enterprise Institute published a book entitled Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein’s War against America, by Laurie Mylroie, which argued that Saddam had been behind every terrorist attack against America and Americans since the Gulf War. On the back of the book were plugs by Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and the book’s post-9/11 second edition carried a forward by James Woolsey. If one bought Mylroie’s argument before 9/11, it stood to reason that one was going to continue buying it after. I read Mylroie’s book in the month following 9/11 and found it compelling, even though I had had a generally low opinion of her (despite her government/Middle East studies Harvard Ph.D. she was, intellectually and academically speaking, not Harvard material). And a lot of her evidence was speculation, some of which she could have in fact verified (had she been a better social scientist). But in the immediate post-9/11 period I was ready to believe her argument. Why? Because I wanted to. My hatred of Saddam Hussein was such that I wanted to believe that he was in cahoots with Bin Laden and the 9/11 operation. But after running my views by a couple of DC friends in the know and continuing to read a lot, I dropped the Mylroie thesis (as has just about everyone who initially bought it; she was always regarded as a nutcase by the foreign policy establishment and was finally repudiated even by erstwhile associates on the right).

It was likewise with Saddam and CBWs, which I believed for a stretch, having listened to the categorical assertions of Thérèse Delpech in 2002 that Iraq was seeking to build up its stocks of chemical weapons—and the brilliant and intimidating Delpech, who had been France’s representative on UNMOVIC, definitely knew of what she spoke, or so I assumed. But then I read stronger evidence to the contrary; and in any case, possessing chemical weapons, which are not WMDs, is hardly a casus belli. (Delpech was, BTW, one of the few members of the French state elite who wanted France to align itself with the US on Iraq and tried to persuade the government that Saddam was acquiring CBWs; but Bruno Le Maire—Dominique de Villepin’s top aide at the time—, who received her at the Quai d’Orsay and heard her out on the subject, found her unconvincing—as he recounted here—, in large part because the French had near ironclad intelligence that Iraq had nothing in the way of CBWs or WMDs—and which they shared with the Bush-Cheney administration, but who wouldn’t hear of it).

And then there was Khidhir Hamza’s 2001 book Saddam’s Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq’s Secret Weapon, which I read with great interest soon after it came out. I basically bought Hamza’s core contention—that Saddam was hellbent on acquiring a nuclear device—, though found some anachronisms in his account, not to mention a portrait he painted of Saddam’s regime as being so crazy, nepotistic, and pathetically incompetent that the mere notion that Iraq could ever achieve the technological and organizational sophistication to go nuclear was simply laughable. So with time I scratched that one (and it turned out that Hamza was a fabulator and whose book was riddled with gross exaggerations and downright falsehoods).

I recount all this simply to underscore the point that if one wants to believe something, one will find credible-sounding evidence to back it up. And dismiss evidence to the contrary. And such was the case with the Bush-Cheney administration and its supporters on Iraq. Again: groupthink.

A couple more points. Though I detested and loathed the Bush-Cheney administration’s right-wing cheerleaders, I was somewhat indulgent toward liberal hawks who were willing to acknowledge the validity of arguments against going to war, to seriously debate the issue (so this does not include Christopher Hitchens or the editors of TNR at the time) (and I found the small number of liberal hawks in France, e.g. Romain Goupil, to be downright refreshing). There were those out there—liberals but also a few neo-conservatives (e.g. Robert Kagan)—who genuinely supported military intervention in Iraq to free the Iraqi people from the yoke of Saddam’s tyranny. The Wilsonian strain in US foreign policy is real and I am personally not unsympathetic to it. There were also longtime activists on the Kurdish issue who were not opposed to an intervention. To these may be added the small group of bona fide academic specialists of Iraq, a few of whom—e.g. Eric Davis, Phebe Marr—favored regime change and offered advice to the USG (notably the DOS) (though it should be said that the larger cohort of academic Middle East and international relations specialists were almost universally hostile to the invasion; and this included political science MENA specialists, who largely supported the 1990-91 intervention, not to mention Afghanistan in 2001).

(A note on the so-called neocons. They were obviously gung-ho for the invasion and for a variety of reasons but Israel was not one of them. Neocons thought regime change in Iraq would be beneficial to Israel but as a fortuitous byproduct; this was not the principal factor for any of the neocons, who are America Firsters above all. On this, John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt are out to lunch.)

And then there were the Iraqi people themselves. In December 2002 the International Crisis Group published a report, “Voices from the Iraqi Street,” whose author—who had been in Iraq—informed the reader that

Attitudes toward a U.S. strike are complex. There is some concern about the potential for violence, anarchy and score settling that might accompany forceful regime change. But the overwhelming sentiment among those interviewed was one of frustration and impatience with the status quo. Perhaps most widespread is a desire to return to “normalcy” and put an end to the abnormal domestic and international situation they have been living through. A significant number of those Iraqis interviewed, with surprising candour, expressed their view that, if such a change required an American-led attack, they would support it.

ICG reports are not signed but I know the author of this was a well-known Paris-based specialist of Iraq—a French citizen of Saudi origin—, who had lived in Iraq in the preceding years, where she did field research for her doctoral dissertation. She knew her subject better than just about any non-Iraqi and was well-connected in Baghdad. And she was not an advocate of the US intervention (for the anecdote, she told me in 2003 that she had attended a closed conference on Iraq the previous year in Madrid, and was confronted in the hotel lobby by Ahmed Chalabi and Richard Perle, who, fingers pointed, accused her of being an Iraqi agent; a woman in her late 20s, she was sufficiently intimidated by these high-powered alpha males).

In this vein, France’s best-known academic specialist of Iraq, Pierre-Jean Luizard—who is on the left and was resolutely opposed to the invasion—, asserted during an interview-debate on France Inter in early June 2003—which I heard with my own ears—that the Iraqi people in their majority favored the American intervention and that, like it or not, one needed to understand this. It did, after all, make sense: the Kurds (20% of the Iraqi population) were for the invasion, which no one disputes; the Shi’ites (55-60%), who hated the Ba’athist regime in their great majority, were also not opposed; toss in a few Sunnis, do the arithmetic, and voilà, there you have it.

But despite the attitudes of Iraqis, the aforementioned 2002 ICG report did make this observation

It should not be assumed from this that such support as might exist for a U.S. operation is unconditional. It appears to be premised on the belief both that any such military action would be quick and clean and that it would be followed by a robust international reconstruction effort. Should either of these prove untrue – if the war proved to be bloody and protracted or if Iraq lacked sufficient assistance afterwards – the support in question may well not be very long sustained.

Nor does all this mean that another war is either advisable or inevitable. Even in the event some significant “further material breach” is established within the meaning of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, the costs of military intervention – in terms of loss of life, material and economic damage, regional spillover effects, hardening the attitudes of future generations of Arabs and distracting from and even complicating a war on terrorism that, as recent events demonstrate, remains unfinished – must be carefully balanced against potential benefits, with the impact of intervention or non-intervention on the credibility of the UN itself of course having to be part of the calculation.

Just because Iraqis may have wished for a foreign military intervention in no way justifies a said intervention, in view of both the costs of the intervention to the invading power—the United States—and the inevitable course the war would take. It is rather clear, IMO at least, that the Iraqi people would have been better off had the invasion not happened, Saddam remained in power, and with the sanctions regime ended (but with controls on CBW/nuclear technology maintained). As for what would have happened had the Ba’athists remained in power, who knows? Perhaps Iraq would have ended up like Syria today, but perhaps not. One cannot possibly know.

On Iraqis supporting the US intervention, this was very much akin to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which was—yes!—initially supported by a majority of Lebanese: clear majorities of Maronites and Shi’ites (and with the Druze neutral), who wanted the Israelis to eject the PLO from their country. They needed an outside power to do the dirty work for them, that they couldn’t do themselves. And also for the foreign invader to pave their own way to power—Bashir Gemayel in Lebanon, Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq—, after which the foreigners would pack their bags and leave—and maybe get a thank you but little more (if the foreigners were looking for gratitude, they were bound to be disappointed). If Lebanese supported the Israelis in June ’82 they were not supporting them in June ’83, needless to say, not to mention in subsequent years (and nowadays, of course, everyone in Lebanon hates Israel). Mutatis mutandis, it was likewise in Iraq. The Israelis got played by their (temporary) Maronite allies in Lebanon, just as the Americans got played by Ahmed Chalabi. The Middle Easterners were smarter than the Americans (and Israelis), or at least more wily.

A final point, or, rather, assertion. The principal actors in the Bush-Cheney administration and their Iraq war supporters in Congress, the MSM, and Washington think tank archipelago will unfortunately not be held to account. Leftists are using the anniversary to beat up on Democrats and the MSM for having supported the war (and the lefties are right, of course). And many are still demanding war crimes trials for Bush-Cheney or some indictment by the ICC but, for reasons that hardly need to be explicated, it’s not going to happen. What all those who uncritically supported the Iraq war—and who rubbished those who opposed it—should do to at least partially make amends with the likes of me is to prostrate themselves before and profusely apologize to two men who were dragged through the mud during those miserable months in late 2002-early 2003: Scott Ritter and Jacques Chirac. Scott Ritter because he emphatically insisted that Iraq had no CBW or nuclear weapons capacity and explained why to anyone who would listen. Ritter was, of course, speaking from rather extensive personal experience on the question and knew what he was talking about. That was he was not listened to in Washington—and was, moreover, sullied and denigrated on cable TV and right-wing media—was unconscionable.

As for Jacques Chirac, because his opposition to US policy was well-considered and based on principle, and for which he, along with the entire French nation, was subjected to slander and calumny in the US. Chirac did not exclude the possibility of joining the US in Iraq and told his military to prepare for it. But it became obvious to the French that the Bush-Cheney administration’s “evidence” of WMDs was bogus, that there was no casus belli. France needed the proof from Washington and never got it. After Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the UNSC—which the entire MSM praised to the high heavens—analysts in the French media pronounced Powell’s photos of mobile labs impossible to interpret (and that vial of white powder: was that really anthrax? did Powell actually carry a biological weapon on his person and bring into the UN? but if was just milk powder, then, as they say in these parts, les Américains se foutent de nos gueules, i.e. what kind of fools are the Americans taking us for?). So the French could not but announce that they would vote against a UNSC resolution authorizing war. If the Americans and Brits wanted to wage an unprovoked war in Iraq, they would have to do it without the green light from the United Nations. The French position was impeccable, ironclad, and irreproachable. The final demonstration of this: France suffered no lasting consequences for saying no to the Bush-Cheney administration, and which had, by 2005, let bygones be bygones and started to make nice with the French. On Iraq, the French were right. Period.

I was going to publish my Iraq War file from 2002-03 here but seeing how long this post has become, I will do so separately, in the next post.

scott ritter


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Ezra Klein has republished a post on his WaPo Wonkblog from a year ago on “Why an MRI costs $1,080 in America and $280 in France.” He thinks it’s worth rereading now and it is. Americans don’t pay more because they receive superior care, are sicker, or visit the doctor more often. They pay more because the predatory American health care system is rigged to cheat them. Americans get shafted at the hospital and they’re powerless as individuals to do anything about it. So much for the free market. Klein mentions and links to Time magazine’s mega 24,000 word investigative report “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” which is a must read if anyone hasn’t seen it by now.

Re my own out-of-pocket health care costs over the past two months—related to my recent mishap—, they so far add up to €470. This is the total amount I’ve had to write checks for. A good part of it will be reimbursed by the Sécurité Sociale and mutuelle (if it hasn’t already; I’ll have to check). The other day I received a bill for €44 from the ER for services rendered when I was taken in on Jan. 18th. I should be reimbursed for that.

À propos, I received an email yesterday from a friend in the US, age 87, who wrote about receiving her medical bills from France after  a sudden week-long hospitalization at the Hôpital Salpêtrière in Paris while visiting in 2011, during which time her condition was quite serious. The amount she owed was $32,000 (fortunately covered by her US insurance). She said the bill at her hospital in the US would have easily been half a million dollars.

How anyone can defend the present financing of the American health care system is beyond me. In fact, they shouldn’t even try, because they can’t.


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This is the film that won the Oscar for best documentary last month, beating out ‘The Gatekeepers‘. Having just seen it, I’m hardly surprised. ‘The Gatekeepers’ is a first-rate documentary, as I wrote last week, but there was no way this one was not going to get the Oscar. It is a wonderful, exhilarating film and that tells an absolutely amazing story, about Sixto Rodriguez, a great American singer who is practically unknown in America (including by me until now). Rodriguez, who is 70 years old, has lived his entire life in Detroit and been a manual laborer for most of it, became a musician on the side, and cut two albums in the early ’70s. His music is Bob Dylan-esqe and is every bit as good as Dylan’s. Even better. But his records did not sell, he got practically no publicity, and hardly played outside bars in Detroit. His career as a musician went nowhere and was soon abandoned. But his albums made it to Cape Town, South Africa, at the time, where his music became huge among progressive whites chafing under the chape de plomb of apartheid—and what was a repressive regime even for whites—and inspired anti-apartheid Afrikaner singers. From the early ’70s to the mid ’90s Rodriguez’s albums sold maybe half a million copies in South Africa, where he was “bigger than Elvis,” except that no one in South Africa knew a thing about who he was. The country was subject to sanctions and boycotts, isolated from the rest of the world, and in the pre-Internet era there was no way for anyone there to get information on him. And Rodriguez knew nothing of his popularity in South Africa (and saw no royalties from his record sales). His fans in South Africa thought he was dead, having killed himself on stage in the US, so rumor had it. The documentary recounts how Rodriguez and his South African fans serendipitously found each other in 1997 and of his trip there the following year, where he was received as a big time rock star. It’s a great story and very moving. Here are the reviews by Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis. French reviews are stellar, as is the word-of-mouth in Paris, where the film is still playing three months after it opened.

The film’s director is Malik Bendjelloul, who is Algerian-Swedish, and it’s a Swedish production (filmed in Detroit and Cape Town).

As for Rodriguez’s music, it’s great. My wife bought his CDs after seeing the movie and we’ve been listening to them.

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[update below] [2nd update below]

This is an excellent, wonderful, marvelous film from Saudi Arabia we saw last night. That’s right, from Saudi Arabia. It’s the first-ever film by a Saudi director and that was entirely shot in the country—in Riyadh—, where cinemas are non-existent. And moreover, the director, Haifaa al-Mansour, is a woman and the film is almost entirely about women—and not princesses but the middle-class. The main character, Wadjda, a spunky tween with attitude—and who declines to cover her face in public—, will melt every heart and be a front-runner to win every best actress award of the year. Here’s the review of the pic from Indie Wire’s critic, Oliver Lyttleton, who called it “a phenomenal debut from an exciting new talent,” “one of the best films of the year,” and gave it a grade of A

The title of “Wadjda” refers to its central character, played by 12-year-old actress Waad Mohammed. Wadjda is more rebellious than most around her; she makes mixtapes of forbidden music, wears battered Converse to her school, and, a born hustler, sells home-made football bracelets to classmates, all incurring the wrath of headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd). More than anything else, she wants a bike to race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) on, but the 800 riyal price of the bike she covets seems out of reach, until it’s announced that her school’s Koran-recitation competition carries a 1000 riyal prize. As she ekes closer to it, however, things start to fall apart at home, as her mother (Reem Abdullah), who’s unable to have more children, begins to fear that her mostly absentee husband (Sultan Al Assaf) is on the lookout for a second bride.

The word ‘bicycle’ instantly summons up images of a certain Italian neo-realist classic, and that’s certainly the kind of neighborhood that Al-Mansour is in here, with a simple pristine style that mostly gets out of the way of the story, and a touching humanism that’s reluctant to paint any of her characters as pure hero or villain (even the strict, humorless Ms. Hussa is given more texture than you’d expect).

There is one major hero, of course: Wadjda herself, who in the hands of Mohammed is one of the most memorable on-screen protagonists in some time. Essentially fearless, smarter than everyone else around her, and conning her way around Riyadh, it’s the showcase of a terrific performance by Mohammed (whose parents will apparently only let her act until she’s 16); the young actress owns every second she’s on screen. She’s not alone, though; while some performances are raw and a little rough around the edges, there are a few other standouts, not least from Abdullah. The two carve out a rare and complex mother/daughter relationship that feels entirely authentic, in both the conflicts and the moments of bonding.

It’s appropriate that the two are the film’s standouts, because it’s so much a film that’s about the role of women in a man’s world. Wadjda is constantly told what she can’t do — ride a bike, uncover her face, follow her own path. Her mother, focused almost entirely on pleasing her husband yet unable to bear sons, is forced to consider buying a dress she can’t afford to keep her husband’s attention. And at school, Ms. Hussa (who might have her own secrets) expels one girl for being caught with a boy, and reads too much into the friendship of two others. Al-Mansour never overeggs this stuff, but it’s omnipresent, constantly brewing away in the background, and in a world where an independent-minded 14-year-old girl can be shot by the Taliban, it’s a vital thing to be putting on the agenda.

This makes the film sound rather dry, and it’s not at all; there’s enormous warmth and comedy, and a fine observational eye of a world that’s pretty alien to Western audiences, which makes it consistently fascinating. Al-Mansour knows she has to play the audience like a fiddle (the Koran competition near the end is nail-bitingly tense), and yet it feels honest, rather than manipulative. As with last year’s “A Separation,” which it shares some surface similarities with, much of it is down to a watertight, hugely satisfying screenplay, written by the director.

The film doesn’t sugarcoat the situation in Saudi Arabia — far from it — but by the end, it makes clear in that in the likes of Wadjda, there are real hopes for progress and change in years to come. That it manages to do so in such a technically adept way (much of the production team are German), with such clarity of storytelling, and is able to do with humor, emotion and smarts, is something close to a miracle.

I entirely agree with this review (see this one too), though am not sure about the optimism for progress in the years to come. We loved this movie (and with my wife and our friend—both of part Algerian origin—saying that Wadjda reminded them so much of themselves at that age). A couple of observations. First, the film gives real insights into Saudi society and family life—which is opaque even to longtime foreign residents of the country—, as well as images of life in a residential neighborhood of Riyadh. On this level alone, the film is worth seeing. Secondly, the film is about the thirst for freedom among a few free spirits in a patriarchal culture in which the notion of the autonomous individual is non-existent. Everyone wears a cultural straightjacket, women above all but men as well. And there’s no escaping from it, even though a certain number wish to at least somewhat, particularly when they’re young. But it’s impossible, so they capitulate and then become patriarchy’s enforcers. As one critic observed in regard to Ms. Hissa, the school headmistress

Hissa is absorbed into a social system that over the years has developed into a second nature fed by assumptions. Even her lines are delivered in an emotionless manner, like a robot with an automated response system. Hissa and Wadjda are similar; one is a free-spirited young lady, and the other, a reflection of her future persona if boundaries are not challenged.

Wadjda pushes at the boundaries and then some, and has a few allies in her effort (and who, as it happens, are more male than female). And the bike becomes a (rather obvious) symbol of freedom. One of the nice things about the film is that it shows women unveiled when not in public. This unlike Iranian films, where women cover their hair at all times, including inside the home, even though women do not veil in private space. It is so because the films would not get past the Iranian censor otherwise (whereas in Saudi Arabia there is likely no censorship board, as there are no theaters to show the movies in). Director al-Mansour also clearly had backing in high places in Riyadh, as one notes in the credits at the end a special thanks to Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who’s kind of a big shot there, plus elsewhere—and is the subject of a lengthy profile in the latest issue of Forbes (he’s apparently unhappy that his net worth has been reported to be $20 billion, when he insists it’s more like 30 bil…).

The film has received stellar reviews in France and been a big success among the more highbrow movie-going public. We saw it in our neighborhood cinéma municipal, which likely programmed it on account of the buzz. Here’s the trailer of the film (French s/t) and a filmed interview with Haifaa al-Mansour.

One wonders what will happen to Waad Mohammed when she hits 16, if her parents keep to their pledge. A damned shame it would be for her to vanish from the silver screen.

UPDATE: The RFI website has an interesting article on the film and how it was made. Haifaa al-Mansour—who, we learn, is age 39 and married to an American diplomat—had this to say (my translation)

“Why the bicycle? I wanted to reconstitute my conservative universe, my school, my life… I wanted to show the tension between modernity and tradition. The bike represents modernity, speed, freedom of movement, the control of one’s destiny. Where I come from, this tension between the modern world and tradition is particularly acute. People are not conscious of it, as, at the same time, our country is rich. We have flat screen TVs, nice cars, beautiful buildings, but when you talk to a Saudi, you realize that he is very conservative, that his way of thinking is tribal. I wanted to show that this modernity is possible.”

Shooting the film on the streets of Riyadh took some doing, as not being able to mix with men in public, she had to direct the film from inside a van and by telephone.

2nd UPDATE: The FP website has an interview with Haifaa al-Mansour on the making of the film. (September 20)


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Mohamed Merah sur France 3

[mise à jour ci-dessous] [2ème mise à jour ci-dessous]

France 3 a eu un bon documentaire hier soir sur l’Affaire Mohamed Merah, et qui complémente celui de M6 du novembre dernier. Voici le synopsis

Le 22 mars 2012, la France est sous le choc, effarée par les tueries commises par un certain Mohamed Merah. En pleine campagne présidentielle, les Français découvrent avec stupeur que le monstre, tueur d’enfants, est un jeune de la banlieue toulousaine, à peine âgé de 23 ans.

Qui est-il vraiment et comment en est-il arrivé à tuer sept personnes de sang-froid?

Pendant plus de six mois, les auteurs de ce film ont rencontré des dizaines de témoins de l’affaire, proches de l’enquête. Ils ont eu accès à des documents exclusifs pour tenter de comprendre ce qui, dans l’histoire de ce petit délinquant de banlieue, a pu provoquer un tel passage à l’acte.

Pour la première fois, sa famille et ses amis ont accepté de participer, permettant de mieux cerner la personnalité de Mohamed Merah.

Ainsi, les auteurs ont pu reconstituer, année après année, les différentes étapes de sa vie : la cité, la prison, les voyages, qui ont pu le mener à commettre ces atrocités.

Ces crimes sont-ils l’oeuvre d’un fou ou bien celle d’un fanatique religieux? Quels étaient ses liens avec la mouvance islamiste ? Quel rôle a joué sa famille ? Etait-il un “indic” manipulé par les services de renseignement?

Autant de questions auxquelles ce documentaire tente de répondre à la suite d’une enquête minutieuse et d’une investigation sociale, dévoilant les failles d’un système judiciaire et les “loupés” de la police (DCRI + PJ) qui ont empêché de neutraliser Mohamed Merah plus tôt. Les révélations contenues dans ce film vont souvent à contre-courant des versions officielles.

De Toulouse au Pakistan, en passant par le Moyen-Orient, ce documentaire retrace tout l’itinéraire de Mohamed Merah, depuis la petite enfance jusqu’aux meurtres de 2012.

On peut regarder le documentaire ici.

MISE À JOUR: Oumma.com, site un tantinet orienté, a publié un “décryptage” du documentaire.

2ème MISE À JOUR: Voilà la une du Monde aujourd’hui (10 mars) : “Mohamed Merah a été repéré par les renseignements dès 2006.”

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The Gatekeepers

the gatekeepers

[update below]

I watched this extraordinary documentary on ARTE two nights ago. For anyone with the slightest interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is a must see—and may indeed be seen on ARTE’s website (French voiceover) until next Tuesday (it is presently in the theaters in the US). In lieu of my own commentary here’s an article by Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor, reporting on the film’s screening at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque in December, where all six of the former Shit Bet heads were present. Sounded intense. And here’s an interview with director Dror Moreh in The Times of Israel, in which he reveals “How [he] persuaded six intelligence chiefs to pour out their hearts.” En français, voici des articles de Télérama, du Monde, et de Rue89.

There are many noteworthy passages and lines in the film, and that I wish I had noted down. I liked this one in particular, by Yaacov Peri (Shin Bet head 1988-94): “Leaving the Shit Bet, one becomes just a bit leftist.”

There was some disappointment in lefty circles that the film did not win the Oscar for best documentary. Not having seen most of the other nominees, I can’t express a view on the matter. As for the one that did get the Oscar, ‘Searching for Sugar Man’, my wife saw it last week and absolutely loved it. So it was quite certainly a worthy winner.

UPDATE: Ami Ayalon, one of the film’s Shit Bet protagonists—and who I thought was particularly good—, has an op-ed in the LA Times on Obama’s upcoming Israel trip. Can’t disagree with a word he says. (March 8)

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Hugo Chávez, R.I.P.

Hugo Chávez, Caracas, Sep. 29, 2011 (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Image)

Hugo Chávez, Caracas, Sep. 29, 2011 (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Image)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

Just about everyone with strong political convictions is posting tributes to or critiques of Hugo Chávez today, so I will too, even though I have nothing interesting to say about him. I was not a fan of Chávez, c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire, as I am not a fan of caudillos or demagogic military tough guys, even if they happen to enjoy mass support among the poor. And I can hardly sympathize with someone who palled around with the likes of Muammar Qadhafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Chávez did do some good things for the lower classes—which is only normal given Venezuela’s hydrocarbon wealth—but he also did many not good things for his country’s economy. When a strongman takes control of a rentier state and makes it even more rentier, that’s not a sign of good governance. It does not merit admiration.

Instead of blathering on, particularly as I have nothing interesting to say, I will link to a few worthy pieces I’ve read on Chávez today. Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll’s NYT op-ed, “In the end, an awful manager,” was quite good. Also Andres Oppenheimer’s analysis in The Miami Herald, “Chávez’s ‘revolution’ will lose steam abroad, but not at home.” Venezuelan political scientist and blogger Francisco Toro’s piece in The Atlantic, “Chavez wasn’t just a zany buffoon, he was an oppressive autocrat,” may also be read. And there’s Human Rights Watch on “Chávez’s authoritarian legacy.” Et en français, on peut lire la tribune par le journalist Michel Faure dans Rue89, “Hugo Chavez : un mirage calamiteux créé par les pétrodollars.” I was reading in the past hour—in The Guardian, I think—a paean to Chávez by Tariq Ali but started to gag halfway through, so no link to that.

UPDATE: Voilà more links to articles on Chávez and his legacy. Alma Guillermoprieto in the NYR Blog writes on “The Last Caudillo.” On the LRB Blog, Geoffrey Hawthorn reports that Venezuelans have been tweeting “Chávez hasta siempre.” In TNR, Stanford Ph.D. candidate Dorothy Kronick discusses “Two well-timed books on Chavez’s legacy.” Also in TNR, Francisco Toro—who also has a book coming out on Chávez—has a piece on “What Fidel taught Hugo: Cuba defined Chávez’s career as much as Venezuela did.”

2nd UPDATE: Amherst political scientist Javier Corrales has an excellent analysis in FP of the political economy of chavismo, “The house that Chávez built.” Entre autres, he describes an economy so badly afflicted with the Dutch Disease that it gave rise to an even more virulent strain of this, which he coins the Venezuelan Disease. Also focusing on the economy, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy explains why “Venezuela’s ‘resource curse’ will outlive Hugo Chávez.” In his article Cassidy refers to a critical assessment of Chávez by the well-known Venezuelan political economy pundit Moisés Naím—a Washington Consensus type—in Business Week, but his link to the piece doesn’t work. It does here.

3rd UPDATE: Danny Postel of the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies, writing on Critical Inquiry’s blog, asks about “Hugo Chávez and the Middle East: Which Side Was He On?” And Mother Jones interviews journalist Rory Carroll (see above) on “Covering Hugo Chávez: ‘If Only He Ruled As Well As He Campaigned’.”

4th UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias has a short but pertinent commentary from last Thursday, in which he points out that “Hugo Chavez is controversial because of American aspirations to global military hegemony. People who vocally oppose those aspirations find themselves subjected to a massive amount of scrutiny of their human rights record that leaders who support it manage to completely avoid.”

5th UPDATE: Voici quelques tribunes ou entretiens de l’auteur et traducteur Marc Saint-Upéry, qui vit à l’Équateur et connait bien le Vénézuela chaviste: “Un antimodèle à gauche,” dans Le Monde; “Vénézuela: une révolution sans révolution,” dans Mediapart; et “‘Chavez ne peut être un modèle en Europe’,” dans le JDD.

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My car, R.I.P.


My beloved 1986 Volvo 360 GL. La vieille dame. Today it died. Not literally: it started fine and could be driven no problem. But I had it towed to the casse (auto graveyard). There was no choice. Tomorrow was the deadline for the contrôle technique (inspection), the missing of which means cancellation of the carte grise (vehicle registration card), fines and fees into the hundreds of €, and all sorts of hassles and problems one does not need. My mechanic told me after the last inspection (two years ago) that the inspector decided to be nice and let it pass but that the next time major repairs would be demanded. And then last year I was informed that the joint de culasse (head gasket) had blown, meaning that I could drive locally but not outside the Île-de-France (no wonder the engine had been leaking coolant for the previous year…). Replacing the head gasket would have been more expensive than the market value of the car, not to mention all the other repairs to be mandated by the inspector. And don’t even mention body work (or all the other stuff that can suddenly go wrong in an old car). So I had set March 2013 as the deadline to replace the Volvo. As it had negative market value at this point, I couldn’t even give it away. So the casse was the only solution.

This is a sad day for me, as this was my car for the past 19 years. That’s a hefty chunk of my life (precisely one-third). And before it was mine, it was my father’s, who bought it new in November 1985. When he passed it on to me in 1994 it had 95,000 km on the odometer. Today it had just under 165,000 (that’s kilometers, not miles). Not much for a 27-year old car. As we live in an inner banlieue of Paris—and before that, in Paris itself—, use public transportation to go to work, and have food and most essential shopping within walking distance, the car was not taken out much. In recent years, once or twice a week on average (also, my wife doesn’t drive). And a significant portion of the 70K km I put on the odometer over the past 19 years was trips and vacations around France and neighboring countries (of which we took many when my daughter was younger). But one still needs a car and I had started thinking eight or nine years ago about getting a new one (or, rather, a more recent used model). But a reportage on France 2’s Envoyé Spécial (French ’60 Minutes’) several years ago made me decide to hold on to the Volvo for as long as possible. The reportage was on the repair costs of recent model cars with everything electronic and loaded with computer chips. One of the stories had a woman with her Renault or something and where the speedometer and odometer ceased to function. As her independent mechanic couldn’t deal with the new electronic stuff she had to go to the concessionaire (dealer)—already more expensive—to get it fixed. She was told the entire dashboard would have to be replaced. Cost: €800 (plus labor). I took note of this, as the very same thing had happened to my car a short time earlier. I took it to my mechanic (no dealer). The repair involved finding the wire from the dashboard and reattaching it in the right place. Cost: €57. That was it. I was keeping the Volvo until something major broke. And besides, Volvos are good cars! Properly maintained, they can go on for years.

But it was a gas guzzler, was rusting, the fenders starting to come loose, the rear right door not opening properly, et j’en passe. My daughter had also been increasingly embarrassed by it in recent years—her friends’ parents all have nice new model cars—and, I have to admit, I was slightly gêné myself parking in the lot at the last couple of weddings we attended (looking like the poor cousin from the sticks). So voilà, la vieille dame n’est plus. As soon as my leg is back to normal I’ll start looking for a new-used one (as given the frequency with which I drive, I cannot justify buying a new car). Donc si quelqu’un dans la région parisienne à une voiture d’occasion à vendre—fabrication allemande ou japonaise de préférence (mais pas française)—et pour à peu près €5000, faites-moi signe.



From our kitchen window.

From our kitchen window.

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Saw it the day before yesterday, in my first outing to the cinema in seven weeks. Voilà my quick take.

There are two broad issues in regard to the film. The first—and less important one—is its length and pacing. Several friends and family members—including my wife (with whom I saw it), my daughter, two tenured professors in the social sciences, and a top honcho at a major NGO—found the movie interminably long and soporific. In short, they thought it was boring. At least one of the aforementioned friends suffers from CADD (Cinematic Attention Deficit Disorder), though I can see why one may feel this way. At 2½ hours the pic is long and it is not a high-octane, pulse-quickening, edge-of-your-seat nail biter (critics and others who have written that it is must be confusing it with ‘Argo’). Some of the scenes do drag on and the pacing is languid for stretches. The film could have been cut by at least twenty minutes to half an hour without sacrificing anything essential. But this said, the length and pacing did not bother me. At no point did I get impatient or start checking my watch. I was absorbed in the film from beginning to end. Maybe it’s a question of temperament. Or of interest in the subject. Or of CADD (the absence of). That’s as much as I can say about this aspect of it.

The second—and more important—issue with the film is, of course, its treatment of torture and whether or not it justified its use (Kathryn Bigelow made it clear that she did not believe torture was the key to finding Usama Bin Laden but that it was still part of the big picture; that it is an indisputable fact that torture was employed in the UBL hunt, even if certain scenes in the movie were fictionalized). I was well aware of the polemics over this but made it a point to read none of them until I had seen the film. Now that it’s been seen I’ve gone back and done the reading. The argument that ZD30 does justify torture—in part by suggesting that it was key to finding UBL—has been made by writers whom I respect, e.g. Jane Mayer, Steve Coll, and Peter Bergen (who is less categorial in his affirmation). Also CUNY law prof Ramzi Kassem and Amy Zegart from Stanford. Jane Mayer, whose review has been the most widely cited, takes Kathryn Bigelow to task on a number of points, such as this

In reality, when the C.I.A. first subjected a detainee to incarceration in a coffin-size “confinement box,” as is shown in the movie, an F.B.I. agent present at the scene threw a fit, warned the C.I.A. contractor proposing the plan that it was illegal, counterproductive, and reprehensible. The fight went all the way to the top of the Bush Administration. Bigelow airbrushes out this showdown, as she does virtually the entire debate during the Bush years about the treatment of detainees.

She was not the only critic to assert this. Glenn Greenwald, in his typically understated, nuanced manner :-/, went further

This film presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America. There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists. No matter how you slice it, no matter how upset it makes progressive commentators to watch people being waterboarded, that – whether intended or not – is the film’s glorification of torture.

As it turns out, the most pernicious propagandistic aspect of this film is not its pro-torture message. It is its overarching, suffocating jingoism. This film has only one perspective of the world – the CIA’s – and it uncritically presents it for its entire 2 1/2 hour duration.

All agents of the US government – especially in its intelligence and military agencies – are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network (the sole exception being a high-level Muslim CIA official, who takes a break from praying to authorize the use of funds to bribe a Kuwaiti official for information; the only good Muslim is found at the CIA)…

Blah blah blah. Glenn Greenwald is, to put it colloquially, full of shit. Not to impugn his intellectual integrity or anything but I am willing to bet whatever amount one puts on the table that Greenwald had made up his mind on this—had written these very lines in his head—before seeing the movie.

In fact—and as one may sense by now—, I did not detect any defense of torture in the film, let alone the suggestion that it played a role in breaking the UBL case. On this, I entirely share Andrew Sullivan’s interpretation

The first thing I’d say on the political issue is that the film shows without any hesitation that the United States brutally tortured countless suspects – innocent and guilty – in ways that shock the conscience. To my mind, that is, in fact, a huge plus for those of us who have been trying to break through the collective denial and the disgusting euphemism of “enhanced interrogation.” No one can look at those scenes and believe for a second that torture is not being committed. You could put the American in a Nazi uniform and the movie would be indistinguishable from any mainstream World War II movie. Yes, that’s what we became in our treatment of prisoners.

In that way, it exposes the Biggest Lie of the Bush-Cheney administration: that Abu Ghraib was an exception, and not the rule. What was done to suspects in Abu Ghraib was actually less grotesque, less horrifying, and less shocking than what Bush and Cheney ordered the CIA to do to human beings directly.

Absolutely. Sullivan drives the point home with this

The acts that Lynndie England was convicted for are here displayed – correctly – as official policy, ordered from the very top. In that way, the movie is not an apology for torture, as so many have said, and as I have worried about. It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years and remain at large, while they scapegoated the grunts at Abu Ghraib who were, yes, merely following their superior’s own orders.

Spencer Ackerman has much the same view as Sullivan

“It’s a movie, not a documentary,” screenwriter Mark Boal told The New Yorker. “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program.” That quote has electrified the internet as a statement of intent to gussy up the importance of torture. But the fact is torture was part of the CIA’s post-9/11 agenda: dispassionate journalists like Mark Bowden presents it as such in his excellent recent book.

Zero Dark Thirty does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet. Were a documentarian making the film, there would surely be less torture in the movie…

At the same time, the film makes viewers come to grips with what Dick Cheney euphemistically called the “dark side” of post-9/11 counterterrorism. Meanwhile, former Bush administration aide Philip Zelikow, who termed the torture a “war crime” in a recent Danger Room interview, will probably find the movie more amenable than Cheney will. What endures on the screen are scenes that can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American.

Blogger Devin Faraci (previously unknown to me) also gets it right in a review asserting that ZD30 does not endorse torture, concluding with this

A big part of the problem so many seem to have with Zero Dark Thirty is an old fashioned inability to understand the difference between showing an action and endorsing it. I’m surprised that so many smart people writing for the smartest publications out there needed to have the film step up and, holding their hand, explain that torture isn’t good. Just showing torture as horrible wasn’t enough. Just having torture be unable to stop multiple terrorist attacks didn’t do it. They needed to have a character, maybe right at the end, looking off into the sunset say “We thought we were torturing them… but maybe we were just torturing ourselves.”

One of the refrains of ZD30’s critics is that regardless of the intentions of Bigelow and Boal, audiences will inevitably interpret the film as an endorsement of torture. But this is an assertion based on nothing. In the absence of audience surveys no one can possibly have any idea of how people are going to react to a film or interpret particular scenes. E.g. who is to say in advance how movie goers are going to view the opening scenes of CIA agent Dan humiliating and torturing Al-Qaida prisoner Ammar? Speaking for myself, I wanted to kick Dan in the cojones, punch him in the face, and then some. He was an odious, immoral, sadistic SOB meriting not the slightest sympathy. But Ammar, despite being an Al-Qaida operative, was not depicted as an evil-doer or as someone viscerally arousing antipathy. He was a prisoner being subjected to a war crime. By the end of that long sequence—with Ammar being put in the box—I was thoroughly revolted at the actions of the CIA. And I felt that Bigelow and Boal were making a strong statement against what was happening to Ammar, not to mention of the utter ineffectiveness of torture, moral considerations aside (it’s amazing that Americans in the 21st century have been arguing over this point). Okay, so that was my reaction. But who is to say that others sitting in the theater felt otherwise? In the absence of survey data, no one can make any kind of assertion on this.

In point of fact, people react in all sorts of (often unexpected) ways to films. E.g. for the past ten-plus years I have had the students (American undergrads) in one of my classes watch ‘The Battle of Algiers’—a film that, among other things, confronts head on the issue of torture, but also the terrorism that led to it—, discuss it in class, and then write on it. I am continually struck by the range of reactions: some come away sympathizing with the FLN and condemning the French, others condemning the FLN above all, and then some condemning both sides equally or seeing the conflict from both sides. Likewise with another film I have the students in the same class see, the excellent two-hour PBS docudrama ‘Allies at War‘, on the wartime relationship between Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle, and particularly the difficult, acrimonious one between FDR and de Gaulle. I happen to think the film portrays one more sympathetically than the other; students sometimes see it my way and sometimes the polar opposite. Opinions on how the film treats the protagonists run the gamut. It stands to reason that it has been likewise with ZD30.

There are exceptions, of course. If you have an audience of 17-year old American boys in a multiplex in some mall, they will most certainly cheer on the American torturing the Ayrab or Muzlim bad guy (or Chinese, or Russian, or whatever kind of foreigner he may be), and regardless of the context, intention of the director, or how despicably the American is actually portrayed. Back when ‘Apocalypse Now’ came out, a friend recounted to me how the youthful audience in his suburban New Jersey theater whooped and cheered when Lt.Col. Kilgore’s men mowed down Vietnamese civilians, which one may doubt was the effect Francis Coppola wanted to provoke (I saw the film on the Champs-Elysées, where there was no such whooping or cheering). Teenage boys in groups are idiots, qu’est-ce que tu veux ?…

As for ZD30’s qualities as a film, political controversies aside, I thought it was okay. On Roger Ebert’s star scale (zero to four), I give it a three. Overall good. No more, no less. It is not the chef d’œuvre so many critics have made it out to be (and in France as well as the US). It hardly merits the 95 score on Metacritic or 4.1 on Allociné. The acting was fine but not Oscar level. Juan Cole, who liked the film less than I, had this to say

I did not like “Zero Dark Thirty” as a film. I found it emotionally thin, grim and relentless. It failed to establish an emotional connection to any of the characters, or to flesh them out as characters. The violence is deployed for the purposes of surprise rather than suspense, so that its dramatic effect is limited. It is episodic (we know that the Islamabad Marriott was blown up; shouldn’t the film present a theory as to why?) Any suspense is further blunted by our lack of connection to the protagonist. Whereas in “Argo,” my heart was in my mouth when the embassy employees were in danger, I just couldn’t summon that kind of interest in Jessica Chastain’s “Maya.” The characters remain undeveloped because this film is plot driven, but also because it is primarily didactic, intended to send a message. Unfortunately, instead of glorifying the genuine heroes who have mostly rolled up al-Qaeda (an evil organization that wants to kill your children), it covers many of them with the shame of war crimes.

One thing I have not done—and have no intention of—is look for right-wing reviews of the film. I did stumble across the reaction of Joe Scarborough, who saw ZD30 as defending torture and considered this to be a good thing, as it proved that torture is effective and necessary in America’s wars against its enemies. That’s as much as I need to read from that side of the political spectrum. Those who defend torture—anywhere and in any context—are moral midgets and ignoramuses. I have no interest in what they think and will not engage them in debate. Their views are not welcome on this blog.

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Django Unchained


[update below] [2nd update below]

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I really liked this movie. It is highly entertaining and with great acting, is funny, offbeat, zany, you name it. It made my top 10 list of 2012 and was my pick for Oscar best picture (though having yet to see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’). But I have just now finished reading a biting critique of the film by political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, which, while not causing the film to fall out of my top 10, is, I will readily admit, very good, indeed excellent. In addition to skewering Quentin Tarantino’s film Reed also does a number on ‘The Help’—a film I appreciated rather less—and delivers a few body blows to ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’—which I did not unreservedly like—and other race-themed Hollywood pics while he’s it. His dense, learned, wide-ranging essay—title: “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why“—is very long—clocking in at almost 14,000 words, plus substantive endnotes—but is well worth the time and effort.

In a nutshell, Reed argues that

Django Unchained trivializes slavery by reducing it to its most barbaric and lurid excesses…[and that] perpetrating such brutality was neither the point of slavery nor its essential injustice. The master-slave relationship could, and did, exist without brutality, and certainly without sadism and sexual degradation. In Tarantino’s depiction, however, it is not clear that slavery shorn of its extremes of brutality would be objectionable. It does not diminish the historical injustice and horror of slavery to note that it was not the product of sui generis, transcendent Evil but a terminus on a continuum of bound labor that was more norm than exception in the Anglo-American world until well into the eighteenth century, if not later.

Central to Reed’s argument is the linking of the films in question to the increasing ideological predominance of neoliberalism over the past three decades. His analysis here is very interesting. I liked this passage in particular

Libertarianism is a shuck, more an aesthetics than a politics. Libertarians don’t want the state to do anything other than what they want the state to do. And, as its founding icons understood, it is fundamentally about property rights über alles. Mises and Hayek made clear in theory, and Thatcher and Friedman as Pinochet’s muse in Chile did in practice, that a libertarian society requires an anti-popular, authoritarian government to make sure that property rights are kept sacrosanct. That’s why it’s so common that a few bad days, some sweet nothings, and a couple of snazzy epaulets will turn a libertarian into an open fascist.

Absolutely on target. À propos, I had a post in Sep. ’11 on libertarianism and fascism, in which I (and Michael Lind, to whom I linked) said much the same thing.

Reed is really very smart. I remember well his book The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, which I read during the 1988 Democratic primary campaign. Most of my lefty friends enthusiastically supported Jesse’s candidacy that year but I most decidedly did not (I backed Dukakis after Hart pulled out of the race, though did, as a symbolic gesture, vote for Jesse in the 1984 IL primary), and found Reed’s critical stance toward Jesse a breath of fresh air.

Back to Tarantino’s film, TDB had a piece last week on “Django Unchained’s bloody real history in Mississippi.” The lede

Critics have carped that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is outlandish history, but two new books show that, in fact, Mississippi was even more violent and bizarre in that period. Historian Adam Rothman on a bloody incident of mob justice and slavery.

The new books are Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Belknap Press) and Joshua D. Rothman’s Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (University of Georgia Press).

The upshot: the South sucked. And it still does. It was—and remains—the most reactionary, retrograde, and all around depraved region of the Western world. The continuum of the slave owners and their petits blancs enforcers—such as depicted in ‘Django Unchained’—and today’s southern GOP base is manifest. Ça ne se discute même pas.

In his essay Reed takes issue with the positive assessments of Tarantino’s film by some of his academic associates, including this one by Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. IMHO, Bobo’s review isn’t bad.

UPDATE: Hussein Ibish, in a rather critical review, asks “Who’s really exploited in ‘Django Unchained’?” Answer: you, the spectator. (March 5)

2nd UPDATE: I never had a post on ‘The Help’, which Adolph Reed Jr. discusses in his essay linked to above. My mother has now written on the film on her blog (March 4, 2015), along with the 1964 indy film ‘Nothing But a Man’, which I haven’t seen. As for my views of ‘The Help’, I thought it was okay. Maybe a little too “Hollywood-ish” at the end. The main critique I’ve read of it is that the condition of black maids in the deep South during Jim Crow was, in fact, far worse than is depicted in the film.


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Inside the FLN

inside the fln neil macmaster

Full title: Inside the FLN: The Paris Massacre and the French Intelligence Service. This is a new, unpublished monograph by historian Neil MacMaster on the events of October 17, 1961 (which I’ve posted on here and here), and that may be downloaded here. Haven’t read it yet but it looks most interesting. MacMaster is the leading historian in the English-speaking world of this dark episode in modern French history, and one of the top ones of France and colonial Algeria more generally. Among his books are Colonial Migrants and Racism: Algerians in France, 1900-62; Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (co-authored with Jim House); and Burning the Veil: The Algerian War and the ‘Emancipation’ of Muslim Women, 1954–62 (disclosure: I have a long overdue review of this to write). All excellent and must reads for anyone interested in the subject.

macmaster colonial migrants and racism

paris 1961 house macmaster

neil macmaster burning the veil

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