BOOK & FILM REVIEWS             by Jeremy Agar

 

Peace Researcher 30 –  March 2005

 

“I ALMOST FORGOT ABOUT THE MOON:

The Disinformation Campaign Against Ahmed Zaoui”

Selwyn Manning, Yasmine Ryan and Katie Small, Multimedia Investments, 2004

 

See David Small’s article on the Zaoui case elsewhere in this issue. Since this was written, Ahmed Zaoui has been released on bail. Ed.

 

Right from the start of this sad affair it was hard to believe that Ahmed Zaoui could be a security threat. He entered the country in late 2002 as a refugee and the NZ authority whose job it is to assess such things confirmed that Zaoui’s claim was legitimate. There was no known reason to think he endangered us, and plenty of reason to suppose he faced death if he was returned to his native Algeria. Since then, no one in authority has challenged the finding of the Refugee Status Appeal Authority (and yet he remained in prison for more than two years, never having been charged with anything or brought to trial. Nearly half of that time was spent in solitary confinement, in maximum security. Ed.).

 

The few available facts, as presented in this important monograph, suggest that Zaoui’s situation is unusual. The authors cite three direct parallels, the examples of colleagues of Zaoui’s, leaders like him of an Algerian political party overthrown by a coup. One arrived in the US in 1992, spent the years from 1996 to 2000 in jail, but was then released by an immigration tribunal, as there was no evidence against him. He has continued to live privately in America since. A second Algerian went to Australia in 1993 without exciting the State. In 1995 a third man was refused asylum in Switzerland, but allowed to stay.

 

As it happens, all three of these countries are connected to the Zaoui case. Switzerland, along with Belgium and France, is said to be an origin of the complaint against Zaoui. Australia is the most likely candidate for any foreign pressure to have been applied on Wellington on security grounds. And then there’s America. If they can live with an Algerian democrat, why can’t Godzone?

 

The authors make it clear that Zaoui’s political grouping, the Islamic Salvation Front (known by its French acronym, FIS), was a moderate and popular influence in Algeria, which threatened the military. At the time our media portrayed FIS as a bunch of crazed zealots. Since then of course we’ve become accustomed to linking Islam with expressions like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but, like most systems of thought, Islam contains a range of viewpoints, from fundamentalist to agnostic.

 

FIS was out of favour well before 9/11. The French government didn’t like it because it was Algerian populist (Vietnam and Algeria, in the 1950s and 60s, had proved to be significant defeats for French imperialism). The French would have passed the word on to their neighbours, Switzerland and Belgium, for whom giving a hard time to a few individuals from FIS wouldn’t have been a big deal.     

 

Zaoui Is The Pawn By Which NZ Keeps Onside With Our “Mates”

 

The NZ government has said that imprisoning a refugee who trusted our values was necessary to keep onside with our mates. In that milieu it seems this is an OK justification. Noted researcher and writer, Nicky Hager, has suggested that the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, is anxious to get back in the good books of the US (Sunday Star Times, 21/11/04), which certainly makes sense. The eagerness of our leadership to abrogate national policy to France has been odd. We think of France as the country which sank the Rainbow Warrior and now upsets Washington for its cheese-eating-surrender-monkey cowardice. They’re not even Echelon partners (Echelon is the code name for the programme operated by the five-nation spy network that systematically listens in to civilian telecommunications sent by satellite. Echelon involves searching for keywords in the oceans of electronic chatter. New Zealand is the junior partner in the super-secret UKUSA Agreement, whereby the electronic spy agencies of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand {the Anglo-Saxon countries} divide up the world for electronic spying purposes. The biggest Big Brother is the US National Security Agency. There is a global network of electronic spybases. The one in New Zealand – effectively a US spybase, albeit one manned by and paid for by New Zealanders - is at Waihopai, in Marlborough, and is operated by the NZ Government Communications Security Bureau, which is NZ’s biggest spy agency. Ed.). 

 

“I Almost Forgot About The Moon” is the only full account of the tawdry story of what is publicly known. Zaoui was detained on arrival at Auckland Airport because an inexperienced official did not understand Zaoui’s French and supposed him to have said that he had come here at the bidding of the outfit he was fleeing. From then on, in the more than two years that followed those few “Pink Panther”* minutes, Zaoui has not been permitted a hearing. That’s how petty bureaucracy likes to work. *Afficionados of the classic “Pink Panther” series of movies know that Inspector Clouseau is the archetypal bumbling policeman. Ed.

 

As a related story emerged that “our” spies had targeted a whole range of Maori organisations in general, Clark said that it’s “laughable” to imagine that the NZ Security Intelligence Service (SIS) would do so. No, it’s not. Why would our snoops be different from their role models?  What else would they do with their working days? (see my article elsewhere in this issue. Ed.).

 

The PM, who is also the Minister in Charge of the SIS (a portfolio always held by the PM), would not personally know. From what we hear of the tactics of dirty tricksters in places where these things are better known, like the US and UK, they prefer what they call “plausible deniability”. If the head person doesn’t know, then that person doesn’t have to lie.

 

The Americans always say they will “neither confirm nor deny” serious allegations. Of course they won’t. And when our head spies are asked if they’ve lied to the PM or broken rules, the one thing we can be sure of is that they’re not going to admit that they have. So how are we supposed to know what’s being done in our name and with our taxes? We don’t imagine that the politicians supposed to watch this stuff would be told anything the SIS doesn’t want them to know. The MPs might be subversives too.

 

Updating The Stereotypes: Commos, Hippies, Now Muslims

 

Modern NZ spying came to public notice in the 1960-72 Holyoake National government era. An agent in a political science class at Victoria University, in Wellington, was identified through his habit of taking notes when students asked questions when everyone else was writing down the lecturer’s answers. It’s the background of such Inspector Clouseau antics, here and overseas, that have led to the common view that the Zaoui affair is more cock-up than conspiracy.

 

Nothing essential has changed since the spooks targeted students in the disciplines that the conventional wisdom deemed radical, and therefore subversive. At the time they were in the grip of a Cold War hysteria which encouraged lazy stereotypes. This was reinforced by a crude behaviourism that has never really gone away. The Zaoui affair has shown us fleeting glimpses of the spymasters at work. It hasn’t been much, but it’s enough to see that the key people are there because they share the prejudices and assumptions about the world held by many older, conservative, well-connected conformists. Zaoui, the bearded mad Muslim, is the child of the Vic longhaired hippie.

 

Echelon’s practice of intercepting certain key phrases as a means of locating the baddies is ultra high-tech, but the thinking behind it is as primitive as sending an adolescent into a university class to spy on “troublemakers”. It’s like asking a recruit who is innocent of the French language, Algerian history, global politics or the ability to read character to decide in a noisy airport interview if a tired Ahmed Zaoui came to NZ to embarrass us in front of our nice friends

 

Zaoui’s Imprisonment Lessened Us All

 

Something else that hasn’t changed is the Intelligence service’s reliance on foreigners. Given the source of their information, and the purpose for which it is gathered, this had always been inevitable. But, unless we credit the SIS with a dispassionate wisdom - which the evidence tells us would be unwise - this serves only to reinforce cultural biases. Intelligence services are the last strong bastion of colonial cringe. Unfortunately there is a theme in recent NZ history of the State refusing to admit it has done wrong when available evidence says that it has. Several guilty verdicts in criminal trials come leaping to mind. The Zaoui scandal fits this pattern too.  

 

We still aren’t allowed to know why Zaoui languished in jail, so the injustice mounts. It is most likely that there is no case against him, and if so, the longer the affair goes on, the deeper will be the Government’s embarrassment. Shame would be a more fitting emotion. The Government made the rules that it now hides behind. It was their idea to suspend habeas corpus to accommodate foreign governments, so, even in the event that Zaoui once knew someone who knew someone bad in Algeria, he’s not being allowed the basic rights that we all expect in a civilised democracy. He may have been just released on bail, but the fact remains, that his imprisonment has lessened us all.

 

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“GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE:

 The World’s Secret Services Today” 

Paul Todd and Jonathan Bloch, Global Issues, London and New York, 2003

 

In 1990 US National Security Advisor, John Poindexter, was convicted on five charges resulting from the 1980s’ Reagan Presidency Iran-Contra scandal (whereby the US illegally and covertly sold weapons to its Islamic fundamentalist Iranian enemies. Ironically, one of the reasons why it was illegal to arm Iran was because of US support for Saddam Hussein in the murderous 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Some of the profits were used to arm the terrorist contras who waged Ronald Reagan’s proxy war against the Leftwing Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Ed.). In 2002, having stayed out of prison on a technicality, Poindexter returned to public life as boss of a new Information Awareness Office (IAO). IAO seeks “an electronic footprint for virtually every US resident...by data-mining the totality of an individual’s recorded lifetime activities. These range from ATM receipts (i.e cash machines. Ed.), Web use, insurance/medical/financial records and parking tickets to movement data recorded on closed-circuit television and police speed cameras, accessed through emerging facial recognition software” (p212).

 

The IAO, a division of the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), boasted a “quasi-Masonic, eye-and-pyramid logo and a motto declaring ‘Scienta est Potentia’ (‘Knowledge is Power’)”. What’s going on? You might have assumed that such overtly totalitarian imagery belongs to the 1930s and 1940s, that no one who grew up after the time of the writers Franz Kafka and George Orwell would be quite so crude. The notion of the Panopticon, surveillance by the State, was advocated in the 1830s by the British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Since then, State tyranny has had a bad reputation. Now, in the 21st Century, DARPA wants to make it happen.

 

The US Spies On The World

 

The wellknown American writer, Joan Didion, points out in a recent essay (New York Review of Books, 21/10/04, “Politics in the ‘New Normal’ America”) that IAO seeks to combine all information, commercial and governmental. For the first time in world history, one state, Dubya’s America, has the power, which is both political and technological, to try to pull it off. Bentham wanted a more efficient way for guards to supervise convicts in London’s Newgate Prison. Poindexter and Bush want to spy on the world.

 

Bush makes it easy to forget that America started life as a model democracy dedicated to protecting the rights of its citizens. In the wake of Iran-Contra, the most overt challenge to legality and due process in living American memory, the US pioneered Congressional oversight legislation so that it could keep a close watch on the Executive’s conduct of foreign policy. Poindexter directed Reagan’s abuse of power, which is why his return shocked Didion.

 

It has become commonplace to observe that in the last decade the US has emerged as the world’s undisputed superpower. Todd and Bloch argue that American technological mastery of information systems coincided with the end of the Soviet threat. The global hegemony of (mainly) US corporations also became undeniable in the 1990s. These three forces have made Bush’s America hugely strong.

 

To what is the power directed? This is where, as joint hosts of the US spy machine, we come in. The authors refer to the corporate American State’s “need to emphasise economic intelligence apparent in the growth of Echelon - the US/UK/Australia/Canada/New Zealand eavesdropping network alleged to gather commercial intelligence for US corporations” (p4).

 

Since the September 11, 2001, atrocities in the US, terrorism has been invoked as almost the sole justification for American spying. The Bushmen like to say that 9/11 “changed everything”, but from the evidence that Todd and Bloch offer, that’s not quite true. They reckon that in the 1970s US neo-conservatives wanted something to counterbalance President Jimmy Carter’s wimpy human rights talk. Neo-conservatives pushed for nuclear war winning strategies, including a first strike capacity, to replace deterrence theory. A key man was George Bush’s dad, George H Bush. In 1985 Vice-President Bush, ex-boss of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), chaired a Task Force on Combatting Terrorism. The targets were “terrorist aliens” - and domestic dissidents.

 

The nuclear aspect of American global power having become unnecessary (although Bush the Younger casts around for excuses to keep the option alive), “terrorism” is now front and centre. It’s said often enough that Bush’s “counter-terrorism” acts as a recruiting agent for Osama bin Laden. It’s equally true that the World Trade Center and Pentagon outrages brought the neo- con hawks, mates of Reagan and Bush the Older, out of the closet and into the White House. They haven’t had things all their own way. In the 1990s “cash was refused for a new generation of billion-dollar satellites designed to be ‘survivable’ under nuclear wartime conditions. This was deemed inappropriate with the retreat of the Soviet threat” (p40).

 

Sigint (signals intelligence) has been a constant since the Cold War days of the immediate post-World War 2 period. It’s known to us, as two of the places it operates from are the “New Zealand” spybases at Waihopai and Tangimoana. The authors talk about the UKUSA Agreement, a formulation which assumes the irrelevance of the junior “partners” - New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Much of this concise and knowledgeable survey is a history of Sigint and Echelon, so it’s especially relevant and not just because successive NZ governments have implicated us. Echelon snoops on e-mail, fax and phone messages. It “has become a generic term for eavesdropping on commercial communication” (p44).

 

Perhaps the current triumphalist mood that reeks out from Washington dates from 1993, when the CIA’s mandate evolved “from whether a certain development is likely to how it could come about”. From that date, in other words, a US ability to know anything it needed to know in order to project its influence around the world, and the ability to do something about it, have been assumed.

 

Or we could date the new imperial phase to 1992, when the direct stress on economic intelligence brought into being the National Economic Council. The authors suggest that the NEC should be seen as a close relative of the agency that is specifically associated with spying, the earlier and better known National Security Council.

 

So is the US fighting terrorism or is it seeking corporate advantage? The authors at different times suggest both and either. They’re not confused or inconsistent. It’s more that the US State itself doesn’t make distinctions. Military or economic, foreign or domestic - it asks, what’s the difference?  We can keep tabs on everything and everyone, so we will.

 

Britain Willingly Suspends Civil Liberties

 

Britain, America’s main ally, has never been as picky when it comes to individual liberty. This is relevant to NZ readers in that both our Parliamentary system and now our Intelligence services are based on a British model. New rules reverse democratic and legal norms. It used to be that you’re innocent until proven guilty. But when it comes to what the State defines as “security”, you can be guilty until proven innocent. Accused people have no access to evidence, and complaints against the State’s prosecution of cases can lead to an investigation of the complainant. That’s pure Kafka. Of 81 complaints lodged in the first two years of the new UK rules, none was upheld. “Dozens of foreign people” who would not previously have attracted attention as risks have been detained.

 

950 public authorities are “designated” to spy on people as robotic agents of the UK central Government. In 2002, when the Home Secretary wanted to extend the number to 1,039, Labour backbenchers successfully rebelled against the “snoopers” charter. The “UK/US States” meet regularly to exchange news and views. They probably don’t swap gossip on each others’ citizens gleaned by local spies because it’s most unlikely any person could be trusted with information. That will have passed from citizens’ phones and computers into cyberspace and Central Command. Perhaps we can derive some thin comfort (see Jeremy’s review of “I Almost Forgot About The Moon”, the book about the Ahmed Zaoui case, to see where this has led in the New Zealand context. Ed.).

 

In 2001, Britain, the home of democratic freedoms, had to withdraw from European conventions to do with the right to liberty and detention without trial so that it could keep spying. One reason, as admitted by a US official, is that Echelon targets European companies on behalf of American and British business. This fact returns us to the contradiction at the core of Sigint. One function is industrial espionage so that a UK firm, for example, might outbid a French one for a contract in the Middle East. But if that host country were (say) harbouring mad bombers, Sigint would be having a look on behalf of the British - and French - governments. There would be no necessary connection between these activities.

 

It seems that sigint and Echelon have vast and unaccountable powers. The more the rules they work by are vague and opaque, the greater the chance for arbitrary abuses. In one apparently not unusual case, MI5, the agency entrusted to safeguard Britain from foreign subversion, spied on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on behalf of Tesco, a supermarket chain, on the grounds that the charity’s “‘political’ campaigning was posing a threat to the ‘economic wellbeing’ of British companies’, and that there was concern that the campaigns were ‘aided by foreign agents’” (p108). Those dangerous greenies were at it again.

 

It seems, then, that intelligence gathering is all about “economic wellbeing”, which is the wellbeing of big corporations. These, as we know too well, are as often as not American. Can anyone doubt that the fact of the supermarket being British-owned was not relevant? In sigint’s formulation, Tesco, MI5, and the British government are called upon to maximise supermarket profits, thus being motivated by a desire for “economic wellbeing”. Unlike the Government, which would never stoop to anything so dirty, citizens’ concerns over animal cruelty are “political”.

 

Not even the spies really think that demonstrators over Tesco’s chickens are allied to bin Laden’s suicide bombers. So it’s not surprising to read that despite the day that “changed everything” having been September 11, 2001, Big Brother’s new powers were enacted in 1989 and 1994. The original impetus was not bin Laden’s al Qaeda at all. We’re left with the impression that it’s unwise to take the protestations of the Big Power governments at face value.

 

Funny Sort Of “Values”

 

Bush is likely to interpret his 2004 re-election as a mandate for the “values” and “beliefs” that informed his campaign. In this context it is not comforting that DARPA’s Website tells us its role is to develop technologies such as “story telling, change detection, truth maintenance [and] biologically inspired algorithms for agent control”. Whatever these might be. Kafka would have guessed.

 

Dubya will use the PATRIOT Act, through which he can subpoena university library records and medical records. Things like that. But don’t worry. You know you can trust him because he’s in favour of prayer in schools and he’s against gay marriage. He watches over you like a guardian angel only because he loves freedom and he has to hunt down Osama bin Laden.

 

In 2003 the Information Awareness Office was abolished, perhaps because it didn’t look good that Poindexter was seen to be back in favour. It might have been that a scheme of Poindexter’s, to use IAO as an on-line futures market for betting on world events, like terrorist outrages, was a folly too far for the public relations lads. Whatever the reason for cancelling IAO, it doesn’t mean that the search for total surveillance is being canned. Far from it. IAO is being privatised. Then the spooks will hire smoother image consultants so we get to know even less about them.

 

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“FAHRENHEIT 9/11”,

A Film By Michael Moore

 

Michael Moore’s title is derived from Ray Bradbury’s book “Fahrenheit 451”, a 1950s satire about book censorship which refers to the temperature at which paper catches alight. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the temperature at which freedom burns. The fires that raged in New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001, Moore is saying, ignited George Bush’s campaign to whittle away at his own people’s rights.

 

This tenet has been much discussed and the case against it has been hard to mount, which might be why “Fahrenheit 9/11” has been so popular. Moore is in step with liberal opinion, which despises Dubya. Moore seems to hate him. The film even has a prologue to do with the 2000 Florida vote-counting nonsense, which tipped the Presidency to Bush. This is problematic as it implies that the topic is to be the Bush Presidency rather than the US “war on terror”.

 

Were the pregnant chads* in Dade County and West Palm Beach that big a deal? Moore hints at the convenience that Bush’ brother Jeb is Governor of Florida and that a key judge whose rulings helped Dubya’s cause was a Republican mate. But the evidence is less than an inferno; it’s more a damp squib. Sure, there were friends in high places, but it’s not as though Dubya was overthrowing the Constitution. There’s no reason to suppose that other politicians would not have exploited whatever petty opportunities came their way. * The textbook case of electoral incompetence and corruption that was the 2000 US Presidential election, specifically in Florida, gave the disbelieving world a whole new vocabulary. Voting machines were supposed to punch holes to indicate the voter’s choice. Chads were the minuscule bits of paper left when the holes were not fully punched. The fate of a nation and, arguably, the world, hung on a dizzying variety of “dangling, dimpled and pregnant” chads. See Bob Leonard’s article on the 2004 election elsewhere in this issue. Ed.

 

The world is not going to rally against the US because the Democrat candidate, Al Gore, was robbed. Moore subsequently endorsed retired General Wesley Clark in the 2004 Democratic primaries, so he invited scepticism. If he is saying that the Democrats would not have abused September 11 the way Bush has, he might be right - and it’s hard to imagine that Gore or Clark would have been as inept as Bush - but his film doesn’t make that case.

 

We are shown a series of women protesting the Florida fiasco, all of them black, being stonewalled by a series of Congressmen, all of them white and male. Yes, of course, US history is a series of such relationships, but in this context, the information is confusing. It implies that the power elite is united in its racist, sexist intransigence. That includes Democrats. From this perspective the hanging and pregnant chads were inconsequential.

 

Is Moore hinting that Bush is notably racist or sexist? We are offered no evidence. Is he saying that as an imperial power, the US is always governed by such values? Not that either. Moore is not given to systemic analysis. So just what is burning? Well, the film is impressionistic and random, the typically quirky Moore stew. In many ways Moore’s method is a strength. He throws up information, some well known, some not, letting us sort it out for ourselves.

 

The Bush family’s links with the bin Laden family, sketched here, have generated comment. The friendship between rich Saudis and Texan oil interests should surprise no one. The rush to leave the States by swarms of Osama’s rellies as the dust swirled through Manhattan doesn’t look good, but neither does it surprise. The one vital theme that Moore nails is the class solidarity that informs all Dubya’s actions.

 

Seven Long, Blank Minutes

 

A prolonged sequence in the Florida school is great film. We see Dubya’s face in close-up as he hears the news at story time on September 11. For seven minutes he was blank. Bush’s defenders would prefer to spin his reaction to render it calm or contemplative, but we just know he didn’t have a clue. He still didn’t when he finished story time and let his advisers fly him in panic around the country.

 

Bush wasn’t the only lost soul that morning. On hearing news of the Twin Towers events, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, with his persona of a no-nonsense bully, went back to routine work. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in charge at the White House, issued orders to shoot down the planes without trying to contact Bush. Yet Bush was able to campaign for re-election as a man for a crisis (“Pinning the Blame: The 9/11 Commission Report”, Elizabeth Drew, New York Review of Books, 23/9/04).   

 

Moore Lets Them Off Lightly

 

He makes the case that Dubya is a jerk, with few of the skills that the average person uses to get by in life, but not the case that the Administration as a whole seem to be fools and cowards as well as knaves. We get an indication of Cheney’s Halliburton* connections, a pertinent detail to pick in as much as the company that Cheney headed went on to guzzle at the trough of Iraq “rebuilding” contracts, but again the information is not tied to a wider critique. * Halliburton – a huge US transnational corporation, with close ties to leading figures in the Bush Administration. It is one of the main contractors for the US occupation forces in Iraq and the leading profiteer, so much so that it is embroiled in scandals about its ripping off the US military and the American taxpayer in Iraq and Kuwait. Ed.

 

The emotional core of the film is Moore’s return to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, scene of his first feature, “Roger and Me” (made in the 1980s), where youths destined for permanent unemployment are targeted by Marine recruiters. A military family loses a son and their faith in the system that they had respected. These scenes work well.  

 

Moore’s personal stuff is his trademark, as is his down home manner. His ambushing gimmick is more appropriate here than his confrontation with a dimmed Charlton Heston in his previous movie “Bowling for Columbine”. That movie is about America’s psychopathic gun culture. It features an “ambush” interview with the legendary actor, in his capacity as head of the immensely powerful National Rifle Association. Heston shows all the signs of his age and the impending Alzheimers from which he now suffers. He walks away from Moore, who pursues him. It is not an interview which reflects well on Moore, regardless of what one thinks of the gun lobby, and adds nothing to what is an exceptionally good movie. Ed.

 

“Why not send your sons to serve in Iraq?”, a breezy Moore asks a Congressman on a Washington street. Until he found the necessary evasive phrases, the man looked terrified. Moore’s working stiff humour does not always charm. He ridicules the “Coalition of the Willing” by a series of “jokes” about how inconsequential they are. We get the point he wanted to make, but it comes across as just more American arrogance (outright racism, actually. Ed.).

 

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“CONTROL ROOM”

A Film By Jehane Noujaim

 

Jehane Noujaim, who directed this discussion of the Arab TV channel Al Jazeera, is an Egyptian-American, so she is possibly well placed to give her impressions of Arab-American relations. We know of Qatar-based Al Jazeera as an alternative news voice to the “embedded” US networks covering Iraq, and as the outlet for announcements from Osama bin Laden and his mates.

 

It’s not surprising that American officials hate Al Jazeera, and when we hear of the channel, we do so in the context of our media’s coverage of the “war on terror”. At a distance it might seem that Al Jazeera broadcasts anti-American propaganda. But as US leaders would oppose any voice that was not part of the chorus they want to conduct, it’s hard to know.

 

The main impression from this effectively relaxed production is that Al Jazeera is a middle-of-the road outfit staffed by people with little in common with either the fundamentalist Christians in the US or the fundamentalist Islamists in the Middle East. They’re much more like the sort of people you meet in multicultural places like New York or London than the inhabitants of the Texan and Arabian heartlands.

 

One man talks of his “absolute confidence in the American Constitution and ... the American people”. Cynics will suppose he’s playing to the camera and beyond it to American opinion, but there’s likely to be at least residual sincerity in the remark. America is many things to many people. One of them, the great American myth, is its existence as the hope for immigrants from most other places.

 

Secular, Liberal & Internationalist

 

This is confirmed when he says that he wants to send his children to school in the States. The tone is secular and liberal, the expression of an internationalist ideology that the bulk of the film’s worldwide audience probably shares. The result is to demystify the whole topic of Iraq, the “war on terror” and the rest of it. There are no cartoon heroes and villains on display, except for some impressions of Sheriff Dubya Bush and his sidekick, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who always pastiche themselves.

 

A more representative American was the young man responsible for passing on official statements on events in Iraq. When we first hear him, he is repeating the Bush-Rumsfeld line with no apparent discomfort. We assume he is a Republican and a cynic. Later, however, in the weeks after Saddam’s defeat, he confesses to doubt. Perhaps the TV networks, Fox and CNN, are as biased as Iraqis say they are. Maybe Iraqis don’t like being occupied. When he chats off the record with an Arab, both of them less than slick, they resemble the sort of people you see in a cafe discussion anywhere in Europe or North America, so recognisable are the personalities (a member has since informed us that this US spokesperson has been hounded out of the military and subjected to a nasty interview on the Rupert Murdoch-owned US propaganda network, Fox “News”, where he was accused of being sympathetic to the enemy. Ed).

 

The official spokesman becomes doubtful about his job, and we sense that his interviewers, too, are starting to distinguish between their political dislike for the power he represents and their sympathy for him as a person trapped by his role. This is balanced by the way the Arab characters drop their studied objectivity as commentators as they watch TV images of Saddam Hussein’s statue toppling. It’s not that they held any brief for the man; more that they were disappointed that the locals didn’t put up a better fight.

 

This is a subtle film, more a look at our common humanity than an indictment of official malfeasance. It ends with a shrug. Whatever our sometimes contradictory emotions might have been, Noujaim is saying that the bullies won and that they might get away with it. As she puts it in the film’s last shot, “People like victory. Once you’re victorious, that’s it”.

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