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We Seek Him Here, We Seek Him There

5 January 2002

'The hunt for Osama bin Laden offers those who script U.S. foreign policy a way to distract us from awkward links to the Saudi regime'

Now that Osama bin Laden has revived his fading movie career in the surprise hit of the season -- a remake of The Scarlet Pimpernel -- film enthusiasts might be curious to know what the producers who run the U.S. government are contemplating as a sequel. After more than two months of bombing, the overthrow of the Taliban, and several thousand corpses, the Arab Leslie Howard apparently remains at large -- in charge of a mobile studio -- which leaves the writers at DreamWorks East scrambling for a new plot.

If I had to bet, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and White House media expert Karl Rove will set the action in fourth-world Somalia, where, like Afghanistan, sinister tribal warlords from central casting grow thick on the ground and extras cost very little to hire. Black Hawk Down,the film, provides a useful outline for a new screen treatment, although the Rumsfeld/Rove writing team will need some fancy plot twists to guarantee a PG rating -- no American soldiers can be shown to die in vain, as they did in the Bush/Clinton version that premiered in 1993. Perhaps they can work in a feminist angle -- something like The World War for Women's Rights.

Whatever the scriptwriters have in mind, U.S. moviegoers won't get to see any of the documentary footage that this and past U.S. administrations have taken during the shooting of so many fine feature films produced under the series title, The War Against Evil: Innocent America Strikes Back.

Too bad. Movies about making movies can be fascinating, like Burden of Dreams,which chronicled the production of Werner Herzog's epic Fitzcarraldo. Given that American politics are more and more cinematic in their conception -- that is, more dreamlike in their distortion of reality -- a movie about the movie could well be the only way to understand American policy.

In such a documentary, we would be taken onto the backlot to view the intimate relationship between the U.S. Government and the Persian Gulf potentates who sell the oil that fuels the SUVs that fill American theater parking lots. This footage would be compelling: Not only is the aristocratic Mr. bin Laden a product of the Saudi Arabian elite, he's also a former CIA asset in the war against Soviet rule in Afghanistan.

To grasp the intricacies of the White House screenwriter's mind, we need to venture briefly into documentary reality. Mr. bin Laden is still making independent movies because, in the past, Washington preferred it that way -- the Pimpernel roaming free was more useful to the Americans and to the Saudis than Mr. bin Laden dead or in jail.

America's wealthy clients in the Saudi royal family have long played a double game, solemnly denouncing "state terrorism" by Israel while funding various Islamic terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and Hamas, through secret accounts and "charitable foundations." The Saudi royals do this to buy off their own dissident mullahs and the wretched faithful of the Wahhabi Muslim sect, who object to hypocritical displays of piety by their publicly puritanical and privately louche rulers. "Look," whispers the House of Saud in mosques all over the Kingdom, "we say one thing to the U.S. state department and we do something completely different. We're not really in league with the infidel; we're Muslims good and true."

As reported in The Washington Post, this double game had gone so far by 1996 that the Saudi government refused the Sudanese/U.S. offer to submit Mr. bin Laden to the Saudi criminal justice system, despite his well-known ambition to overthrow the monarchy and evict American troops from sacred Muslim soil.

But so sterling was the Arab Pimpernel's reputation as a holy warrior against Communist and Western decadence, that the royal family decided it was safer not to place him on trial. In Saudi Arabia, equal justice under law would almost certainly have required a public beheading of Mr. bin La den, or at least the amputation of one or more of his limbs. The Wahhabi "street" might well have objected to Mr. bin Laden's martyrdom. So the Pimpernel departed Khartoum for Kandahar, his bank accounts and wardrobe int act. And the Clinton administration said bon voyage, for it did not dare to move against Mr. bin Laden and risk upsetting the Saudi oiligarchy.

If this caused uneasiness in Washington, we may never really know its extent; right now, Clinton administration alumni are furiously leaking stories about how hard they tried to catch Mr. bin Laden. (In fact, according to The Guardian, the new Bush administration called the FBI off its investigation of two of the Pimpernel's Virginia-based brothers, Abdullah and Omar, an investigation already enfeebled by Mr. Clinton. Were we really expected to believe that Osama is the black sheep of the family? Were we really surprised that 15 of the suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi?)

But U.S. Foreign policy is doggedly bipartisan and cynical; the Bush administration strategy in the Persian Gulf is only marginally worse than any of its predecessors' strategies. The new Bush team gets the same deal that all the others have gotten: a steady supply of cheap oil and a huge number of recycled petrodollars to fund the new American empire (as well as the Carlyle Group, an investment company that benefits from the political sagacity of George Bush the elder, who counts several Mr. bin Ladens among his business associates).

The United States buys about 17 per cent of its crude oil imports from the Saudis; in return, the Saudis, numbering perhaps 16 million subjects, have "taken delivery" on more than $28-billion (U.S.) worth of American weapons since 1993. Saudi investment in the United States totals about $500-billion.

In this appalling enterprise, the U.S. has succeeded Britain in the Great Game of diplomatic maneuver -- minus the colonial pretensions of civilizing the natives. Jews and Arabs keep dying in the former British protectorate known as Palestine as the U.S. plays its own double game -- subsidizing Israel while guarding Saudi oil wells that help pay expenses for the suicide bombers that kill Israeli civilians.

Nearby, the Sunni Muslim dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, enjoyed U.S. military support as long as he was killing uppity Shia Muslims from Iran. The U.S. ambassador gave tacit approval to his invasion of Kuwait, but when Saddam gets too greedy and grabs the whole country, his oppressed citizens are forced to pay, killed by the uncounted thousands by bombing and embargo. Mr. Bush the elder equates Saddam with Hitler, but lets this Hitler keep power because neither he nor the Saudi royals, who are Sunni, want a Shia government in Iraq that might ally itself with America-hating Iran.

Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf stand aside as U.S.-trained Iraqi helicopter pilots mow down the Shia rebels who were encouraged by the White House to rise up.

This script works after a fashion, so long as foreigners take most of the casualties.

Until Sept. 11, U.S. losses from its Middle East games were easy to cover with Hollywood gloss: the marines blown up in Beirut; a few hundred corpses in the gulf war and some cases of gulf war syndrome; the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the USS Cole in Yemen.

Yet I don't think that even 3,200 dead in the heart of New York and Washington are enough to teach us what the British learned so recently about the Great Game -- that the natives, even the rich ones with university degrees, don't want to be civilized along the lines of Leslie Howard's Pimpernel. A serious and just policy against terrorism would begin with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia and end with enough energy conservation to free us from our addiction to oil-based realpolitik. No more appeasement of nations that host terrorists would mean no more appeasement of Saudi Arabia.

But Rumsfeld and Rove are too busy with their new screenplay to think about justice. For them, the sequel never ends and it always stars Mr. bin Laden, who, like Leslie Howard, lives forever on the screen, even if he's really dead. It makes for a wonderful diversion, at least until another ambitious actor comes along.

John R. MacArthur.
Published in the Toronto Globe & Mail.
2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.

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