“When historians look back to the moment when the post-Cold War reign of American power ended, they may well settle on 2010 as a crucial year. Everywhere, it seemed, there were signs that the long-predicted “rise of the rest” had finally occurred, whether in the newfound assertiveness of fast-growing China or the impatient diplomacy of new powers like Brazil and Turkey. Foreign Policy’s second annual list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers fully reflects that new world.“
As above, Foreign Policy has picked its Top 100 Global Thinkers of the year. And, while there are some really atrocious choices on here (for example, the man at #33, who much more deservingly made the list in the next entry too), the article is worth a perusing regardless. (FWIW, #65, #68, and #80 seem really iffy to me as well.)
I don’t mean to be too harsh — There’s nothing terribly wrong with this edutainment-y attempt to explain de-Baathification, highly dubious detainee procedures, and most notably the faked WMD casus belli to disinterested laypersons by way of action-thriller. And, in a way, I sorta admire the gutsiness of the the attempt. But, if you were already well aware of these grim developments, and I assume most GitM readers are, then it’s hard to escape the sensation that one is mainly just being talked down to for two hours. Wait, there were no WMD in Iraq? You’re kidding me, right? And, while I’m a great fan of Greengrass’ previous output — I said over and over again in this space that I wish he had stuck with Watchmen, and on the Top 100 films of last decade list, Bloody Sunday was #84, his two Bournes were at #49, and the exemplary United 93 was at #6 — The Green Zone feels quite a bit more leaden than usual.
As with the political edutainment project Greengrass aspired to here, I like the idea of fusing his highly visceral action work (the Bournes) with his fly-on-the-wall discursions into recent history (Sunday, ’93)…on paper. But The Green Zone gets lost somewhere in the interstice, and lacks the gripping power of either of these previous Greengrass grooves. Instead, Zone ends up mostly being two grainy hours of watching Matt Damon run around at night, as he tries to uncover an insidious government plot that our nation has been fully aware of for years…and has chosen to greet with a yawn.
More on that depressing problem in a bit, but, first, to bring y’all up to speed: Loosely based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a non-fiction examination of Dubyaite imbecility and excess in post-war Baghdad, Green Zone begins with a brief sequence set amid the original Shock-and-Awe period of the war, followed by, a few weeks later, a tense raid on a possible WMD storehouse by American soldiers. Led by Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon), this crack MW2-ish assault ends up finding, well, bupkis, just like the time before and the time before that.
To Chief Miller, the problem here is obvious — the intel must be rotten. But, when he brings this up at the next briefing for high-level military muckety-mucks, he is basically told to shut up and do his job. Nonetheless, events soon conspire to introduce Miller to the “Jack of Clubs” in the Dubya deck, a Baathist general (Yigal Naor) with a still-clearly extant power base in Baghdad. And, when our hero digs deeper to figure out how this Jack might know “Magellan,” the top-secret source of all this lousy intel, he soon finds himself trapped — along with a very Judith Miller-y reporter (Amy Ryan) — in a power play between a slimy executive branch bureaucrat (Greg Kinnear, stuck no more) and a grizzled CIA hand (Brendan Gleeson), one that might just end up getting Miller fragged by the creepy Special Forces guy (Jason Isaacs, with great accent) who keeps popping up…
Along the way, there’s a digression into a detainee facility with all the makings of an Abu Ghraib waiting to happen, the tearful homecoming of the administration’s hand-picked Iraqi stooge (re: Ahmed Chalabi), some rather pained attempts to make the decision to de-Baathify an action beat…In other words, Green Zone is basically an attempt to dramatize the Iraq war for people who, for whatever reason, weren’t paying much attention the first time ’round. And, to be fair, it’s done with solid acting all around (including several folks recognizable from United 93), quality production values, and a reasonable degree of versimilitude throughout. (Note also the brief Paul Rieckhoff cameo, which should nip any IAVA whining about dramatic license right in the bud.)
But, for all its edutainmenty truths to tell, Green Zone still ends up feeling rather fake and film-ish to me, perhaps in part because — unlike Greengrass’ other recent histories — it seems to subscribe to a very movie-like All the President’s Men view of things, where, once word of misdeed gets out, justice will be done tho’ the heavens fall. Not to get all Debbie Downer up in here, but that’s not really the way the world works anymore, is it? One of the saddest and scariest moments in the recent and very worthwhile Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America is when Ellsberg explains how he thought everything would change once the Pentagon Papers got out…and then he finds that, in the face of clear and irrefutable evidence of government wrongdoing, most people just shrugged.
This is the uncomfortable horror that Green Zone almost seems willfully designed not to recognize. The whole premise of the movie seems to be that, if We the People knew what really went down in Iraq (or could just be taught via action-movie), we would be totally livid about the corruption involved. But, is the problem really that the American people don’t know what happened in the build-up to Iraq? Or is it that we know pretty well what happened and don’t much seem to care?
Just as with our indefensible dabbling in torture and indefinite detention in recent years, we have known about the lies and incompetence that fueled the Iraq fiasco for awhile now. And, alas, nothing ever happened. Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and the whole awful, lying lot are still deemed Serious People with Serious Opinions by the nation’s domesticated media watchdogs, who, by the way, have also been studiously ignoring the Blair hearings overseas. Our current president, elected with the largest mandate for change in a generation, has deemed all of this just the sins of the past and refused to “look backward” (or worse, made himself complicit in these Dubya-era crimes.) And life continues, much as it has this past age, with no sense of reckoning whatsoever for the Big Lies that were told.
One of the main reasons Bloody Sunday and United 93 work so well is that they offer complex, nuanced portraits of complicated times. But, as Green Zone moves along, it just ended up feeling more and more like a cartoon to me, and one predicated mainly on wishful thinking. Like I said, I guess I admire what Paul Greengrass & co. were trying do here, but Green Zone as an action film feels flat and mostly uninvolving. And Green Zone as a political enterprise — Iraq War: The Movie!, basically — often seems at best condescending and at worst dangerously naive.
Do you remember the Iraq War of 2003? Remember those heady days of euphoria when it ended two months later, with only 139 American lives lost? Journey back with me — TIME-LIFE style, if you will — to the scene of our triumph: “Chris Matthews on MSNBC called Bush a ‘hero’ and boomed, ‘He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics.’ PBS’ Gwen Ifill said Bush was ‘part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan.’ On NBC, Brian Williams gushed, ‘The pictures were beautiful. It was quite something to see the first-ever American president on a — on a carrier landing. This must be very meaningful to the United States military.’“
Well, today marks the five-year anniversary of our glorious victory, the day that “splendid little war” came to a close. Among those honoring the day, and the remarkable achievement of our Commander-in-Chief:
Paging Yuri Orlov: By way of Dangerous Meta, a new Congressional study finds the US atop the leaderboard in terms of selling weaponry to the developing world. “Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia were the top buyers…The study makes clear also that the United States has signed weapons-sales agreements with nations whose records on democracy and human rights are subject to official criticism.“
“OPEC would like you to believe that it’s an international agency dedicated to world peace and economic development, like the United Nations or the World Bank. But of course, OPEC is a cartel.” Tim Noah examines a new bill before Congress that would work to bring OPEC’s behavior under American antitrust law. “The White House Office of Management and Budget says it opposes the NOPEC bill ‘adamantly.’ Perhaps this is because, as I’ve noted before, OPEC is just about the only international organization that President Bush has any regard for.“
“It was a war that the United States had not planned, and did not expect, to fight. It was a war in which the superiority of American civilization was supposed to bring grace to a foreign people. It was a war that the United States seemed to win quickly and with ease, but that somehow did not end.” Over at Slate, historian David Silbey ponders what the Phillippine War of 1899-1902 tells us about Iraq. Silbey’s emphasis on political counterinsurgency seems sound, but, given that the Philippines wasn’t on the verge of a sectarian civil war at the time, I’m not sure his strategy for victory plays out in Baghdad, particularly at this late date.
The wheels may have come off the Bush bandwagon several months ago, but that’s not stopping Karl Rove from trying to finesse Dubya’s place in the history books. And, like his boss, Karl seems to be attempting the Truman route: “In the West Wing interview, Rove adopted a longer view, citing the policy of containment of the Soviet Union, adopted by Truman in the 1940s and then embraced by a succession of presidents despite initial misgivings, as reason to believe history may offer a kinder assessment of the durability of Bush policies and institutional changes.” Hmm. When it comes to the war on terror, somehow I doubt dropping the ball in Afghanistan to prosecute a badly-bungled war of choice in Iraq is going to look any better to future generations. Just a hunch.
“What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by Iraqis.” While the Dubya administration continue to press for its “surge,” Prime Minister Tony Blair announces the withdrawal of 1600 troops from Iraq, leaving approximately 5,500 British soldiers in the now Shiite-controlled region of Basra. [video.] “Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said though the British and American strategies appear to be opposite, they will achieve the same end: a consolidation of Shiite power in Iraq. The British have already acquiesced to a ‘situation of quiet sectarian cleansing’ in the south, and their decision to pull out of Basra simply marks ‘acceptance of a political reality’ of Shiite control in the region.“
In a welcome bit of good news on the international front, negotiators strike a deal in North Korea that lays down a plan for nuclear disarmament by Kim Jong Il’s regime. But all is not rosy yet: “In a harbinger of the potential for difficulties ahead, the official North Korean news agency said the agreement required only a temporary suspension of the country’s nuclear facilities…The agreement also seemed likely to face opposition in Washington by conservatives who remain unconvinced that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, ever intends to relinquish his nuclear weapons. Similarly, the Bush administration faced criticism from Democrats who charge the administration that broke away from the Agreed Framework in 2002 ended up five years later with a roughly similar accord.“
Meanwhile, in related news, a European Union report argues that it is now too late to prevent Iran from developing its own nuclear weaponry. “The admission is a blow to hopes that a deal with Iran can be reached and comes at a sensitive time, when tensions between the US and Tehran are rising. Its implication that sanctions will prove ineffective will also be unwelcome to EU diplomats.”
“[A]s those who believe that he is following a wise course shrink to an almost insignificant remnant, as the very architects of the policies he now defends repudiate their own work, as the political cost of his current path becomes increasingly apparent to almost any sentient person, Bush — who may still have time to redeem at least some part of his legacy — still appears to be oblivious both to the downward spiral of his presidency and to his own likely place in history.” Ted of The Late Adopter points the way to New York Magazine‘s roundtable discussion of Dubya’s mindset these days, which includes a diagnosis by my advisor/employer, Alan Brinkley. (Other notable participants include Dahlia Lithwick, Jonathan Alter, Ted Sorenson, Melvin Laird, and Gary Hart.)
Now, here’s a guy who hopes there’s something to this Blue Monday business: On the eve of the State of the Union, Dubya faces the lowest poll numbers of his presidency. “Bush’s overall approval rating in the new poll is 33 percent, matching the lowest it has been in Post-ABC polls since he took office in 2001…Equally telling is the finding that 51 percent of Americans now strongly disapprove of his performance in office, the worst rating of his presidency.“
“Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.” I’m still furiously playing catch-up, so I’m obviously a day or two behind on blogging this…Then again, Dubya’s just as obviously three or four years behind in announcing it, so I’ll call it a wash. Nonetheless, after finally admitting that his administration has seriously screwed up in Iraq, Bush — sidestepping the suggestions of the Baker-Hamilton commission — calls for sending 21,500 more troops to the region, in what’s being billed as a “surge.” (Re: “escalation.”) When you get right down to it, Dubya’s basic argument in his televised address on Wednesday was this: “Through wishful thinking and outright incompetence, I’ve dug two nations into a huge hole. Please, please, please let me keep digging…“
Here’s the thing — A massive troop increase would’ve made a good deal of sense in 2003, during those crucial days just after the fall of the Hussein regime. A show of power then — and a quicker restoration of order and basic services — would have paid huge dividends down the road. But, now, all these years later, after so much infrastructure has been destroyed and so many sectarian schisms have been allowed to fester? 21,500 troops — many of them not fresh recruits but wearied soldiers returning to the region or having their tours extended — isn’t going to make a dent in the Whack-a-Mole game we’ve been playing against insurgents since 2003. At best, this escalation is a show of good faith to the al-Maliki government, which seems to be not much more than a brittle political arm of Shiite extremists (Exhibit A: the manner of Saddam’s hanging; Exhibit B: the refusal to do anything — until now — to rein in Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army.) Yes, folks, throwing more troops at a losing situation, backing a shaky government that can’t handle its own security issues, rattling the saber at Cambodia/Iran…who says Dubya isn’t a student of history?
Fortunately, for the first time since the beginning of the war, Congress isn’t having it, with even some Republicans joining Dems in rallying against the proposed troop increase and today venting their wrath at Condi Rice before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (No doubt the poll numbers against Dubya’s plan is helping to stiffen some GOP spines.) Still, Dubya has some allies in this fight — While the Dems are universally opposed to the escalation gamble [Dem Response by Durbin | Biden | Clinton | Dodd | Edwards | Feingold | Obama | Pelosi] and a not-insubstantial number of Republicans are balking, some key GOP pols are still supporting Dubya’s move (most notably John McCain, who’s been calling for a troop increase since day one, and Rudy Giuliani, likely trying to right the 2008 ship after his recent devastating document dump.)
In not-unrelated news, the Dubya White House shuffles its deck to make ready for divided government, replacing failed Supreme Court bid Harriet Miers as White House counsel (likely in favor of someone more aggressive, so as to counter Dem subpoenas), kicking national intelligence director Nicholas Negroponte over to State (to be replaced by Vice Admiral Mike McConnell), appointing Thomas D’Agostino as new nuclear chief (the old one, Linton Brooks, seems to have been of the “Brownie” school of management), putting Iraq ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in John Bolton’s former position at the UN (his job goes to Ryan Crocker), and overhauling their top military team in Iraq. As the WP‘s Dan Froomkin reads the tea leaves, “I see a possible theme: A purge of the unbelievers.”
In honor of the new year, and since I spend so much time berating him and his historically terrible administration around here, two holiday tips of the hat to, of all people, Dubya. On his watch, the president has “established the world’s largest sweep of federally protected ocean” and tripled humanitarian and development aid to Africa. Hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The buck stops here? Not hardly. Grasping for historical validation wherever he can find it, Dubya has apparently begun to fancy himself a modern-day Truman. “James G. Hershberg, a Cold War historian at George Washington University, said he doubts that history will judge Bush as kindly as it has Truman, saying Truman’s roles in fostering European recovery and building the NATO alliance were seen as solid accomplishments at the time. ‘Bush, by contrast, lacks any successes of comparable magnitude to compensate for his mismanagement of the Iraq war and will be hard-pressed to produce any in his last two years’.”
“As [Harry] Truman said, ‘We must, once and for all, prove by our acts conclusively that right has might.’ That’s why this country has historically been in the vanguard of the global human rights movement. But that lead can only be maintained if America remains true to its principles, including in the struggle against terrorism. When it appears to abandon its own ideas and objectives, its friends abroad are naturally troubled and confused.” As Kofi Annan bids farewell to his post at the UN, he offers some words of wisdom to America — and to Dubya — on our nation’s role in the world.
Apparently none too pleased with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, the Dubya administration tries to conjure up alternative policies for Iraq: “The major alternatives include a short-term surge of 15,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops to secure Baghdad and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces. Another strategy would redirect the U.S. military away from the internal strife to focus mainly on hunting terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. And the third would concentrate political attention on supporting the majority Shiites and abandon U.S. efforts to reach out to Sunni insurgents.“
“From now on I’ll be busy, Ain’t goin’ nowhere fast…” In what will hopefully amount to both a transformation in the debate over the war and a much-needed moment of clarity for the Dubya administration (alas, not likely), the Baker-Hamilton Commission officially releases its Iraq report (Exec Sum/Assessments). While perhaps vague on the details, it calls the situation in Iraq “grave and deteriorating” and argues that a “slide toward chaos” is a very real possibility (if, in fact, it hasn’t already happened.) “Despite a list of 79 recommendations meant to encourage regional diplomacy and lead to a reduction of U.S. forces over the next year, the panel acknowledges that stability in Iraq may be impossible to achieve any time soon.“
“‘What we heard this morning was a welcome breath of honest, candid realism about the situation in Iraq,’ Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said during a midday break.” The Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously approved Robert Gates, who helped his case considerably by admitting the obvious fact that Iraq’s looking ugly, as Rumsfeld’s replacement at the Pentagon yesterday. Among those impressed with Gates was Slate‘s Fred Kaplan: “I’ve been watching defense secretaries in confirmation hearings for 30 years, off and on, but I don’t think I’ve seen any perform more forthrightly than Gates did this morning.” Update: Gates goes through, 95-2.
Happy day at the UN (if not at the White House): Facing unbeatable opposition on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (thanks to outgoing Senator Lincoln Chafee, to his credit, joining the Dems against him), interim UN ambassador John Bolton is forced to resign as predicted. Good riddance. “‘The president now has an opportunity to nominate an ambassador who can garner strong bipartisan and international support and effectively represent the interests of the United States at the United Nations at a time of extraordinary international challenge,’ [incoming committee chairman] Biden said. ‘If the president nominates such a person, I look forward to scheduling hearings promptly in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.‘”
“Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.” Hewing closer to the McNamara paradigm than I’d earlier thought, Rumsfeld apparently questioned the Iraq war’s course on his way out the door. “Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the revelation of the memo would undercut any attempt by President Bush to defend anything resembling a ‘stay the course’ policy in Iraq.’When you have the outgoing secretary of defense, the main architect of Bush’s policy, saying it’s failing, that puts a lot more pressure on Bush.’”
“Historians are loath to predict the future. It is impossible to say with certainty how Bush will be ranked in, say, 2050. But somehow, in his first six years in office he has managed to combine the lapses of leadership, misguided policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors. I think there is no alternative but to rank him as the worst president in U.S. history.” Columbia’s Eric Foner makes the case for Dubya as the worst president ever. Also weighing in on the question: Columbia PhD (and Slate columnist) David Greenberg, Douglas Brinkley, Michael Lind, and Vincent J. Cannato. (I discussed Dubya’s ranking briefly here.)
“So the choice is between a terrible decision and one that is even worse. The terrible decision is just to begin leaving, knowing that even more innocent civilians will be killed and that we’ll be dealing with agitation out of Iraq for years to come. The worse decision would be to wait another year, or two, or three and then take that terrible course.” While parsing the forthcoming recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission (which, among other things, calls for Iraqification of the war (sound familiar?) and a near-complete troop withdrawal by early 2008), journalist and Blind into Baghdad author James Fallows changes his mind about the merits of maintaining our military presence in Iraq: “If it is not in our power to prevent these disasters, then it is better to do as little extra damage to ourselves as possible before they occur.”
“To talk of grand schemes — partitioning Iraq or pressuring Maliki to form a ‘reconciliation government’ and amend his constitution — is, quite apart from their merits, plainly absurd, because we have no control over what the Iraqis do. We still have some control, though, over what we do and, maybe, over what we can persuade others to do with us.” In related news, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan, who seems to advocate hunkering down for the long haul over withdrawal, ponders what to do should the Maliki government in Iraq fall apart.
“I frankly think it’s a natural default from the failure of this advice of the people they had. It was impossible to argue anymore that some of the people who got us into this mess were giving good advice.” With Dubya’s White House in shambles, will Bush 41′s team ride to the rescue? Let’s hope so — I much prefer those guys to the militant neocon wing that’s been holding the reins the past six years. Still, as one observer pointed out: “Bush’s mind works differently from the normal political mind…Maybe these Baker guys can talk him off the ledge, but nobody’s done it yet.”
“I never saw a real enthusiasm on the Republican side to begin with. There’s none on our side.” The next GOP casualty of the 2006 elections? If the Dems can hold off a vote through the lame-duck Congress, it might just end up being UN rep John Bolton. “The White House formally renewed its request that the Senate take up Bolton’s nomination. But Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, said they continued to resist Bolton’s confirmation and ‘he is unlikely to get a vote any time soon.’” Update: To his credit, outgoing Senator Lincoln Chafee, who earlier announced his opposition to renewing Bolton, is sticking to his guns and siding with the Dems against Dubya on the issue. So Bolton looks to be gone in December…Koo koo kachoo.
As Medley pointed out yesterday, Dubya and the GOP are now “cutting and running from ‘stay the course.‘” Instead, Tony Snow tells us, “What you have is not ‘stay the course’ but in fact a study in constant motion.” And that motion, folks, is a full-out freefall. As even Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) noted yesterday, “We’re on the verge of chaos” And, frankly, that’s being charitable.
“Sen. John McCain has skidded his Straight Talk Express off the highway into a gopher’s ditch of slime.” As Dubya rejects bilateral talks with N. Korea, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan puts the lie to John McCain’s recent attempt to carry water for the Bushies on the Korean nuclear issue. “McCain’s version of history goes beyond ‘revisionism’ to outright falsification. It is the exact opposite of what really happened.“