Monday, June 28, 2004

More on F9/11 

Arab/Muslim expert Juan Cole has some worthwhile things to say about weakest parts of the Michael Moore film:
Fahrenheit 9/11

I saw Michael Moore's new film in Ann Arbor at the midnight show last Thursday, thinking I might say something about it over the weekend. But social commitments of a pleasant sort kept me away from the keyboard, and I don't know when I will get to posting extended comments.

The film is inspired polemic, and I enjoyed it (if that is the word--the second half was painful). It has some serious flaws of argumentation. I thought the best parts were where Moore just let the footage speak for itself.

It struck me during the second half how seldom one sees in mainstream US media any extended interviews with Iraqis who vehemently oppose the US occupation. Since these are probably by now a solid majority, according to polls, it is odd that we never hear from that point of view. There is an undertone of patriotism or even nationalism to national American news that is peculiar if one looks at the industrialized democracies in Europe, e.g.

The film has an affecting scene of a woman screaming that her innocent, civilian relatives had been killed, and calling down curses on the US (yikhrib buyuthum, may God demolish their houses). Given the thousands of Iraqis killed in the past 14 months, there must be a lot of persons who feel that way. Moore is the only one showing them to us, to my knowledge.

I thought the point that Bush spent a lot of time away from Washington in his first 8 months in office was well made, and dovetails with the revelations of former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke about Bush's unconcern with the terrorism threat. The way in which the Iraq war was a manipulated get-up job was also graphically and well portrayed. Likewise the cynical use of the "war on terror" to erode Americans' basic civil liberties is appropriately presented in canny and strident tones (James Madison would have been strident about this, too).

The interview with Michigan congressman John Conyers in which Conyers reveals that no one in Congress was allowed to read the Patriot Act before voting on it was breathtaking. I recently sat next to Conyers on a plane, and he explained to me that the final version of the bill, which had been very extensively changed, was delivered the night before the vote. He said it wasn't strange for a few minor changes to be made at such a late stage, but that it was his impression that virtually a new bill was dropped on the hapless Congress at the last moment. It is huge, and would have been impossible to read all the way through with attention under those circumstances.

The Patriot Act is so radical a departure from the American Civil Liberties tradition that if its most radical provisions are made permanent, as Bush desires, I think it would be legitimate to date from 2001 the Second American Republic. It is a much impoverished republic compared to the first, and ominously intertwined with Imperial themes. If Moore makes anyone angry about anything, I hope it is this.

I thought the bit connecting Bush to the Saudis was full of illogic. Wealthy people in the oil business are going to have relations with the Saudis, who at their best rates can produce 11 million of the 76 million barrels of oil pumped daily in the world. The Saudis can also get along with pumping 7 million barrels a day, so they are a pivotal swing producer and can affect the price deeply.

Another viewer asked me if it were true that the Saudis own 7% of the US economy, which was the impression the person brought away from the film. I'm not sure that is what Moore asserted, but it in any case cannot possibly be true. I think he said they had invested $700 billion in the US. Actually, total Saudi investments worldwide are about $700 bn., with about 60% in the US, or $420 bn. It is a nice chunk of change (and helps keep the US economy from collapsing from unwise US policies like running $500 bn. deficits--but note that one year of Bush deficits equals the whole value of all Saudi investment!). But even just the goods and services produced every year in the US amount to about $11 trillion. Moore seems to have started out by claiming that the Saudi investment equals 7% of the New York Stock Exchange. But NYSE investments amount to $15 trillion. My back of the envelope calculation is that Saudi investments are actually about 2.8 percent of that. Then Moore truncated that to "7% of the US economy." But the latter is not what he really meant to say. To get that, you'd have to know how much all existing property in the US is worth, and figure the proportion of it represented by $420 bn. The Saudis don't own more than a tiny proportion of the privately held wealth in the US. They are not even the major foreign investor in the US-- The British, Dutch, and Japanese top them.

Moreover, if it is true that the Saudis have so much invested in this country, then it makes no sense for wealthy Saudi entrepreneurs and governing figures to wish the US harm. Can you imagine the bath Saudi investments took here after 9/11? The Saudi royals and the Bin Ladens lounging about in places like Orlando, who were airlifted out lest they be massacred after the attacks, didn't know anything about the apocalyptic plots hatched in dusty Qandahar, and if they had they would have blown the whistle on them with the US so as to avoid losing everything they had.

The Saudi bashing in the Moore film makes no sense. It is true that some of the hijackers were Saudis, but that is only because Bin Laden hand-picked some Saudi muscle at the last minute to help the brains of the operation, who were Egyptians, Lebanese, Yemenis, etc. Bin Laden did that deliberately, in hopes of souring US/Saudi relations so that he could the better overthrow the Saudi government.

The implication one often hears from Democrats that the US should have invaded Saudi Arabia and Pakistan after the Afghan war rather than Iraq is just another kind of warmongering and illogical. There is no evidence that either the Saudi or the Pakistani government was complicit in 9/11.

The story Moore tells about the Turkmenistan gas pipeline project through Afghanistan and Pakistan also makes no sense. First, why would it be bad for the Turkmenistanis to be able to export their natural gas? What is wicked about all that? It is true that some forces wanted the pipeline so badly that they even were willing to deal with the Taliban, but this was before Bin Laden started serious operations against the US from Afghan soil, beginning in 1998 with the East Africa embassy bombings.

In any case, if Bush had been supporting the Taliban, why did he then overthrow them? If it was because they turned out not to be a Mussolini type of government that made the trains run on time, but rather to be supporters of international terrorism, then wasn't it logical for Bush to turn against them? The mid-90s temptation to support the Taliban, who seemed to be bringing order to Afghanistan (albeit the order of the mass grave) was bipartisan. Moore says Afghan president Karzai had been involved in the earlier pipeline plan, and now is president. I still cannot understand why the pipeline is evil. Afghanistans would collect $2 bn. a year on tolls, and the Turkmen would be lifted out of poverty, and Pakistan and India might have a new reason to cooperate rather than fighting. I personally wish it could be built immediately. It doesn't explain the US Afghan war (one thing cannot explain both the temptation to coddle the Taliban and the determination to get rid of them). The US only intervened to overthrow the Taliban reluctantly, and because it was the only way to get at al-Qaeda, which needed to be rooted out.

So, I think the second half the the film, on Bush's Iraq policy, has virtues. He turns out to have been prescient about how fictitious the reasons for the war were. But some of the innuendo about the Saudis and Afghans just seems an attempt to damn by association, and seem to me to be based on faulty logic and innacurate assertions.
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