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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Great Game

by digby

I had meant to review "Syriana" when I saw it over the Thanksgiving week-end, but with one thing and another, I let it slide. Now I see that the reviews are coming in fast and furious and I'm left in the dirt. Typical.

I'm not going to bore anyone with a synopsis, because anyone who is reading this can go to the web-site and see the trailer and read all about it right now. (God I love these internets.)

I happened to have loved "Traffic" (written by the same screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who also directed "Syriana") so this frenetic, multi-tentacled, highly textured plot line was right up my alley. I like thrillers that I can't figure out until the end and which require me to go back and review the entire movie in my mind, seeing certain scenes through the prism of the climax and understanding them entirely differently than I did the first time. And I especially like it when a film's confusing plot is almost a character of the story, as this one is.

On a cinematic level it is not as polished or interesting as "Traffic" which had the brilliant Steven Soderberg at the helm. He used light and color to differentiate the varying threads of the plot to keep things straight in the audience's mind. This film is less dazzlingly directed, so the complicated plot becomes more challenging. Nonetheless, I found it gripping from start to finish mainly because it is about something that we here in the blogosphere have been talking about since the war began and it asks a question that everyone's asking (why are we in Iraq?) without ever bringing Iraq up at all.

The film observes various American and middle east actors running about with idealistic, nihilistic, greedy and personal agendas, bumping into each other sometimes at random and at others by design. But the single most important player is oil (which in real life, for reasons that are mystifying, is widely considered to be a tin-foil hat, loony-left explanation, even among liberals.) I don't normally consider myself a cynic, but on this topic, it's very hard not to be. In the final analysis, this really is a modern version of the Great Game. When we ask ourselves "why are we in Iraq?" it makes more sense to refine the question and ask whether we would be in Iraq if it weren't for oil. I think it's fairly obvious that we would not be. Terrorism, in the grand scheme of things, is not an existential threat no matter how hard the warbloggers wank. Invading Iraq was actually counter-productive to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and may end up creating another Islamic state. Even the Bush administration knew that this was not an adequate rationale for invading Iraq so they pimped the WMD threat.

Atrios has posted an interview with ex-CIA agent Robert Baer, on whom the George Clooney character was based, that is quite interesting. Here's another interview from Baer on Chris Matthews that I think speaks to my point:

MATTHEWS: What‘s the future look like?

BAER: I‘ll tell you what the Saudis are doing. They are building a fence to keep the chaos in Iraq from moving south, and so are the Jordanians. They‘ve put out contracts.

MATTHEWS: If you had to choose now between Americans forces staying in that country for two more years or getting out now, what is better?

BAER: Chris, the problem is oil. Muslims sit on 70 percent of oil. We cannot afford to see Saudi Arabia destabilized. We‘re going to have to keep troops in the area. I don‘t know where you are going to keep them, on the border, in the rear bases, but we cannot let the chaos in Iraq spread.

MATTHEWS: It would?

BAER: Absolutely. Look at the bombings in Jordan. That came directly from Iraq.

MATTHEWS: You say we have to stay, but when can we come home, ever?

The vice president today sounded like we‘re never really coming home.

That we have to fight for American influence in that part of the world.

BAER: We have to come home one day, it‘s $5 billion a day. We‘re going to run out of money. And we‘re going to run out of soldiers and run out of tolerance from the American people.

We have to find a way to remain the policemen of the Gulf and however you do that, leave that up to the military. But we cannot keep our troops as they are deployed now in Iraq forever.

I would suggest that what Baer says is worth considering as we contemplate what the meaning of "withdrawal" or "victory" or "bringing home the troops" really means. I think that we are going to be in the middle east for a long, long time, the only question is on what terms.

The powers that be in the US (and the United Kingdom of British Petroleum) believe they must control this region's valuable resource. Indeed, some of the big thinkers like Zbigniew Brzezinski (in "The Grand Chessboard") and the PNAC nuts believe that the US must control "Eurasia" or risk being shut out of the future. There is nothing new under the sun and the pursuit of precious necessary resources that belong to others has been going on forever.

Oil is certainly not the only reason we are in this mess. It is, perhaps, the fundamental reason we are in this mess. And it's the reason that this mess isn't going to be solved by either bringing the boys home or creating a "democracy" in the middle east. We may leave Iraq as an occupying force due to a lack of domestic support, or we might be chased from the region by violent events. But if we have any illusions that the United States is not going to be deeply involved in the middle east for the forseeable future, we need to wake up. Sadly, whether we know it or not, by our blind and profligate actions the American people lend credence to the insane ramblings of that miniskirted harpy, Ann Coulter:

"Why not go to war just for oil? We need oil."

Why not, indeed? I wonder what would happen if the question was posed just that starkly? At this point, the Great Game players, the oil companies and the politicians who dance to their tune are unwilling to put it that way. They work to keep citizens in the dark about what is at stake, encouraging them to guzzle cheap gasoline at a fantastic pace while droning out messianic statements about good and evil and spreading freedom.

Syriana's "confusing" plot speaks to that. It's conveys the sense of drugged vagueness we all feel when we try to unravel the motivations behind these actions. There are a thousand different reasons why we could be doing what we are doing, but nobody knows for sure what is the real one.

There is only one character in the film who holds all the disparate threads in his hands --- the James Baker (Christopher Plummer) character who walks freely among the politicians, the oil companies, the ruling sheiks, the spooks and the regional puppets. He is the Grand Master of the Great Game. He ensures that none of the players know what the others are doing, each kept in the dark, flailing about with everything from torture to idealism to pragmatic everyday power politics without ever knowing that they are being manipulated by greater forces.

I suppose that we could prosaically assume that he represents a worldly reality like The Carlyle Group (or in an earlier time, The Trilateral Commission.) But I think he simply symbolises Power and Arrogance. He is fundamentally anti-democratic, amoral and relentless in his quest for more of what he is made of. He is America's id, perfectly represented as an elderly Texan with his steely talons dug deeply into every consequential player in the New Great Game.

The only character who sees through the subterfuge is the ex-CIA agent, abandoned by his country, whose life of dirty deeds on behalf of The Company prepares him alone to understand his role and dig his way out. That is the most out-of-sync Hollywood moment in an otherwise completely cynical film. (But then, it's George Clooney who can't help but be seen as a hero.) In reality, there can be no such neat denouement. The claws would turn deadly if he were to do what he does.

I've read a number of reviews in which the writer finds this movie a simple-minded portrayal of evil corporate masters holding the puppet strings of great nations and vast empires. It's the same complaint about the slogan "No blood for oil", as if those who see our presence in the mideast in such terms are silly dupes and fools. But I would submit that it is the jaded sophisticates who are missing the point. "Syriana", for all its "confusion" really does get to the heart of the matter and forces you to deal with the one simple fact that nobody wants to accept. This planet really is running out of oil --- and we are entering an era in which our nation is going to be asserting our power to get it.

Rather than finding "Syriana's" plot confounding, by the end I thought its multiple plotlines led to a bracing clarity: Oil. I don't know that it's all that important to understand anything else and if America sees this movie and comes away with that understanding then I think it succeeds as both a film and a political statement.