As Michael Moore‘s Fahrenheit 9/11 cleans up in movie theaters nationwide, and with antiwar documentaries all the rage these days, I went to see another, less heralded account of how and why we were lied into war: Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear, & the Selling of American Empire, and it is (almost) everything I hoped Moore’s opus would be. Narrated by Julian Bond (yes, that Julian Bond), this film zeroes in on a subject completely neglected by Moore: the key role played by the neoconservatives in agitating for and rationalizing the invasion of Iraq.
But before they let us see the movie it was some kind of a benefit for something called “No American Left Behind” the sponsors of this showing at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater subjected us to endless harangues, “poetry” readings, and other “entertainment,” which was so maddeningly predictable and boring that it was almost enough to send me running from the theater, screaming.
First up was some guy who I thought I recognized hey, wasn’t he panhandling outside the theater when I bought my ticket? At any rate, it was hard to tell, since he was wearing sunglasses and a cheap suit: he was supposed to be a CIA agent, ya see, and . Well, you had to be there, really, because this was the Left’s idea of “humor” and was about as funny as one of Fidel Castro’s three-and-a-half-hour marathon speaking jags.
The MC a 20-something woman who said “Um,” “Ah,” and “you know” a lot, punctuated by bouts of baffling silence then stepped up to the microphone, to give us her take on things: yesterday, she mournfully informed us, was July 4th, but “it wasn’t really a day for celebration.” Hey, so what about all those fireworks they shot over the Bay, and those crowds of rollicking party-goers getting rowdy in the streets? Oh well, never mind, they were all probably evil reactionaries, because, as Ms. PC lectured us, “fireworks were inappropriate” when bombs were raining down on Iraq.
Helloooooooooooooo! Earth calling San Francisco lefties the bombing of Iraq is (pretty much) over, but, aside from that, Independence Day is a celebration of an anti-imperialist war in which the Good Guys won. I realize they don’t teach American History in schools anymore, but those feisty Americans, you may have heard, rose up, kicked out the British king, and started a country all their own .
Oh, well, never mind: I don’t think this well-meaning and quite attractive Comrade Ninotchka had the faintest inkling of the true meaning of Independence Day, because in her very next breath she opined that the race for the White House “is a global election.”
I think the president’s neocon advisors and cheerleaders would agree, to a certain extent: their perspective, too, is global in scope, albeit coming from a somewhat different direction, as the film we were about to see made all too clear. Oh, but they weren’t going to let us see it quite yet. Not by a long shot .
Next up was a poetess of some energy, but little relevance and even less talent, who went into a long, convoluted rap about her grandfather and all his many problems, her father and all his many problems, all of which seemed somehow traceable to George W. Bush and those e-vile Republicans.
Good lord, I thought, is there to be no end to this? Where in god’s name is this mooo-vie?!
I realized, then, with some alarm, that the organizers of this shindig had hijacked the audience and it was fast turning into a friggin’ catastrophe that only got worse with the introduction of some guy named Dan Bern, who did a great imitation of Bob Dylan, except for the lyrics. His little ditty, “Talking Al Kida Blues” is all about how the 9/11 terrorist attacks weren’t all that bad:
“It was a beautiful day in New York town
“Folks jogging, biking, walking ’round
“When a couple of airplanes came around
“Hit the big towers, knocked ’em down
“Worst disaster on US soil ever!
“Course, there’s the Indians, a few million slaves…Enron…Anyway, it was worse than Pearl Harbor!”
Gee, I wonder if anyone in the World Trade Center (or even the Pentagon) ever owned a slave. Nah, probably not. And there were probably a few Injuns hanging around the WTC and/or the vicinity of the Pentagon that day. Oh, but don’t bother Dan Bern with those messy little details: individuals don’t fit into his moral calculus. We’re all collectively guilty of being Americans.
Bern had no sooner finished his clueless warbling when the audience burst into enthusiastic applause. That’s when I started to act up, booing loudly. Heads turned. Well, let them turn, I thought. These people have to realize the evil of what they’re applauding: there has to be some audible dissent. And, believe me, I know how to be audible .
Thankfully for everyone concerned, the warbling didn’t go on much longer: after torturing us for what seemed like an eternity, the Commies in charge took pity and decided to show the movie. Yayyyyyyy! And it was great stuff: the opening shows clips of the president and his men lying through their teeth about “weapons of mass destruction”: “We know they’re there,” we’re “certain” they’re there, we’ve seen them as if with our very own eyes.
There’s something about a lie shot in black-and-white that underscores the venality and sinister motives of the liars. After enduring over an hour of pious generalities uttered with unbearable smugness, the opening shots of Hijacking Catastrophe were like a bracing splash of cold clear air let into a stuffy overheated room.
This question is posed directly to the audience at the very beginning: Okay, so if “weapons of mass destruction” and Saddam’s alleged hand in 9/11 were propagandistic illusions, then what were the real reasons we went to war? I’m not so sure that we get a single answer from the makers of this film, but we do get a few very interesting and sensible explanations, aside from the usual “it’s all about oil” bilge.
After flashing onscreen a quote from Goering about how to manipulate the populace into getting behind a war, the film segues straight into a rendering of the “Blueprint for Empire” and its authors. Rather than focus on anonymous forces, economic or otherwise, the film homes in on specific individuals, giving us an overview of the neoconservative faction embedded in this administration, and focusing on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Particular attention is paid to the presentiment of the preemption doctrine outlined in Wolfie’s 1992 memorandum, now infamous, in which the goal of global military hegemony was first advanced in government circles. With commentary from retired Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, a former Pentagon analyst, Chalmers Johnson, Norman Mailer, William Hartung, Immanuel Wallerstein, and a number other well-informed neocon-watchers, the story of how a small but very well-connected sect hijacked American foreign policy and pushed relentlessly for war with Iraq is told clearly and succinctly.
Hijacking Catastrophe points to a key neocon group, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), founded in 1997, as the catalyst for much of what we are seeing unfold in Iraq today. Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz are all associated with PNAC, and, during the Clinton era, the group spent much of its energy issuing open letters signed by prominent neocons (in both parties) calling for war with Iraq and a more hardline anti-Arab, pro-Israel shift in American foreign policy. In 2000 PNAC issued a report predicting that their proposed “transformation” of U.S. military and diplomatic policy in the Middle East wouldn’t come very quickly, barring the occurrence of “some catastrophic and catalyzing event, like a new Pearl Harbor.”
The neocons soon had their wish, and they moved quickly to take full advantage of the opportunity 9/11 presented. The Wolfowitz Doctrine of imperial preemption was a theory waiting for just such a catastrophe, and the hijacking of the American government was relatively easy under the circumstances. Col. Kwiatkowski goes into the details of how the architects of empire, acting under the rubric of the “Office of Special Plans,” built a big lie with bits and pieces of isolated “truths.” It wasn’t “a failure of intelligence” that landed us in the Middle East quagmire, but a conscious deception carried out by highly placed government officials and their media amen corner: the neoconservative network.
On the motives for the Iraq war, there is dissent in the ranks: some come out with the “war for oil” line, but Wallerstein and Tariq Ali concur that it isn’t so much oil as an act of pure intimidation. The makers of this film seem to implicitly agree, as they analyze the methods and meaning of “shock and awe,” which is, as they point out, “the practical application of the Wolfowitz Doctrine.” There isn’t a whole lot of oil coming out of Iraq, but there sure does seem to be a lot of intimidation going on over there, and so I’m with , Ali, and, I think, Chalmers Johnson on this one. As the latter puts it in the film: the invasion and occupation of Iraq was meant as an awe-inspiring “demonstration of imperial power.”
I suppose it’s unavoidable that a requisite amount of leftist dogma is going to worm its way into a film of this kind, but Hijacking Catastrophe is remarkably free of this sort of nonsense: the worst naturally comes from Mailer, who smirks that the real role of government, rather than spying on U.S. citizens, is to act to “impede” the wealthy at every turn. President Mailer would declare Martha Stewart an “enemy combatant.” Why am I not surprised?
But Mailer’s inanities take up only a few minutes of wasted footage out of a solid hour of hardcore factual reporting: Hijacking Catastrophe has the narrative tension of a good detective story, tracing the documentary evidence straight back to the neoconservative suspects in this case of the War Party vs. the American People.
Abstract economic interests oil, Haliburton’s profit margin, etc. don’t explain the breadth and depth of the long-term campaign to drag us, kicking and screaming, into the Middle East with an army of 120,000 or so, at a cost of a hundred billion-plus and counting. As this excellent film points out, the blueprint for war was laid down a decade ago, by people who knew what they wanted, and who promulgated ideas that gained currency at the top levels of government.
I really really like this movie, but it isn’t without faults. Where Hijacking Catastrophe falls down is in its analysis of the Clinton years. They don’t mention the Iraq Liberation Act, passed in the Clinton era, and with full Democratic party support, which first proclaimed “regime change” as a matter of official policy. Nor do they mention, even in passing, the pioneering role of the Clintonites in pushing the idea of “humanitarian” interventionism, as in Haiti, Bosnia, and the former Yugoslavia. The neocons may have been largely out of government during the Clinton years, but this is to ignore the neocon network inside the Democratic party. If the Weekly Standard is the flagship organ of the neocon GOPers, then its Democratic party equivalent is The New Republic, which has been practically the house organ of the War Party since the days of Woodrow Wilson. Two of the leading Democratic presidential primary contenders, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman, vocally supported the decision to go to war, and continue to do so. All this goes politely unmentioned, along with the decades-long history of the neoconservatives, which is nowhere even touched on. Yet it’s common knowledge they’re all former “Scoop” Jackson Democrats, with their intellectual forefathers (Irving Kristol and Max Shachtman) coming straight out of the Trotskyist sects of the 1930s and into the Democratic party.
Partisan politics and ideological prejudices are the enemies of truth, and, therefore, of good filmmaking. To the extent that Hijacking Catastrophe indulges in either, the camera lens seems to blur and the narrative tends to meander, and annoy. This movie was mercifully without these deforming characteristics, for the most part: it’s just too bad I can’t say as much about the rest of that evening.
So you thought because the movie was over that they were going to let us go out in to the night with our own thoughts, unfiltered and unchecked for political correctness? Not so fast .
The 20-something mistress of ceremonies again took the stage. I don’t remember if we had to listen to another poem about somebody’s grandfather, at that point, although I believe so. I got out of there as fast as I could. Never have I needed a cigarette more. By the time I got back in they were already introducing the featured speaker of the evening: Medea Benjamin, activist and author, a founder of “Code Pink,” a women’s antiwar group, and a local Green Party luminary.
I call her “Media” Benjamin, since she’s so fond of publicity and has no trouble generating it in the lefty-liberal Bay Area. No protest against “Big Oil” or budget cuts is complete without media-savvy Medea stealing the spotlight and performing for the cameras, which is why the MC, in her introduction, averred that the speaker needed none (but gave one anyway).
My last encounter with Ms. Benjamin had been at an antiwar rally early on in the Iraq conflict. She was standing around looking important as I told Alex Cockburn that I was curious why, since the platform was festooned with banners from the “Socialist Action League” and the “Workers Anarchist Collective,” they had somehow neglected to have a single American flag on stage. Medea sneered and declared that she wouldn’t want to see an American flag anywhere near the place. (Cockburn, by the way, agreed with me, and said he had always been very pro-flag.)
All this as a precis to the astonishing content of Ms. Benjamin’s speech, which had me sitting there open-mouthed, sputtering with disbelief. She wanted to create, she explained, a get-out-the-vote campaign on behalf of John Kerry. The only possible purpose of “progressive” politics at this point is to get George W. Bush out of the White House. Sure, she admitted, he has some uh, deficiencies. She didn’t get too specific. Nowhere did she so much as mention his support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Nor did she deign to acknowledge that he is campaigning on a promise to send more troops, and explicitly and vehemently opposes a U.S. withdrawal. But she held out the hope that we might build a “movement” that could “pressure Kerry.” And “if they steal this election,” she thundered, “we’ll bring people out into the streets!” To the barricades for Kerry! That’s Medea’s battle-cry.
I sat, and listened, in silence, except for an occasional sputter, as long as I could. Then I began to say things. Loudly. When she got to the part about how we must “pressure” Kerry, I suppressed a number of possible (and highly obscene) responses and, instead, let loose with a skeptical laugh. When she admitted that her hero Kerry “isn’t perfect” I couldn’t help but agree: “You got that right!” And when she looked at me, and complained that she could use some “respect” from me, I again repressed my Rabelaisian instincts and instead pointed out, in a calm and measured tone, that she is nothing but a shill for warmongers in the Democratic party and she ought to be ashamed of herself. Well, she didn’t like that, and thought it was “rude” and “disrespectful” of me to say these things, to which my answer was: chill out, Medea, this is the “participatory democracy” you told us you wanted.
That got her off on a tangent, and she went into this whole riff about how we can’t really do anything except, of course, vote for Kerry until we “reform” the entire electoral process. First, by getting rid of the Electoral College, and then by allowing for proportional representation, “like in Europe.” And all of this is to be supported with tax dollars: the parties, the campaign funding, everything. We need “minority voices,” she wailed even as her Democratic party bosses were kicking Ralph Nader off the ballot in Arizona, and challenging his election petitions everywhere in a concerted effort to still that particular minority voice. Is Medea in favor of that? She never even mentioned it.
Ms. Benjamin and her fellow Code Pinkos are worse than political whores. Their strategy boils down to selling out their alleged antiwar principles in pursuit of some vague opportunity to apply “pressure,” with no rational expectation that it will have any effect or any indication of what this “pressure” will consist of. As the peerless Matt Taibbi put it in a wonderful article about how the Greens rejected Nader in favor of some unknown pro-Kerry California lawyer:
“But this line of reasoning doesn’t make sense for the Green Party. If you’re going to suck a cock in a train-station lavatory, you ought to at least get something for it.”
So how did Kerry get the leftie “radical” Media Benjamin to stand on streetcorners for him? Do you think she’s whoring just for the sheer fun of it, or is she somehow getting paid off? I’m not talking about money payments: that’s too clean, too obvious, too direct, and far too traceable. What the Greens-for-Kerry “movement” provides is psychological payment via access to power, either real imaginary.
I mean, how and why do the Medea Benjamins of this world ever think they’ll be able to “pressure” Kerry into withdrawing from Iraq, or, for that matter, implementing any of the multitude of domestic projects they have in mind? They like to imagine they will have Kerry’s ear, or the ears of his closest advisors. Power is such a strong intoxicant that even a saint or, perhaps, especially those who imagine themselves saints can fall victim to its temptations even by standing inproximity to it. So that even purely imaginary influence is enough to satisfy the aspiring power junkie.
Another psychological pay-off comes with the illusion of dissidence: these “Greens” can still maintain the stylistic pretensions of “antiwar” protesters in the very act of supporting a pro-war candidate. But that’s what you get with a party named after a color: all style, and no substance.
Oh well, it was an evening well spent. In-person political combat is exhilarating, and fun, every once in a while, and this event sure did get my juices flowing. What I found absolutely outrageous is how this showing of Hijacked Catastrophe was itself hijacked by the Democratic wing of the War Party. This underscores the great danger that this election year poses for so-called “progressive” activists, especially if the Medea Strategy winds up betraying and killing their own offspring, which is the antiwar movement. The horrible irony is that this represents not only a diversion away from the goals of peace in the Middle East, it channels the resources of the so-called “peace movement” directly into the ranks of the War Party.
Medea Benjamin and her “progressive” ilk play on the sense of imminent crisis, and the panic of the American people, much as the War Party does, only in reverse. If we don’t throw those neocons out of there immediately, terrible things will happen. Never mind principles, this is an emergency!
Where have we heard all this before?
Antiwar activists looking for immediate results are setting themselves up for disappointment, just as Ms. Benjamin and her cohorts are setting people up for a President Kerry likely to prosecute the war in Iraq as fiercely and unapologetically as Lyndon Baines Johnson prosecuted the war in Vietnam. Kerry’s vice presidential pick, John Edwards, is no peacenik, either: Edwards consistently and aggressively plumbed for invading Iraq, echoing each and every lie told by this administration in the run-up to war, and has never changed his position. If Medea and her friends are so sure of their power to influence and “pressure” Kerry and the Democrats, then why didn’t they “mobilize” in favor of a pro-peace Democrat for the vice-presidential slot?
These people are all talk, and no action, that’s why: they’re fakes, frauds, and liars themselves, just like the neocons, only they’re far less successful at it (for the moment, at any rate).
When President Kerry puts more troops in Iraq, the blood they shed will be on his supporters’ hands. For this reason alone, the antiwar movement should reject the Benjamin strategy of betrayal and impotence without hesitation, or regret.