Syriana: Why It’s Good, Why It’s Awful

I saw the movie Syriana last night. Here are four good things about it: It is a serious effort to examine the roots of the clash between the west and the Middle East. Director Stephen Gaghan did a fine job of research and then translating that research into a dramatic story, showing that the American need for oil has helped to prop up Arab dictatorships. George Clooney is a superb actor in a moral manner. Arab men and boys were portrayed as normal, humorous, profane people.

Now here’s what is wrong with it. Gaghan has completely imbibed a modish leftwing materialist take on the Arab world. Everyone on the liberal side says it; he says it, too: These Arab dictatorships were created by western imperial demands, notably the desire to keep oil flowing. Their oil-based hierarchies deny opportunities to their young people for freedom and employment. That’s what is fueling terrorism.

One problem with this thinking is that it relieves Arab peoples of responsibility for the inequities in their societies, which flow from ancient tribal social structure, a patriarchal structure they have somehow tolerated for centuries without needing to blow us up.

Also the film utterly demonizes the oil and gas industry in this country as an evil empire. The oil industry may be evil, I’m not sure. Even lefties like me seem to crave oil to run our lives. If you care about global warming, you are educated enough to be taking conservation measures on your own without waiting for the government to wise up. Liberals driving SUVs have to be held to account for their actions, too. When George Clooney drives an SUV to try and save the Arab hero in Syriana, he’s as much a part of the problem as anyone else.

But the film insists on a lazy view of the American establishment, as corrupt politicians working in cahoots with the oil companies to kill whistleblowers and deny Arabs freedom. It’s lazy because the film completely fails to mention our one-sided position in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is an important source of anger across the Arab world and is held in place by a powerful pro-Israel lobby. And meanwhile Syriana goes to Beirut, and talks all about fiendish Hizbullah.

A discussion of the American power structure that avoids this truth is a false understanding. The idea that Arab youth is angry at us because of the denial of freedom in their dictatorial societies brought on by oil lust is only one part of the picture. Leaving out the Arab/Israeli conflict is dishonest and dangerous to our policymaking. As Francis Fukuyama (John Kerry voter, who has honorably abandoned neoconservatism) says in his new book, America at the Crossroads:

…the seething anger against the United States in the Arab world over Palestine makes it much easier for the hard-core terrorists to operate, providing them with sympathizers, informants, and recruits…When Arabs say they like the United States but don’t like American foreign policy, it would seem both prudent and minimally respectful to take them at their word, rather than putting them on a psychiatrist’s couch and telling them that they couldn’t possibly mean what they say…

Gaghan has put the Arabs on the couch, and ignored what they have to say about Palestine. Meanwhile his film claims that “everything is connected.” Except for our imbalanced policy in Israel/Palestine—that’s not connected.

This spring there’s been a really important development in this area: the publication of the Mearsheimer-Walt paper on the Israel lobby in the London Review of Books in March. This paper—by two leading American professors, one of them a dean at Harvard—could not be published in the United States, but the explosive character of its findings has at last opened the door on discussing the power of the Israel lobby. Initially, Alan Dershowitz tried to sideline their ideas by saying that the authors had “destroyed their professional reputations.” This was a wishful and horrifying statement, and it is wrong. The Mearsheimer and Walt paper has slowly gained more advocates, reasonable people who acknowledge the argument as reasonable—lately Mollie Ivins on Alternet, who calls the lobby’s power “one of the most consistent deformities” in our democracy and says the attacks only prove the authors’ point.

Gaghan and Clooney deserve credit for a nice try. But if they really care about addressing Arab hatred for us, they should talk about these issues in their next film.