Wednesday, August 10, 2005


The Power of Nightmares: BBC documentary

I downloaded The Power of Nightmares yesterday from this website.

Here are reviews from The Nation and The Nation Review.

I have to say that it was well done. I ended up watching all three hours last night. Michael Moore could learn a few things. That is not a compliment. I am glad I watched it because it gave me an insight into the left's critique of the war on terror. I found myself agreeing with the Nation's take on the film. In regards to the comparison between Sayyed Qutb's influence on the Islamists and Leo Strauss's influence on the neo-conservatives, "...a forced analogy that is emblematic of Curtis's occasionally questionable polemical methods." In fact, the Nation takes the documentarian, Adam Curtis, to task for trying to fit his documentary into a neat little package.

The parallel is provocative, to be sure, but Curtis takes it several steps too far when he argues that Strauss "would become the shaping force behind the neoconservative movement, which now dominates the American Administration." In fact, Qutb and Strauss are not of equal weight for the Islamists and the neocons. In al-Zawahiri's 2001 autobiography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, he repeatedly cites Qutb, while Qutb's brother taught bin Laden at university in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s. And Qutb's claim that Muslim rulers who preside over countries in a state of jahiliyyah are effectively non-Muslims was the intellectual underpinning of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Moreover, all Islamists are well versed in, and deeply influenced by, Qutb. By contrast, while it's true that former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz took a couple of courses from Strauss at the University of Chicago, and a number of Straussians have found jobs in the Bush Administration, Strauss's work as a political philosopher has had little impact on the world outside the academy. Indeed, the key drivers of American foreign policy--Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice--are in all likelihood more familiar with the works of Johann Strauss than with the dense, recondite works of Leo Strauss. (Curtis would have improved his case by focusing not on Strauss but on Albert Wohlstetter, a colleague of Strauss's at the University of Chicago who, during the 1970s and '80s, strongly advocated the view that Soviet military power was underrated, and who was an important mentor to both Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.)

The next issue for which the Nation has a problem is the idea that the idea of an organization called was created by prosecutors in the United States.

Curtis claims that "Al Qaeda" was first "invented" in 2001 when US prosecutors put four men involved in the 1998 plot to blow up two US embassies in East Africa on trial in New York. During the trial they drew heavily on the testimony of former bin Laden associate Jamal al-Fadl, who spun a story about the Saudi militant that would make it easier for US prosecutors to target bin Laden using conspiracy laws that had previously put Mafia bosses behind bars. Curtis explains:

The picture al-Fadl drew for the Americans of bin Laden was of an all-powerful figure at the head of a large terrorist network that had an organized network of control. He also said that bin Laden had given this network a name, Al Qaeda....But there was no organization. These were militants who mostly planned their own operations and looked to bin Laden for funding and assistance. He was not their commander. There is also no evidence that bin Laden used the term "Al Qaeda" to refer to the name of a group until after September the 11th, when he realized that this was the term the Americans had given it.

This is nonsense. There is substantial evidence that Al Qaeda was founded in 1988 by bin Laden and a small group of like-minded militants, and that the group would mushroom into the secretive, disciplined organization that implemented the 9/11 attacks. Two years ago the minutes of the founding meetings of Al Qaeda (which had been discovered in Bosnia) were described in court documents in a trial in Chicago. Those meetings took place in August 1988 and involved bin Laden and Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, who would later become Al Qaeda's military commander. The participants in the meetings discussed "the establishment of a new military group" consisting of a "qaida," or "base." In a handwritten organizational chart of the new group, bin Laden, who then went by the alias of Abu Abdullah, is at the top.

The Nation recognizes that these two points are, at best, stretching the truth. But they are foundational to the idea that al Qaeda is a figment of the imagination of neo-cons. A Strassian creation upon which the U.S. can place its national purpose; i.e. the destruction of this fictional organization.

I part ways with the Nation on its acceptance of Curtis' questioning of the motives of the so-called neocons when it comes to their desire to treat the Soviet Union as a threat in the late 70's. It is the standard leftist dogma to say that the USSR was on its last legs because it was a corrupt society and that it really was no threat. Specifically the idea that the Soviets were not supplying and/or supporting various national liberation/terrorist organizations. One which was mentioned was the Baader Meinhof gang. That is funny. The USSR as a benign agent in world affairs is hardly a sound premise on which to base a critique of neoconservative thought. (I would just call them anti-communist or conservatives but there is a need to separate isolationists and pragmatists from the conservatives who supported the Iraqi war as if their are clear lines of delineation)

The Power of Nightmares is a story in search of corroboration. It is conspiratorial and uses careful editting and inuendo to great effect. On that score, it is a much more believeable film than Farenheit 9/11. Again, that is not much of a compliment. The last hour of film contained many cringe inducing moments including a segment talking about the British gov'ts attempt to induce fear in the population. That the various terror arrests and alerts were for naught.

And even the most frightening and high profile of the plots uncovered turned out to be without foundation. No one was ever arrested for planning gas attacks on the London tubes; it was a fantasy that swept through the media. Just as in America, there is no evidence yet of the terrifying and sinister network lurking under the surface of our society which both government and the media continually tell us is there.

When the narrator is reading the middle of this passage the picture on the screen is an Evening Standard newspaper box with the bulletin- "Tube Terror Alert."

This documentary shows how far some on the left will go to deny the existenc of the threat of Islamist terrorism. This raises a couple of questions in my mind. If Al Gore had been elected President, would the left have attacked him as visciously as they have attacked Bush for following the same policy? Does the left think the right has so little concern for civil liberties that we are willing to be blindly lead into despotism in the name of security?

There are reasonable criticisms of American and British handling of the GWoT. It is a shame that the BBC choses not to raise them in a high profile documentary. Instead, we get a good amount of half truth thrown between the questioning of motives and denial of facts. I have long waited for some on the left to be serious about the threat of Islamism. I am even willing to entertain the idea that we have gone overboard. Afterall, the documentary is correct that some of the prosecutions were rushed. But using that fact to indict all anti-terror efforts is a hasty generalization. If the left continues along this path it will continue to be marginalized politically. And that would be a shame.


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