SYRIANA: REAL-TIME DYSTOPIA
Is Apocalyptic Fiction Now Redundant?
by Shlomo Svesnik
The new political thriller Syriana mirrors real life so closely that it becomes a part of the very reality it depicts. There are famous cases of life imitating Hollywood: The Manchurian Candidate predicting the JFK assassination, China Syndrome foreshadowing Three Mile Island, even Wag the Dog anticipating Monica Lewinsky and US intervention in Kosovo. But Syriana is less predictive of a near-future dystopia than reflective of an actually-existing dystopia. The obvious climax has already happened: 9-11 (which is referenced in the movie, although not in a heavy-handed way). The film is Hollywood's first real critical view of the interlocking shadow worlds of big oil and international terrorism—the struggle which has come to define the world since 2001 in the same way that the Cold War dominated the world of (the original) Manchurian Candidate. It portrays not a post-apocalyptic future, but our arguably post-apocalyptic present.
If there are any doubts that Syriana is openly partisan, these are dispelled by a visit to Participate.net—a blog for progressive popcorn-heads (plugged in the movie's closing credits), where the film is used as a peg for "Oil Change: A campaign to reduce our dependence on oil." Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council endorse the campaign with their logos, while the page features debates on the viability of biofuels as well as links to interviews with Syriana's actors and producers. This is a film that argues a thesis: that oil addiction is ensnaring the US in a ruthless contest for dominance over the Middle East that breeds both domestic corruption and a terrorist backlash.
Director Stephen Gaghan was script-writer for 2000's Traffic, and that movie's director Steven Soderbergh reportedly introduced Gaghan to the CIA memoir See No Evil by ex-agent Robert Baer, who provides the inspiration for Syriana's lead character Bob Barnes (George Clooney, also a co-producer). But See No Evil largely analyzes the pre-9-11 world, arguing that the CIA's de-emphasis of field agents rendered the country vulnerable. The New Yorker's film reviewer David Denby suggests the movie also draws on Baer's later book Sleeping With the Devil, which complains that oil companies are subverting the national interest. This seems likely.
Syriana famously follows Traffic's unusual format of intersecting stories of people from distinct nationalities and social strata to reveal the inner workings of (in the prior case) the drug trade or (in the latter) the politics of oil and terrorism. But Syriana does it with much more complexity and subtlety.
Traffic had only three story lines; here there are several. Critics have made much of the resultant plot confusion, but the basics are pretty clear. Before going any further, we offer a spoiler alert: a comprehensive synopsis follows, for purposes of latter dissection, both of the film itself and its relation to actual reality.
Agent Barnes is dispatched to Beirut to arrange the assassination of the visiting prince of an unnamed Persian Gulf emirate who has angered Washington by signing an oil deal with a Chinese company, elbowing out an American competitor. Instead, Barnes himself winds up getting kidnapped by Islamic militants. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is probing a dirty merger involving the firm bounced from the strategic emirate which will (conveniently) recoup US losses by gaining Caspian Basin drilling rights in Kazakhstan. Matt Damon plays an idealistic energy analyst who is contracted by yet another firm seeking interest in the emirate, and gets caught up in a succession struggle between the prince who invited in the Chinese (a modernizer who wants to give women the vote and stand up to the Americans) and his younger brother (a subservient little playboy pisher). As lawyers, lobbyists and executives play an intricate shadow game in the Beltway to allow the sleazy but geo-strategically necessary merger while keeping a facade of legality, the aging emir (under at least implicit pressure from the Pentagon, which has thousands of troops stationed in his country) decides that the imbecilic pisher prince will succeed him to the throne—guaranteeing a return to easy access for US companies. The rival prince and the energy analyst plot a coup. As they go into action, the CIA decides to take the rebel prince out with a remote-controlled missile, presumably fired from a drone. Barnes, now freed from captivity but cut loose by the Agency for blowing it in Beirut, betrays his former masters, racing with time to warn the rebel prince—too late. The former agent and his former target die together in the missile strike.
There is one more story line—possibly the most gripping, but insufficiently integrated into the general plot. This concerns the foreign workers at the emirate's oil fields. Living in abysmal conditions, denied citizenship, divided from their families back home in South Asia and routinely brutalized by the security forces, they provide ripe fodder for the jihadi terror networks. One young Pakistani boy is groomed by a charismatic mullah and finally sent on a suicide mission against the oil installation. This attack provides a sort of postscript climax to the drone missile attack.
The film gets big creds for cutting through the nonsense of al-Qaeda as an elite, hardened, strictly hierarchical organization. The jihadi terrorists here are not cliches from a James Bond movie. They have no high-tech communications gadgets or secret hand-shakes. They are portrayed as painfully naive, even idealistic; people who have been exposed to no possibilities other than a brutalizing modernity or a purifying fundamentalism. It is all too believable.
There is a minimum of the usual stupid Hollywood tricks. The most egregious is the gratuitous death of the Matt Damon character's blue-eyed, blond, six-year-old son. As soon as the kid is introduced you know he will be shortly dispatched for reasons of cheap sentiment (although he is done in by an accident, not terrorism, making it even more senseless). Otherwise, the movie keeps its eye on the ball relentlessly.
There is little in the film that doesn't have some rough analogue in reality. Few liberties are taken. It is true that discrete assassinations of foreign leaders like Clooney's Lebanon caper supposedly aren't done anymore by the "new" CIA. The more clinical and antiseptic drone attacks such as that depicted at film's climax are openly admitted—but supposedly only against "enemy combatants." History, however, amply demonstrates that cynics should be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to CIA adventurism.
The Matt Damon character is fluent in the current "peak oil" debate, and gives his friend the prince a lecture on the subject (although not by name). The scales fall from the prince's eyes—he realizes he could have the West by the balls, and starts planning his coup. The controversy over the merger and the fears of China elbowing in on "our" oil recall recent headlines about the attempted take-over of Unocal (with its strategic Caspian Basin investments) by a Chinese company (which Congress intervened to halt), and its subsequent buy-out by Chevron. The kidnapping of Barnes recalls the 1984 abduction of the CIA's Beirut station chief Bill Buckley (who the real-life Baer was assigned to hunt down). The frequent terror attacks on oil installations in Saudi Arabia are another obvious parallel to the silver screen action.
The neocons who have supposedly seized control of US foreign policy are here as well—in the form of a "Committee to Liberate Iran," private-sector wonks who are granted access to high-level CIA meetings to peddle their plans for "regime change." This is a none-too-subtle reference to the real-life Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, spun off by the notorious Project for a New American Century (PNAC) to push for the invasion in 2002.
This notion of an imperialist design to remake the political order of the Middle East is close to the film's dystopian vision, and is apparently the origin of its obscure name (never actually explained). The immediate assumption that "Syriana" is the name of the unnamed emirate rings false—it evokes Syria, which is not on the Persian Gulf, not an emirate and has no oil to speak of. The fictional kingdom is clearly based on Kuwait or Abu Dhabi (where the scenes set in the emirate were filmed). Instead, Syriana refers to a zeitgeist—even a conspiracy—and was an actual code word in elite Beltway circles. Said Gaghan in an interview with the Washington Post:
"'Syriana' was a term that I heard in think tanks in Washington... [I]n the fall of '02 it seemed to stand for a hypothetical redrawing of the boundaries in the Middle East. For my purposes, I thought it was just a great word that could stand for man's perpetual hope of remaking any geographic region to suit his own needs, a dream that in the case of the Middle East has been going on at least since the time of Caesar in 80 B.C."
Given this, it is a surprising weakness that Syriana hardly mentions Israel—whose interests the neocons supposedly have closer at heart than those of the United States itself. Then again, maybe it isn't so surprising—this omission is itself testimony to the vast powers of the Jews, it will surely be argued. Robert Fisk leads the charge. After praising the makers of Syriana for taking on the neocon agenda, he grouses in The Independent:
"Yet still they avoid the 'Israel' question. The Arab princes in Syriana—who in real life would be obsessed with the occupation of the West Bank—do not murmur a word about Israel. The Arab al-Qa'ida operative who persuades the young Pakistani to attack an oil tanker makes no reference to Israel—as every one of bin Laden's acolytes assuredly would. It was instructive that Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 did not mention Israel once."
Syriana's producers have created more problems than they have avoided by chickening out on this point. The question of Palestine is indeed central to understanding anything about the Middle East. Failure to address it means failure to place it within their paradigm, thus undermining their own thesis. As someone once said, "base determines superstructure." The current ascendant posture of the ultra-Zionist neocons in the US Administration is a product of the dictates of empire and control of oil. A particular strategy and ideology of control over the Middle East has been afforded a privileged position. The imperative to control the Middle East at all has to do with a global economy and industrial leviathan predicated on endless oil consumption. Syriana's assumption is correct that an imperial contest with China for access to oil has more to do with the root causes of the current US hyper-interventionism than the mandate to protect Israel. (Indeed, the chairman of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq is Bruce Jackson, former vice president of Lockheed-Martin, who might have had reasons baser than Zionist indoctrination to be rooting for war in the Persian Gulf.) But by failing to mention Israel at all, the producers come across like they are hiding something—and play into all the worst assumptions of the Judeophobes.
The prince's attempted nationalist coup d'etat is the least plausible part of the story. The Matt Damon character refers to his ally the rebel prince as "the new Mossadeq," a reference to the nationalist leader of Iran who was toppled in a CIA coup after seizing the oilfields from the British back in '52. This unaccustomed (for Hollywood) glance in the rearview mirror affords a reflection on how much the world has changed. Mossadeq was an elected prime minister, not a monarch (and was, in fact, opposed and finally replaced by the Shah). The secular radical nationalist regimes in the Middle East have nearly all been either overthrown, like Mossadeq, or domesticated, like Nasser's successors in Egypt. The only ones which still hang on are Qadaffi in Libya and Assad in Syria—and these have been largely defanged. Worse, in the maximalist neocon fantasies (which the White House has hopefully backed off from following the quagmire in Iraq) even longtime US client states like Saudi Arabia are to be destabilized for their perceived insufficient subservience. The best that can be hoped for in the world of Syriana (or of "Syriana," the zeitgeist) is a benevolent and progressive-minded monarch with some chutzpah and a sense of noblesse oblige.
Ironically, a key pawn of imperial strategy against the secular nationalists was Islamic militancy. The CIA was widely reported to have secretly aided the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize Nasser's Egypt, and Israeli intelligence certainly groomed Hamas to undermine the PLO. This strategy reached its climax in Afghanistan in the '80s. The regime the CIA-backed Mujahedeen were fighting there was a pretty ugly one, and too subservient to Moscow to be termed "nationalist." But this was the matrix of the new global conflict—which is in many ways even more frightening and depressing than the Cold War.
A generation ago, the disaffected in the Middle East were being recruited by Marxists, Nasserists, Ba'athists—not just Islamists. These ran a spectrum from genuinely heroic to fairly evil. But even the worst of them didn't produce suicide bombers and equate women's liberation with imperialist conspiracy and corruption. CIA cultivation of Islamic extremism is another element the film largely dodges.
This history is hinted at in the Beirut episode: the militant who kidnaps Barnes is a former CIA asset. And there is a glimmer of it in the suicide-bomber story: the explosive used in the attack originated from the CIA (although it is slipped through to the mullah inadvertently). This relationship could have been illustrated by having the charismatic mullah call a superior in the terror network (an Osama or Zarqawi type), who, in turn, has got someone on the other line from the Agency. But I guess Gaghan figured Michael Moore already beat that one to death.
Syriana takes the portrayal just about as far as Hollywood can realistically take it. The problem is precisely that it can be dismissed by the right-wing pundits as propaganda from the liberal Hollywood elite—and by the uninformed as "only" a movie, mere entertainment. Which is part of the mechanism by which the system recuperates any critique to emerge from within itself.
Oil Change, Participate.net
Stephen Gaghan interview, Washington Post, Nov. 15, 2005
"America Slowly Confronts the Truth," Robert Fisk , The Independent, Dec. 3, 2005 http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article11204.htm
Excerpt from See No Evil, The Guardian, Jan. 12, 2002
See Shlomo Svesnik's last piece:
IS GEORGE BUSH A SITH LORD? And Does Ice Cube Save America from Donald Rumsfeld? Well, Duh!
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution