by Ari Armstrong, June 30, 2004
As much as I dislike contributing to Michael Moore's income, I finally decided to see his latest movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. Parts of it are worth watching. My purpose here is not to attempt a comprehensive review of the disputes over facts and relevant context regarding the film, though, as one reviewer laments, "Moore's reputation demands that we regard everything in his films with a healthy portion of skepticism." [Update: Dave Kopel claims the film contains "fifty-six deceits."] (Nor do I wish to say anything beyond this sentence about the unscrupulous right-wing invocation of the anti-constitutional campaign finance laws to attack Moore.) Instead I want to address a few themes of the movie.
The movie is most compelling on the subjects of Saudi Arabia and the domestic reaction to terrorism. Moore reviews the personal, financial, and political ties between the Bush administrations and leaders of Saudi Arabia. It does seem clear that Saudi Arabia was at least as strongly connected to the terrorist attacks in the U.S. as was, say, Iraq. The connection between the Bush family and Saudi leaders creates, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interests. Indeed, some of my more hawkish friends wonder why we haven't invaded Saudi Arabia, too. Yet we mustn't reify nations: the connection between the Bushes and some Saudis isn't enough, by itself, to prove that the current Bush administration acted inappropriately with respect to Saudi Arabia. [Update: The Rocky Mountain News published an informative interview about Saudi Arabia on July 1.]
Moore reviews the domestic reaction as grim and absurd. A lady at an airport is forced to drink her own breast milk in order to "prove" she isn't a terrorist. A group of cookie-munching peace activists is infiltrated by the sheriff's department. A weight lifter is turned into the FBI by his buddies at the gym for criticizing the President. Moore interviews a congressman who admits his colleagues rarely read the bills they vote into law, including the PATRIOT Act. Some people do frightening things during a crisis.
What annoys me about most of Moore's work, though, is that he goes for the emotional appeal rather than attempt to build a logical case. His treatment of Bush illustrates this point. He shows Bush, twice, being primped for a television address. Moore just leaves Bush up there, on screen, looking silly while somebody plays with his hair. But who doesn't look silly when getting prepped for television? I'm confident that, if we left a camera on Moore for a day, we could come up with a large number of silly-looking takes. A very large number. Apparently, we're supposed to sit in the audience and project our anger at the guy on screen, this imbecile who "stole" the election in 2000.
More ridiculous is Moore's attempts to read Bush's mind as the President sat in a classroom after he was informed of the attacks. Yes, I would be more confident in a President who immediately grasped the seriousness of the situation and charged into action. But Moore's speculations about Bush's thoughts during that time are nothing but cheap shots. There's nothing obviously wrong with sitting still for a few minutes to contemplate an unexpected crisis. I remember back to the horrible day of the attacks, and it certainly took a while for me to get my mind around those dreadful events.
It does seem clear, in retrospect, that the administration should have taken more seriously warnings about such an attack. Unlike Bush, I did not have access to the latest intelligence reports. But this information was not completely buried. It's not as though Michael Moore was, at the time, clamoring for the government to take more seriously the threat of an impending terrorist attack. (His previous documentary did address Middle Eastern policy in a cursory way.) The simple reality is that hardly anyone was taking the threat seriously enough. Monday-morning politicking is easy enough; predicting the future is rather more difficult.
Moore is an economic reductionist. That is, he tries to boil down complex social matters to financial interests. Thus, because the Bush administration "lied" about weapons of mass destruction and the supposed links between Iraq and the terrorist attacks in America, Moore can imagine only one alternative: the Bush administration went to war because of money. War is good for businesses that make war machines, and it keeps the oil flowing.
There is, of course, something to Moore's critique. It's a good idea to see who is benefiting financially from specific governmental policies. But the main reason the Bush administration went to war with Iraq is the one stated explicitly by "neoconservative" leaders: to establish a Western-style democracy in the heart of the Middle East in order to promote peace and progress there.
Yes, some members of the Bush administration wanted to go to war with Iraq long before the 9/11 attacks. Yes, these leaders used the 9/11 attacks to rally support for war against Iraq. Yes, the administration grasped at WMD straws to sell the war to the public. But none of these points proves the war was unjustified.
A critique of the war must establish several points. Iraq was no direct threat to the U.S. We ought not attack countries that pose no direct threat. It's difficult to convert theocratically-inclined regions to open democracies in which human rights are respected. The U.S. can more effectively reduce the risk of terrorist attacks through other means. War tends to rob us of economic and civil liberty. These points constitute an outline for the case against war in Iraq. The financial interests are properly a peripheral matter.
Interestingly, nearly everyone approves the use of military force in Afghanistan, including Moore. Indeed, Moore criticizes Bush for not using more force there more quickly. (Christopher Hitchens suggests Moore changed his mind -- or contradicted himself -- on this matter.) The debate, then, is not whether the U.S. should use military force against terrorists. The debate is over how and where to use that force. I tend to think a minimalist approach is best. Use force to directly break up known terrorist rings. I remain very skeptical that the war in Iraq was necessary. Many of my Objectivist friends tend to be very hawkish, calling for stepped up military action in multiple regions. Deroy Murdock has made a decent case that military action against Iraq was warranted.
Why, then, does Moore concentrate on Bush's motives and mostly ignore the best arguments for war in Iraq? After all, Moore could have made an interesting documentary pitting the experts of various persuasions against each other concerning the Iraq war. But Moore understands that emotions drive politics. It's much easier to hate Bush than to think carefully about foreign policy. As Jeffrey Friedman notes, people generally are massively ignorant about policy, and thus they often substitute motive for substantive argument. Moore turns this tendency into an art form.