Posted on Wednesday, September 3, 2008
With presidential elections increasingly resembling what are
inaccurately styled “reality TV” programs, it shouldn’t surprise us to
find U.S. foreign policy treated as an action/ adventure film scenario.
We’re not choosing a president so much as casting a cinematic
commander-in-chief whose capacity for violent action in an international
crisis is deemed his main qualification. Republicans audition
enthusiastically for the role, but Democrats answer casting calls, too.
Witness Hillary Clinton’s famous 3 a.m. telephone call commercial. A
perceived diffidence about dispatching bombers and launching missiles to
pound Third World villages is seen as a disqualifying weakness. The
nation’s crack corps of op-ed commandos and talk show bombardiers, many
of whom last experienced violence in third grade, sell popcorn and lead
cheers. It makes them feel important. Artistically, the prototype may
have been “Air Force One,” an enjoyably preposterous 1997 picture
featuring Harrison Ford as an action-hero president who foils a mid-air
hijacking by Kazakh terrorists. It’s a role the younger Ronald Reagan
would have loved. The film also features Glenn Close as the shaken but
loyal vice president and Gary Oldman as the sneering, ego maniacal
terrorist ringleader one-dimensional evil personified.
To quote Huckleberry Finn, “It would make a cow laugh” to watch Ford
flinging the last hijacker out the plane’s cargo bay into the ocean with
a Reaganesque “Get off my airplane.”
A cow perhaps, but not one overheated Netflix reviewer, who reported
watching the movie several times, awarding it four stars: “Who wouldn’t
like a president like Harrison Ford’s character, he kicks butt!”
Who, indeed? Not for nothing were 14-inch action figures of President
Bush in fighter pilot regalia for sale soon after he announced, “Mission
accomplished,” in Iraq. Today it’s Sen. John McCain who most obviously
seeks the role with his cocky, wisecracking fighter jock persona and
penchant for blustering tough talk.
Yeah, McCain was joking when he sang. “Bomb, bomb Iran.” But in the most
serious sense, he wasn’t. There’s no doubt that Mc-Cain actually thinks
hitting Tehran would accomplish something apart from killing thousands
of Persians and convincing much of the world that the United States has
become a dangerous, irrational bully.
Does Iran have an anti-democratic, authoritarian government? It does.
You definitely wouldn’t want to live there. But is Iran a threat to you
and me? In rational terms, it’s hard to see how.
Besides being located on the opposite side of the planet, Iran’s total
military budget, estimated at $4.5 billion, is roughly equal to mighty
Finland’s. During the ’90s, its army fought Saddam Hussein’s invasion to
a bloody standoff. Iran scarcely has an air force. Its navy can’t
project force outside the Persian Gulf, where U.S. aircraft carrier
groups patrol constantly.
The Iranians haven’t attacked anybody since the 18th century. There’s no
sign they’re planning to. So here’s how the voice-over narrator of the
latest Mc-Cain TV ad frames it:
“Iran. Radical Islamic government. Known sponsors of terrorism.
Developing nuclear capabilities to ‘generate power’ but threatening to
“Obama says Iran is a ‘tiny’ country, ‘doesn’t pose a serious threat.’
Terrorism, destroying Israel, those aren’t ‘serious threats’?
“Obama—dangerously unprepared to be president.”
Courtesy of Steve Benen’s Washington Monthly blog, here’s what Barack
Obama actually said:
“Strong countries and strong presidents talk to their adversaries.
That’s what Kennedy did with Khrushchev. That’s what Reagan did with
Gorbachev. That’s what Nixon did with Mao. I mean, think about it: Iran,
Cuba, Venezuela—these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union.
They don’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a
threat to us. And yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the
time when they were saying, ‘We’re going to wipe you off the planet.’
And ultimately, that direct engagement led to a series of measures that
helped prevent nuclear war and over time allowed the kind of opening
that brought down the Berlin Wall.”
Let’s ignore the flagrant dishonesty of the McCain ad. Read it aloud.
What does it sound like? It’s basically a promo for “Air Force One: Part
II,” featuring kebab-eating Persians instead of Kazakhs. Never mind that
Iranians hate and fear al-Qa’ida as much as Americans do. That’s too
complicated for audiences waddling into Wal-Mart to buy the DVD. Ever
since 9/11 the script has called for equal measures of boasting and
hysteria. We’re No. 1! (And we’re scared of our own shadow.) Poor little
nuclear-armed Israel, perennially agitated by its own Chicken Little
faction, plays the damsel in distress. Is it possible that a nation like
Iran, constantly threatened by U. S. and Israeli bombing attacks, might
seek a deterrent? Perish the thought. Perish thinking. The given of the
action/adventure genre is that evil has no point of view. It exists as a
purely one-dimensional phenomenon. Only melodramatic, purifying violence
can vanquish it. Until the next cartoon villain comes along.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.