Like every other liberal in America, I am trying to figure out what I think of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. I went to see it last night after having read Christopher Hitchens’s long denunciation in Slate, and so my expectations were low. So low, in fact, that it exceeded them, and I found myself saddled with a wish to sort out why and how.
There is a lot of outrage and bluster in Hitchens, who thinks the movie is worse than “a piece of crap.” But after you cut away Hitchens’s vitriol and scenery-chewing, there remain in his piece several important challenges to Moore on matters of fact. One of the most damaging, I think, concerns the members of the Bin Laden family who were granted permission to fly out of the United States on 13 September 2001, when commercial airlines were still grounded. Moore insinuates that the permission came from the White House as a reward for years of subsidies and favors that the Bin Laden family had granted to the Bush family and its friends. But Hitchens notes that on 25 May 2004 Richard Clarke contradicted earlier testimony to the 9/11 commission and asserted, “I take responsibility for it. I don’t think it was a mistake, and I’d do it again.”
Since Clarke is currently a hero of the anti-Bush left for calling the Bush administration neglectful of the Al Qaeda threat before 9/11, his assertion effectively kiboshes use of the anecdote as partisan ammunition in the style that Moore is attempting. But whether the decision was Clarke’s or George W. Bush’s, it still seems odd to me. And here, I think, is why I liked Moore’s movie more than I expected to: Even when he bungles the details of his reporting, he exposes in visual, accessible form aspects of the story that may seem to be business-as-usual to old foreign-policy hands but will be upsetting to mainstream America.
Clarke’s defense seems to be that the FBI vetted the Bin Laden family members, and therefore, he believes, “It’s very funny that people on the Hill are now trying to second-guess the FBI investigation.” To anyone outside the intelligence community and inside-Washington circles where the pull of the Saudis is evidently common knowledge and it is gauche to wonder at it, this won’t quite fly. Two days after the terrorist attack, the intelligence community had enough time on its hands to give a special pass to Bin Laden’s relatives? The issue isn’t whether they should have been kept in the country indefinitely against their will, but why they had enough clout to fly in airplanes when ordinary American citizens could not.
Hitchens writes that “Either the Saudis run U.S. policy (through family ties or overwhelming economic interest), or they do not.” But is the middle rigorously excluded? Isn’t it possible that the U.S. might have demanded more cooperation in the investigation of Bin Laden’s support system in Saudi Arabia and yet omitted to, because it would have inconvenienced too many friendships at high levels?
Hitchens lands another blow when he points out that Saudi Arabia opposed the changes of regime in Afghanistan and Iraq and that Bush has thus acted against their will in both wars. Moore’s simple-minded conspiracy falls to the ground. But here too, even though Moore gets the story wrong, he puts on the screen a miasma that will disturb many. No, Bush probably didn’t go to war against Iraq in order to please the Saudis, or to distract people from his family’s involvement with them. But can anyone really believe that it wouldn’t be corrupting for two generations of an American family to trade political influence and connections in Washington for investments from an oil-rich family in highly undemocratic Saudi Arabia? Wouldn’t such a history have inculcated such habits as disregarding the welfare of the mere citizens of Arab nations, putting family loyalty ahead of political principles, and cynically trading political favors for financial ones? The scene in Moore’s movie of a younger George W. Bush boasting that he plans to make a tidy profit out of his access to his presidential father’s network is old news, but it’s still morally wretched. Moore suggests that the younger Bush’s first business enterprise, such as it was, was funded by Saudi money. If so, then for his entire adult life the president has thought of the Arab crescent as a place where there is money to be made, if you know the right people and don’t ask the wrong questions.
Finally, I agree with Hitchens that Moore paints an absurdly rosy picture of pre-invasion Iraq (smiling children on playgrounds) and irresponsibly implies that, as Hitchens puts it, “Saddam Hussein was no problem.” Hitchens points out that “the 30-year record of Baathist war crimes and repression and aggression is not mentioned once.” True. But I couldn’t really share Hitchens’s indignation over the omission. Will there really be anyone in the audience unaware of the other side of this question? I, for one, was persuaded by it in early 2003, so much so that I came to believe that our preemptive war was justified. I read in full Colin Powell’s testimony before the United Nations about the evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and I decided that if you couldn’t believe Colin Powell, who could you believe? It felt, at the time, almost treasonous to imagine that Saddam was a problem that could wait, and it feels therefore something like a catharsis to hear Moore’s “certainty” that it could have. It turns out, of course, that almost nothing Powell said that day to the United Nations was true—that he allowed himself to be played by the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz team in exchange for some notional continued influence in American foreign policy.
Moore’s “certainty” isn’t history. A history would have to capture the awful doubt that everyone seemed to be in at the time, including the sense that in order to think straight, you had to disentangle yourself first from a reflexive liberal mistrust of power and then from a conservative psychological blackmail, whose essence was, Do you want to be strong or weak? Do you want to live in a world you believe in, or one where you never trust anyone in power? Saddam was a political evil, and if he could be removed quickly and efficiently, why shouldn’t we? There was no a priori reason not to. There were only as-yet-unrealized a posteriori reasons. The objections were varieties of prudence, which always feels like a low kind of reasoning to intellectuals. They were mostly matters of information hygiene—what Clausewitz would have called the fog of war. How sure were we that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to Al Qaeda? Because if we weren’t sure, and we waged a preemptive war, then the moral calculus would shift dramatically if, say, it didn’t turn out to be as bloodless and easy a campaign as predicted. We would have squandered about a century of good will. We wouldn’t be able to say that we’d had no choice, that it was an honest mistake. In Afghanistan, perhaps, we had no choice. But in Iraq we had one.
From the rest of Hitchens’s objections I demur. Moore does not contradict himself when he portrays the homeland defense policies as both alarmist and ineffective. There was a well-reported article in The New Republic by Michael Crowley making the same case in March. Nor is it inconsistent of Moore to point out that there is socioeconomic inequity in recruiting our soldiers mostly from the working class and to argue that “not enough troops were sent to garrison Afghanistan and Iraq.” Moore is simply echoing the (now apparently discarded) Powell doctrine: to undertake a military campaign half-heartedly or with inadequate force is to put American soldiers at risk unnecessarily, and society owes them more consideration. It is clearly untrue that Moore believes “parents can ‘send’ their children” into the military, as Hitchens claims. If Moore thought so, why would he spend so much screentime interviewing high school-age teenagers in Flint about their assessment of the pros and cons of a military career? And I don’t think it was “stupid” of Moore to ask members of Congress whether they would urge their children to enlist. A friend of mine was serving in Iraq last year, and my knowledge of that changed the way I thought about the war. It made it difficult to talk about the war with liberal friends with whom I usually agree about everything, and I think it has made my disillusionment now more severe. Remember the article in the New York Times reporting that a son of Doris Kearns Goodwin had enlisted? The hook seemed to be, Look! Someone from a nice bourgeois family is at risk! The shame is that it was rare to find such cases, and the war would have been debated very differently if it hadn’t been. Of Bush’s segue on the golf course from a discussion of terrorism to quipping “Now watch this drive,” Hitchens writes, “Well, that’s what you get if you catch the president on a golf course.” I can’t agree. I think it reveals an attitude never before seen in a president, a humor that depends on a strange erasure of the consequence of the world. And it’s harder than Hitchens admits to get one’s mind around the footage of Bush in an elementary school in Florida on the morning of September 11, idly following along in a children’s reading lesson after he has been told that the World Trade Center has been struck. I think everyone else in the country, and probably world, dropped whatever they were doing the moment they heard the news, in a natural human wish to know more. Bush was able to suppress that response. But of all people on the planet, he was probably the one in whom that curiosity would have been most appropriate. It suggests that he has a fearsome level of self-discipline. I don’t think we are watching mere haplessness in that scene. But it is discipline in the service of a worldview that I do not understand.