Haggai's Place

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Your humble narrator is...
...a research analyst at a think tank in the Washington DC area. Born in Israel, raised in Kentucky, movie fanatic and sports nut.
My first-hand account of the Palestinian divestment conference at the U. of Michigan
Archives

:: Friday, February 13, 2004 ::

Great parody
On a movies forum I frequently read and post to, the main topic of discussion this week has certainly been the official release announcement of the original Star Wars trilogy DVD set, coming in September. Someone there posted a link to this fantastic parody song from a few years ago, called "Star Wars Cantina," set to the tune of Barry Manilow's "Copacabana." Very, very funny stuff for any Star Wars fan!
3:27 PM
:: Wednesday, February 11, 2004 ::
My God, how could I not have thought of this before?
There's a debate going on here between some war supporters about this blog observation:
I have a question on this WMD thing. So, apparently we are now concluding that Hussein did not, in fact, have a huge stash of nuclear weapons aimed at New York and Washington DC. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? It means that the thing the administration wanted to prevent was, in fact, prevented, and not only that, a dangerous troublemaker has been removed from power in a very unstable region.
About a month ago, Kevin Drum asked a sort of related question: "Crikey, is there anyone left [among war supporters] who's willing to say that they gave a damn about WMD before the war?"

Now, I see from a quick Google search that I'm not the first one to think of this, but it's become entirely obvious that the potential WMD threat from Iraq could accurately be described as an enormous "MacGuffin," a term made famous by Alfred Hitchcock to explain the plot devices that his movies often turned on. He explained what it was on various occasions, most notably in this book from the late '60s, which was a collection of a bunch of interviews he did about his career with Francois Truffaut.
Most of Kipling's stories...were set in India, and they dealt with the fighting between the natives and the British forces on the Afghanistan border. Many of them were spy stories, and they were concerned with the efforts to steal the secret plans out of a fortress. The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the "MacGuffin" is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn't matter what it is...it's beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the [movie] the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatever.
Hitchcock then explains the origin of the term, in a frequently repeated little story:
You may be wondering where the term originated. It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack"? And the other answers, "Oh, that's a MacGuffin." The first one asks, "What's a MacGuffin?" "Well," the other man says, "it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well then, that's no MacGuffin!" So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
The ultimate example in his movies, as he says, was in North by Northwest. If you've ever seen that movie, do you remember what the bad guys are focused on, the thing they're trying to keep secret by killing Cary Grant, the reason the government agents are after them? Probably not, because the only time it's ever explained is near the end of the movie, with a two word phrase: "government secrets." Which government secrets, about what? Nobody cares, it's not important. But what you do remember from the movie is Cary Grant being chased by a cropduster, Grant and Eva Marie Saint trying to climb down the face of Mount Rushmore, etc. We know that they're being chased by bad guys, and we believe that the bad guys want to kill them, so the movie is exciting--but do we really care about what it is that the bad guys are trying to accomplish by killing them? No, because it's all explained by the MacGuffin, a plot point of trifling importance.

So this relates to Iraq--once you know what a MacGuffin is, you realize that for many people, the WMD justification for the war is almost exactly described by that. We invaded, and the weapons aren't there--so what? We got rid of a bad guy, he's isn't oppressing his countrymen anymore, we kicked ass, etc. This is especially appropriate for the people who are not only saying that WMD was one of many reasons to go to war, but that they never cared about that issue in the first place--it really was one big MacGuffin for them.

UPDATE: In the end, I do think getting rid of Saddam was worth going to war, for non-WMD related reasons as well. But my point is that the huge disconnect between what was said going in and what turns out to be the truth is very important--this is real life, not a movie, where the near total collapse of the administration's central justification for the war wouldn't matter because it was just another MacGuffin.
11:57 AM
Kinda hard to build a democracy when...
...dozens and dozens of people are being killed by car bombs, isn't it? I don't even know what there is to do at this point. And no, it's not totally clear how it's all going to turn out in the long run, but man, what a mess.
11:22 AM
:: Monday, February 09, 2004 ::
Wars of choice
So here's one key point from Bush's Meet The Press appearance:
Russert: In light of not finding the weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?

President Bush: I think that's an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice or a war of necessity? It's a war of necessity. We-- in my judgment, we had no choice when we look at the intelligence I looked at that says the man was a threat. And you know, we will find out about the weapons of mass destruction that we all thought were there. That's part of the Iraqi survey group and the group I put together to look at.

But again, I repeat to you, I don't want to sound like a broken record, but David Kay, who is the man who led the Iraqi survey group, who has now returned with an interim report, clearly said that the place was a dangerous place. When asked if President Bush had done had made the right decision, he said yes. In other words, the evidence we have uncovered thus far says we had no choice.
Aside from the highly dubious "David Kay said so" reasoning (whatever happened to the whole "Hans Blix doesn't decide what's good for this country" line of argument, back when an inspector who didn't support the war was saying basically the same stuff Kay has said now about the WMD?), this is a really unacceptable rhetorical game from any US president. Even when we thought Saddam had lots of WMD, and when some people convinced themselves that he was somehow linked with al-Qaeda, this was unquestionably a war of choice--a choice that I supported, but a choice nonetheless. Afghanistan was not a war of choice, since the US was attacked. Kosovo, Gulf War I, both wars of choice. Rwanda, unfortunately, a choice that we did not make, and that I think we should have made.

For the exact difference between a war of choice or no choice, I can't think of a better source than this August 1982 speech by Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister at the time, in which he described Israel's invasion of Lebanon as a war of choice. Of course, it was a choice that he defended (his description of some of the other Arab-Israeli wars is very interesting!). Let's keep in mind that in terms of nationalist/war-toughness credentials, Begin, a fiery war-hawk demagogue in his three decades as the Israeli parliamentary opposition leader, and an active-militant/maybe-terrorist in his youth, practically makes Bush look like a peace activist by comparison. In this 1982 speech, Begin categorized each Arab/Israeli war as being either a war of "no alternative" or a war of "choice" (note that the link bungles this into "no choice" and "alternative" in the italicized first paragraph, which is supposed to be a summary of what follows, although Begin's words in the body of the speech excerpts are properly translated):
In June 1967 we...had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.

This was a war of self-defence in the noblest sense of the term. The government of national unity then established decided unanimously: We will take the initiative and attack the enemy, drive him back, and thus assure the security of Israel and the future of the nation.

We did not do this for lack of an alternative. We could have gone on waiting. We could have sent the army home. Who knows if there would have been an attack against us? There is no proof of it. There are several arguments to the contrary. While it is indeed true that the closing of the Straits of Tiran was an act of aggression, a causus belli, there is always room for a great deal of consideration as to whether it is necessary to make a causus into a bellum.

And so there were three wars with no alternative - the War of Independence, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War - and it is our misfortunate that our wars have been so. If in the two other wars, the wars of choice - the Sinai Campaign and the Six Day War - we had losses like those in the no alternative wars, we would have been left today with few of our best youth, without the strength to withstand the Arab world...

The conclusion - both on the basis of the relations between states and on the basis of our national experience - is that there is no divine mandate to go to war only if there is no alternative. There is no moral imperative that a nation must, or is entitled to, fight only when its back is to the sea, or to the abyss. Such a war may avert tragedy, if not a Holocaust, for any nation; but it causes it terrible loss of life.
He also applied the concept to WWII as a war of "no alternative" that would have been far less disastrous if only the French had decided to fight a war of "choice" when Hitler re-militarized the Rhineland in 1936.

So, we have a very honest appraisal of the subject (albeit in the context of a war that ended up being fought very dishonestly) from one of the most hawkish Western leaders of the past century. Now along comes Bush telling us that we had no choice but to go to war in Iraq. It's complete nonsense, and it's the sign of a shallow demagogue who's willing to characterize anyone who criticizes any aspect of his Iraq policy as a weakling who doesn't understand the threats facing us. Menachem Begin, a man whose contempt for his political opponents makes Bush look like the ultimate consensus builder by comparison, was far more comfortable with his own beliefs about war and peace (I don't think it's a non-sequitir to point out that he was a voracious reader of history in several different languages, and a considerably more learned man than Bush), and thus a lot more honest about the thought process he was going through.
11:38 AM

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