Monday, January 02, 2006


The plot of Syriana brings together a number of touchy issues in American foreign policy--arms transfers, covert operations, and Middle Eastern oil politics, to name but a few. Also included are the income gap in the Middle East, terrorism, torture, and assassination as a tool of state policy. The highly combustible mix has confused some reviewers (those unable to keep up) and offended others (those unable to face reality). Both groups probably need either to grow up or to stick to films from Disney.

Is the plot real? No, not in the sense of being a faithful depiction of historical events. But the significant plot elements all have parallels in the recent history of American foreign policy. The investigation of the U.S. intelligence community conducted by the Church Committee in the 1970s, the congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, and the 9/11 Commission’s investigation of events leading up to the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 all could have supplied inspiration for the screenplay (although former CIA agent Robert Baer’s book See No Evil is cited in the film’s credits).

What seems to bother some conservatives most about Syriana is its suggestion that the government of the United States might engage in morally dubious activities for the sake of maintaining American access to Middle Eastern oil. Others seem troubled by the connection drawn in the film between dismal social conditions and the recruitment of suicide bombers. Two very carefully researched books--Michael Klare’s Blood and Oil and Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon’s The Age of Sacred Terror--offer ample evidence to validate both points.

Syriana may lack subtlety and it may have some loose ends in the plot, but its fundamental problem is its message: The United States is heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and that dependence necessitates significant compromises with what we proclaim to be our values. Most Americans would rather not be told that.