The first-week run in the United States of Michael Moore’s polemical documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” has shattered all box office records for a documentary, redefining the commercial possibilities of the genre. It has already earned $80 million, more than twice the total made by the second most profitable American documentary, Moore’s last film, “Bowling for Columbine.” But Moore has much broader ambitions for his new film than simply to increase his already considerable fortune. He says his intention is to damage President George Bush’s chances of re-election. Although much of “Fahrenheit 9/11” is devoted to attacking the Bush administration’s foreign policy – especially the invasion and occupation of Iraq – the film may only add additional layers of confusion about the Middle East in American popular culture, and reinforce crude stereotypes and broad generalizations.
Moore has presented a detailed account of the Iraq war without mentioning Israel in any way, without using the word neoconservative and without any reference to the massive paper trail demonstrating a pre-existing agenda, which placed the overthrow of the Iraqi regime at the center of both US and Israeli policies.
Moore’s audience never hears about the 1996 “Clean Break” paper presented to then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by several people who are now influential policymakers in the Bush administration, including Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, and their guru, Richard Perle. Nor are they told about many other key documents, such as the 1998 Project for a New American Century letter to then-President Bill Clinton demanding “military action” from the US to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The letter was signed by current administration figures Donald Rumsfeld, Elliott Abrams, Richard Armitage, John Bolton, Zalmay Khalilzad and, of course, Paul Wolfowitz.
Rather than investigating the actual and well-documented agenda that led to the rapid shift away from a war against Al-Qaeda to a war against Iraq, Moore proposes an implausible and extremely confused conspiracy theory.
At the heart of Moore’s film lies the malevolent influence of “the Saudis,” a phrase that in the US is increasingly spat out with utter contempt, reminiscent of the tone reserved for “the Jews” in anti-Semitic discourse, ascribing to millions of otherwise heterogeneous people the same menacing and hostile essence. In a great deal of contemporary American discourse, any group of Saudis – including the government, security services, and any collection of citizens, not to mention Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and the hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001 – all represent “the Saudis.”
Moore depicts the invasion of Iraq as essentially a cover-up designed to hide the Bush family and its supporters’ deep financial links to “the Saudis.” Among the more disturbing passages of the film is a long segment featuring a succession of unidentified Arabs in traditional Gulf attire shown in friendly diplomatic and commercial encounters with associates of the two Bush family presidencies; as if these encounters and the political and business dealings they represent were by definition unwholesome.
Moore repeatedly asserts that the Saudi royal family, the bin Laden family and others, over the past 30 years invested $1.4 billion in the Bush family and its business interests.
This is the only explanation proffered by “Fahrenheit 9/11” for the invasion of Iraq. The film’s logic is as clear as mud, but the implications are unmistakable: a parade of sinister Saudis purchased the president and his cronies and, somehow or other, are behind both the attacks on the United States and the attack on Iraq.
As for the Iraqis, they are portrayed, not to say objectified, simply as innocent victims, yearning for revenge. Pre-invasion Iraq is depicted as a happy, peaceful land, and there is a notable absence of any Iraqi perspective on the conflict other than howls of suffering and rage.
If the villains are Bush and his supposed Saudi masters, the film’s victims are the American soldiers sent to die in a needless war. Its most powerful emotional punch comes from the story of a once-idealistic mother whose son’s death in Iraq leads her to question her patriotic illusions. Moore comes close to emotional pornography in his extended depiction of her pain, but these are exactly the passages that have given the film much of its appeal to a vast and receptive audience in the American heartland.
Using a heady mix of skillful humor and anti-establishment demagoguery of the kind normally monopolized by right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh and FoxNews Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, Moore seems to have found a formula which allows blistering criticism to come across as not only acceptable but even patriotic to a public accustomed to trusting their leaders’ motivations when it comes to international affairs.
Moore may or may not affect the election, but he has certainly succeeding in bringing to a great many Americans the most powerful critique of US foreign policy they have already heard, albeit one that rests on a bizarre and incoherent conspiracy theory and which confuses at least as much as it enlightens.