The role of a lifetime

Published 1:15 pm Wednesday, September 10, 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 ad. 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, egomaniacal terrorist ringleader — one-dimensional evil personified.

To quote Huckleberry Finn, “it would make a cow laugh” to watch Ford flinging the last highjacker out the plane’s cargo bay into the ocean with a Reaganesque, “Get off my plane.”

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 McCain 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, it fought Saddam Hussein’s army 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.

Here’s how the voiceover narrator of the latest McCain TV ad frames it:

“Iran. Radical Islamic government. Known sponsors of terrorism. Developing nuclear capabilities to ‘generate power’ but threatening to eliminate Israel.

“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 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 are countries tiny compared with 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 a 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 Qaeda as much as Americans do. That’s too complicated for audiences waddling into Wal-Mart for 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.