Perhaps the most compelling mainstream film during the recent Toronto International Film Festival was Argo. It’s based, partly, on the memoirs of CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, focusing on the clandestine rescue of six American diplomats who managed to flee the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, even as rabid mobs stormed it and took a majority of the staff hostage. For such a serious subject, there are surprising bursts of wit that counterpoint the film’s tension.
For instance, while planning the operation, a senior official suggests that the six escapees, sheltered secretly at the Canadian ambassador’s residence, be provided with bicycles, so they can wheel their way to Turkey. To this, Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, retorts: “Or you could just send them training wheels, and meet them at the border with Gatorade.”
That aptly echoes the foreign policy skills of the Obama administration, as the Arab Spring turns into a winter of discontent, except the wheels already seem to have fallen off. American embassies were stormed and diplomats killed on the anniversary of 9/11. American officials described the attacks as ‘spontaneous’, but given the date, call it a case of the curious coincidence.
Soon after, US President Barack Obama was engaged in more pressing pursuits, like fund-raising in Las Vegas. Perhaps he was rolling the dice. In fact, he has been so busy countering the domestic threat posed by his Republican opponent Mitt Romney that he’s attended less than half of his daily intelligence briefings, concentrating on more serious matters like being interviewed for a puff piece in People en Espanol last week, as the Muslim world erupted in rage.
For many Obama groupies, the president may represent the Second Coming, but critics have argued it may well be that of another JC, Jimmy Carter, the one-term president who oversaw the strategic failure in Iran.
The Obama administration placed the blame for the rampage through the Islamic world on a trailer for a film, the 74-minute Innocence of Muslims. Made by a con artist, this has attained YouTube notoriety, not just for its sheer awfulness. Produced by serial jailbird, bank fraudster and myth maker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, its director, was also behind such cinematic gems like The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood and Young Lady Chatterley. This time, they indulged in some blasphemy porn. But as the US administration went ballistic blaming the film, Libyan officials said that the Benghazi attack was pre-planned. After all, spontaneous protests rarely feature rocket launchers. If an individual’s misbegotten video could demolish four years of an administration’s ministrations, isn’t the pertinent question ‘There’s something terribly wrong with this picture’ right?
This MidEast mess is Obama’s best Jimmy Carter impersonation. As with the spectacular bust of his economic policies, Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has only made matters worse. Ironically, the rage started in Egypt, the very place Obama’s ‘Apology for America’ tour began.
According to a recent Pew Research Centre poll, favourable opinion of Obama’s international policies in Muslim-majority nations has dropped 19 points to just 15% positive since 2009. In fact, in Pakistan more people hold a favourable view of the al-Qaeda than of America. At this rate, the only ambassadors the US will be left with in the Islamic world will be remote-controlled drones.
As the US media happily pivoted to Romney’s “inelegant” statements, the situation became more unreal. The FBI couldn’t travel to Libya for its investigation due to safety concerns, and instead, interrogated Nakoula. And in Pakistan, one protestor succumbed to excess inhalation of smoke emanating from burning American flags. We can now eagerly await the Pakistan government demanding a UN Convention on Toxic Flags, unless, of course, they discover the flags were made in China.
Meanwhile, for an administration that touts its security policy “successes” (Osama bin Laden is dead!), the last 10 days are proof enough that it’s pedaling furiously to nowhere, fast.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal