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ISIS as Cartoon Noire

The Secret History of ISIS aired recently on PBS’s Frontline. This 54-minute feature documentary was created by Michael Kirk, a prolific and highly successful television documentarian with a quiver full of awards to his credit. This documentary, however, is better termed a documonstrosity. It is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who knows anything about the subject, whether from personal experience or old-fashioned learning.

The storyline is Romper-Room-level simplified, and hence fundamentally misleading if not outright wrong. But it floats comfortably within the tailwind of the present zeitgeist; given the credulous cynicism of the media industry today, “The Secret History of ISIS” is bound to win Kirk another award.

Documentaries that treat political subjects cannot help but be limited in their capacity to educate. The Secret History of ISIS, like all examples of the genre, is image-based, not lexically based. Images are constantly before the eyes of the viewer, and they are vivid, evocative, and abundant both in themselves and in their deliberately jarring juxtapositions. Images evoke emotion; print at least has a chance to engage reason. With images we feel first and think later; with print we think first, if we know how, and feel later. Playing behind these images—and again this is typical of the genre—is vaguely melodramatic music. What has music, a quintessential medium of emotional expression, got to do with educating anyone about the history of ISIS, “secret” or not? Nothing, of course, but education is the least of the real aims of a production like this.

The Secret History of ISIS, needless to say, has high production values. Fancy mediated-image techniques abound. The editing is exquisite. We are attending to a view of downtown Baghdad and then, in a nanosecond, we’re staring into George W. Bush’s face, and in another few nanoseconds we’re looking close up at a mosque and hearing a muzzein call out the adhaan. We’re looking down on a city from a helicopter and then suddenly we’re looking instead at Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s face. Unmediated human senses cannot do this.

Why do media professionals use “cuts” in this artful way? Because some of them, at least, understand the cognitive biology that makes them effective. Such sharp sensory disruptions produce unerring reactions in human beings: They evoke micro-astonishment experiences that increase adrenaline flow and flood certain parts of the brain with dopamine, because such events, evolution taught us, may be rich with either opportunity or danger. They engage the human facility for glancing, which is a much more profound penetration of the sensory environment than most people understand from the term. In short, these techniques grab our attention, and if documentary-makers keep it up, they hold it. This is manipulation, yes, but it’s effective manipulation. It helps win awards.

At a certain point in the 54-minute ordeal that is The Secret History of ISIS, a certain kind of viewer is perhaps prompted to ask: Is the guy who made this really as dim as he seems, or does he know better but choose, either because of some political axe he wants to grind or because of the inherent limitations of the media craft, not to show it? As to political axes, just a list of the titles of some of Kirk’s other award-winning efforts, a good number of them about the Iraq war, gives a hint: Secrets, Politics and Torture, The United States of Secrets, Bush’s War, Cheney’s War, The Dark Side, The War Behind Closed Doors, Waco—The Inside Story, Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA, and, well, you get the idea.

Virtually all of Kirk’s efforts are legitimate heirs of Three Days of the Condor (1975),  the first Hollywood megahit, in the wake of the Vietnam antiwar movement, the counterculture, and Watergate, to identify the U.S. government as the enemy of all that is right, true, and noble in the world. Kirk’s documentary about the National Security Agency, The United States of Secrets, makes Edward Snowden into a hero and NSA the villain. Naturally, it won two Emmys, a Peabody Award, a DuPont-Columbia Award, and a Writers Guild of America Award.

But the truth is that even if Kirk had wanted and known how to tell a more nuanced and accurate story about the origins of ISIS, he could not have done it with the medium at his disposal. With only an hour of airtime to work with, and with market considerations uppermost in his planning—he has to make a living, after all—he didn’t have much choice. The notion that it is possible to convey accurate, reasonably unbiased knowledge about complex subjects to mostly untutored audiences via a television documentary is just fantasy, lurid fantasy most of the time. And that is true even when the documentary maker has no political axe to grind.

The storyline of The Secret History of ISIS can be told in a few words: No Abu Musab al Zarqawi, no ISIS. And Zarqawi lived long enough to birth ISIS, sort of, because the U.S. government failed to kill him with a CIA “active measure” in 2002, before the start of the Iraq war. In short, mistakes made by senior U.S. officials are responsible for the creation of ISIS. It’s all our fault, you see.

The bulk of the piece is focused on Zarqawi. Fully 32 minutes go by, riveted on the Jordanian terrorist, before he’s killed in a 2006 U.S. Special Forces strike. The complementary heroes of the film are, oddly enough given Kirk’s apparent worldview, two CIA analysts: Nada Bakos and Sam Faddis. They tell of tracking Zarqawi to a camp in northern Iraq in 2002, and Kirk relates how the CIA asked the White House to approve an intelligence finding to attack it. The request was denied. Kirk doesn’t say by whom, but the fall guy on camera is Colin Powell, who explains, in essence, that “we didn’t want to start the war” before we were fully ready to start the war. The action then flips back to Bakos and Faddis: Everyone in the Agency team was appalled. Kirk lets this stand as an emblem of stupidity in high places.

Now this is really rich. Thanks to all of the rogue and boneheaded things CIA operations types have done over the years, not to mention all the massive and consequential analytical mistakes they have made, responsible policymakers these days do not automatically genuflect to everything the folks over in Langley think is a good idea. The same goes for suggestions for kinetic operations that well up from SOLIC (the office of Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict) in the Pentagon. Maybe civilian decision-makers are too risk-averse generally. Maybe in this case it was a good idea to attack Zarqawi, but maybe not; you’d have to know what was going on at the time to have a right to a view, a right Kirk could not possibly have.

Moreover, this is judgment from hindsight. We know now how much trouble Zarqawi caused in the 2004-2006 period, but to expect decision-makers to have known it beforehand is a form of perverse magical thinking. Senior U.S. officials do not go kinetic lightly, thank God. Zarqawi probably did not seem to them important enough at the time to pay the costs that an outright attack on Iraqi soil would have exacted. Remember: This was a time when U.S. diplomacy was focused on getting maximum international support for using force against Ba’athi Iraq. To stage a surprise, unilateral attack in 2002 would have sharply undermined the effort. You get a whiff of none of these considerations from The Secret History of ISIS.

If the CIA is the hero of this ISIS cartoon noire—the CIA is also later depicted, fairly for the most part, as valiantly opposing the attempt by the office of Vice President Cheney to falsely link Ba’athi Iraq with al-Qaeda in order to help justify the Iraq war—who, specifically, is the villain? Everyone. Kirk is pretty much an equal opportunity piñata-whacker. Bush, Cheney and Scooter Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, George Tenant, Paul Bremer, Barack Obama, and all of them together. Kirk also deploys the words of some senior officials against other senior officials: Powell against Cheney, Petraeus against Bremer, and, later on, Ambassadors Ryan Crocker, Robert Ford, and even his own ex-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel against President Obama—whatever works to paint anyone in authority as a kind of moron.

No one whose views go against the basic storyline, or any significant part of it, is allowed on camera. For example, one Bush administration official well placed to know what people were thinking and what really happened, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, received no request for an interview. Yet Kirk defends himself by twice stating that he asked certain principals for an interview—first Cheney and Libby, and then President Obama—and they refused. The audacity! This is standard political documentarian artifice, the purpose of which is to make the viewer think that the refuser either has something to hide, or is too embarrassed after the fact to even discuss the matter. The documentarian sets himself up this way as a kind of whistleblowing, truth-telling sacred cow, when what he really resembles is a stalking horse.

Kirk also deploys a mostly reputable cast of interviewed characters to impugn the policy as it oozed along at every possible point: Richard Clarke, Ali Soufan, Emma Sky, Larry Wilkerson, Bruce Hoffman, Will McCants, Michael Scheuer, Richard Barrett, and others. And it is here that Kirk’s real skills become clear. None of these knowledgeable men and women ever gets to speak for more than about eight seconds at a clip. Comments are spliced and diced so that pithy points can be made, but never so that an actual full thought can be expressed. Not a single one of these folks says anything that is obviously in error or wildly weird, yet when assembled under Kirk’s hand the overall result is something altogether distorted.

The two other elements of the documentary’s storyline besides that concerning Zarqawi are the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq under the Obama administration, and the passivity of that administration in the face of the Syrian civil war. Kirk clearly wants to dump on Bush rather than on Obama the majority share of guilt for the outcome we see today; with so much error to go around, this is, one supposes, a matter of taste. But even taken together, and even if properly balanced, these three causal elements would still not remotely suffice to account for the origin of ISIS, which is no secret at all.

To be sure, there have been plenty of U.S. policy mistakes over the years, and I and others have not been shy to call attention to them whilst in government service and out. The invasion of Iraq, largely on account of how poorly it was conceived and implemented, turned out to be, in Aaron David Miller’s apt terminology, “a galactic blunder.” Supporting a government as weak and craven as that of Nouri al-Maliki for as long as we did was hardly less cosmic in its negative effects. But most of the responsibility for the broken, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East today lies with the locals themselves, not with us. It is outrageously condescending to insinuate that the Arabs as a whole are so childlike, so feckless, so pathetic, and so venal that their destiny can be all but wholly written in Washington.

This condescension is the key to the illogic of The Secret History of ISIS. If “No Zarqawi, no ISIS” is true, then how to account for the fact that, by 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq was prostrate and all but destroyed, not just by U.S. forces but by Iraqi Sunni tribal forces taking back their own lands? Kirk essentially puts forth a “great man” theory of ISIS’s history, only in this case it’s a great bad man. If, as the documentary shows, Zarqawi was a boorish, uneducated thug who could not even impress Osama bin-Laden with his ardor, why assume that the cultural and political context of the situation in the region and in Iraq would not have called forth some other figure had, say, a meteorite fallen on Zarqawi in 2001? Why assume that no one else would have arisen later on to seize the mantle of Sunni radicalism in the cauldron of the Syrian civil war even if Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had never been born?

All one need do here is to pick up the new book, ISIS: A History by Fawaz A. Gerges of the London School of Economics, and scan the table of contents to get a sense of what a real history of ISIS’s origins would need to include. As anyone familiar with the history of the region can tell you, decades of dictatorship, bad governance, poverty, injustice, and especially rising sectarianism set the conditions for the rise of movements like al-Qaeda and later ISIS. Compared to the suppression of the so-called Arab Spring and the deinstitutionalization of the region’s crumbling phalanx of weak states, U.S. policy has been at most an inadvertent catalyst, not a main cause.

Kirk brings no scholars to view, no historians or regional experts, in The Secret History of ISIS. If someone truly knowledgeable about the subject—Emma Sky, Robert Ford, or Bruce Hoffman, say—said anything genuinely revealing about the factors just mentioned, Kirk left it on the cutting room floor. The phrase “Arab Spring” never occurs. History for all intents and purposes starts in 2001 at the earliest. Only in the absence of all relevant historical, cultural, and political context could a blame-America-only explanation for ISIS make any sense, and then only to an audience unable to provide that context for itself. To claim that U.S. policy is solely responsible for the existence of ISIS is something like claiming that pushers are solely responsible for drug addiction.

Presumably, though, this is what Kirk thinks the market wants to hear. And he’s right. Case in point: A recent Pew survey found that a majority of the American public believes that “ordinary Americans” could do a better job of solving the country’s problems than elected officials.[1] The implicit conclusion bending back to The Secret History of ISIS: The viewer is encouraged to believe that Michael Kirk, or any truly well-intentioned adult, could have done a better job of Middle East policy after 9/11 than George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

Another case in point: The guy who leaked the Panama Papers, God otherwise bless him, recently issued a statement that includes the following line: “Edward Snowden is stranded in Moscow, exiled due to the Obama Administration’s decision to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. For his revelations about the NSA, he deserves a hero’s welcome and a substantial prize, not banishment.”

So many other cases in which government authority is presumptively guilty are there for the citing that one hardly knows how to count them, let alone summarize them. Hence, as others have also observed, not for no reason does lowbrow American entertainment “culture” now do its horror shtick in terms of zombies from within instead of alien invaders from without. The Secret History of ISIS is just so much piling on. Three Days of the Condor was bold and controversial in its time; now the same cant has been reduced to politically correct tedium.

What, you may ask, is the harm here? If we understand that political documentaries like The Secret History of ISIS are entertainment rather than education, perhaps the real measure of judgment should be, well, it is entertaining entertainment or not? Personally, I was not entertained by having to watch Nicholas Berg’s beheading again, but that’s another matter of taste, I suppose. The harm is actually twofold.

First, it is not widely understood that political documentaries are forms of entertainment. Political documentaries posing as conveyors of education about public affairs often as not get away with the masquerade, just as Robert Young the actor got away with impersonating Marcus Welby, M.D., wearing a white coat and all, to sell Sanka in TV commercials back when. And it’s the successful masquerade that enables such forms to serve as transmission belts for political bias, when their creators desire to so transmit.

The second form of harm is more insidious. Repeated exposure to this kind of program persuades many television viewers, over time, that understanding how “stuff happens” is really pretty simple. Insofar as understanding something like ISIS is concerned, you don’t need to read any books, study any languages, know any history, or have any relevant personal experience. You can know it quickly and without much self-doubt—just like Ben Rhodes. You just identify the source of authority, excoriate and degrade it so that you can flash on your authentic subjective perception of the subject, and you’re done.

That’s how it has become common knowledge that before creating ISIS, the U.S. government also birthed al-Qaeda and caused 9/11 by giving aid to the Afghan mujahideen fighting to reverse the Red Army’s invasion of their country. It’s so simple. We even have a presumptive presidential nominee of a major party who thinks that anything he hears on the Internet must be true, if it suits his biases.

I can remember a time when teachers emphasized that mastery of a subject took work, discipline, and time. One learned to respect the difficulty of attaining true competence or real knowledge. Truth was elusive, subtle, and perhaps even both relative and shifting as life ticked onward—but it existed, it was precious, and it was any sentient person’s job to search for it.

Now we seem locked in the maw of a lowest-common-denominator default postmodernism which proclaims that there is no truth or even any objective reality, only what hegemonic narratives—like what slick documentaries aspire to be—establish. Under such conditions, reality-rasping storylines based on sentiment rather than actual thought can easily gain pride of place. And if the production values are high enough, they can even win awards.

[1] Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government (Pew Research Center, November 2015).

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