vice: how to accumulate power
‘Vice’ is a biographical film about President G.W. Bush’s powerful, secretive Vice-President, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale after many large dinners). It is a clever movie. At times the director, Adam Mackay, is too clever and the cleverness disrupts the narrative by its prominence. But, through sharp editing, you are kept critically on your toes, sorting out the factual from the imaginary, the drama from the documentary. The rolling story through four decades of US political history is interspersed with flashbacks, while a mystery John Doe narrator does a chatty voice-over. The film feels like a series of moving snapshots.
There are times the audience might wonder if Mackay is patronizing them: there are far too many sharp cuts from bombs and mayhem to domestic bliss. Cuts to Cheney’s fly fishing as a metaphor for cleverly outwitting your opponent by camouflaging your moves, are repeated too often. Yes, we get it: Cheney, like a Mafia capo di tutti, presides over dreadful things but is a devoted family man who goes fishing. Cheney shows love and understanding for his lesbian daughter who, from a political point of view, was a liability. That is about the only time in the film he shows anything other than a cold calculating lust for power.
‘Vice’ is a movie about bad men doing bad things. Amy Adams, playing his wife Lynne, (she doesn’t age enough over the forty years) is obliged rather one dimensionally, to play a Wyoming Lady Macbeth. Cheney began his career as Donald Rumsfeld’s intern (played with Olympian cynicism by Steve Carell) and Rumsfeld is the key to Cheney’s rise to power. The two share a ruthless camaraderie through three presidencies. But by December 2006 Cheney is powerful enough to sit back and watch him sacked as Secretary of Defence. The film suggests Cheney is behind it, but a number of generals had lined up to get rid of him.
‘Vice’ is in some ways an invasion of Michael Moore’s fun space, without his scruffy presence lolloping around sundry perpetrators of badness, so there have to be some jokes. Most of these revolve around Cheney nonchalantly having heart attacks at key moments. Though I could have done without close ups of a human heart on a dish and a surgeon pawing around in a bloody chest cavity, by way of showing that the heart-attack joke was for real. Likewise Lynne and Dick in bed in their pajamas speaking Shakespeare to each other was both clever and funny. The audience could reflect on the timeless quality of the pursuit of power and the making of kings.
The film portrays George W. Bush as a clean living, gullible, dummy. Realising how much Bush needs him, before accepting the role of Vice-President, Cheney extracts a promise that it is the Vice-President who will actually run the administration and have unparalleled access to information. It was disconcerting that George W. (Sam Rockwell) looked nothing like, and sounded not much like, the real George W. This stood out because LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice was uncannily like the real ‘Condy’. Though she only had a few lines to deliver while looking worried.
‘Vice’ brings the Iraq weapons of mass destruction myth into sharp focus. Focus groups had shown that the public were confused about a war against terrorism but understood the idea of a war against another country. Enter Iraq with plenty of oil and a suitable villain in charge. I wish the film had said more about Halliburton, the vast global oil services company of which Cheney had been chief executive, but I guess the lawyers were out in droves. The cynical manipulation of public opinion and sentiment, and the conscious misuse of expertise, notably in public relations, was a legacy that we are living with now. It is the new normal.
Sometimes the deliberate distortions boomeranged back. The Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was a thug lurking somewhere in N.E. Iraq until he was pumped up by the CIA as a key link to Al-Qaida. Henceforth, with this enhanced status, he began to adopt a leadership role with devastating consequences. What is striking is how pathetically weak were these attempts to link Saddam Hussein and Iraq with Al-Qaida. General Colin Powell is portrayed as knowingly presenting at the UN, as an act of military obedience to the Commander in Chief, a farrago of nonsense to make the case for invasion. Why didn’t he resign? How Tony Blair, and most of the Labour and Conservative Party, were induced to believe this spectacular bundle of fake-news, crafted by a handful of US Neo-cons and the CIA, is hard to fathom.
Director Mackay presents Cheney as being the main proponent of the doctrine of unlimited Presidential executive power, leading to torture being legalised, not to mention misleading the public over Iraq. Historians will baulk at the great – and wicked – leader theory of change implied in the screenplay. In the film Cheney was no Stalin though he shared some of his characteristics, secretive, ruthless, grasping every opportunity to manoeuvre himself into positions of power. And without the subtleties of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell. One of the best shots, held for a long while in the movie, is Cheney in silhouette at the door of the Oval Office. He’d made it. And that was what he cared about.
You come away from ‘Vice’ wondering whether wry amusement at a movie in which the deaths of over 600,000 Iraqis and over 4,000 US military dead, appear as the bi-products of Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s actions, is the right response. Was this a lefty’s, sorry liberal’s, night out with everyone feeling as clever and superior as the screenplay? Good jokes to distance you from the awfulness of it all. Perhaps. At least it reminded you that the Trump White House and its hangers-on isn’t the first political horror show produced in the USA. Nor, I fear, the last.
I worked in Northern Nigeria during the early 1970s. The army managed to pack in three military coups during that time. One, the Dimka coup in 1976, was plotted in a polo club and supercharged by champagne. During military coups, we used to wait for the reaction of the regional, divisional commanders. Would they come on the radio in support? If only half of them bobbed up, pledging support, it could mean they were divided and, possibly, we were looking at the beginnings of a civil war. When the men with the guns disagreed with each other, it was time to decamp.
So national and state elections, which reinstated since 1999, are a step forward. Not a very big one given that the rival presidential candidates lack detectable policies other than winning. Access to power still continues to follow the money and name recognition. With some two hundred very rich ruling families still running the show through two big Party machines, only old political warhorses in their 70s need apply to be Presidential candidates. But for this weekend’s elections there are also new young faces, mostly products of US universities with distinguished careers, standing on real policies and in their 30s. But without the huge Party machines of the PDP, Peoples Democratic Party and the APC, All Progressives Congress, with their extensive national clientship networks, these new contenders can’t possibly win.
To win the Presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s electoral rules require more than 25% of the popular vote in at least 27 of the 36 states as well as an overall majority of the national vote. This has resulted in complex coalitions and agreements across the different regions, plus a ‘zoning’ principle that Muslim and Christians occupy the Presidency by turn. Nigeria has a little over 84 million registered voters, but since national censuses are rigged it is very hard to allocate any percentage of the vote to any particular region. It is generally assumed that there are more people in ‘the North’ but not necessarily a critical difference in overall numbers of voters from the South. The electoral system is designed to minimise the regionalism, ethnicity and religious differences that blighted Nigeria in the past and led to dreadful bloodshed.
Both the Presidential candidates this year are Muslim Northerners with Muhammad Buhari, who is seeking re-election relying on solid support in the North-West, and Atiku Abubakar, estimated to be worth $1.4 billion, with much support in the North East where he has been Governor in his home state of Adamawa. Buhari is vulnerable on a number of counts: his health and his failure to stop Boko Haram’s terrorism in the North-East which has created 1.8 million displaced people. Buhari disappointed expectations about his ability to curb corruption, his promise in his successful 2015 campaign for the Presidency. But he is the incumbent and the incumbent always won in the past (except for his own victory in 2015).
Boko Haram’s sensational kidnapping of the Chibok school girls made international headlines. The continued terrorism needs explanation. Corruption under Buhari is, and was, a causal factor in the failure to end the Boko Haram’s (BH) insurgency - spectacularly so under his Christian predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. Troops avoided contact with the enemy because they were outgunned: someone in the Federal Capital, Abuja, probably trousered the money allocated for up-to-date weaponry and vehicles. Officers in the air-force stationed in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital in the North-East with a population of over a million, depended on loans from friends in town because they weren’t paid. Recent Boko Haram attacks suggest that the proclaimed victory over them is premature. Urgent reform is needed to create an adequate counter-insurgency force to quell them. There have been some improvements. A few years ago only one of the four main roads into Maiduguri was not controlled by BH. And that was unsafe. Lack of security in the North-East will count against the incumbent.
With two Northern contenders, the ‘zoned’ Christian Vice-Presidential candidates have more importance. Yemi Osinbajo, Buhari’s running mate, should pull in a big Christian Pentecostal vote from the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a huge international mega-Church. Peter Obi, a Catholic and Papal Knight of the Order of St. Sylvester, is Atiku’s running mate as Vice-Presidential candidate, a former Governor of Anambra State in the South-East. Meanwhile former President and king-maker Olusegun Obasanjo has endorsed Atiku.
Northern Nigeria should not simply be described as Muslim. Since the 1960s there has been an ever growing presence of the Pentecostal Churches. Will the Pentecostals outvote the Catholics? This may be a question both the Presidential candidates are asking even though Presidential races do not offer a simple Muslim/Christian choice.
My guess would be that Buhari as incumbent with a good residue of loyalty from the seven Northern States, plus a solid Pentecostal vote pulled in behind Yemi Osinbajo will still have trouble warding off Atiku’s challenge. The PDP apparatus is still strong and Atiku can throw millions of Naira at his campaign whilst hoping for a national Catholic vote through his running mate. The question is, all things ethnic and regional being equal, does religion play a significant part? No-one knows. There are just too many variables to predict.
The problem is, if the Presidential election is closely run, the possibility of violence increases. One thing is sure, the time for the new, young, challengers, who might set Nigeria on a path to recovery, has not yet come. And another sure thing is that Nigeria, with its 200 million citizens, will somehow muddle through in the state of astonishing chaotic vigour to which they are accustomed.
BREXIT: CONSENSUS ON SELF-HARM?
The statistics that suggest young people in this country are amongst the most anxious and miserable in Europe are particularly depressing for a grandparent. By commission or omission, the world our children and grandchildren are inheriting is the world we have collectively made. The current struggle to get social media platforms to eliminate addictive portrayals of self-harm is a worrying symptom of a wider malaise. I do not understand the psychology of self-harm but it must have something to do with rejection, isolation, frustration and pain. But it clearly leads to human tragedies. For a long time those with immense social media power have pretended that their cyber-platforms do not entail the responsibilities of a publisher towards the vulnerable, particularly the young.
Once this very human pain, rejection and frustration come into focus, the question follows: Is a whole country capable of collective self-harm? Fintan O’Toole presents some whacky ideas in his Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. But he convincingly answers yes to that question. He describes the pathology of England’s identity crisis as a nation. “Self-harm is surely not the only logic in England’s experience”, he asks hopefully, after vividly describing the dynamics of what he calls ‘sadopopulism’ in recent years. The consequences of this national turn to predictable self-harm are legion.
Unless a wide range of British institutions, most notably the Bank of England, have mutated into a conspiracy of REMAIN propagandists – and by this I mean alumni of the Boris-Davis-Farage school of casual liars – they are, responsibly and urgently, giving a warning to both government and people. There is now a wide-ranging consensus from those in a position to know, a virtually unanimous conclusion, that a No-Deal exit from the EU is catastrophic and any viable future May-fudge would have damaging consequences for the economy and particularly for the poor. So why is it foolish and undemocratic to heed this warning and to give the British public their right to respond to it in a People’s Vote?
Trying to avert economic disaster is, of course, instantly dismissed as Project Fear. Yet after a decade of austerity shouldn’t we fear a decline in GDP, productivity, investment and employment? Especially when those who have suffered most in the last decade will be the worst affected. Some fear is salutary. Is a doctor’s warning “if you continue to gain weight you risk getting diabetes, heart problems and possibly cancer” Project Fear? Self-harm, reinforced by images and feelings of intense frustration, is compulsive. Its distorted perception of social, political and economic reality means it tragically ignores warnings, seen as conspiracies to block a resolution of the problem. Project Fear is anything you don’t want to hear.
The Corbyn faction of the Labour Party, despite Labour’s membership being overwhelmingly in favour of Remain and a Peoples’ Vote, is now toying with joining Theresa May, apparently in a quest for a kinder variety of self-harm,. It is a shabby tactical game. Every time I hear the Shadow Trade secretary’s, Barry Gardiner’s, dulcet tones on the radio, he sounds to me like a clever scammer selling a Ponzi scheme to the unsuspecting. Labour Party policy on BREXIT is crystal clear. Everything is still on the table we are told. Except the truth.
These are strange political times. Members of the Labour front bench abstain from a whipped vote, betray their fellow MP, Yvette Cooper, and do so with impunity. McDonnell and Corbyn have a calculated difference of emphasis in public. Keir Starmer has the impossible job of shepherding a herd of cats into following a coherent policy. It all feels like a phoney war, the lull before the storm. Under fifty days and counting. Which reminds me to cancel my direct debit to the Labour Party, and get an international driver’s licence. The Labour Party leadership has now become more than a walk-on part in the BREXIT debacle.
I don’t know about you, but I draw the line at paying a membership fee to the Labour Party to promote a policy whose results will be a less catastrophic version of national self-harm: banking on more food banks to feed the poor, further cuts in public services, even more understaffed NHS, increasing numbers of homeless on our streets, and giving the waiting paramilitaries in Ireland a new casus belli. That is not why for the last fifty years I have voted Labour. As you get older you get more risk-averse. And that, I confess, on behalf of my grandchildren, is one reason I am not willing to go along with such dangerous risks.
IRAN's REVOLUTION: 40 yEARS on
Every revolution is different. But some, like the Iranian Revolution whose 40th anniversary falls this year, are more different than others. From a popular uprising against the pro-Western Shah and his secret police, SAVAK, there emerged an Islamic Republic led by Khomeini, an intransigent and brutal Ayatollah.
Forty years ago, the CIA was monitoring the Iranian Left but missed the significance of the Mullahs. They recognized its importance after the American Embassy had been sacked and hostages taken. Meanwhile Grand Ayatollah Khomeini returned from France to eliminate his secular compatriots in the revolution, as well as his religious opponents. Suddenly Shi’a Islam, or at least Khomeini’s idiosyncratic confection of French revolutionary popular sovereignty and Islamic dictatorship, burst onto the international scene as a new threat.
Khomeini’s rule by Shi’a jurists, velayat-al-faqih, was presented as a divine dispensation. Shari’a Law ordered society. Any evolution of the revolutionary process towards a more open society was slow, fragmented, subject to major challenges and reverses. Over the years, alongside the power of the Supreme Leader, backed by his Revolutionary Guards, grew a ‘liberal’ wing of Mullahs and lay politicians and civil servants. Ayatollah Hassan Rouhani, the current President, is that wing’s most recent leader. President Khatami, before him, followed much the same path.
In the midst of these internal conflicts, at the turn of the century, I participated for several years in - what I privately called “Six a side with the Ayatollahs” - formal dialogue and discussions with the Iranian Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue, part of the government-controlled Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation. The numbers on the Iranian side were sometimes more than six. The team was usually a mix of Muslim lay scholars and a Hojjat-al-Islam, a clerical grade one below Ayatollah. During one visit to Iran by a delegation from the Church of England, a key meeting was attended by a laid-back character wearing blue-jeans. He clearly outranked the Hojjat in the chair and turned out to speak fluent English. Intelligence service A further strand in the tangled national skein of power.
For us western visitors, what went on in Evin prison, the persecution of the Bahais, the severe consequences of conversion to Christianity, and all the other pervasive human rights violations, were difficult to square with the warm hospitality and the friendliness of our hosts. Our interlocutors seemed like academics anywhere else: keen to discuss the new French philosophers, particularly Foucault. I remember the hacking cough of a cleric next to me at dinner, who told me he had been gassed in the Iraq-Iran war. More touching were the young couples walking in the mountains which cradle North Tehran who, when they saw you approaching, sprang apart. All smiles, and hands held again, when they realized you were not Iranian.
There were funny incidents. The austere Ayatollah Emami-Kashani, who was leader of the Friday prayer in Tehran at that time, lamenting at length the fact that youth were falling away from religion. He fluffed his answer when I asked if he ever talked to any youth. Maybe it was left un-translated. I didn’t tell him how much like a Catholic bishop I knew in Galway he sounded. He told our bemused delegation through the translator with some pride that he had gone to Rome and met a “Rock Singer”. It was some time later before I realized this was Ratzinger, the Cardinal, soon to be Pope.
Perhaps the most revealing incident of a further visit took place in late January 2006 after news of the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the Prophet, spun for maximum political effect, had just landed in Tehran. Our hosts had a prepared a statement for us to sign condemning the offence to Islam while praising Iran as the epicentre of interfaith dialogue and toleration. We were even told that the cartoons were now a compulsory item on the Danish schools’ curriculum. We did not sign.
After this tense day my wife and I went out for a chilly evening stroll. There was almost no-one about. This was posh Tehran where women wore their headscarves so as to reveal the maximum amount of hair while escaping prosecution. And unlike poorer, industrial south Tehran, few women dressed all in black. But the streets were empty and dark. A car screeched to a halt. There were two youngish men in it. We felt nervous. The window came down. We braced ourselves. A growling bass voice said: “You are Welcome”. For a moment the curtain which concealed the feelings of ordinary citizens had lifted.
I recommend that anyone formulating policy towards the Islamic Republic tries to tune in to each of the major contending forces within Iran. None of them have reason to trust Britain after British involvement in the CIA instigated coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. And, after the Iraq-Iran war, Iranians do not need to be told they have comprehensible national security and foreign policy concerns. But Iran is capable of change and of conciliatory negotiation.
Despite the US withdrawal and sanctions, Iran continues to comply with the 2015 nuclear deal to forestall its development of a nuclear weapon, signed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council: UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany. The deal, made against the grain by Iran, is some measure of its potential for negotiation. Trump’s and Israel’s attempt to scupper this agreement is an act of culpable irresponsibility at a time of nuclear proliferation. It is a rejection of Iranian progressives and vindication of its militarist hard-liners.
President Rouhani took a great risk by settling for a nuclear deal and permitting intrusive monitoring. He has complied with the agreement’s provisions. But he is undermined by Trump’s policy which is frankly imperial in character as well as crass, and which vindicates the adventurism of the Revolutionary Guards. The question which arises, urgently now, is whether the USA can recognize and act upon the complexity of contemporary Iran. The choice is between fostering and rewarding those Iranians seeking evolutionary change, with due concern for national security, or encouraging those wedded to militarism and expansion of Shi’a influence through proxy wars in the Middle East.