Weekend Film Recommendation: In the Loop

Before he was elected to serve as the next Doctor, Peter Capaldi was a well-recognised face on the British comedy circuit for having played Malcolm Tucker, Armando Iannucci’s thinly-veiled lampoon of Alastair Campbell. Tucker rose to prominence thanks to Iannucci’s wildly successful television show, The Thick of It, which ended recently after its fourth season. The Thick of It formed the basis of two spin-offs, one of which is HBO’s Veep (more on that here), and the other is this week’s movie recommendation, titled In the Loop (2009).

Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 00.17.39

The film deals with meetings between US State Department officials and UK politicians after a blunderous radio interview, in which a junior MP has unwittingly suggested that we must initiate war in the Middle East as a matter of principle. British and American politicians alike seize on the opportunity either to exercise their trigger finger or to seem like the cautious restrainer-in-chief, depending purely on what they anticipate will make them look good. The rest of the film is about how middlemen and executives shape policy in their efforts to seem competent. It’s that performance of competence, rather than its true presence, that forms the focus of the satire.

A lot of the film plays not only on the political environment and the fickleness of its key players; there’s a hefty dose of ridicule pointed toward the way the political world was often represented in a Sorkin-steeped, Obama-canonising 2008. While the dialogue is precise and lightning-quick, it’s also incomparably crude. In place of the strategic shadowing and earth-tones of your garden-variety political drama, the colours in In the Loop are bright and etiolated, lending to a sense that everyone’s exhausted, and their flaws are always in full view. While the edgy, hand-held camera-work conveys the frenetic atmosphere of snap judgments (recall the famous West Wing corridor walk-n’-talk), the camera clumsily chases behind the characters as they spend time locating the correct room for a meeting. By the end of the film, you feel less like a spectator and more like the bumbling assistant trying unsuccessfully to take notes on scraps of paper. A glamorous ‘halls of power’ drama from a British perspective it ain’t.

Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 00.18.06The challenge with political satire, and especially when placed in the medium of film (where the gimmick has plenty of time to play out), is that it isn’t being done right if the whole thing seems like poking fun at ‘those people over there’ while leaving us unharmed. If we’re not part of the ridicule, then the whole exercise seems a little bit… pointless. In the Loop’s success in making ‘those people over there’ look like self-serving conniving scumbags is ultimately attenuated because they end up being so successful at hiding their incompetence. We (the viewers, the electorate) can’t really be blamed for not having noticed the innumerable screw-ups along the way, so we remain ignorant and blameless. The result is the duality of conspiracy that Keith has referred to on this site before: the architects of the conspiracy must be both so incompetent that they need to construct an elaborate cover-up in the first place, while also being so competent at hiding their charade that most people never notice.

I’d say I have a favourite moment, but really any scene with James Gandolfini will do. The film is a superb showcase for his considerable comic talents. If you watch him spar with Peter Capaldi and fail to chuckle, I’ll eat my hat. As for Malcolm Tucker, well, as one of the most bilious and acerbic abominations to have been coughed up onto the screen, Capaldi brings a whole new, glorious meaning to the term vicarious catharsis. Listen to his improvised excoriation for a few minutes and feel your stresses slide away.

Really hard jobs

Some jobs are challenging, and some are so hard it’s a wonder anyone can be found to take them on.  Ambassador from Pakistan to anywhere, for example.  At the moment, the US slot is held by Sherry Rehman, and representing her country in a positive way to anyone not clinically insane has just become even more daunting.  She needs all the help she can get, so I respectfully offer a draft of short remarks she might wish to make at her next official appearances:

My dear American friends,

As you know, Pakistan is officially a Moslem country.  This means we are committed to the authority and inerrant guidance of the prophet Mohammed, just as Christians adhere to Jesus and Jews to Abraham and Moses.  You also need to know that while many of other faiths trust their prophets’ teachings to stand on their own, indeed to gain strength through examination, we in Pakistan regard the lessons of Mohammed as being uniquely unpersuasive and unconvincing, liable to shatter on impact with the slightest challenge, debate, examination, or disrespect. The authority of our prophet is, in our view, so delicate that we search out and kill anyone who confronts our faith with doubt of any kind, and to be sure we err on the right side, we not only empower but oblige every citizen to set our police and courts on anyone he wishes slain.  What looks to unbelievers like savagery is actually a glorious enterprise that  fortifies our beliefs with a wall of corpses and a moat of blood.  As you are aware, I have been identified as a blasphemer by this process, and as there’s a good chance I will be put to death before I’m able to further explain the particularly holy and excellent nature of our judicial system and the rightness of our faith, I wanted to take this occasion to let Americans see why my government is implementing the best of our culture.  Thank you for your kind attention and for the chance to further build understanding and trust between our great nations. Allahu Akbar.

Now we should all recite together, “Everyone’s culture is just as good as anyone else’s culture, and in every way.”

Bad choices

Susan Rice´s large oil investments should disqualify her from becoming Secretary of State.

The insulting treatment of Susan Rice by John McCain and other Republican senators over the real Benghazi tragedy, and manufactured scandal, has worked in her favour as a candidate to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

The complaints about her abrasive temperament don´t stand up either. Niceness is an overrated quality in diplomacy. A moderate and conciliatory tone can easily be misread as weakness: April Glaspie, the US Ambassador to Iraq in 1990, and the British Foreign Office in 1982, failed to threaten Saddam Hussein and General Galtieri repectively that the aggression they were planning would be met, as it was, with war. (The FO was hampered by the absence of diplomatic relations with Argentina; Glaspie was carrying out instructions.) A diplomat uses the temperament she or he has in a disciplined way. When Mr Nice Guy speaks harshly, or Ms Buzzsaw speaks softly, interlocutors read the signs. I´ve not read anything to suggest that Rice lacks the necessary self-discipline.

What disqualifies Ms Rice is her investment judgement. She´s a comfortably wealthy woman; she and her husband had assets of ¨$23,521,177 to $43,543,009¨ in 2009, according to her 2009 financial disclosure report. Good for them both. They are clearly experienced and knowledgeable investors.

But according to Scott Dodd´s reporting for One Earth:

Rice owns stock valued between $300,000 and $600,000 in TransCanada, the company seeking a federal permit to transport tar sands crude 1,700 miles to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, crossing fragile Midwest ecosystems and the largest freshwater aquifer in North America.

Beyond that, according to financial disclosure reports, about a third of Rice’s personal net worth is tied up in oil producers, pipeline operators, and related energy industries north of the 49th parallel — including companies with poor environmental and safety records on both U.S. and Canadian soil. Rice and her husband own at least $1.25 million worth of stock in four of Canada’s eight leading oil producers, as ranked by Forbes magazine.

These stakes are not parts of a neutral balanced portfolio. Energy stocks (mostly oil) represent only 10.3% of the value of a representative Vanguard index fund. The Rice household has made an unusually large bet on oil, and Canadian tar sands oil in particular.

The issue is not the specific conflict of interest over the Keystone XL pipeline, on which the State Department has to issue a recommendation next year. It´s that she would have a systematic conflict of interest over the most important foreign policy issue of the second Obama Administration – far more important than Islamic fundamentalism.

The investments also show terrible judgement. Betting your fortune on planet-busting oil means you are one of these three things:

  • a feckless denialist (the proverbial grasshopper)
  • a gutless temporiser (the proverbial ostrich)
  • a heartless cynic (the proverbial scorpion.)

Take your pick. But any of these should disqualify Ms Rice from the office of Secretary of State.

Unkind, you think? Greens should be grateful to that nice Mr. Obama for not being Mitt Romney? What would you say if Ms Rice had invested her money with Peshawar arms dealers? What´s the difference?

No irrelevant comments please on Benghazi.

Who will manage the global commons?

Who will manage the global commons as we move from American dominance to a truly mulipolar world?

Twitter offers the pleasure of knowing what casual acquaintances are doing, and to occasionally catch useful or fun events you wouldn’t otherwise know were happening.

Last week, I was giving a talk at the Washington, DC, VA. I had some unexpected time to kill, and I happened to see that @ezraklein and @edwardGLuce were participating in a very good, albeit sobering Brookings panel discussion concerning Luce’s new book, Time to start thinking: America in the age of descent.

Luce provided an excellent bill of particulars about our education system, our dysfunctional political structures, and the unprecedented economic competition we face from China, Brazil, and elsewhere. It seems to me that the obvious decline of American power, in many forms, is the elephant in the room in many matters of global import. George W. Bush accelerated this decline through tragically misguided policies at home and abroad. Yet the trends go deeper than any one administration, even one as disastous as Bush 43.

Ezra Klein followed Luce’s presentation by asking some basic and challenging questions. Have we really been harmed by our nation’s relative decline in (say) global GDP? Other than the blow to our national ego, it’s not clear we are harmed in any way by the decline of our relative economic preeminence on the world stage. Continue reading “Who will manage the global commons?”

Proud to be American,

reason 9.b.ii:  We selflessly share our highest values with unfortunate people around the world and improve the cultures we engage with.

Today, let us reflect on two of those values, namely “more stuff cheap”  [Amen], and “business as a moral calling” “highest standards of honesty and transparency” , um, wait a minute, “if no-one’s not many people have been indicted convicted yet, nothing has actually happened; keep moving and go shopping”.

Yeah, that’s the one.

Beat the drum slowly

A protest at Iran warmongering.

Campaigning Republicans are banging the patriotic and Israel-first drums for a preventive war against Iran, allegedly to stop it from deploying atomic weapons: though how this is supposed to work without a full-scale invasion and 20,000 American dead is left studiously unclear. “Surgical” air strikes, perhaps? Pillar:

As Richard Betts remarks in his recent book about the American use of military force, anyone who hears talk about a surgical strike should get a second opinion.

All that would do is make Iran absolutely determined to get the bomb.

(Back-of-envelope guesstimate: coalition military casualties in Iraq from Gulf War II and the occupation stand at 4,804, all but 300 or so American. Iran has 2½ times Iraq’s population and 4 times the area. Its armed forces have not been degraded by any equivalent of Gulf War I and the subsequent sanctions. There’s no equivalent of Kurdish secessionism or the Sunni/Shia split, and the Iranian army and populace would be united. An invasion of Iran would not aim at the simple decapitation of an autocracy in its capital, but would need to secure and destroy a good number of dispersed and concealed nuclear facilities, fighting over far more rugged and defensible terrain.)

At the same time the Republicans are treating a gasoline price of $3 a gallon as a shameful assault on the American Way of Life. What do they think would happen to the world oil price when Iran closes the Straits of Hormuz to commercial shipping (they can’t easily close it to the US Navy, but they can make tankers uninsurable), and launches a wave of sabotage attacks on US refineries, LNG terminals and other oil and gas infrastructure? They would, IMHO, be entirely justified in doing so, in response to a naked act of aggression.
[Update 9/04: Matt Yglesias dots the i’s on oil prices.]

This project is nuts.

Showing and telling

The current ambassador to China, Gary Locke, is teaching the Chinese some useful stuff without a word of preaching or assertion, mainly by carrying his own bags and flying economy, and being seen to do so.  The German for ambassador is botschafter, which means message carrier, and Locke’s story nicely enlarges our idea of how a message can most effectively be embodied.

I really like this story, including the inept, hamhanded response of the Chinese élites. Locke is giving the usual speeches as well, of course; I especially like this bit:

“I’ve sometimes asked myself: ‘How did the Locke family go in just two generations from living in a small rural village in China to the governor’s mansion?’ ” Locke said in a Sept. 9 speech to students at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “The answer is American openness — building and sustaining an open economy and an open society.”

“Our family’s story is the story of America,” Locke said. And, in a subtle challenge to China to become more open, he added, “we believe these values are independent of any particular political system. They are universal, and universally beneficial to societal advance.”

What the story doesn’t say is that Locke’s attribution of his status to a whole system and not to his own personal merit is also a subtle challenge to our own 1%, who seem to think everything they own was value they created alone, and are busily sawing the rungs out of the ladder.

The fall of the House of Qaddafi

Juan Cole says it’s just about over.

Juan Cole says it’s about over. Tunisia and Egypt recognized the insurgent government overnight. Is the House of Assad next?

The best argument against the NATO intervention was that it wouldn’t work. Apparently it did.

That’s not to say that we should expect a smooth road ahead in Libya, any more than in Egypt or (let’s hope) Syria. Still,

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?

The Wikileaker should serve some time

Whoever sent a quarter-million U.S. diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks should go to jail.

This may be a minority opinion in the blogosphere, but here goes.

I want to see whoever sent a quarter-million U.S. diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks go to jail. Our government cannot operate in a dangerous world like this. I’m not just talking about fighting wars and killing terrorists here. I’m talking about the equally important art of quiet diplomacy, which requires candid conversations about sensitive matters within our government, and even more sensitive conversations with foreign officials, intelligence sources, human-rights activists, and countless others with whom a private word is often incredibly valuable.

A free press operates within a generally-implicit, but real tradition of checks and balances under which the government grants journalists broad lattitude to publish leaks and classified information, while journalists exercise some corresponding discretion in weighing the public’s right to know and the government’s legitimate interests in secret-keeping.

WikiLeaks, in particular, has shown troubling disregard for the legal, historical, and political context of this relationship. Dumping huge quantities of virtually unfiltered classified information onto the web that may (though this is a topic of legitimate dispute) endanger specific individuals is wrong and perhaps illegal.

I fear that the end result of episodes like this will be threefold: (1) Our diplomats and soldiers in the field will increasingly self-censor their opinions and operational views out of fear that someone will splash sensitive candid material across the internet. (2) Foreign officials, journalists, informants, and activists will be more reluctant to hold sensitive conversations with American officials, and (3) the American public will become much less supportive of responsible journalists exercising their first amendment rights after witnessing episodes such as this one.

I don’t know the motives of the leaker or leakers who provided this information. Perhaps they were disgusted by the carnage, the official wrongdoing, and the blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps they had more personal motives. Perhaps they acted out of a combination of reasons. Whatever the motive, this was wrong. I’m ready to be convinced otherwise. My gut reaction is that whoever did this needs to serve real time behind bars.

P.S. The incompetence of our computer security is equally breathtaking. The keystone cops aspect of this entire affair is rather depressing.

Gold bug

Robert Zoellic goes gold bug, and the strange US lock on the World Bank presidency.

Robert Zoellick, chosen by George Bush Jnr to head the World Bank:

The [international monetary] system should also consider employing gold as an international reference point of market expectations about inflation, deflation and future currency values…. Although textbooks may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.

Via Brad deLong and Paul Krugman, who have difficulty believing it.

Zoellick´s predecessor was the even less qualified neocon warmonger Paul Wolfowitz.

Can someone remind me – and, more´s the point, Dilma Rousseff, Manmohan Singh, and the rest of the class of developing-country leaders – exactly why the United States gets to treat this really quite important and technically demanding job as a patronage reward for pensioned-off apparatchiks?

Wait a minute, when Wolfowitz quit in disgrace in 2007 :

Brazil, South Korea, China and Pakistan were among a group of developing nations that called for a more transparent process for selecting the head of the bank …

The calls will be much less deferential next time.

Update 11 November
Zoellick has walked back from his gold-bug sentence – but doesn´t rescue his reputation.