Thursday, March 28, 2013

Culture Shock 03.28.13: The Day Iraq stood still

What if I told you the justification for the Iraq War was laid out in a 62-year-old science fiction movie?

As unlikely as it may seem, the case for President George W. Bush's preemptive war against the regime of Saddam Hussein is summed up in finale of 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still," regarded by many critics — although not this one — as a classic of both sci-fi and Cold War cinema.

Ten years ago, the United States invaded Iraq. That didn't exactly work out as planned, and for the past week, backers of the war, both conservative and liberal, have looked back and wondered, aloud and in print, whether it was worth it.

Some conservative hawks, such as the Weekly Standard's William Kristol, likely will go to their graves defending the Iraq War. But their unrepentant stridency is quite the contrast to the contorted and feckless mea culpas of liberal hawks such as The Washington Post's resident wunderkind Ezra Klein or New York magazine's Jonathan Chait.

In their apologies, Klein and Chait devote the now customary attention to Iraq's phantom weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's supposed mental instability, but neither engages what was the most fundamental issue in the run-up to the war: whether or not preemptive war, in general, is a legitimate course of action. Probably they don't talk about it because, except for what little remains of the Code Pink anti-war left, most liberals and progressives have no problem with preemptive war. It simply isn't a concern.

That attitude certainly comes through in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which apart from being a movie about aliens, flying saucers and robots, is a liberal message movie.

At the film's conclusion, the alien ambassador Klaatu (Michael Rennie) gives the Earth an ultimatum: "It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration."

Yes, in the 1950s, preemptive genocide when faced with the mere threat of violence from a vastly inferior military force was considered a liberal idea. Go figure. But that was the '50s, and the liberals were the internationalist crusaders (such as Harry Truman, who gave us the Korean War, which still is causing us a spot of trouble today), while the conservatives, such as Republican Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, were the peaceniks.

Naturally, the movie is more complicated than that. Klaatu is portrayed as an almost Christ-like figure, bringing a promise of hope and peace to the people of Earth, but also the prospect of damnation if we don't mend our ways. And yet the plot point about an army of space-patrolling robots programmed to pounce on any planet that gets too big for its britches remains. And that is kind of hard to ignore. Being the galaxy's policeman versus being the world's policeman is only a difference of degree, not of kind.

Since "The Day the Earth Stood Still" premiered, there has been an ideological shift. In the late '60s and early '70s, some liberals got "mugged by reality" and became neoconservatives. They, their children and those they've influenced are now the face of conservatism. And because they were the most hawkish of liberals, conservatism became more hawkish, too.

So we had a war with a liberal justification, launched by a conservative president, supported by a mix of liberal and conservative pundits and now second-guessed mostly by liberals. And the war became so unpopular it tainted the conservative brand and led to President Barack Obama.

Even when the Earth stands still, politics doesn't.

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