Since Sunday night PBS has treated viewers to a stunning series of documentary films that examine big themes and ideas that define our post-9/11 world. Last night featured a documentary titled “The Case for War” and the premise was that we would go along with Richard Perle as he travelled from Washington to Kabul to Kosovo to London and back again, meeting with his critics and supporters every step along the way.
The film was fascinating, even though Perle was often disappointingly inarticulate (in the role of protagonist) and tone deaf in his responses to grieving mothers and intellectual foes (Pat Buchanan, Richard Holbrooke, Simon Jenkins, among others). Furthermore, his gravely monotone voice, seeming inability to smile, and penguin like appearance all make him a rather unattractive spokesman for his cause. These qualities feed the stereotyped characterization of him as the “Prince of Darkness” (which, if memory serves, is actually a nickname that has stuck to him by mistake. When Perle served as Reagan’s point man on nuclear negotiations with the Soviets he was a frequent presence in the halls of Congress. As it happens, a certain other white-haired, slightly obese, prickly conservative was also known to stalk these halls. Both men carry the nickname “Prince of Darkness,” but I think it originally belonged to Novak — but I digress…).
When I clicked-off my television last night I could only think that Perle had changed few minds over the course of the previous hour (the rather dismissive review from Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times suggests the same.) Chief among my complaints about the film is how the term “neoconservative” is used. Not a minute is spent defining the widely misunderstood word. Granted, to move down this road risks getting the producers stuck in a complex morass that might trigger many viewer’s eyes to roll back into their heads, or simply reach for their remotes, but in such a case I suspect they would have been better off not using the tricky term at all. It obfuscates more than it clarifies.
My other take-away brings me back to familiar stomping grounds. The utterly unpersuasive case Perle musters in the documentary reinforces what Niall Stange in the current issue of The New York Observer calls “The Tragic Death of Enlightened Interventionism.” Stange digs up some excerpts from a speech Tony Blair delivered a few weeks after 9/11.
“The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: They too are our cause,” Mr. Blair said. “This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.”
Was Blair’s rhetoric a bit grandiose? Sure. Is it depressing that this speech reads to many across the political spectrum as an easily dismissed parody of American (and British) foreign policy? Absolutely. (Just ask Joe Biden)