Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 opened this past weekend (June 25) to record crowds and box office receipts across the United States. Moore is the author of the bestselling book Stupid White Men and producer of the award winning documentary Bowling for Columbine. The U.S. opening of Fahrenheit 9/11 was preceded by considerable excitement and political controversy. Released earlier in Europe to enthusiastic audiences opposed to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, it received the prestigious Palme D’Or (golden palm) award at the Cannes Film Festival. The internet based Democratic Party fundraising machine MoveOn.org, to celebrate the film opening, organized over 3000 “house parties” on June 28 where its supporters heard Michael Moore on closed circuit television urge viewers to “take back the White House” this November.
After Disney refused to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11 in the U.S., the Independent Film Channel (IFC), which is owned by Cablevision and financed by JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup, took over distribution and promotion of the film. This struggle over the distribution of the film, along with the film’s obvious role in the 2004 election battle between the Republican and Democratic Parties, reflects the deep division Bush’s debacle in Iraq has generated within the U.S. ruling class.
The large enthusiastic audiences in theaters throughout the U.S. and at the MoveOn.org house parties suggest that opposition to the Bush administration and to the war in Iraq has been growing considerably during the past several months. The absence of Iraqi WMDs and any connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the massive Iraqi insurgency against the occupation, the growing U.S. casualties, the ballooning costs of the war and the shaky economy have evidently had a cumulative effect in undermining mass support for the war.
Viewers who have suffered through the nightmare four years of the Bush administration and marched against the horrendous invasion and occupation of Iraq are understandably hopeful that Fahrenheit 9/11 will help produce “regime change” in the U.S. this fall. That may prove to be the case, but will putting Democrat John Kerry in the White House lead to withdrawal of U.S. troops, military bases, and profiteering corporations from Iraq, repeal of the Patriot Act, or a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy away from its drive for imperialist hegemony? And, if replacing Bush with Kerry does not deliver any of these results, does Fahrenheit 9/11 at least provide its viewers with the information and analysis they will need to understand why the leadership of the Democratic Party has betrayed their hopes and needs? We will attempt to answer these questions after first summarizing Michael Moore’s indictment of George W. Bush.
Michael Moore begins the film by defining George W. Bush as an illegitimate President who stole the 2000 presidential election. He traces the family, business, and political connections of the key players who made sure that Bush won Florida’s electoral votes. He shows us Al Gore, presiding over the Senate in his last act as vice-president, using his gavel to silence African American members of the House of Representatives, whose protest against certifying the election results cannot go forward because not one member of the all white U.S. Senate will sign their appeal against the massive racist disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida.
Moore depicts Bush as an incompetent leader who spent 42% of the first eight months of his presidency up to 9/11 on vacation. He cites findings of the 9/11 commission confirming that the Bush administration virtually ignored the threat of an Al Qaeda attack on the U.S. He then devotes a significant part of the film to analyzing the intricate network of oil, banking, and investment relationships between the Bush family and the rulers of Saudi Arabia, including the Bin Laden family. He informs us that George Bush senior is a major figure in the Carlyle Group, which has major investments in several of the biggest corporate military contractors. He describes how the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan were invited to Texas in an effort to negotiate the building of a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan from Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean.
Moore emphasizes how members of the Bin Laden family and other influential Saudis were allowed to fly out of the U.S. after 9/11 at a time when U.S. air space was otherwise shut down. Although Moore never explicitly states why he is telling this fairly detailed story, it seems pretty clear that he is trying to demonstrate that family business interests made Bush determined to invade first Afghanistan and then Iraq, rather than go after the country from which most of the 9/11 hijackers came. In other words, Moore is suggesting that Bush and his cronies put their personal interests above the national security of the United States.
Moore then devotes most of the rest of the film to the U.S. war on Iraq. He satirizes Bush’s “coalition of the willing” by listing some of the militarily insignificant countries that did agree to join the coalition of invaders of Iraq. He briefly reviews the now thoroughly exposed lies Bush and his pals presented to gain support for invading Iraq. He dramatizes the human consequences of the war for the tortured and bombed Iraqis, for the American military soldiers who are fighting and dying in this preemptive war, and for the families, both Iraqi and American, who are devastated by the war’s deadly destruction. He provides footage of meetings where corporate leaders eagerly discuss the profits they expect to reap from the exploitation and reconstruction of Iraq.
Most poignant is the story told by Lila Lipscomb, mother of Michael Pederson, killed in Iraq after Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and declared victory in Iraq. Lipscomb lives in Moore’s hometown, Flint, Michigan. Lipscomb describes herself as a “conservative Democrat,” who used to despise anti-war demonstrators. A white woman married to a black man, she has fought to survive amidst the economic wreckage left behind in Flint by General Motors in its search for cheaper labor and higher profits. She encouraged her daughter and son to enlist in the army, and she reads from her son’s final letter home, in which he says of Bush, “He got us out here for nothing.” At the end of the film, she visits Washington, gets as close to the White House as she can, and pours out her anger at its occupant. Her obviously authentic testimony is perhaps Moore’s most potent ammunition in Fahrenheit 9/11.
In stark juxtaposition to Lila Lipscomb are the Congresspersons who scurry away from Moore when he tries to urge them to persuade their sons and daughters to enlist in the armed forces, and the fat cats attending one of Bush’s fundraisers whom Bush calls his “base.” By the end of the film, we see the immense contrast between the Bush crowd, who have launched a war to increase their wealth, and the ordinary working class people, who, as Moore observes, always make the biggest sacrifices in wars.
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In his speech to the more than thirty thousand people attending MoveOn.org house parties last night (June 28), Michael Moore stated his disappointment that Kerry had supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He suggested that Kerry may lose the election unless he responds to growing popular opposition to the war. He hopes Kerry, if elected, will withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq during the first 100 days of his administration. What leads Michael Moore to assert that a growing anti-war movement, spurred on by Fahrenheit 9/11 and organizations such as MoveOn.org, can make the Democratic Party do the right thing? Let’s examine Moore’s analysis of the Bush Administration, the war, and the Democratic Party.
The Theft of 2000 Election.
Fahrenheit 9/11 begins with an implicit indictment of both Republicans and Democrats and ends with an implicit indictment of the system of inequality in the U.S. But in between the film concentrates virtually all of its fire on the Bush crowd and the Republican Party.
Republicans stole the 2000 election with the spineless complicity of the Democrats. Not one Democratic Senator is willing to sign the appeal demanded by African American members of the House of Representatives. But why did the Democrats passively accept the massive disenfranchisement of Black voters in Florida (and other states) in 2000? Moore does not attempt to explain the Democrat’s spinelessness. The answer lies in the fact that the Democrats colluded extensively in Black disenfranchisement. Democratic majorities in Congress and the Democratic president Bill Clinton repeatedly proposed and voted for legislation that resulted in the massive criminalization of African Americans. Christian Parenti wrote in an article, “The ‘New’ Criminal Justice System: State Repression from 1968 to 2001,” Monthly Review, July 2001:
During his presidency, Clinton signed the 1994 Violent Crime Control And Law Enforcement Act, which offered up a cop’s cornucopia of $30.2 billion in federal cash from which we got Clinton’s one hundred thousand new police officers, scores of new prisons, and SWAT teams in even small New England towns(In 1996) Clinton gave us the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which massively expanded the use of the death penalty and eviscerated federal habeas corpus The sad election year of 1996 also delivered the ideologically named “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act,” which eliminated the undocumented person’s right to due process and helped bring Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) funding up to four billion annually. These were the Clinton administration’s demolition devices, strategically placed to take out what little remained for prisoners in the Bill of Rights.
These acts contributed to the continuing rapid expansion of the prison system, to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, and to their disenfranchisement as convicted felons. Whites make up over three-fourths of the violators of drug laws, but the criminal justice system has, for the past three decades, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, imprisoned millions of African Americans. Moreover, those prisoners have increasingly been subjected to the same kinds of torture that took place at Abu Ghraib, sometimes even by the very same guards! Neither Al Gore nor the 100 white Senators-Republicans as well as Democrats-who themselves supported this repressive racist legislation, were going to put their signature on the appeal of black Representatives. The Democrats were spineless because they were as guilty as the Republicans.
The U.S./Saudi Connection.
This cozy relationship is much bigger than the family and business ties between the Bushes and the Bin Ladens that Michael Moore describes. Before the end of World War II, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. establishment as a whole decided that U.S. control of Saudi oil and U.S. protection of the Saudi royal family would be the essential linchpin of U.S. global hegemony in the post-war world (Michael Klare, “The Geopolitics of War,” The Nation, 10/18/01 ). This strategic alliance did not begin with Vice President Cheney’s secretive 2001 energy commission. It has been the unwavering policy of every Democratic and Republican President for sixty years. That helps to explain why the entire U.S. Government, including both houses of Congress, both political parties, and the corporate media signed on to Bush’s plan for invading and occupying Iraq. Now that the policy has become a disaster, politicians and the media are quick to proclaim that they were misled by Bush’s lies, but they knew the truth from the beginning.
The Bush/Bin Laden Terrorist Alliance.
Like the U.S./Saudi alliance, the alliance between the U.S. and the international terrorist brigades now dubbed Al Qaeda has also been more than the corrupt money grab by Bush and his oil business cronies, as described in Fahrenheit 9/11. It too has been a bi-partisan strategy of the U.S. ruling class. It was begun by Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1979 as a way to draw the Soviet Union into a quagmire in Afghanistan. The CIA and its Pakistani counterpart trained tens of thousands of Islamic terrorists to invade and overthrow the pro-Soviet government of Afghanistan. Even before that, the U.S., under both Republican and Democratic Administrations during the 1970s, had undertaken the same strategy in Southern Africa. The U.S., together with its ally the apartheid government of South Africa, organized, trained, armed, and financed terrorist groups in Angola (UNITA) and Mozambique (RENAMO) to attack civilian populations and undermine unfriendly governments. And, during the 1980s, the U.S. did the same thing in Central America with the Nicaraguan Contras. In Central America and in Afghanistan, the U.S. partly financed these terrorist operations with profits from drug cartels run by the CIA’s terrorist proxy forces. (Mahmood Mamdani, “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: An African Perspective.”) . Thus, it was not only Bush and his cronies but the entire U.S. establishment that created terrorist proxies as instruments of U.S. foreign policy during the past three decades. John Kerry knows all this quite well. He was on a Senate committee during the 1980s that investigated it.
Between the Bushes: CLinton’s Iraq policies.
It is also a fact that Bill Clinton’s policies toward Iraq, which Fahrenheit 9/11 never discusses, were as murderous as those of George W. Bush. The Clinton Administration enforced the UN sanctions for eight years, which prevented Iraq from repairing its infrastructure that was destroyed by the US during the first Iraq war (1990-1991). Unable to repair its electrical power and water purification system, unable to import medicines and hospital supplies, Iraq became a death zone for its civilian population, especially its children and the elderly. UN studies found that approximately 5000 children were dying every month throughout the 1990s as a result of these sanctions. By the end of the decade, an estimated 1.2 million Iraqis died as a consequence of the U.S./British enforced sanctions. When Clinton’s secretary of state Madeline Albright was asked on television whether this was too high a price for Iraqi civilians to pay for the U.S. opposition to the regime of Saddam Hussein, Albright replied that the price was not too high. A Pentagon study early in the 1990s projected mass civilian deaths in Iraq as a result of the sanctions, so these genocidal results were foreseen and deliberate. Denying Iraqi civilians access to clean water was a form of biological and chemical warfare, a weapon of mass destruction unleashed against the Iraqi population under the imprimatur of the United Nations and enforced by regular bombing raids carried out by U.S. and British forces. Why didn’t Michael Moore mention any of this in Fahrenheit 9/11? It certainly might help to explain why Iraqis did not welcome the U.S. as liberators, no matter how much they despised Saddam Hussein’s regime. But it would also lead the audience to recognize that both Republicans and Democrats have pursued obscenely immoral policies toward Iraq.
An imperialist war, not just Bush’s war.
If Democrats signed on to the war not because they were spineless or misinformed, and if the war was fought in the collective interests of the entire U.S. establishment, not just the private interests of the Bush family and their friends, then what was really behind the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq?
Addressing this question could obviously require a very lengthy essay, but we will try to summarize the central points. Numerous well informed critics of the war have written many excellent articles and books on this subject during the past year and one half. (We suggest Behind the Invasion of Iraq, by the Research Unit on Political Economy, from Mumbai, India, published by Monthly Review Press, contents.html as one of the best analyses of this subject.) Distilling what they have said, we come to the following analysis.
First, we define imperialist wars as wars undertaken as part of the profit driven struggle by capitalist ruling classes for control of raw materials, cheap labor, and markets. The U.S. seeks to consolidate its hold on the Middle East because that region is strategically the most important of all in U.S. efforts to maintain world domination in a period of global economic crisis and capitalist rivalry. The Middle East contains two-thirds of all known petroleum supplies. Oil is the lifeblood of all capitalist economies and is crucial for the exercise of military power. Not only is the U.S. importing an increasing percentage of its oil (currently about 55%). More importantly, the economies of the European Union and Asia are increasingly dependent on oil imports from the Middle East. U.S. control over Middle East oil provides crucial leverage and influence over its capitalist competitors such as Germany, France, China, and Japan, who have very limited domestic supplies of oil and must import oil from the Middle East.
During the past three decades, the U.S. has declined economically relative to its major capitalist competitors. With the return of capitalism to Russia and China, there are more competitors, and there is no communist enemy against whom all major capitalist countries can unite. Thus, a declining U.S. imperialism faces increasing competition from its imperialist rivals. Most of the rest of the world more or less sees current global conflicts in this way, and thus they view the U.S. attempt to seize Iraq as an aggressive attempt by the U.S. to solve its worsening economic problems through military aggression. The U.S. attempt to prevent its competitors from gaining a foothold in the Iraqi oil business was clearly not in the interests of French, German, Russian, Chinese, or Japanese imperialists, which explains why the U.S. could not get those governments to sign on to the U.S. seizure of Iraq, no matter how much bribery and intimidation the U.S. tried to apply.
Imperialist rivalry was at the root of the two world wars of the 20th century, and it could lead to a third world war, especially if the already shaky global capitalist economy experiences a severe crisis like the Great Depression of the 1930s. Thus, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is an imperialist war. That is something much bigger than the corrupt war profiteering of Halliburton or the sleazy relationships between Saudi capitalists and the Bush family. It is much bigger than the ideological fantasies of the clique of neo-conservatives in the Bush Administration. Michael Moore has revealed a limited aspect of a much larger problem. The Bush clique exemplifies the true character of capitalist imperialism in this period, but the problem is the system as a whole, not just a few arrogant corrupt liars.
Israel: Unmentioned in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Michael Moore has spoken out against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and dedicated his most recent book to Rachel Corrie, the young American woman who was crushed to death last year by an Israeli (Caterpillar) bulldozer as she attempted to prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes and olive orchards. A film on U.S. policy in the Middle East, the war on terror, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq cannot give its audience an understanding of what is going on in the world without discussing the U.S./Israeli alliance.
Since the 1960s Israel has played a strategic role in helping the U.S. dominate the Middle East and protect the undemocratic Arab regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab countries. The U.S. provides Israel with billions of dollars of assistance annually and defends Israel against all criticisms and threats. Israel has a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, including several hundred nuclear weapons. Israel occupies the territory of neighboring countries in defiance of numerous United Nations resolutions. Israel is currently working extensively in Iraq with the Kurdish minority in the northern part of the country. Much Arab anger at the U.S. is a result of U.S. policy toward Israel. The U.S., in its brutal occupation of Iraq, has in many ways emulated Israeli tactics toward Palestinians. Israeli and U.S. terror against Palestinians and Iraqis meets with resistance and terror from occupied Palestinians and Iraqis.
Both Bush and Kerry and the rest of the leadership of both parties support the cruelest Israeli policies against the Palestinians, including Israel’s current efforts to build an apartheid style wall to imprison millions of Palestinians within shrinking impoverished ghettos. Michael Moore may have felt that the inclusion of any criticism of U.S. policy toward Israel would have been a kiss of death for Fahrenheit 9/11 and his efforts to defeat George W. Bush. However, the exclusion of this subject helps sustain the broader injustice of U.S. policies throughout the Middle East and paves the way for a Kerry Administration to continue the policies of all U.S. Administrations toward Israel.
Now that we have laid out these criticisms of Fahrenheit 9/11, the reader may object that a two hour documentary could not possibly have educated its audience on all of the issues we have raised in this review. That is a fair comment. But Michael Moore could have made a much better attempt to expose the role of both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. It does a disservice to the anti-war movement in the U.S. and around the world to misdirect our anger away from the system as a whole onto a single ruling class family or one political faction of the ruling class. It particularly does a disservice to the tens of millions of oppressed people around the world who will continue to be assaulted by U.S. imperialism under a Democratic Kerry Administration. It encourages us to devote too much energy to getting out the vote on one day, instead of building a mass movement that fights every day against the system of imperialism.
Finally, it could be objected that, if Michael Moore had made the documentary film we wanted, it would not be showing in movie houses all over the United States. We readily agree. And that tells us a lot about the way the ruling class limits the range of acceptable political criticism in the U.S. and funnels protest into the capitalist controlled Republican and Democratic Parties.
Steven Rosenthal is a professor of Sociology at Hampton University and lives in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Junaid Ahmad is a member of the Progressive Muslims Network and works with the Center for Progressive Islam. He can be reached at: Junaid.firstname.lastname@example.org.