Political Film Society - Newsletter #240 -December 1, 2005

December 1, 2005


SyrianaSyriana, directed and written by Stephen Gaghan, is suggested by the book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism (2002), written by former CIA field officer Robert Baer. The film attempts to portray how the world petroleum industry actually operates, using confusing short cuts of the lives of several persons who are related through their orientations toward Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (played by Alexander Siddig) of one of the United Arab Emirates. In the beginning of the film, CIA agent Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney) is in Tehran, selling two high-powered bombs to opponents of the Iranian government. The CIA is allied with a private sector firm that is attempting to change the ayatollah-dominated regime to a democracy, but the bombs are instead quickly resold to anti-American terrorists, whereupon Barnes returns to Washington for his next assignment. Presumably, his next job is to assassinate Prince Nasir, who does not want his country to do Washington's bidding unlike his father, the Emir (Nadim Sawalha), and his brother, Meshal (played by Akbar Kurtha), who is next in line to the throne. However, when Barnes reaches Beirut to engage an assassin, he is again doublecrossed--but now by his bosses, who see him as a loose cannon. As for the Emirate, American troops are stationed there to guard the oil, and the Emir fears for his life. However, Prince Nasir is on Washington's dishonor roll because he transferred an oil concession of the American firm Connex in the Gulf that he controls to a higher bidder, China, and he has ambitions to turn his country into a prosperous democracy with a parliament. Meanwhile, Bryan Woodman (played by Matt Damon), an American financial consultant who lives in Geneva and offers commentary for television programs, is summoned to a hotel in the French Riviera to advise the Prince. After his young son dies in the hotel pool, the Prince offers him a hefty amount in compensation. When Woodman asks what his other son is worth, the Prince responds with another generous gift, whereupon Woodman insists that he should at least give him some financial advice.

The Prince agrees, and Woodman suggests that he should stop living in $50,000-a-day hotel rooms, sell his oil through an Iranian pipeline rather than loading tankers to sail around South Africa to Europe, and otherwise establish the Emirate's economy on a business basis; otherwise, in one hundred years, when the oil runs out, the Emirate will return to the impoverished condition that existed a century earlier. Several more stories fit into the plot. When Connex loses the oil concession, the company merges with Killen, which has just gained drilling rights to the oil of Kazakhstan by paying a bribe to the government, but the merger must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, which identifies the bribe as a reason to deny the merger. Accordingly, Dean Whiting (played by Christopher Plummer) assigns to his subordinate in a consulting firm, Bennett Holiday (played by Jeffrey Wright), the task of getting the merger approved by any means necessary. Wasim Kahn (played by Mazhar Munir), a Pakistani who is fired when the Chinese take over the Prince's oil concession, fails to get another job, enrolls in an Islamic school, is brainwashed by an anti-Western cleric, and ultimately uses one of the bombs sold by Barnes to blow up a ship in port (presumably the USS Cole). Throughout the film there are many sage remarks. For example, bribery is viewed as a normal business practice, and the quest to control oil is considered to be a fight to the death. As for the title of the movie, the term is used by Washington thinktanks that seek to reshape the Middle East in their own image. The overall impact of the film is to suggest that the stakes are so high that the politics of oil are necessarily machiavellian and out of control. MH

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See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism
by Robert Baer

Robert Baer's abridged work leaps by place and time, illuminating the CIA field officer's career from recruitment to retirement, with lots of detailed recollections culled from twenty years of clandestine Middle Eastern operations.