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June 30, 2004

Criticizing F-9/11

Here's a little background reading for anyone planning to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore spends a lot of time enumerating the links between the Bush family, the House of Saud, and the Bin Ladens. Christopher Hitchens complains that Moore's implications are incoherent:

Either the Saudis run U.S. policy (through family ties or overwhelming economic interest), or they do not. As allies and patrons of the Taliban regime, they either opposed Bush's removal of it, or they did not. (They opposed the removal, all right: They wouldn't even let Tony Blair land his own plane on their soil at the time of the operation.)

Hitch is oversimplifying drastically. It all depends which Saudis we're talking about. Our good friends in the House of Saud, like Crown Prince Abdullah? Or his brutal fundamentalist Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef?

Michael Scott Doran,Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations writes in Foreign Affairs

Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a crisis, but its elite is bitterly divided on how to escape it. Crown Prince Abdullah leads a camp of liberal reformers seeking rapprochement with the West, while Prince Nayef, the interior minister, sides with an anti-American Wahhabi religious establishment that has much in common with al Qaeda. Abdullah cuts a higher profile abroad -- but at home Nayef casts a longer and darker shadow. Click here to read the full text

Some liberal pundits have criticized F9/11 on epistemological grounds, including Kevin Drum of Political Animal, and Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber. These commentators accuse Moore of intellectual bait-and-switch. Moore documents a lot of connections, i.e., financial ties, personal friendships, meetings, travel arrangements etc. But, as these critics note, Moore doesn't prove (or even articulate) any specific causal thesis about what all these connections had to do with 9/11.

Don't forget that Saudi Arabia is a secretive monarchy, a police state, and a sponsor of terror. The 9/11 Commission found no evidence that the government of Saudi Arabia sponsored al Qaeda. But Saudi Arabia is known to sponsor Hamas and other anti-Israeli terrorist groups. We don't really know what goes on inside the House of Saud. But there's enough dirt in the public domain to show up the hypocrisy of American foreign policy towards it. It's important to separate the Bush's family's known conflicts of interest from the interest of the American economy as a whole. At the very least Moore shows why it's about the oil, even if he doesn't prove that it's about the Bushes' oil. ("It" being our foreign policy, the war, etc.)

It's fallacious to declare moral equivalency between Moore's rhetoric and that of the Bush administration. The Bush administration used elliptical rhetoric to justify a concrete action: war. Moore is relating a series of facts that ought to be relevant to overall assessment of Bush and his foreign policy. The burden is not on Moore to prove a specific theory about the cause of 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq. The movie is a litany of errors and compromises, almost any which is a compelling reason not to vote for Bush, regardless of whether you take Moore's more contentious speculations seriously.

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