Foreign Policy

Spoiler Alert

By Andrew Kydd

Screencap from ‘Innocence of Muslims’, via YouTube.

To Western eyes, the short film that has caused a new wave of violence in the Middle East is bad, very bad, so bad as to be funny, but not quite bad enough to be good, in the sense that say the US propaganda films excerpted in Atomic Café are brilliant in a way they do not intend to be. However, it is not so bad as to be worth killing someone over. It comes across as a dumb joke, told by a belligerent know-nothing with a chip on his shoulder who wants to express some hostility and see if anyone wants to make something of it.

As such, the movie seems to fall under the heading of what students of civil war call spoiling. Spoiling has various definitions, but to me it consists of efforts by extremist groups to encourage conflict between more moderate representatives of two different camps. Hamas acted as a spoiler between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, by launching terrorist attacks to derail the Oslo accords. Subsequently, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 in the wake of the failed Camp David negotiations set off the second intifada, which returned the two sides to conflict.

The makers of the movie appear to have intended for it to provoke violence. The Associate Press quotes Steve Klein, one of the figures behind the movie, as saying “we went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.” He also apparently told the film’s director he would be the “next Theo Van Gogh”, the Dutch director murdered in 2004 for producing a movie criticizing the treatment of women in Islamic countries. This comparison is both unduly pessimistic — he has not been killed — and unduly flattering, as Van Gogh seems to have been motivated more by concern for the victims of fundamentalism than by the kind of generic Islamophobia that suffuses Klein’s movie. Realizing how bad his statements must sound, Klein has subsequently has backtracked and claimed not to have expected violence.But the earlier admission is probably nearer the mark.

Spoiling fails when it is ignored. It works at the first level when it provokes a violent reaction from the other side. But the real question is whether it affects the behavior of more responsible representatives of the two sides. Spoiling works when it sows mistrust and prevents cooperation between these much more important actors. On this score the jury is still out and the effects may differ across countries. So far the US-Libyan relationship seems unshaken, despite the death of our Ambassador and other diplomatic staff. The relationship with Egypt seems a bit rockier, with President Morsi appeasing domestic anti-western sentiment before belatedly condemning the violence and reassuring the US. Spoiling can help bring conflicts into the open that leaders would prefer to finesse and force them to take stands when ambiguity would be their first choice. To borrow a line from a British mystery show, when a bomb disposal officer goes to confront a violent war time racketeer and is asked what he is going to do, he replies “what I do best, keep my nerves”.*  Good advice for defusing bombs and dealing with spoilers.

*Spoiler alert: He gets killed by the mobsters, but he takes them down with him by booby trapping the suitcase with the cash. Foyle’s War. Check it out.

5 Comments

  • I agree with your point that we need to be careful to avoid being manipulated by spoilers. However, I may be misreading your post but I think in this case you have misidentified the spoiler. The spoilers are those groups in the Moslem world who used the trailer for this film as a pretext to further their political agenda and create conflict with the West (and I’m not even getting to the apparent independent preplanning for the attack on the Benghazi consulate).
    The intent of the filmmakers is irrelevant. The spoilers in the Moslem world will always find a pretext. They found one in the Danish Muhammed cartoons, even going to the length of altering them to make them more inflammatory to Moslems. They could just as well have chosen to use Bill Maher’s film Religulous as a pretext because it contains a vicious attack on the tenets of Islam (along with Christianity). Troll the Internet and you can find a 100 things to use as pretext. Or they’ll just make things up: I was struck in reading Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower to learn that one of the factors in Mohammed Atta’s radicalization was when he learned that the Jews had stirred up the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechyna in order to kill Moslems. Not only untrue but in the first two cases international Jewish organizations played a key role in advocating for intervention to protect Moslems. Didn’t matter. Focusing on the filmmakers is a distraction.

    On a related point, you mention Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount triggering the second Intifada. You didn’t mention that the event prior to this was Arafat’s rejection, without a counteroffer, to Barak’s two state proposal made at the Camp David summit. Once Arafat rejected this he had no where else to go but to try to shift the blame and, as we now know from statements made by his inner circle, prepare to initiate the intifada. The first Palestinian attacks of the intifada took place in the days before Sharon’s visit. Sharon’s visit may have been unwise since it provided the Palestinians with a convenient way to shift the blame in a way that the credulous might believe but it was not “the spoiler”.

    Oddly enough Arafat himself was able to get away with playing both the “moderate” and “extremist” role as we saw that for decades he used the fiction that Black September was separate from the PLO whereas we now know he controlled both (including personally directing the murder of the US ambassador to the Sudan). He also got away with it even when he astounded President Clinton by claiming that there was never a Jewish temple in Jerusalem (now a common trope with the Palestinians) – talk about a spoiler! Imagine if an Israeli political leader said Muhammed’s visit to the Temple Mount was just a myth and Islam had no legitimate claim to the site!

  • Mark,

    You raise some interesting points. I wonder, and have not seen a study, about whether there is always equally offensive material out there and it is just manipulated when extremists wish to organize violence, or if the spark really matters. As for making stuff up, extremists do this all the time, such as the Protocols, which as Jon Stewart pointed out, aired again on Egyptian television without provoking riots in Tel Aviv. But I don’t know of any recent case where an insult to Islam was made up of whole cloth and caused widespread rioting. It makes one think that if the material was always out there or could be made up with equal effect then there should be rioting all the time, or at least much more frequently.

    Andy

    • I agree that a study would be interesting on this. My accidental stumblings via google and youtube over the past few years lead me to think there is a lot of potentially awful stuff out there. You may be right regarding making an insult up from whole cloth – the closest I can come is the altering of the Danish Muhammad cartoons to make them more incideniary. Along those lines the French government just announced enhanced security measures and temporary closing of some embassies in Moslem countries because a French newspaper pubished a potentially insulting cartoon of Muhammed. I think your last sentence supports my proposition. It is specific groups (spoilers) in the Moslem world who decide when and how to use a potential provocation. This does not happen spontaneously.

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