By Andrew Kydd
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.