Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Roger Cohen op-ed used for an Oscar pitch.
Three senators — Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain — called the movie “grossly inaccurate.” Michael Morell, the acting C.I.A. director, opined: “Whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.” 
Watching torture — the C.I.A. should abandon its ghastly euphemism — is profoundly unsettling. But Bigelow and Boal have done an important service in setting before a wide U.S. and global audience images of a traumatized America’s dark side. This happened: the waterboarding, the sleep deprivation, the sexual humiliation, the cruelty. Not exactly as depicted, but yes it did, in places that, as if in a totalitarian world, existed on no map.
And I think the movie’s portrayal of torture is truthful: It helped at times but at others did not. It provided clues that might have been gleaned by other means. And the ultimate success in finding Bin Laden occurred after President Obama had banned the methods “Zero Dark Thirty” portrays so powerfully. 
In the end the case for the unacceptability of torture is not best made by sweeping assertions that it is useless. The nuance of this movie builds a much stronger case that, whatever torture’s marginal usefulness, it is morally indefensible. 
The charge of inaccuracy is a poor thing measured against the potency of truth. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a truthful artistic creation, one reason it has provoked debate. Boal told The New York Times he did not want “to play fast and loose with history” — a statement held against him by several of the movie’s critics, most eloquently Steve Coll in The New York Review of Books. My sense, however, is that Boal has honored those words. 
There were few more minute observers of fact than George Orwell. As Timothy Garton Ash has written, if Orwell had a God it was Kipling’s “God of Things as They are.” Yet, as Garton Ash says of Orwell: “One of his most powerful early essays describes witnessing a hanging in Burma. But he later told three separate people that this was ‘only a story.’ So did he ever witness a hanging? He annotates a copy of “Down and Out in Paris and London” for a girlfriend: this really happened, this happened almost like this, but “this incident is invented.”’ 
Truth is art’s highest calling. For it the facts must sometimes be adjusted. “Zero Dark Thirty” meets the demands of truth.
"Truth" refers to the communication of the details of human experience, not events as such. The events should not be in dispute at this point.

Cohen again, on the new book by Vali Nasir
The White House seemed “more interested in bringing Holbrooke down than getting the policy right.” The pettiness was striking: “The White House kept a dossier on Holbrooke’s misdeeds and Clinton kept a folder on churlish attempts by the White House’s AfPak office to undermine Holbrooke.” 
Diplomacy died. Serious negotiation with the Taliban and involving Iran in talks on Afghanistan’s future — bold steps that carried a domestic political price — were shunned. The use of trade as a bridge got scant attention. Nasr concludes on Afghanistan: “We are just washing our hands of it, hoping there will be a decent interval of calm — a reasonable distance between our departure and the catastrophe to follow.” 
In Pakistan, too nuclear to ignore, the ultimate “frenemy,” Nasr observed policy veering between frustrated confrontation and half-hearted attempts to change the relationship through engagement. “The crucial reality was that the Taliban helped Pakistan face down India in the contest over Afghanistan,” Nasr writes. America was never able to change that equation. Aid poured in to secure those nukes and win hearts and minds: Drones drained away any gratitude. A proposed “strategic dialogue” went nowhere. “Pakistan is a failure of American policy, a failure of the sort that comes from the president handing foreign policy over to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.”
2 cheers for a level of sophistication.

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