Barack Obama

Argo and the Foreign Policy Benefits of Remembering the Past

As the hit movie Argo shows, American presidents don't decide when the story begins.


Argo was number one at the box office in its third week of release. The film, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, dramatizes the complicated CIA scam that rescued six hostages from Iran in 1980, while the rest of the United States' embassy's employees were held captive by Islamic radicals.

The very successful film can be read as a fable of embattled but resourceful Americans fighting, and being terrorized by, mad, dangerous, radicalized Middle Easterners. This message is likely to resonate, whether consciously or unconsciously, in these post-Benghazi days, with American diplomats again under attack. With war with Iran now seen as a looming necessity by many, it's a suitable time for Americans to relive what most of us probably see as the roots of our current Iranian troubles. While Americans flocked to Argo, U.S. military officials were just this week warning Israel that the biggest problem with that nation trying to destroy Iran's nuclear program is that it will weaken the U.S.'s ability to do the same by annoying our Gulf allies.

At Argo's beginning, though, we see a more complicated political point, one more valuable to America this election season. It's a documentary-style sequence, before the actual story begins, and easy to forget once embroiled in the comedy and drama of the rescue scheme.

We see that the scary and violent actions of the Iranian rabble against our brave consular officers had motives: U.S. complicity in the overthrow of an elected leader in 1953 and decades of propping up a hated dictator, the Shah.

The hit film thus has a useful lesson for our two major party presidential candidates, one that they were sure to miss. In their October foreign policy debate, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney both took the position that America is an indispensable nation with a mission and responsibility to manage and bring workable and democratic civil society to the world. (While we were not defending "democracy" in propping up the Shah of Iran, we were defending the true underlying principal of American foreign policy since World War II: that what we say goes.)

They both think it's unthinkable that Iran should have a nuclear weapon. Both believe the outcome of the Syrian unrest is a matter of vital import to us. Americans are nearly half in agreement that we should mind our own business internationally. Still, our major parties offer merely tonal variations of a long, endless, annoying song of eternal meddling for eternal democracy and "safety," sung by people who don't understand that every supposed threat facing us is a result of our own past meddling, and that next-level, "sophisticated" ways of waging Middle Eastern war such as through drone strikes is making tomorrow's enemy, today.

Anne Applebaum noted in Slate that "this election has received less serious coverage abroad than any I can ever remember." It's not hard to figure out why: No matter the outcome of the election, the basic thrust of America against the rest of the world will remain the same. We rule, the rest of the world drools, as long as such drooling does not represent a likely or apparent danger to the security of the United States, as decided by people who have never internalized the lessons of the boy who cried wolf.

Applebaum also believes that "The myth of America as an all-seeing, all-knowing superpower does persist in a few places—ironically, one hears it most often in the Arab world—but most everywhere else it's long gone." It also persists is in the minds of American presidential candidates. They believe that the futures of Iran, Syria, Libya, even the buying and selling decisions of the entire nation of China depend to a vital degree on our will, our toughness, and when it comes down to it, the expenditure of our life and treasure.

Neither candidate wants to grapple with the fact that, like our Iranian policy from the 1950s and 1960s, our actions today are creating the foreign policy crises of tomorrow. There is a very strong possibility that our increasingly desperate attempts to gin up a rebel army America can love in Syria after over $130 million in support, and after nearly a decade of trying to strangle the nation and its people with sanctions, will complicate Syrian attitudes toward us in the future in a way we won't relish. Some Syrians will hate us for not helping now more openly or militarily; some may grow to hate us for helping a faction they hate. Depending on what faction ends up on top, the Syria of 2013 may be as unsafe for America as was the Libya of October 2012.

While Obama's foes would rather conjecture about how resolute he was in the unfolding Benghazi crisis, the important truth is that our help to Libyan rebels laid the groundwork for the still confused and macabre troubles in Benghazi and left a political situation continuously violent and chaotic. We face, after a decade and 2,000 dead soldiers and half a trillion spent, an Afghanistan occupation that will never end in the way we pretend to want, with a functioning internal Afghan security force to our liking. We have put in all those costs and years and lives merely to create undoubted future problems, problems that every likely future president will feel it is a necessary duty to manage, while the (always tiny anyway) problem of international terror merely moved to another location.

Still, in the face of a record of chaotic and unpredictable and expensive past interventions, Romney said in the October foreign policy debate that we "have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the—the world of Islam." What about a comprehensive and robust strategy to leave that world alone? 

The world does have a past, and the U.S. is alas all too present in leaving that past indelibly marked with our choices. As hegemon, we should make those marks with care, cognizant that the sunk costs of our past mistakes limit our choices now in unpleasant ways. Our past interventions have created messes, undoubtedly; but a policy of eternal intervention for eternal mess-cleaning stopped being tenable a few wars and a trillion borrowed dollars ago. As with planting trees, the best time to not intervene in foreign affairs is 50 years ago. The second best time is now. Three generations of Middle Easterners resenting our meddling is enough.

It was smart for storytelling purposes that Argo reminded its viewers that even the villains had motives, that the scene for today's problems was logically rooted in the past. It's a simple and true storytelling principle, one that the fantasists running for the presidency are sadly set on ignoring.