Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Discretion (on "Argo")

In hearty acknowledgment of "Argo"s winning the Best Picture prize,  we repost our initial notes (with minor updates).


 My wife and I just saw the movie “Argo”.  B.L.U.F. : Excellent.

The only thing you could tax it with, really, is its implausible plot.  And yet, the story is apparently a faithful reflection of what actually happened, in a little-known episode of the history of our dealings with Iran.   The film recalls “Wag the Dog” as being an off-kilter intersection of cinema and reality.

(Presidential Discretion advised)

Basically, through out-of-the-box thinking, careful preparation, and meticulous execution, the CIA and the Carter Administration spirited some on-the-run American embassy workers out of Khomeini’s Iran.   And then refrained from taking credit for the op, since Iran might have taken revenge on the remaining hostages being held in the embassy;  instead, Jimmy Carter credited the Canadians.  Such self-effacement surely contributed to the failure of his re-election, since the electorate was dunned daily with newscasts ending “….Day 346 of the Hostage Crisis”, and Carter himself was seen as hapless.   (He also -- most have forgotten -- launched a UBL-snatch-style helicopter rescue attempt, which failed, owing to sandstorms.)  Instead, most “low-information voters” no doubt credit Ronald Reagan with getting the hostages back -- he got to pose smiling for the photo opps with returnees -- though in fact he had nothing to do with it.   Carter was tough on Iran and they hated him for it;  Reagan’s own cringing groveling antics have gone down in history under the name of Iran-Contra.

And suddenly it struck me -- Carter’s discreet and low-key decency, versus the let’s-play-dress-up Dubya cavorting on an aircraft carrier, all dolled up in a flight suit, beneath the banner “Mission Accomplished” (…. not …);  and later putting our men downrange into further peril by his crowing “Bring it on”.    Or the chest-thumping belligerance of John McCain -- “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran”.
Too, note our President’s discretion, when Obama met privately -- no photo-opps -- with the victorious Seals after they took down UBL.  (This, since their identities are confidential.  Subsequently, some of the SEALs themselves  have  alas  shown less discretion.)


In addition to the factual historical discretion of President Carter, this movie -- spectacular in premise -- is remarkably discreet in its artistic treatment:  most notably in the lead performance of Ben Affleck (depicting the real-life CIA hero Tony Mendes) so low-key it almost disappears off the screen.  Affleck was also the director, so he could have allowed his actorly self to hog the action;  but far from it.  And this reflects the fact that clandestine agents do not succeed by calling attention to themselves.  (The Bush-era CIA clowns who botched the Milan snatch, leaving a trail of frequent-flier miles  and luxury hotel bills, would have done well to borrow a page from that playbook.)
This comes out particularly when Affleck/Mendes outlines the far-fetched jump-the-shark scenario for the exfil, and one of the group in hiding (there is one in every bunch) whines obstreperously.  Affleck doesn’t pull rank or macho him out;  he remains expressionless and silent, for the very good reason that the man’s housemates, with whom he has served long weeks of virtual captivity, go back much farther and deeper with him.  Well aware that the holdout is endangering their lives, they remonstrate with him, successfully.

Both the op and its artistic depiction could almost be described as under-the-radar;  but the film does allow itself some fun.  Not, to be sure, in the hostage scenes, which would have been in poor taste, but in Hollywood.  Here John Goodman and Alan Arkin romp to their heart’s content -- and to ours -- turning in memorable splendid performances.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break -- mini-movie ~
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *
[Update, 18 Feb 2013]  In Iran --  Crits Nix Tricks Pix:

Update 31 July 2014] We noted above that Reagan received undue credulous-public credit for the release of the Tehran hostages, and that he used his own Presidency for disgraceful truckling to Iran.  It turns out there may be more to the story, of a particularly ominous kind.
I’m reading the new biography of Robert Ames -- The Good Spy by Kai Bird (2014).   We reach the time after the Shah of Iran had been overthrown, and Khomeini was in power,  but the U.S. embassy had not yet been attacked.  What should be done about the ex-Shah?
The author introduces this chapter with an unvarnished quote from President Jimmy Carter (we ourselves -- since this is a family site -- shall varnish it slightly, to the extent of replacing a vowel with an asterisk):   “F*ck the Shah.  I am not going to welcome him here when he has other places to go where he’ll be safe.”  This was no more than prudent, in accord with national security.   Yet “Carter had been hounded for months by a lobbying campaign, code-named ‘Project Alpha’, personally financed by David Rockefeller” (p. 228);  Rosalynn Carter’s diary states “Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Howard Baker, John McCloy, Gerald Ford -- all are after Jimmy to bring the shah to the United States.”  Alas, Carter eventually bent to the relentless pressure, and on 22 October 1979, the shah arrived in New York. 
Two weeks later, our embassy in Tehran was taken over, and the hostages seized, in what became the defining tragedy of the Carter administration, and  a convenient preparation for Ronald Reagan to take over the Presidency.  In other words -- there might never have been an Iranian hostage crisis, but for behind-the-scenes Republican meddling.
Incidentally -- One wonders whether influential Republicans would have urged anything so imprudent, had Ford won re-election.   They might well have then taken their partisan (not to mention national) interests into account, and let the Shah fly off to Paris or wherever.  (Indeed, Paris had a lot to answer for, having nurtured Khomeini.) -- The incessant antics of John McCain, hectoring President Obama into launching yet another ill-advised Mideast war (Libya, Syria), raise anew this unanswerable question.

But it gets worse.

Prior to the Shah-hosting fiasco, the CIA had actually been on a very promising approach to renewing good relations with Iran -- for which no true strategic objections existed.   The ‘great satans’ Iran really had to worry about  were the ones on its own borders, Iraq and the USSR.  Furthermore, the CIA had intel that Iraq was preparing to attack Iran, and moreover had surveillance assets (disrupted as a result of the Iranian revolution) which could be re-activiated -- one of which (IBEX) would protect Iran against an invasion from Iraq; and one of which (Tacksman) would have restored our own channel of intel about the Soviets.  All this was blown to blazes when Carter caved to Republican hounding and let in the Shah.

But it (maybe) gets worse still.

There have long been reports and rumors that, fearing an “October surprise”, the Reaganites had some sort of back-channel understanding with the Khomeini regime, to delay the release of hostages until after the November elections.   A serious, possibly baseless charge, of an action bordering on treason.   But Bird presents some new evidence (new to me, anyhow).
A major source for Bird’s book, and second only to Ames as a personnage thereof, is one Mustafa Zein, who claims to have been the object of a Reaganite (William-Casey-ite) overture along just those lines;  and moreover, to have tape-recorded the session, using (the sort of wild coincidental detail that a screenwriter might be chided for making up) the same trick suitcase, implanted with a hidden recorder, that Ames had given to his chief quasi-spy PLO asset but who didn’t need it any longer (having recently been assassinated) …  Anyhow, the tapes and transcripts of this treasonous overture, if indeed it was ever made, are said to lie in the PLO’s archives in Tunis.
This sounds like a job for an enterprising librarian.

For those of you who actually read an entire book anymore,
try this one!
(Don’t worry, this one is broken up into short stories,
and bite-size philosophical entremets)

For a discussion of another CIA-related movie, again drawn from actual history, try this:

[Update 12 April 2015]  That these old issues  remain of present relevance, is suggested by a gormless prepared remark by one Rand Paul, a man who would like to be President, in the speech launching his campaign:

The Kentucky senator made the obligatory genuflection to Republican icon Ronald Reagan, declaring: “I envision a national defense that promotes, as Reagan put it, peace through strength.”
But then he continued, “I believe in applying Reagan’s approach to foreign policy to the Iran issue.”

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