The tin-pot dictatorship of a poor country with a rich natural resource becomes the focus of a war plotted by foreign powers and commercial interests, then fomented by a clueless press. So goes the plot of Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop, a hilarious satirical assault — on Realpolitik, Third-World governance, and journalism — which offers Cassandra-like premonitions of today.
Waugh wanted to write a novel inspired by his newspaper experience covering the greatest feat of Italian arms since Julius Caesar: the 1935 tank-vs.-donkey conquest of Ethiopia. The resulting book resembles The Quiet American, if written by P.G. Wodehouse.
Scoop stars William Boot, a country aristocrat who writes a nature column for the Beast newspaper. Through a case of mistaken identity with an ambitious popular novelist also named Boot, he is assigned to cover the expected revolution in a fictional East African country, Ishmaelia. Although he has no idea what he is doing and he cannot understand the cryptic telegrams from his London editors — who know what to say in their editorials, but need supporting "facts" — Boot eventually gets the big story.
Arriving in Ishmaelia, Boot finds himself a lamb among apathetic wolves u2014 fellow correspondents interested only in submitting daily copy rather than taking a long view of events in order to discover the larger truth. (Their press passes are aptly printed on forms originally meant for prostitutes: "The space for thumb-print was now filled with a passport photograph and at the head the word u2018journalist.'") One day Ishmaelia's press director, the snazzy Dr. Benito (an Al Sharpton-type character with Vernon Jordan pretenses), announces an expedition to a fictional spot where he tells the press they will get the scoop on Ishmaelia's impending revolution. The hacks take this safari to nowhere just to escape Jacksonburg, the sleepy capital named after the ruling family, a pride of Waspish shysters proudly educated at Adventist U. of Alabama. All go except Boot, who, having looked at a map, knows the journey is a sham.
Alone in town, Boot meets a British financier-adventurer who (literally) parachutes into town. This shadowy figure gives him the real low-down: the country is rich in gold deposits coveted by the Germans, Soviets, and British. The British are betting on buying out the Jacksons, Benito is the Soviets' man, and the Germans favor an expat named Smiley to lead a fascist coup.
With the press corps conveniently gone, Benito overthrows the Jacksons and proclaims the Soviet State of Ishmaelia. Only William is left to tell to the world. Unsure how to break the news, the savvy financier advises him how to package the story for home consumption. "I am committed to very considerable sums in this little gambit," he tells Boot. "I possess a little influence in political quarters but it will strain it severely to provoke a war on my account. Some semblance of popular support…would be very valuable" to guarantee the "only one thing that can set things right — sudden and extreme violence." As the chap seems to know what he is talking about, Boot lets him write his dispatch for him.
Alas, His Majesty's best become unnecessary thanks to a drunken Swedish missionary who throws a counter-revolution that restores the Jackson dynasty. In the end, the British presumably get the gold rights, and Boot returns to England a famous journalist. Yet, despite being showered with accolades for brilliant reportage, Boot abjures journalism. Observing badgers for a nature column is preferable to prostituting oneself to headline-hungry editors, thank you.
Life has a way of imitating art, however jolly good fun, and turning it into tragedy. Indeed, Scoop's similarities to the impending war against Iraq are uncanny.
Like the readership of the Beast, which carried Boot's "sensational message into two million apathetic homes," most Americans ignore foreign affairs beyond the headline news. So most of them are unaware that Iraq has a treasure akin to Ishmaelia's gold: the second largest proven oil reserves in the world — 112 billion barrels to Saudi Arabia's 262 billion. (According to estimates by the US Department of Energy, Iraq may have up to 220.) The fact that this dimension of a war against Iraq is nary mentioned in media coverage, and studiously ignored by the Bush administration, fails the full disclosure that citizens living under a government "of the people, by the people" deserve. Even Scoop's boozy correspondents were innocent of such a sin of omission: they did not know there was gold in them thar hills.
While propagandists hype the "Butcher of Baghdad" as a new Hitler — although his neighbors are so terrified of Adolf, Jr., that they demand bribes to allow us to "defend" them — his likeliest successor has made backroom concessions that have not hit the front page. The Bush-backed leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi, has assured businessmen that Iraq's existing oil contracts, such as those with the French and Russians, will be nullified. "American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil," says our own guy Smiley.
This is welcome news for American (and presumably British, but not French) oil firms. The American-led development of Iraq's oil industry — which has been operating at low capacity under UN sanctions — promises to undercut the Saudi-led OPEC by ensuring a gusher of cheap oil. If the war and its aftermath go smoothly, American voters would have reason to thank Mr. Bush every time they gas up.
Politics naturally invites skepticism. Yet, such a skeptical take on the impending war does not necessarily suggest that staging "Giant II" in the Iraqi desert is the main reason for war. But it certainly sweetens the imperial doctrine of defusing the Middle East by forcing "regime change," country-by-country if necessary. The subsequent US control of oil sources, versus the mere access to them guaranteed by the free market, is a powerful weapon — one America will need to effect the unchallengeable global dominance envisioned by Mr. Bush's National Security Strategy. This document, released last September, is a blueprint for empire that would make Wilson blush and Washington crimson with rage. Burbling beneath the antiseptic bureaucratic-speak is a witch's brew of hubris, greed, and good intentions that poisoned empires of old. But never mind: history's lessons may be important, but they never apply to the present. Hence, the bold new National Security Strategy is rarely mentioned by the press in the context of Iraq, and never by an administration to whom speaking the word "oil" is as taboo as uttering "Osama."
Although this administration wishes to project and defend American global hegemony by any means necessary; although Mr. Bush and leading administration officials are oil men, and Mr. Bush received more campaign contributions from the oil industry in 2000 than any elected official accumulated over the entire decade of the 1990s; and although Americans' righteous anger over Sept. 11 has been channeled into killing a dictator and occupying a country that had nothing to do with those attacks, why is the scoop on Iraq ignored? Three reasons suggest themselves.
The first concerns American journalism's preference for "he said, she said"-style reporting, which makes it easy to skim the surface of events. Like the correspondents in Scoop who attend Potemkin-style press conferences and take government officials at face value, the so-called "objective" reporting which is the meat of American journalism is no match for investigative reporting that respects no constituency but the truth.
The second may be fear of losing access to White House sources. This administration knows how to give critics the silent treatment. What media outlet wants to lose out on the action?
The third reason is informed by the second: the fear of suggesting that a popular president might be less than forthright about his war aims. Perhaps this fear is deepened by the reporter's reluctance to rely on less-than-sexy secondary sources to get the scoop because the primary one, Mr. Bush, loathes reporters. Not that he considers himself answerable to anybody, anyway. As Mr. Bush is quoted in Bob Woodward's Bush at War: "I'm the commander — see, I don't need to explain — I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why I say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
Silence. The Leader has spoken. (The happy side to presidential Caesarism is that Mr. Bush's refusal to answer questions prevents the occasion of hearing him extemporize. To paraphrase Waugh's criticism of a hapless author, hearing Mr. Bush grapple with the English language is "to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.")
The similarities between Scoop and Iraq recall another meeting between fiction and reality. In "The Godfather," mafia son Michael Corleone tells his fresh-faced fiance that his father's methods are no different from those of leading elected officials. The WASP from small-town New England won't believe that:
Kay: "You know how naive you sound, Michael? Senators and presidents don't have men killed."
Michael: "Oh, who's being naive, Kay?"
End of conversation.
Matthew Rarey [send him mail] is a member of The Washington Times editorial board, but does not write for the board above.