‘Scoop’ on Iraq
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
Arriving in Ishmaelia,
Boot finds himself a lamb among apathetic wolves — 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 ‘journalist.’")
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,
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.
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.
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
son Michael Corleone tells his fresh-faced fiancée 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?"
Rarey [send him
is a member of The Washington Times editorial board, but
does not write for the board above.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com