The Tragedy of Macbeth – a movie review: Part I The Three Witches

Joel Coen is an artistic genius. He and his wife, Frances McDormand, have produced and he has directed one of the most extraordinary productions of William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. Released in theatres (a limited release) on Christmas, it has as of 14 January been streaming on Apple TV.  It is a MUST see.

A thane is a Scottish lord. Backed by the Norwegian King Sweno, the Thane of Cawdor organized a rebellion against King Duncan; Macdonald was the military head of the uprising. After a see-saw battle in which Fortune seemed at first to favour Macdonald, the rebellion is put down by Macbeth, the head of Duncan’s army. Macdonald was killed. Not just killed. Macbeth “unseemed him from the nave to the chops” and presented his severed head as a trophy. And Macbeth then repelled the Norwegians. He is a military hero. He is a Stoic, like Marcus Aurelius: “A man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions.” However, Macbeth’s ambition proves to be the extent of his greatness.

Why did Cawdor rebel? According to Duncan, he was a man of integrity and honour; he courageously accepted his punishment by getting his head cut off. But why did he rebel in the first place? Was Duncan a corrupt king? An incompetent one? We are not told. And as presented in the opening scenes of Coen’s movie (and Shakespeare’s play), there is no indication that Duncan was anything but a noble and upright ruler. This adds to the ruthlessness of Macbeth. Otherwise, how could he do what he did next – kill the king himself, assume the throne and then instigate an endless bloodbath.

Macbeth is not just an ambitious man. He is a superb warrior, “valour’s minion.’ But in the stark misty landscape that has little resemblance to the Scottish highlands, he has also reenacted Christ’s crucifixion at Golgotha, the skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem. Who is Christ in the play? Macdonald? The Thane of Cawdor? We have no idea as the opening witch scene throws no light on the politics that gave rise to the rebellion and then the doubly traitorous act of brave Macbeth. All is ambivalent and confusing. And that is a point of the play – ambivalence.

For how can Macbeth be ambitious if it is foretold by the witch that Banquo, not he, will give rise to a line of kings? Besides, he (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) are childless and seem too old to bear children. Thus, the irony. He wants the throne, but it is a passion without a future.

Usually, the opening scene of the play with three witches reciting Shakespeare’s immortal lines sets the stage for what follows but does nothing to clarify the instigation of the action. Coen does something unique. The movie opens with one high-flying crow. Then a second appears among the clouds when the first is at the bottom of the screen. Then a third flies out from the viewer into the scene startling a lonely traveler who goes on to report the results of the battle to King Duncan.

Macbeth and Banquo appear out of the mist and discern a black figure beside a pool in which two other black figures are reflected. The first shape-shifts into an old contortionist hag whose scrawny limbs can bend and twist like pretzels with one leg slung over her shoulder. Kathryn Hunter plays all three witches in an award-winning performance on a misty rough unreal terrain. She looks like an old crow, acts like one as she jerks her head back and forth, and incites the famous incantation. She is truly weird, or “wayward” as Shakespeare spelled it, the weirdest and most harrowing witch I have ever seen. No long bent noses here. No steaming pot in the middle with frogs legs.

The Anglo-Saxon term “wyrd” means destiny or fate. But Shakespeare offers a twist. The witches are wayward, more like Delphic oracles than witches who offer spells and feed a person magical potions. They are sinister, not because of what they do, but because of what they say, and what they say and look like projects the inner state of a man’s soul.

Hunter turns from a raven into a stone that is a black Golgotha and then into an animated crow-like hag in a masterly exercise in magical realism that raises the whole scene to the level of epic surrealism. You know the witches are creatures of Macbeth’s mind because the one becomes three, each with a unique but, at the same time, identical smoky voice, that is also the voice of a fourth male character who appears later. The first witch who looks ancient and haggard predicts the future that hypnotizes Macbeth with its optimism, even though driven by an ill-understood and ageless id. The second witch is ironical and wry in adumbrating how that future will unfold. Then the third, angry and chastising, the superego that will deliver the mental turmoil that will doom Macbeth. The third witch is the “harpier,” a harpy, a loathsome monster in Greek myth with the head of a hag but the body of a predator bird. The three witches are three aspects of one being and in the movie are played as one person.

Here is Shakespeare’s versions of Act I, Scene 1 set in “a desert”

[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First WitchWhen shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second WitchWhen the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third WitchThat will be ere the set of sun.
First WitchWhere the place?
Second WitchUpon the heath.
Third WitchThere to meet with Macbeth.
First WitchI come, graymalkin!
Second WitchPaddock calls.
Third WitchAnon!
ALLFair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

In this mesmerizing chant in which the witch herself is summoned by her guardian spirit, a gray cat (graymalkin), we are introduced to the topsy-turvy world of Macbeth where evil rather than the pursuit of the good reigns and Macbeth is bewitched. There is no other way to explain his behaviour.

In Shakespeare’s play, the witches do meet again in Act 3, Scene 5.

ACT III SCENE V A heath. 
[A banquet prIn the Middle Etepared. Enter MACBETH, LADY MACBETH, ROSS, LENNOX, Lords, and Attendants]
[Thunder. Enter the three Witches meeting HECATE]
First WitchWhy, how now, Hecate! you look angerly.
HECATEHave I not reason, beldams as you are,
Saucy and overbold? How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death;
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call’d to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
And, which is worse, all you have done10
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you.
But make amends now: get you gone,
And at the pit of Acheron
Meet me i’ the morning: thither he
Will come to know his destiny:
Your vessels and your spells provide,
Your charms and everything beside.
I am for the air; this night I’ll spend20
Unto a dismal and a fatal end:
Great business must be wrought ere noon:
Upon the corner of the moon
There hangs a vaporous drop profound;
I’ll catch it ere it come to ground:
And that distill’d by magic sleights
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear30
He hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear:
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.
[ Music and a song within: ‘Come away, come away,’ etc ]
Hark! I am call’d; my little spirit, see,
Sits in a foggy cloud and stays for me.
[Exit]
First WitchCome, let’s make haste; she’ll soon be back again.
[Exeunt]

The three witches are wayward, beldams, crones who have traveled on their own path without direction from Hecate, that is, without a moral compass. They do not guide the action as much as reflect it. They are bold, saucy and themselves rebellious. Hecate may be mistress of their charms, but these witches do not work through charms. They do not contrive or create harms. They are reflections rather than real agents of the action. They do not operate through magic nor are they responsible for Macbeth’s confusion. Most of all, Hecate is wrong. Empty ambition, not the quest for security, is portrayed as mortals’ greatest enemy.

It is no wonder that Joel Coen excised Hecate from the play; she was superfluous and, in the end, misleading.

In Scene 1 in Act IV when the witches return a third time, after a preview in the movie, the recitation begins – “double, double” for the play is about inversion and doubling that instigates the trouble for doubling entails deception. The witches do not enter but sit on cross beams above the action and the first drips one magical item after another in the pool of water on the castle floor.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble: Act IV, Scene 1

Thunder.
Enter the three Witches
(in the play but not in the movie; there, only the first witch speaks. After the introductory verses, she looks up to the ceiling and begins the famous incantation: “Double, double…”)

First Witch
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

Second Witch
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch
Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.


All
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.


Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

All
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
 
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

All
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

[Enter Hecate, to the other three Witches]

Hecate
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

[Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ etc, Hecate retires]


Second Witch
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, but also of childbirth, appeared first in Act III, scene 5 in Shakespeare’s play (though perhaps not in the original version) to reprimand the three witches for leaving her out of the action and for interfering with Macbeth without her approval. But she was MIA, missing in action, for Lady Macbeth has been barren. Yet in the scene above, she contradictorily congratulates the witches.

I assume, to avoid the confusion, Joel Coen excises Hecate in the film. And the witches are left to drop their charms from the rafters into a boiling pool of water down below. In that water, the face of Biancho’s son appears wearing a crown. While Macbeth promises his death, the voice from the depth predicts that he will be king. Macbeth’s ambition will be truncated.

(To be continued: Set, Lighting, Score and Costumes)

Landscapers – a series review

THIS WHOLE REVIEW REQUIRES A SPOILER ALERT!

The Lost Daughter starring Olivia Colman was one of the terrific films of 2021. Released on HBO as a four-part series on 7 December, Landscapers starring Olivia Colman as Susan Edwards is the best series that I have seen from 2021. It is hailed as a true crime drama. Though based on and inspired by an actual crime, the series in the end is not primarily about the crime nor even about the truth. The movie is NOT an “immaculate retelling of real-life murderous couple Susan and Christopher Edwards,” if only because the couple may have murdered, but they are not murderous.

To claim it is also about fantasy is also a stretch, though it is about the way we construct the past when we act and, once again, when we defend those actions, about the way that reality is reconstructed in different ways by the police and prosecutors as they try to prosecute a case. It is also, and perhaps mainly, about the way art, including this series itself, reconstructs events when the justice system and the agents caught up in it clash over their respective differences over reality. What art can do and courts cannot is explore the imaginative lives that undergird actual behaviour in history.

The most intriguing creation was that of Christopher Edwards (played by David Thewlis who called the series “the very finest project I have worked on in many years”), the husband of Susan, a mild-mannered and caring accountant who is secretly a shooter, indiscreetly shoots his mouth off fifteen years after the crime was committed and is accused and found guilty of the actual shooting of Susan Edward’s parents, Bill and Pat Wycherley. The synopsis reads, “Husband and wife Susan and Christopher have been on the run from reality for over 15 years.” They may have been on the run for 15 years, but not from reality. Their ordinary lives were always steeped in reality. They were on the run into creating their own imaginary fantasy, their own version of Bonnie and Clyde, their particular love story.

For the film is at its core a love rather than crime story, though a crime did take place and much of the movie is taken up trying to establish what happened in that crime. But after you watch the movie, it is not all clear what happened, just what the cops and the prosecutor and, in the end, the judge determined what happened, But what is clear and distinct is the fact that these two extra-ordinary – literally, supremely ordinary – people created their own world of real love precisely because they shared a fantasy world and love of movies, particularly westerns and ones starring Gérard Depardieu, the former reference clearer than the latter.

The series is about the magic of films and the magic of love as opposed to the crass reality of the search for truth and justice. The core facts are not in dispute. In 1998, the parents of mild-mannered and considerate Susan Edwards were murdered in Mansfield in England. Susan and Christopher did wrap the bodies of Susan’s parents in duvet covers and buried the bodies in the backyard of the home of those parents. Seven years later, the home was sold. Seven years after that, the Department of Works and Pensions wrote a letter asking to interview Bill Wycherley. Susan and Christopher had obviously been cashing his pension cheque since his demise had never been reported.

Susan and Cristopher fled to France. The balance of the funds from the sale of her parent’s house had obviously been dissipated, in good part because Susan had become a collector of movie memorabilia. When the couple were down to their last few dollars, Christopher, in order to get a loan from his stepmother, told her that they had buried the parents and where they had done so. There is no real effort to grasp why he made that confession or how it helped him get the cash advance – the implication is that the couple had reached a dead end with their finances and prospects. However, the slip became the catalyst for the stepmother informing the police and the police instigating an investigation.

Several additional undisputed “facts” emerged in that investigation. Susan had been sexually abused by her father as a child. Susan had also always been belittled by her mother. Third, Susan’s grandfather, not wanting to bequeath his own son anything, had left an inheritance to Susan which she used to jointly purchase a house with her parents. But her mother browbeat her into signing her portion of the house over to them and the parents quickly sold the house and moved away.

All the facts told in the series – we do not know what all the facts were that were revealed in court – are used by the scriptwriters and directors to direct the sympathies of the audience towards Susan.  Further, Susan and Christopher had rehearsed their version of events and told the police the same story – Pat had shot Bill and inadvertently Susan had killed her mother as the mother once again taunted and belittled her daughter and for the thousandth time told her she was worthless. Then, after a week, she had summoned Chris from Dagenham, told him what had happened, and he had helped bury the bodies. But the justice system determined that version of events was a lie. Chris never reported how putrid the house would have been with corpses lying under a bed for a week. Rigor mortis had not set in when the bodies were moved. Susan claimed there were casings found on the floor when the type of pistol used did not drop casings. Perhaps most incriminating of all, the couple opened a bank account with the parent’s money the first day after the killing. Chris and Susan were found guilty of killing the parents to get back full ownership of the house. They were sentenced to a minimum of twenty-five years in prison.

At one point Susan offers an impassioned speech. Prison can’t break me. Because. Because I am already broken. I had been shattered and the justice system could do nothing more to compound the pain of her early life or the love she had found together with Christopher. The crime, police investigation and court drama are not the main event. The love story is.

A love story at its core is about what binds two people together. Love can also bind a family together, but in this tale, it is a story of hate and oppression that leaves little if any room for love. The miracle is that Susan and Chris were able to tease love, and such a strong love, out of the broken fragments of another’s life. Chris had that propensity as demonstrated in his love for both his mother and deep love for his brother David before he died. They were evidently both fragile people whom he protected and loved.

As he did Susan. Only she claimed she was NOT fragile. How could she be. As indicated by the righteous indignation of her monologue, she had been broken. It is the hard-headed interrogator policewoman, Emma (played superbly by Kate O’Flynn – she certainly deserves at least a nomination as best supporting actress), who had her own axe to literally grind against her own father. Emma defines ”fragile” from a realist perspective: “It means you’re in charge…You’re the pain in the arse, basically.” In those terms, it is Emma who is fragile not Susan. Susan only appears vulnerable. However, she’s in charge of all the shattering illustrated by the wealth of great graphics.

But how does a writer (Ed Sinclair, Colman’s husband in real life) and director (Will Sharpe) turn murderers into star-crossed lovers, not sensational characters like Bonnie and Clyde, but people who seem to excel in being ordinary? By – as the film actually does – taking down the fourth wall of a film set and showing the relationship of the making of the series to the construction of the fantasies and love life of the couple. They were not driven by hate. Hate drove Susan to be the broken woman she was disguised as a polite librarian who loved novels and films. She just waited for her prince charming to save and protect her. And Chris was a protector – or so the film would have us believe in contrast to the crime and trial story.

The intersection of fantasy and reality, of iconic film clips and real scenes that imitate art, of real people playing scenes from old cowboy movies, work wonders. Literally! Sets deconstruct. The colour slips away. Current “reality” dissolves into iconic forties movie scenes. Reality is suspended as fiction becomes the greater reality. This is not a love story like the one between Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw, the rich Harvard undergrad and the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The 1970 “Love Story” directed by Arthur Hiller may have won Oscar nominations for its stars, but that is because the film transformed an archetypal but real love story into an emotional chorus of violins. This series does the reverse. The violinists are put in the scene alongside the Western trekking wagons, the cowboys and the posses that hunt them down.

The Lost Mother

The Lost Mother – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

The Lost Mother is not the name of the movie. It is called The Lost Daughter. Maggie Gyllenhaal offers audiences one of the most outstanding films of last year with the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel. Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is nuanced, incisive and uses the cinematic grammar of a top director with 20-30 years of experience. The pacing and pausing directly evoke the ambiguity that permeates the movie. Go see the film; it has been streaming on Netflix since 31 December. Do not read this review until you do. For there are too many spoilers.

The performance of 48-year-old Leda by Olivia Colman (Jessie Buckley plays her twenty-year younger self) is simply superb. In fact, both performances are excellent. Since the two are physically quite different looking that a twenty-year difference could not disguise, it is also the more remarkable that I, and no one I spoke to, had any difficulty accepting that the two were the same person at two different stages of one life. This fits in with a movie theme – do not trust appearances and impressions; it is the deeper psychological factors that establish identity – attitudes, intentions, how one handles emotions and how the body language of both point to an identical psychic make-up. This is particularly difficult to pull off when we only have a partial glimpse of an ambiguous inner self.

Leda in William Butler Yeat’s 1926 sonnet, “Leda and the Swan,” adopts the name Leda from Greek mythology as the mother of all of humanity, the product of intercourse with all the mighty gods – Zeus, Jupiter, et al, who appear to her deceptively as swans and rape her. Progeny include the beautiful Helen of Troy who is the “cause” of the great calamity of the ancient world, the Trojan War. Fate is born in disguise and the result is both violence and indifference.

How unlike the Torah where mankind is a result of the war between earthly lust and intellectual abstraction. In the novel and the film, the root problem is steeped in Hebraic rather than Greek mythology. The Greek origins of Leda, like much of the remaining content of the film, offers only a set of distractions and false clues. If we follow them, we will never discover the ambiguity of this amalgam of Adam and Eve as the virgin mother of humanity. And the roots of the inhumane!

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

                                  Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Rape is not the backdrop of The Lost Daughter.

I call the review The Lost Mother because that is what I think the movie was really about. Discovering that primal mother. But I am not sure. It is rare that I am left so perplexed by a film that I consider great. But I am. And I want to tell you why. It may have something to do with one of the themes of the film – female acuity versus male obtuseness. As a male, I suspect that I was not alone in my puzzlement for, as Leda in the novel says, “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.” Yet Leda recognizes that she, herself is “a very selfish person.” It is also a movie focused on body language for, as Leda says at one point, “The unspoken says more than the spoken.” But it is Leda who repeatedly misinterprets the unspoken. Yet we, in the audience, are repeatedly and endlessly exposed to the close-up so that we are put off balance by the absence of a frame as the characters exude emotions with every slightest inflection.

The movie takes place on an unnamed Greek island – except it is the one on which Leonard Cohen made his home for years, Hydra, his second home rather than his first for he could never leave the Hallelujah chorus of his Jewish birth in Montreal behind. It was the home of his muse, the Norwegian Marianne Ihlen, for whom he wrote the masterpiece, So Long. Marianne, his own complicated lyric of abandonment.

In Greek mythology, Hydra is the child of Typhon (think typhoon) and Echnida, a monster half-woman and half-snake, the mother of most of the monsters that populate the Greek mythos. Hydra is a gigantic poisonous water-snake with nine heads. Cut off one head and two heads grow in its place. Hydra or hydra-headed connotes an ambiguous and multifarious dimension of existence.

However, in Hebraic mythology, the snake is not female, but the masculine penis objectified and detached as the male conceives of himself as divine, as pure mind detached from body and responsible for creating the world with words and language. Leda is a translator, a translator of one mythology into another and herself a hybrid creature: female with powerful maternal instincts and male with a cold indifference to the irritating progeny she breeds in favour of enlightened intellectual pursuits.

The first verses of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s ode to Hydra, Moving On, are about our inability to move on, our incapacity to leave the past behind.         

I loved your face, I loved your hair
Your T-shirts and your eveningwear
As for the world, the job, the war
I ditched them all to love you more

And now you’re gone, now you’re gone
As if there ever was a you
Who broke the heart and made it new
Who’s moving on, who’s kidding who

I loved your moods, I loved the way
They threatened every single day
Your beauty ruled me, though I knew
’Twas more hormonal than the view

And now you’re gone, now you’re gone
As if there ever was a you
Queen of lilac, Queen of blue
Who’s moving on, who’s kidding who

Hydra as a Greek resort island is a recreational retreat. But looks can be deceiving. For what we experience is not a place of beautiful calm waters and a warm sea, but a seething cauldron of cross currents with a powerful undertow. What appears peaceful and refreshing can really be turbulent and dangerous. And ditching a life of responsibilities does not have to be done for love and enchantment of another. Intellectual life has its own allure. So does basic sexual attraction.

Leda is a professor of comparative literature in Cambridge (US), near Boston – hence Harvard. (In the novel, the location is Florence.) She is on vacation – a working holiday (?) – by herself looking forward to a quiet period of reading, writing and relaxing. She is a Brit translating a book from English into Italian and looks down upon the crudeness, crassness and unruliness of the Greek (Italian in the book) family sharing the beach and dominated by a pregnant Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk). Leda is a loner and an outsider. Nina (Dakota Johnson) is a mother with a young daughter who belongs to the extended Greek family. Nina’s attraction to and identification with Leda proves that Leda is not as alien as she appears even as she endures rather than engages in conversation with Nina.

The key event takes place as Leda watches Nina interacting with her daughter as well as the rest of her family. In the novel, both Leda and Nina are originally from Naples and have clearly moved up in the world, though in very different directions. In the movie, this dimension of class is hinted at because Nina is from the New York borough of Queens and suspects Leda, from her accent, may be as well. But that allusion to a common past went way over my head because I could not imagine Leda with her clipped English accent having even a hint of borough New York in her voice.

The daughter goes missing – to the consternation of the whole extended family. Leda seems to know where to look for her and finds her, returning her – to her mother’s overwhelming relief.

But it is Leda who is really missing. And has been all her life. Not only Leda. Many of the characters are escape artists from life. Ed Harris, Lyle the caretaker, fled his responsibilities almost three decades earlier; but surprisingly, we don’t hold him in contempt. Is it because he is currently presented as a caring and considerate individual while Leda, in stealing the little girl’s doll (I did offer a spoiler alert), proves she is beyond redemption even though she, unlike Harris, returned to resume her responsibilities and continued to have a close relationship with her children? After all, as children, the girls had a very physical relationship with their mother – wanting to touch her, caress her, press flesh upon flesh. In contrast, Nina escapes the insensitive arms of her handsome husband into the arms of a young Australian lad in a less dramatic act than the young female academic, Leda, who absconded from her family and abandoned her two daughters many years earlier.

When Leda capriciously steals the girl’s doll, it is absolutely unexpected. The child is beside herself. Distraught, crying – nothing the mother does can ease her daughter’s pain at the loss. Nina must endure a week of tantrum and tears emanating from her daughter. Leda witnesses this all but is unmoved. She is pitiless. The scene is extremely painful to watch, indeed harrowing as much from its unpredictability. Why? Why so cold-hearted? Why so callous? Why so cruel? The mystery is not that she was the thief but why?

My youngest daughter offered me an explanation in terms of Freudian object displacement, “an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.” Leda has projected her whole psyche onto that doll, all the trauma of being a mother and sacrificing one’s personal life to the responsibility of caring for and raising a child. The accompanying jazz-blues score by Affonso Gonçalves captures the rapid changes in mood and mania of Leda’s shifting emotional states.

However, isn’t the movie simply a story of a self-centred female unwilling to assume the requisite sacrifices of motherhood? As such, isn’t she in the end repulsive in general and most especially for the theft of the doll even more than deserting her daughters at a young age for several years? But the movie not only reveals her irritability, her taut desperation, overwhelmed and frazzled by motherhood – and her deep frustration, but also her loving and inventive devotion.

Leda’s alter ego, Nina, the mother of the little girl who gets lost and whose doll is stolen, is also desperate and distracted, but not by the lures of an intellectual life, but by sex with a younger man when her husband is such a macho oaf. In contrast, Olivia Colman’s brooding passion never gets beyond flirtation with both the older Ed Harris, the caretaker, or the younger Australian tourist.

Leda and Nina are two peas in the same pod, but such different peas. Nina, like her namesake in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, can say, “In me is the spirit of the great Alexander, the spirit of Napoleon, of Caesar, of Shakespeare, and of the tiniest leech that swims. In me the consciousness of man has joined hands with the instinct of the animal; I understand all, all, all, and each life lives again in me.” Leda would rewrite these words and insist that instinct dies rather than lives within her, for the consciousness of man lives in her schizophrenically divided from her maternal consciousness as a woman.

So what is the problem? My dislike, indeed, condemnation of Leda is understandable. But where was my empathy. Sometimes it peaked out of my heart, got caught up in my throat and welled up in my tears. But they never flowed for Leda. The disgust at what she had done to the little girl whose doll she stole and her own daughters was too great.

Do you have to be a woman to fully empathize with such an ultimately repulsive character? Am I just an old-fashioned war horse intolerant of “non-natural” mothers? Is Leda simply taboo for me so that I want to lash out rather than commiserate? The movie even anticipates this response by differentiating between the language used by women to communicate and the inability of men to understand that language of imperceptible gestures, side glances and surly lips.

Nice review, Dad.I think your self-awareness about your lack of sympathy for Leda was perceptive.You missed the play on the doll’s name–Leda’s doll from childhood, “Mini-mama”, which her own daughter, Bianca, had scribbled all over–and the beautiful, sexy Nina, mother of the daughter who got lost and then lost her doll/mother.You also didn’t explain how the “transitional object” moves from daughter to mother.But fair enough.  The Yeats background is important.Leda gives birth, in the wake of the rape, to Helen (by Zeus) and Clytemnestra (by Tyndareus): hence “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.” I think the shadows of those two daughters flit across Leda’s body in the film, too–Bianca’s passionate (and almost destructive) attachment to her mother, while Martha (?) was more placid.Maternal ambivalence is powerful and under-explored in movies.
I don’t think the Leonard Cohen background and the song about “Hydra” really shed much light on the film for me.You were just free associating?Also, it was Callie (callous, obtuse Callie) who thought Leda was from Queens (–and, I agree, how unlikely!). 
It makes me want to read the book.

Rachel

Don’T Look Up – a movie review

Don’t Look Up – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I first watched the film a week ago. I claimed to have walked out after watching one-third of the film. My wife claimed that I had only seen 20% and, on that basis, could not criticize the admiration and love my two youngest children had for the movie. I went back to watch the rest and discovered that I had, in fact, watched almost exactly half the film – one hour and eleven minutes of two hours and eighteen minutes. I believe I was right in insisting that one need not feel compelled to watch an entire feature – or read and entire book – if the part covered already puts a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Quit reading or watching. Except if you want to write down a scathing review.

The film has a studded cast –

Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, the astrophysicist in whose lab the giant comet or death star is discovered that is characterized as a death star for it is huge and heading directly towards earth.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dr. Mindy’s graduate student, Kate Dibiasky, who actually discovered the comet

Meryl Streep plays President Orlean of the United States as a an over-the top politician concerned only with ratings and escapist solutions.

Rob Morgan is Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe as the sincere NASA scientist who provides the gravitas and official seal of approval to the Mindy-Dibiasky claim.

Jonah Hill plays Jason Orlean as Meryl Streep’s top political advisor. The role is deeply beneath either his comic or dramatic capabilities.

Cate Blanchett is Brie Evantree, the co-host of a sensationalist interview show that exploits the news of the deadly comet to enhance ratings as she wallows in banality.

Adam Mckasy co-authored the script with Kevin Messick and directed the movie. The film was released for streaming on Netflix on the day before Christmas.

One quickly senses a harangue rather than an acute biting satire, a film that in its structure self-destructs long before planet earth is destroyed. The movie is celebrated by those who admire it for skewering the state of American politics and the marriage of celebrity culture and technology. But the movie is neither insightful nor subtle, but the graphics in the latter part of the movie make it then eminently watchable. This attempt at a screwball satire is a flagrant flop, a mess of a movie that nowhere understands the very essence of satire. Sledgehammers are not part of the armory of satire.  Nasty it may be, but not deplorable. And it is hard not to link these two. McKay certainly fails. Instead of debasing, defiling and destroying the targets of its satire, they are simply presented as ridiculous with no apparent – I stress apparent – protection of civility. Ridicule is reduced to jeering. The film lacks acuity and is not at all incisive.

Sure, there is corporate greed. Sure, there is a pompous political quest for popularity.  Media are presented as amoral and there is not an ounce of culture in the whole film that can serve as a cover for all the venality.  The cynicism of the smug and simplistic writing and direction comes across as more worthy of satire than even the targets in the film. Finally, what begins as a feeble attempt at satire evolves into a traditional disaster movie with the doom overwhelming any smiles let alone laughter.

Look at where the film begins. Not with the reaction to the news of the death-star, but with its discovery by a graduate student – a plausible start to a disaster movie but irrelevant to a satire where the object satirized must be front and centre. In the next act, when the news is greeted by the political powers, not as an immanent threat but as a message to be massaged to reduce fear, as a distraction from scandal as well as an opportunity to make money, we are presented with the target of the satire, but already undressed and naked with no effort to convince us of why such political staging or economic pursuit has any substantive appeal.  

I have no bone to pick with McKay. The Big Short was incisive and everything that Don’t Look Up is not.  Why? Because in The Big Short, the audience begins in the dark and is enlightened by the movie. In Don’t Look Up, the audience never sees how dark the sky is until it is lit up by the fiery tail of the comet.  We never see the cover of darkness but are only introduced to having contempt for that to which we are exposed – but we probably held those views before we even saw the film.

Just as it is important to understand why we are blind to what is in front of us, it is also important to understand the supreme failure of Don’t Look Up by revealing the core of how satire works. It is not enough to look down on the world; it is important to use satire to see through the clouds of dust that obscure what is going on.

In a satire, the characters are one dimensional rather than having fully rounded personalities. Further, the characteristic of that which is targeted allows that individual to be described as a superficial liar, someone caught up in a popularity contest, a dishonest individual or a bigot. There are as many targets as there are despicable characteristics in humans and social impediments to a healthy, functioning society. Satire belittles what others esteem. However, it is important to display the esteem first to unveil it as just a cloud obscuring our vision.

Satire, as Northrop Frye wrote, is militant rather than friendly irony. The bullets are verbal witticisms based on “the sense of the grotesque or absurd”. But where is the wit in the film? The social targets are manifold, to be belittled and diminished as a threat by the force of exaggeration. Criticism is too tame a word for satire which should be caustic, corrosive and acidic, aimed at dissolving and destroying the institutional practices which resist reform. Satire provides a comical universal solvent that eats away at anything in its path.

Unlike invective, which tries to destroy by heaving boulders, satire eats away at its target in a steady but scathing and very sharp tearing apart of the fabric of its object of denunciation. Satire must be both barbed and biting. Satire gnaws away at the surrounding cover to put in sharp relief the flaws engraved on the body politic. If a tattoo engraves the ridiculous and the cliché on the body, satire attacks the flesh to reveal the remainder in sharp relief. Satire is to denunciation what guerilla warfare is to inter-state battles. The mob attacks on the Capitol in Washington of 6 January 2021 are assaults; satire uses rapiers rather than flagpoles and mace, guns and truncheons. For examples of satirists, one thinks of Juvenal and Horace, of Swift and Rabelais.

A common stance of satire is the apocalyptic. The world as configured is destroying itself. The targets of satire are the hypocrites responsible for that self-destruction. To uncover the hypocrisy, the apparent sincerity and goodness of the target must first be put on the screen before the grotesqueness is revealed. Before individuals are revealed as monstrosities, their apparent bona fides must first be tabled before the attitudes and mores behind them are exploded into delusionary and gigantic hallucinations. Reality is revealed to be a fantasy. We ingest our dose of satire to attack our constipated characterization of the world so that the satire serves as an emetic and turns constipation into diarrhea – or, in actual practice, logorrhea, that is, verbal diarrhea.

In the film, Don’t Look Up, however, it is the comet that breaks into fragments before it crashes into and destroys the earth which goes up in a cosmic blast rather than being dissolved into scattered particles. Instead of the frame, the apocalypse becomes the substance.

Responsa to Sergio

I thank everyone for the feedback. It is very satisfying to read that I am read and that readers enjoy even as some disagree with what I write. Unfortunately, I lost the ability to send out blogs; I could not figure out the system – hence the delay and sporadic effort when some of you received some blogs but most did not. The format sent out this week indicates that I still have not mastered my old system. My apologies.

Two examples of critical feedback

michaelmendelson commented on Sergio Part I – political background to a biopic

On 19 March 2003, the US and its allies invaded Iraq. The UN Security Council sanctioned the invasion. In May, Sérgio Vieira de …

The UN Security Council did not agree to the invasion of Iraq…what do you mean by the word ‘sanctioned’?  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/sep/16/iraq.iraq TheUnited Nationssecretary general, Kofi Annan, declared explicitly for the first time last night that the US-led war on Iraq was illegal. Mr Annan said that the invasion was not sanctioned by the UN security council or in accordance with the UN’s founding charter. In an interview with the BBC World Service broadcast last night, he was asked outright if the war was illegal. He replied: “Yes, if you wish.” He then added unequivocally: “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.” Mr Annan has until now kept a tactful silence and his intervention at this point undermines the argument pushed by Tony Blair that the war was legitimised by security council resolutions. Mr Annan also questioned whether it will be feasible on security grounds to go ahead with the first planned election inIraqscheduled for January. “You cannot have credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now,” he said. His remarks come amid a marked deterioration of the situation on the ground, an upsurge of violence that has claimed 200 lives in four days and raised questions over the ability of the interim Iraqi government and the US-led coalition to maintain control over the country. They also come as Mr Blair is trying to put the controversy over the war behind him in the run-up to the conference season, a new parliamentary term and next year’s probable general election. The UN chief had warned the US and its allies a week before the invasion in March 2003 that military action would violate the UN charter. But he has hitherto refrained from using the damning word “illegal”. Both Mr Blair and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, claim that Saddam Hussein was in breach of security council resolution 1441 passed late in 2002, and of previous resolutions calling on him to give up weapons of mass destruction. France and other countries claimed these were insufficient.  

Thanks very much for the feedback.

The problem is that Kofi Annan was silent on the issue in 2003 except for indicating a week prior to the invasion in March of 2003 mild criticism. Only in 2004 did he make the statement to which your referred where he declared explicitly that “the invasion was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council and declared the war to be illegal. The US had sought support for its invasion by the UNSC and it was clear that at least France and probably China and Russia would veto a resolution of support. But a survey of other members indicated that military action was contrary to the UN Charter, but did not declare it illegal at that time. The Brits argued that the invasion was sanctioned by Res. 1441. But though the Americans seemed poised to get a supermajority to support its initiative, the U.S. did not want to face an open revolt by three of the permanent members. When the UNSC did not condemn the invasion, one school of thought argued that, in light of 1441, the UN had given implicit support and by its silence gave de facto approval.

Howard

Howard – thank you for this. I did not even know that a film had been made about SdM.

According to the reviews, it is a pretty bad movie. Too bad.

Your rendition of the plot misrepresents his role in creating a peace settlement in East Timor. Sergio headed UNTAET, which was established on 25 October. Indonesia had already recognized East Timor’s independence on 19 October, and on 15 September had agreed to the UN sending a multinational peace-making/keeping force (INTERFET) to the island, led by the Australians.

(I met SdM when he was ‘viceroy’ East Timor. He had many critics among the Timorese for not letting them take over the political reigns right away, instead of having a UN stewardship. After all, they had fought for independence for many many years).

I was going to write to you about another (and more interesting) item:  Last week I saw an interview on BBC’s Hard Talk with Philippe Sands, an international lawyer with expertise in international criminal law. He discussed the philosophical and political tensions between genocide as a crime and crimes against humanity. The former invests rights and dignity in the group, the latter in the individual. He explores the concern that the former may undermine the latter. “His book East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity (2016) has been awarded numerous prizes”.

Now, that is something I should like to see you write about!

Hope you have a good 2022 and, above all, good health!

astri

Astri Suhrke

Associated Research Professor

Chr. Michelsen Institute

Bergen, Norway

Astri:

I have ordered the book on genocide and crimes against humanity, will read it and get back to you.

Thanks for the feedback and corrections.

Be well and have a good year.

Howard

Here is one example of an uncritical feedback from Dr. Joseph Wong.

Thanks Howard for writing this piece.  It gives me more perspectives on viewing world politics which is a survival of the fittest game.  A lot of horrible things were done but they were done, but people were given various sorts of excuses justifying the merciless actions.

I have always wondered why people who swear they are Christians and follow the teachings of Bible, can do exactly the opposite.  Throughout history, there have been more wars caused by differences in faith than almost any other the

Is this the evil inside the human body?

Joseph

I also received quite a few welcomes for my return.

Three SAMPLES

Thanks, Howard. So important to remember.

Oneil

HOWARD!!!

I was just thinking about you, wondering where you’d been! 

Now I can read your latest offering to see if you answer that question!  🙂

Happy New Year to you, Good Sir!

Yours,

Mark Thibodeau

a friend via Milton Zysman

Glad you are back.  

J. David Cox

My blog will not appear with the old frequency. You may welcome that.  There are several reasons. First, I no longer sleep just 4-5 hour a night. Though I sleep in 2-3 hour tranches, I find I now need 9 hours sleep each day. That has severe repercussions on my writing time, both the time I can devote to it and when I write. When I first wake up at 2:30 or 3:00, I can only sustain about an hour of writing instead of my past practice of writing 4-5 hours every early morning.

Second, we are moving. After 55 years living on Wells Hill Avenue in Toronto, we sold our house. We are moving to Vancouver Island. We bought a house next door to one of my sons in Cobble Hill. Though we leave our house in mid-February, we will not get to the West Coast until the end of April.

Third, the move itself is onerous as many of you know who have tried to cull a lifetime of accumulation.

We are looking forward to the change, even though this past December there was a switch in weather patterns with Toronto being relatively warm and relatively free of snow while the island was cold and received several large dumps.

But who cares! Young grandchildren are a very strong magnet.

Have a good and healthy new year.

Howard

Sergio Part II – the Biopic

The movie, Sergio, premiered at Sundance in 2020 and is now streamed on Netflix. The biopic could have been about the tension between Paul Bremer (played by Bradley Whitford) and Sérgio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Maura, another Brazilian). Instead, Paul Bremer III was shifted in the film to a caricatured and peripheral role. The film could even have been about the revelation of the harmony as well as tension between Gil Loescher, played by Brian F. O’Byrne, who had just arrived to meet de Mello before the blast took place. Instead, other than being very tall, the personality of Gil in the film had little in common with the soft, caring and scholarly sensibility of the real Gil. Instead, the Gil in the film was a composite of several members of de Mello’s team – of which, Loescher was not even a part. The film could have been about de Mello’s deep concern for Loescher’s well being, in spite of his own precarious state. There was some allusion to this, but it was slighted and marginalized.

In the film, Sérgio was played by Wagner Moura; he had portrayed Pablo Escobar, a very different personality in the Narco series. Moura was superb in this very different role, always dressed as a dapper diplomat who even put the French diplomats, renowned for their attire, to shame. De Mello was appropriately played as a combination bleeding heart and tough and blunt talking realist. The latter quality made him stand out among the world of international diplomacy. For de Mello substituted charm and a broad smile for the equivocation and amorphous speech that often characterizes all diplomacy.

The film highlights some of his accomplishments. No spotlight is concentrated on any one of them to reveal why he had been so successful in each case. In fact, his work in Bangladesh, Sudan and Cyprus for refugees was ignored. The story focuses on much of what he did through flashbacks as he lay trapped under the cement, but not how he did it; just that he did it. For the film is ultimately a romance between he and Carolina Larriera, played beautifully by Ana de Armas.  We get to see how they met, fell in love and the promise of their life together that was aborted. The history of his reputation as a womanizer of the highest order was ignored in the process.

Carolina was an Argentine economist who worked in establishing microfinancing, especially for women in conflict zones. The two met when Sérgio served as the United Nations Transitional Administrator in East Timor during the period 1999 to May 2002. This is well portrayed in the movie. Sérgio induced Carolina to work with him when he was posted to Iraq and many of the scenes focus on her desperate attempt to get help and rescue him from the blown-up Canal Hotel. Left out is the pain she herself suffered in being cancelled from the list of those who were saved and excluded from the ceremonies in which he was honoured in favour of his wife, Annie Personnaz, a Cuban French assistant at UNHCR in Geneva from whom he was not officially divorced even as his civil union the Carolina had been widely acknowledged. But his pension and estate went to his estranged wife. That part of the story might have distracted from the romantic version of de Mello.

I knew virtually nothing of his relationship to Carolina or the latter’s posthumous collaborations in Brazil to honour Sérgio, another item missing in the film. What I, and most others who came in contact with de Mello, knew was de Mello’s attraction to women. He did not seduce women. He did not need to. He loved them plain and simple, some more than others. But he was a lover rather than seducer of women. That element of Sérgio’s personality was also left out of the narrative portrait by Greg Barker, not only in this film but in the 2009 documentary of the same name by the same director consisting of interviews with de Mello as well as original archival footage. The script for the 2020 biopic was actually written by Craig Barton who had penned the dialogue for Dallas Buyers Club. He did as excellent a job as he had in the that previous film, but supported by using archival footage to replicate the original dialogue, narratives and quotations, often using Samantha Power’s biography, Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World.  But the script’s strength is not in the portrayal of conflicts over power and policy, but in grasping de Mello on an intimate plane.

I recall Sergio telling a group of us enjoying late night wine after a day of meetings in Chicago about the nature of international diplomacy and the need to sacrifice one’s family life for the sake of humanitarianism. I even recall him telling us in a very blunt but self-deprecating way about his failure to recognize his youngest son, Adrien’s, allergy to shrimp, an incident actually portrayed in the film. Travelling on the international diplomatic circuit means long periods of time away from your family. It should be no surprise that the children of diplomats in such roles grow up alienated to some degree from their father (or mother, as the case may be). However, in that conversation, one could not fail to notice the depth of love Sérgio de Mello held for his two sons. This is captured well in the film. One would not know from this self-deprecating story that when he worked in Geneva, he left work everyday promptly at 5:00 to meet his son after school.

Thus, the biopic is not only a love story about he and Carolina, but about he and his children and about he and the people he worked with and for, and about his love of life. But most of all, it is a story of his love for his work and his absolute dedication to the UN and internationalism. It is not, however, a film about his thought processes. From watching the film, you would never learn about the contents of his 1974 PhD thesis, The Role of Philosophy in Contemporary Society or of his “second” 1985 doctoral thesis, Civitas Maxima: Origins, Foundations and Philosophical and Political Significance of the Supranationality Concept.

In the first thesis, he set out to demonstrate that philosophy was not detached from human affairs lacking any human touch, but was a foundation for empathy and compassion, a position drawn from his studies of Henri Bergson and the “romanticism” of Schelling. In the second thesis, he tried to provide philosophical depth to the internationalism of the UN and men like Dag Hammarskjőld, an international diplomat who had become Secretary-General of the UN and was also killed in office when his plane was shot out of the Congo skies. Sérgio tried to provide both intellectual depth and witness to the three supranational virtues that Dag had defended – “independence, integrity and impartiality.” Sérgio both in the film and in real life, was the epitome of all three.

What does not really emerge in the film is de Mello’s arrogance and self-confidence that lay behind his charm and smile. Everyone knew that de Mello was destined to succeed Kofi Annan as Secretary-General of the UN, particularly since Sérgio never disguised his vaulting ambitions. But Sérgio was not personally ambitious. He did not want the role because of its title and prestige, but because of what he believed he could do with it. De Mello was deeply convinced that, in the face of the world-wide conflict, repression and impoverishment, only the UN and its associated international agencies could offer the humanitarianism needed. One wonders what he would say about the failures of WHO in the face of the covid-i9 plague.

But it is not just the cosmopolitanism of the UN that he celebrated. For the UN was also the forum where national interests clashed, but also where they were united to pool resources, identify common interests and serve the higher purposes of peace and security among nations. De Mello was as much an inter-nationalist as a cosmopolitan.

When he was Director of the Asia Bureau and refugees were still flowing out of Indochina almost ten years after the plight of the Boat People became a uniting force for people across the world, it was de Mello that led the negotiations between Vietnam, the UNHCR, first asylum countries and resettlement countries concerning the repatriation. There had been a recent upsurge in the outflow of refugees from Vietnam. Among ordinary people as well as international officials, a new vision that played down resettlement and emphasized repatriation had asserted itself. “Voluntary” repatriation was seen to warrant the highest priority as “the natural solution to the refugee problem” in the words of UNHCR High Commissioner Jean-Pierre Hocké (1986), the forty-seven-year-old Swiss national who had been nominated by UN secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar to become the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Hocké took office with very high expectations for he had come from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and wide field experience in Lebanon, Jordan and Vietnam.

Hocké initially seemed prescient. For the long decline in the refugee exodus from Indochina reversed itself in 1986 as the population of the refugees in camps in Asia began once again to increase. With the declining willingness of Western countries to continue their resettlement process and regional solutions in countries of first asylum off limits, repatriation emerged as the only alternative to tackling the problem.

After over a year of shuttling between various capitals around the world, in 1988, based on the commitment of the Vietnamese government to improve its relations with the West, Sérgio de Mello negotiated the 16 June 1988 Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) that reaffirmed the resistance of local countries of first asylum to settlement and reversed the 1979 pledge of Western countries to resettle the Indochinese refugees. (900,000 had been resettled to that point, about 22% to Canada.) After all, the U.S. had openly embraced compassion fatigue and no longer considered the Vietnamese fleeing to automatically qualify as refugees. With the agreement of the Vietnamese to no longer send returnees to re-education camps, the Vietnamese government agreed to an “orderly” – a euphemism for compulsory – return of the “refugees” or economic migrants, except for those who could prove a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

Arthur Helton, an American refugee colleague, denounced the agreement as one aimed at stopping the refugee outflow. Yet, later, he would join de Mello in Iraq and die alongside him in the rubble of the Canal Hotel. This was simply another indication of the success of de Mello’s charm offensives as well as his prescience and realism in accepting the fact that Vietnamese refugees could now return in safety without being persecuted. By 1992, the outflow of refugees from Vietnam had dropped from 70,000 in 1989 to 41 in 1992. At the same time, the UNHCR, now under the leadership of Sadako Ogata, repatriated 360,000 Cambodian “refugees” from camps in first countries of asylum in accordance with the Paris Peace Accords that had been signed under international political pressure on the various Cambodian political factions.

But that charm did not always work. Sérgio tried to win back the favour of Hocké after the latter had been forced to resign as a result of a revolt of employees (of which de Mello was not a part) and their leak of documents showing that, just when the UNHCR was slipping into deficits and the U.S. was cutting back contributions, Hocké was upping his flights from business to first class and writing off other personal expenses on the UNHCR’s purse. When Hocké packed up his belongings, de Mello never came by to say goodbye. Hocké never forgave a perceived disloyalty and betrayal. However, these interpersonal squabbles and moments of bitterness, particularly in the relationship of Paul Bremer and Sérgio de Mello, are not part of the film. After all, de Mello is presented as a universal success story in spite of his own self-criticisms of his own limitations and failures.

Further, given the new and increasing antipathy of the U.S. to the UN and other international agencies, it is a marvel that de Mello managed to keep such good relations with the Americans, especially Paul Bremer. After all, when UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar sought to appoint Dayal, his chief of staff, to become the UNHCR High Commissioner, John Bolton, President Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for international organizations and, subsequently George W. Bush’s controversial ambassador to the UN, opposed the appointment, preferring a political appointee from a rich country rather than a career civil servant with a great deal of field experience. Dayal, a fifty-five-year-old Oxford-educated Indian national, had worked at UNHCR from 1965 to 1972 and understood that the agency was struggling. He was eager to see it bailed out. In response to Bolton’s undermining his appointment, Dayal was livid and resigned from the UN. Perhaps that also would have been the fate of de Mello if he had been, as expected, nominated to be UN Secretary-General.

We will never know definitively what we lost or whether that loss was inevitable in any case.

Sergio Part I – political background to a biopic

On 19 March 2003, the US and its allies invaded Iraq. The UN Security Council sanctioned the invasion. In May, Sérgio Vieira de Mello. an international diplomat, reluctantly, and under enormous pressure, took a short leave of absence from his role as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to act as the Special Representative to Iraq for Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations.

While there was very broad opposition to the invasion, both Islamicists on the right and radical socialists on the left went much further and denounced the UN for legitimizing “Washington’s indefinite subjugation of the country” in order to control its oil. When Sérgio declared that, under the circumstances, the UN would have to work with the invading authorities, those same critics of the UN as a cover for the U.S., accused the UN of painting over the crimes of the US and its allies. After all, de Mello had said that the U.S. was de facto the governing authority of Iraq and, therefore, “Working with the Authority is part of the rules of the game. They are responsible for the administration of the country until there is a new order.”

However, Sérgio as Annan’s pro-consul had a radically different view how the new order was to be brought about in comparison to Paul Bremer III, President George Bush’s pro-consul in Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. Bremer had been named to his position in the same month as de Mello. The latter was anything but a mouthpiece for the U.S.

The two men had overlapped much earlier as well. Bremer attended the Institut d’études politiques de Paris from 1966 to 1968. In the same period, de Mello was at the University of Paris writing a PhD in philosophy under Professor Vladimir Jankélévitch, a student of Henri Bergson. Jankélévitch was chair of Moral Philosophy at the Sorbonne and an authority on German idealism, especially Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling who had been a student of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and a roommate and close friend of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel when they were both students, though later Schelling became a severe critic of Hegel.

Professor Jankélévitch had participated in the 1968 Paris protests, one of the few professors at the University of Paris to do so. Sérgio was a participant in the student demonstrations that brought down the de Gaulle government and left him with a scar on his forehead when he graduated from the Sorbonne in 1969. Bremer, in contrast, came from and supported the establishment.  

Whereas de Mello pursued his diplomatic career through the UN system, Paul Bremer did so in the American foreign service, including as an assistant to Henry Kissinger in the Republican administrations of the 1970s and in the 1980s as Executive Secretary and Special Assistant to Alexander Haig until Ronald Reagan appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands in 1983. In 1986, Bremer became Ambassador-at-large for Counterterrorism. After a period in the private sector, he returned to public service to take up the appointment to Iraq in 2003. He had directly experienced the ravages of terrorism for, while in the private sector, his office in the North Tower was just above where the plane crashed into it in 2001.

If Bremer was steeped in the need to counter terrorism, de Mello had long trained as a peacekeeper and conflict mediator while also becoming an expert on refugees. I first heard of him and was strongly advised to meet him, when I went to Lebanon to write up my report on the numbers made homeless by the Israeli invasion in 1982. Sérgio was then Senior Political Officer for UNIFIL and DPKO in Lebanon. Unfortunately, our paths did not cross at that time and I only learned much later that he had regarded the Lebanese UN mission as one of its greatest failures. For there, the UN was so restricted in what it could do, it was effectively impotent. He reappeared in my intellectual horizon again when he headed the Asia Bureau of UNHCR from 1988-1990 after I had become deeply involved with the resettlement of Indochinese refugees in Canada and had founded the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. But, again, we never met at that time.

I had heard about his toe-to-toe meeting with the Khmer Rouge leader, Ieng Sary, whom he had known at the Sorbonne in Paris. During his appointment as UN envoy to Cambodia from 1992-1993, he was determined to “talk to the devil” and not just international statesmen. I finally did meet him in 1993 in Sarajevo when he had become head of Political Affairs for UNPROFOR and I was undertaking my study of repatriation of refugees resulting from the civil war in former Yugoslavia. It was, however, only to shake hands. However, the next time we met – two or three years later – was when I and Astri Suhrke had completed our study of the international involvement in the Rwanda genocide and Sergio was the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to the Great Lakes Region. I cannot remember why I had not interviewed him during the study, but when we met, it was totally evident that he had not only read our report but had read it carefully.

The nineties was the decade in which humanitarian intervention reached its apogee and, under Canadian leadership, was formalized in the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect in the twenty-first century at the same time as the UN emptied it of every meaning by including the Chinese amendment that humanitarian intervention could only take place with the consent of the country targeted. Sérgio de Mello had celebrated the “New World Order” that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, but would soon become snagged in the political barbed wire that prevented any meaningful intervention. What was begun at the end of the twentieth century, especially following the impotence of the international community in the face of the Rwanda genocide, disintegrated in the emergence of renewed world rivalries of powerful states at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

We witnessed not one step forward and two steps back, but a rapid retreat into brutality and cruelty made much worse by the new style of insurgent warfare and proxy wars that took the place of the old world disorder. De Mello in his 1985 thesis had espoused an international system based on affirmative action, universal values and mutual respect for differences, but the river of history was flowing in the opposite direction as utopian ideals disintegrated in the face of irregular insurgencies, roadside explosive devices, human bombers in markets and bars pioneered by Palestinian terrorists, drone and distant warfare and the perfection of accurate bombing from the air. Sérgio de Mello had argued against Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that, with neo-liberalism, we had reached the end of history. Instead, Sérgio offered case studies of peace processes that involved NGOs, official and recognized mediators properly coordinated and sequenced negotiations, a myriad of technical experts attached to the negotiations, and, most difficult of all, the intervention of leaders from powerful countries at critical points in the process of peacemaking as well as long term commitments to rehabilitation and reconciliation.

Sérgio de Mello was right, of course. History continues to wend its way through our lives upsetting them in unpredictable ways. But the change of course of the river of history has not gone in the direction de Mello adumbrated.

However, like Immanuel Kant at the time of the French Revolution who had authored the essay “Perpetual Peace,” de Mello had been on the side of the peacemakers and on the side of reason. He pursued his synthesis of realism and idealism, both in theory and in practice, but, in the end, one had to admit that his view of utopia had also bit the dust, or rather, the concrete blocks of history. And he had been trapped by those cement slabs.

Subsequently, I learned more about our hero when I was working on early warning with the former head of the foreign service in Kenya. Sérgio de Mello had played a crucial role in the peace negotiations between Frelimo (Frente da Libertacao de Mocambique) government and Renamo (Resistencia Nacional de Mocambique). My Kenyan colleague, with Sérgio’s introduction, had travelled for 11 days up-river in a canoe to meet the Frelimo leaders. I learned that Sérgio de Mello, who had represented the UNHCR in Mozambique from 1975 to 1977, had been critical in setting up the encounter because he had known the Frelimo leadership personally.

The mediation resulted in the signing of the Rome Agreement in October 1992 (sometimes called the General Peace Agreement – GPA). Over the following three years, and with the aid of a major UN peacekeeping operation and continuing international mediation, the two armies were demobilized and reintegrated into a unified national army. Free competitive elections were held. A new constitution was adopted. A program of national reconstruction got under way. A fragile but sustained peace took hold. Sérgio de Mello had helped build the foundation for all of these steps towards peace and reconciliation.

Sérgio Vieira de Mello had taught my Kenyan colleague another lesson. For Sérgio had always treated the employees at the front desk in hotels as well as the cleaners and other employees of the organizations in which he worked with the greatest respect, remembering their names and asking after the welfare of their families. I witnessed this directly when my Kenyan colleague and I entered a hotel in Addis Ababa and he engaged the front desk staff in conversation, even though it meant that we were ten minutes late for our meeting with the American diplomats.

Contrary to the radical critics who want to put Bremer and de Mello in the same bed, the two men were radical contrasts in both personality and policy. Bremer was no sooner appointed by Bush when, on 23 May 2003, he issued Order Number 2 dissolving the entire Iraqi army and releasing 400,000 former Iraqi soldiers into the unemployed sector, thereby providing fodder for the upsurge in Iraq against the American-led invasion while leaving the country without a domestically-rooted security force. While de Mello had a record of negotiating with insurgents leading to peace agreements, Bremer was a hawk who enormously exacerbated the security situation in Iraq employing widespread repression.

Matters were made worse when Bremer initiated the de-Ba’athification of the Iraqi civil service to eliminate the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But when Iraqi politicians were put in charge of the process, they proceeded to use the program to get rid of political enemies and fire thousands of teachers who were not political supporters. This was precisely the path that de Mello would have strongly opposed given his record of working with both insurgents and local citizens in constituting their own government instead of the American imperial system imposed by Bremer.

But de Mello never got the chance. De Mello had set up his UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel deliberately outside the heavily guarded Green Zone within which the American established their security. He was convinced that the UN had to be and be seen as distinct from the Americans and not under American control. Security was poor. Three months later, on 19 August, a terrorist truck bomb was set off at the hotel killing 21 UN workers, including de Mello, and two others, and injuring hundreds.

That is where much of the movie takes place – with de Mello trapped under a huge slab of cement along with Gil Loescher, a 6’ 7” colleague of mine from the refugee scholarly community who had just arrived, not to work for the UN as de Mello’s adviser – as portrayed in the movie – but as a member of Open Democracy to attend a meeting with Sérgio. Gil had co-authored with John Scanlan Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-Open Door; 1945 to the present that had become the definitive historical account of American refugee intake policies and programs initially built on an anti-communist ideology. As James Milner, a colleague at Carlton, wrote, Gil unveiled the political dimensions of refugee policy underlying the legal framework.

The seven members of the UN staff in the outer office where he had been waiting were all killed by the explosion. Gil too was trapped nearby. In the movie, he and de Mello touched hands. However, as I heard the story, they were only in voice contact, though it was de Mello who used his cell phone and directed the rescuers to where Loescher was trapped and hanging upside down – a position that probably saved him from bleeding to death.

Loescher had to have both legs amputated in the extraction – an incident portrayed in the movie. Gil survived until April of last year. His daughter, Margaret, a film student at the time, made a documentary on her father a year later called, Pulled from the Rubble. As Gil noted, a red line had been crossed in the use of violence. Humanitarian and human rights workers had also become targets of terrorist attacks.

Trapped by cement, that also cost Gil his legs, this also provided a metaphor for de Mello’s life, trapped between his idealism and role as an international diplomat and the imperial oppressiveness and bungling of the Bush regime that had led the world to war under false pretences of Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. The world of international politics was polarized between the stony and humane indifference of the radicals and extreme terrorists – whether on the right or left who painted de Mello with the same brush as Bremer – and the military might of imperial America. Sérgio de Mello, trapped between them, was murdered.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the al-Qaeda Islamicist terrorists, assumed responsibility for the cement truck blast loaded with a 500 pd. aerial bomb and many explosives left from the Iraq War. Al-Zarqawi did so not only because de Mello was allegedly in bed with the Americans, but because Sérgio when he had been appointed UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor (UNTAET) had pulled off the East Timor independence after Indonesia had invaded and fought an imperial war of its own in this former Portuguese colony. Sérgio de Mello had managed to get the Indonesian government not only to accede to peace after almost two decades of war and over 200,000 Timorese killed, but induced the military government to issue an official apology.  Al-Zarqawi saw the problem in simple black and white terms – de Mello had facilitated the loss of an Islamic-run territory that was destined to be part of the Islamic Caliphate.

The motive for the bombing – other than the connection to the Americans that is only slightly referenced – is left out of the movie so that de Mello’s work in East Timor, recollected as he lay under that heavy slab of cement, is orphaned and never directly linked to the terrorist attack. Nor is the fact that, although the Americans were in charge of countering the terrorism, they had not taken any initiatives to protect the UN. In spite of the bravery of American first responders, the film offers a clear critique that the efforts of the Americans to rescue the UN officials was half-hearted and delayed and, thus, possibly partially responsible for de Mello’s death. After all, Bremer had viewed de Mello – accurately – as a critic of US policy and performance even as Sérgio tried to work as best as he could between the American-led coalition and the Iraqis.

Bremer was also a target of the terrorists. Returning to the highly fortified Green Zone on the Baghdad Airport Road, his convoy was hit by mortars and gunfire, with the rear window of his official car blown away. As bullets flew, Bremer and his deputies ducked below their seats. Sérgio de Mello could not duck under that cement; it crushed him.

The Power of the Dog

Based on a 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog is the title of a new movie directed by Jane Campion and just released on Netflix where I saw it. Campion first came to prominence with her fantastic film, “The Piano” released in 1993. Instead of a mute woman dispatched to New Zealand to marry a wealthy landowner in that classic of twenty-eight years ago, we see a confident proprietor of an inn (Rose Gordon – Kirsten Dunst) become a quivering, frightened woman when she married a relatively rich cattle rancher in Montana – though the movie was shot in New Zealand where Campion was born. Instead of a young daughter, the woman has a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who creates beautiful, intricate and delicate paper flower arrangements out of napkins for the tables on which he waits. He is a devoted son who has vowed always to protect his mother.

Like “The Pianist,” lust lurks so well below the surface in the film that it is not always clear where the source lies or who is the target. But left in the present is the saddle and spurs of Phil’s mentor, Bronco Henry, and a large white handkerchief with his initials that Phil carries stuffed in the front of his pants. As he pulls the handkerchief out and inhales deeply through his nose, we quickly learn why Phil evades washing. Philip is tough as nails, uncouth and unkempt, full of both malice and malevolence; he also smells. When he does bathe, it is not in a bathtub like his brother George, but in a mud bath in the wilds. He washes the mud off in a dive in a clear, freshwater pool.  But the glen is hidden. And the filth is not just dirt and mud. Phil is only seen naked in his sacred private place in the woods. He returns to civilization to “diss” his brother and call him Fatso.           

The cause of Rose’s evisceration is not her husband, who is star spangled solicitous, but his verbally cruel brother and co-owner of the ranch. Phil has the sharp tongue of a snake fueled by a raging and bitter anger – of what we do not know and never learn definitively from his inscrutable character. Even though on the surface he is a marauding presence, behind the scowls and steely stares lies an opaque personality. But we suspect the problem is his self-identity. He intimidates. He rages. He is a marauding menace. He looks at those who displease him with snake eyes. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank – wearing spurs, chaps and even a soiled cowboy hat.

George (played with superb self-control by Jesse Plemons), on the other hand, is quiet and taciturn and neat-as-a-pin, dressed in a suit even when on the cattle drive. George is the one who marries the young widow, Rose. George admires his wife’s piano playing – though it is clearly not good even though she once accompanied silent films                                                                         

In contrast, Phil plucks away at a banjo and (spoiler alert) well into the movie demonstrates he is a mean player. But his playing took me back to the foreboding of the five-string banjo played in the film, “Deliverance.” Rough in his ways and tough in his manner, we gradually learn of his hidden and tender side – (again, spoiler alert). He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college. He is cultivated even though he harasses Rose and castrates bull calves with his bare hands. He is a stopped-up volcano ready at any moment to blow his top. But he does not. Instead, he educates the woman’s teenage son and cultivates his friendship after spending the first half of the movie mocking his effeminate ways. And he makes a gift for him – a lasso out of strips of rawhide.

The tension between the wild west, the rough unforgiving hills that surround the dry-as-dirt ranch, contrasts with the elegant home with its drab dried clapboard exterior but an interior of dark wood paneling, with both bookcases and animal heads against the walls. We could be in an old castle in Germany.

But this a frontier movie, not one of the open west and of freedom, but of a claustrophobic, melancholy repetitive and boring life seething with repressed libidos that take their pleasures at the end of a cattle drive in a house of pleasure filled with drink and dancing. The cowhands seem playful and full of camaraderie and their persecution of the effeminate son is relatively benign. However, it is all immersed in a sand sea of loneliness.

The shots are iconic. The cowboys walking in a broad and almost straight line – not just walking – striding. These and the wide expanse shots of nature contrast with the close-ups on the rare flowers shown in the movie.  But the give away takes place when Phil suddenly befriends Peter and learns quickly that Peter can read the clouds. Peter sees and describes a cloud formation that looks like a growling dog. And the stage is finally set for Peter’s rage at the mistreatment of his mother to creep out as he dons his plastic gloves (did they have plastic gloves in 1925?) and cuts away his own strips of rawhide from a steer that had died of anthrax.

Phil had fed Rose with a toxic diet of disdain and dismissal, reducing his sister-in-law to a helpless alcoholic poisoned by Phil’s resentment. Her son slyly and surreptitiously delivers his revenge. It is a furtive consummation of a slow but rising burn and an ironic twist on restorative justice.

But who is the dog? Phil? Does Peter see Phil in the form of a menacing cur? A clue can be found in the source of the phrase in the title of the film. Verses 13-19 of Psalm 22 read:

13 Great bulls have surrounded me; the mighty ones of Bashan encompassed me. יגסְבָבוּנִי פָּרִ֣ים רַבִּ֑ים אַבִּירֵ֖י בָשָׁ֣ן כִּתְּרֽוּנִי:
14 They opened their mouth against me [like] a tearing, roaring lion. ידפָּצ֣וּ עָלַ֣י פִּיהֶ֑ם אַ֜רְיֵ֗ה טֹרֵ֥ף וְשֹׁאֵֽג:
15 I was spilled like water, and all my bones were separated; my heart was like wax, melting within my innards. טוכַּמַּ֥יִם נִשְׁפַּכְתִּי֘ וְֽהִתְפָּֽרְד֗וּ כָּֽל־עַצְמ֫וֹתָ֥י הָיָ֣ה לִ֖בִּי כַּדּוֹנָ֑ג נָ֜מֵ֗ס בְּת֣וֹךְ מֵעָֽי:
16 My strength became dried out like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my palate; and You set me down in the dust of death. טזיָ֘בֵ֚שׁ כַּחֶ֨רֶשׂ | כֹּחִ֗י וּ֖לְשׁוֹנִי מֻדְבָּ֣ק מַלְקוֹחָ֑י וְלַֽעֲפַר־מָ֥וֶת תִּשְׁפְּתֵֽנִי:
17 For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me, like a lion, my hands and feet. יזכִּֽי־סְבָב֗וּנִי כְּלָ֫בִ֥ים עֲדַ֣ת מְ֖רֵעִים הִקִּיפ֑וּנִי כָּֽ֜אֲרִ֗י יָדַ֥י וְרַגְלָֽי:
18 I tell about all my bones. They look and gloat over me. יחאֲסַפֵּ֥ר כָּל־עַצְמוֹתָ֑י הֵ֥מָּה יַ֜בִּ֗יטוּ יִרְאוּ־בִֽי:
19 They share my garments among themselves and cast lots for my raiment. יטיְחַלְּק֣וּ בְגָדַ֣י לָהֶ֑ם וְעַל־לְ֜בוּשִׁ֗י יַפִּ֥ילוּ גוֹרָֽל:

The great threatening bulls are like a lion. So are the dogs – not “the” dog, singular.  The bulls and dogs “surround me.” I cannot escape and I am torn to pieces – bones, sinews everywhere competing for the torn fragments of my clothes. In extreme fear, my tongue clings to my palate as the mouth of someone in extreme distress becomes like a root out of dry ground with no saliva left to wet his mouth. He can only taste the dust of death. His heart melts. These are verses of a horrible nightmare located in Bashan in northeastern Jordan.

The Psalm is famous as a prophetic anticipation of what happens to Jesus, especially with the words of verse 2, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (See Matthew 27:46) However, as Hebrew scripture and commentary, the reference is not seen as being about a Jewish messiah but, rather, a reference to King David (though Rashi believed it was to Queen Esther) who has lost touch with God and lost his or her way. The verses are about lost faith and the feeling of being torn to pieces in that state.

If you have seen the documentary One Of Us about the 2% of Hasidim who leave the fold and escape into the secular world or, at the very least, the non-Hasidic world, you get a sense of the meaning of the loneliness, the feeling of being like a worm when you are mocked and ex-communicated. The only salvation according to the Psalm is return, tshuva, full acceptance of divine sovereignty and total submission to His will and, therefore, the will of the community.

Who fits that experience in The Power of the Dog? One might think it is Peter for isn’t he the one shunned and seen as other by the cowboy community? Though Peter is shunned by some and surrounded by those who open their lips and shake their heads, Peter is not the one who blasphemes, who has lost his way. It is Philip. It is his excruciating loneliness we feel in the film. Peter is always loved by at least his mother, secure in his mother’s womb and at her breasts, and later in the film, by Philip himself. Only Phil remains isolated and unattached. And, in the end, it is Phil who is persecuted for his sins. Peter is simply the avenging angel. It is Peter who possesses the power of the dog. It is Phil who, in spite of the brave and blustery front he puts on, feels torn asunder and ex-communicated even as he, like King David, continues his arbitrary monarchial rule. He remains very far from salvation. For God no longer speaks to him. He has lost his faith and his way. The only one Phil worships is Bronco Henry in whom he has an idolatrous faith.

But could it be Rose who is attacked by the power of the dog? After all, it is the prophetess Esther (5:1), when she stands in the inner court of the king’s house and then in the chamber of idols, who is abandoned by God. It is Rose who descends into the depths of alcoholism and who is abandoned by the divine presence. It is Rose who suffers from inadvertent sin rather than any sin committed against another. It is Esther who called Ahaseurus “dog” and calls out to save her soul from the sword and not only from the power of the dog.

But the reference in the film could be to both Phil and Rose. Phil suffers the anguish of a broken spirit and dies without redemption while Rose is redeemed and recovers from her alcoholic fog. Philip is both the power of the dog who also cowers secretly in fear of his very different version of the power of the dog, the dog who turns out in the end and surprisingly to be Peter.

Watch the movie.

Part II: Possible Negotiating Options re Iran

After months of stalled negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), the Raisi administration has finally agreed to resume nuclear talks with six world powers in Vienna from 29 November 2021. The U.S. will have observer status. The Islamic Republic, emboldened by the defeat of Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” and its own responses in the form of major nuclear advances, is now expected to use its hard-earned leverage to bargain on sanctions relief, release of frozen assets, and guarantees for Washington’s full compliance with the pact. Biden is both unwilling and unable to provide such full guarantees.

My last blog painted a rather grim prospect of any success arising from the negotiations that are about to resume with Iran. To review, the reasons are many. First and foremost, Iran has adopted an approach to the talks that go beyond the even maximalist openings of traditional Middle East negotiations. (See the 14th November editorial of President Ebrahim Raisi entitled “Operation Sanctions Defeat.”) Iran wants:

  1. All sanctions lifted, including those imposed for terrorism and human rights abuses as well as for nuclear non-compliance;
  2. Negotiations must only deal with lifting sanctions;
  3. Not only are missile technology and nuclear weaponization off the table as well as support for terrorism, but so are further concessions on nuclear enrichment;
  4. Iran is not only demanding complete sanctions relief but compensation for the effects of America withdrawing from the JCPOA;
  5. Verification must be in place – not of Iran’s reduction in its nuclear program, but of America’s actual removal of all sanctions; the process must be supervised;
  6. Washington must provide satisfactory guarantees that it will not renege on the deal as Donald Trump did in 2018;
  7. There must be penalties for failures by America to observe the terms.

The U.S. position remains unclear on the guarantees it could provide for the nuclear agreement. However, Biden is unwilling to remove the extensive sanctions imposed by Trump, though, by administrative fiat, he has made some of them moot as a gesture to build some confidence, though Iran has a past history of treating gestures of flexibility as signs of weakness.

The U.S. did release a joint statement with Germany, France and the UK on the sidelines of the G20 in Rome indicating that Washington was ready to return and stay in full compliance with the deal as long as Tehran does the same. However, the Iranian approach turns the talks topsy turvy to focus on America as the non-compliant agent. Further, some of the demands are virtually impossible to satisfy. For example, even if the agreement were to be raised to a treaty status requiring a two-thirds support by the American Senate, that is no guarantee that the U.S. could not abrogate the treaty or the President undermine its application by administratively failing to follow the requirements. There is no way to provide complete guarantees and highly unlikely that even a treaty could be forthcoming. Nevertheless, in order to advance the negotiations and offer confidence building measures, President Biden in a reverse direction is not enforcing the application of many of the sanctions.

The irony, of course, is that when the United States through administrative practices offers gestures to reverse the Trump policy of maximal economic pressure and Iran counteracts by demands that are more maximal than ever, such a dovish American approach is undermined. Support for the Biden initiative for renewal, amendment or substitution for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is also weakened.

If one listens to or reads commentators steeped in security analyses, hopes for a renewed agreement diminish starkly. However, if you listen to scholars or commentators from the peace negotiating, arms reduction or peace camps, prospects may also seem dim, but they focus on opportunities to advance the negotiations rather than cloud their vision with pessimism. This is true even though the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) reported last week that their negotiations with the Iranians failed. In diplomatese, the talks were “inconclusive.” They did agree to continue talking. With Iran-US posturing in preparation for the 7th round of the Vienna talks, the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) co-hosted a panel discussion titled on “Prospect of Iran Nuclear Talks” in collaboration with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) to examine the potential scenarios facing the negotiators to salvage the nuclear deal.

In the 2015 JCPOA agreement, Iran agreed to limit enrichment, permit effective inspections in exchange for sanctions relief. Since Trump cancelled America’s participation in the agreement and since his defeat, America by administrative fiat has provided limited sanctions relief. But Iran has openly enriched uranium well past the 3.67 limit to 20% and even 60% purity, the latter well within the range of providing nuclear material for a bomb. Further, Iran repeatedly interferes with the inspectors, subjecting them to humiliating bodily searches, refusing to provide access to previously unreported sites where uranium particles have been identified, replacing damaged cameras and denying access to automatic monitoring devices.

The IAEA is not the U.S. It is an independent international body to which Iran has obligations. Undermining the IAEA reinforces the impression that Iran after five months of delay is just stalling for time. Iran may simply be entering the sixth round of talks to buy more time.

What options do the negotiators have to deal with Iran? Iran wants the snap-back privileges granted to the US in 2015 JCPOA eliminated. Iran seems highly unlikely simply to endorse a renewal of JCPOA. As indicated above, under JCPOA, there is no legal way that America can provide guarantees to bind the next administration. However, changes could be made. The West could concede that only by a majority vote of the negotiating states could the snap-back provisions be initiated. There could be an agreement that snapback could not be implemented by the decision of one country. Costs could be imposed on failures of states other than Iran to live up to the agreement instead of making Iran carry the burden of ensuring no deviance from the terms of the agreement.

Even if no changes were agreed upon and the JCPOA merely reinstated, the agreement will never work if Iran continues to undermine inspections. In fact, if the right to inspect is not fully restored by the next meeting of the IAEC board in February, the IAEC can be expected to reprimand Iran – not that this would likely influence Iran’s behaviour, but it would undermine the global effort of Iran to improve its public image.

The reality is that there is unlikely to be a JCPOA2. More likely, but still improbable, there could be a series of interim agreements. After all, through American actions, the pressure of sanctions is receding. Further, the U.S. has never punished China for buying Iranian oil. In October, tankers delivered 170,000 tons of crude oil unaffected by the sanctions regime. The price of that oil over the last half-year has soared from $26 to $76 a barrel. Last month, Iran earned $90 million from oil sales and an estimated $1 billion for all of 2021. Yet Iran still needs and demands access to its frozen assets, and, even worse, compensation. Perhaps a series of interim agreements might suffice in place of JCPOA2.

An interim deal is colloquially known as “less-for-less”. In it, Iran would stop enriching its uranium further in return for formalizing sanctions now not being imposed and perhaps including other sanctions relief. Critics lambaste such a proposal as worse than returning to the JCPOA, especially since the money freed up for Iran from currently frozen funds could, and probably would be used to improve the weaponization program and Iran’s missile capabilities.

In contrast, the US-based United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) advocates tightening the economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. This entails increasing sanctions against both individuals and corporate entities trading with Iran or buying its oil. This would be a return to the maximal pressure under Trump which has already proven to be a failure. Yet Nikki Haley, who is on the UANI board, is a prominent advocate for such a policy direction.

Interim steps pose great risks for the West as Iran has enriched enough uranium to be within reach of becoming a nuclear power. It is already a transitional nuclear power. Further, unless the situation is stabilized and possibly reversed, one can expect increasing demands by Iran and increased momentum thrusting Iran into an all-out quest for nuclear weapons and militarization while Israel is compelled to retaliate through covert actions and possibly a direct attack. The risk is a tit-for-tat confrontation. The timeline for reaching even an interim deal becomes more difficult as the days progress and almost impossible the day Iran succeeds in becoming a full transitional nuclear power.

The problems on Iran’s part include the increased improvement and application of its centrifuges to refine more uranium even more quickly, the blockages to IAEA inspectors, the disarming of automatic methods of observation and the open production of more and purer forms of uranium in total breach of the JCPOA limits. Iran is, according to many estimates, already a threshold nuclear power capable of producing one bomb in 1-3 weeks, a second bomb within two months and a third before four months. The only core limitation is that its weaponization capacity is still severely limited – that is, the ability actually to build the bomb, install the optical equipment needed, trigger the chain reaction and place it on a missile warhead. These bombs could not be delivered to targets during the next two years but perhaps only a year-and-a-half. That timeline too is rapidly decreasing according to some experts.

Can the situation be stabilized instead of escalating? Is it helped by fruitless negotiations? Tehran has made it very clear that it has no intention of simply returning to the JCPOA. Iran will not accept any deal – neither a return to the original agreement nor even a limited agreement with fewer conditions – unless the United States first lifts all sanctions. Is Iran just posturing? The huge gap in positions makes the chance of a compromise remote. There are many mechanisms available that, in normal times, could assuage Iran, foster reciprocity and reinforce mutuality. However, it is a very uphill battle. Hope is no substitute for reality, especially when American economic incentives lack any balancing threat for non-progress in talks and Israel lacks a persuasive military strategy. Israel does have Jericho missiles that can hit Iran. But can their warheads penetrate Iran’s reinforced nuclear facilities? The failure of IAEA chief, Rafael Grossi, to make any progress in his recent talks with Iran, even with respect to replacing damaged cameras, is an indicator that pressure points on Iran are shrinking every day.

Iran and the Nuclear Option

[I am resuming my blog, but intermittently rather than daily.]

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog departed London after his state visit. He came on a high-level mission to the U.K. to strengthen Israel-UK ties, reinforce the image of Israel’s commitment to tackling climate change, honour Jewish Olympians murdered in the Munich Olympic Games as well as a Holocaust survivor, Sir Ben Helfgott, who became a world weightlifting champion. But his most important reason was to send a clear and unequivocal message. Herzog declared, “I shall make clear that Israel cannot allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capability and it expects its allies to be tough and assertive toward the Iranians, including in their dialogue with them. Israel makes this position clear to all its friends and, of course, makes clear that it reserves all options to defend itself.” Finally, he claimed that Iran was simply stalling and had no intention of reigning in its nuclear program. Iran is simply playing for time. Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Studies, concurred in the view that the new Iranian government was more hardline than the old one. Iran was simply wasting time as it sought a shorter time gap for a breakthrough to becoming a nuclear power.

This past Sunday, the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and Haaretz jointly sponsored a conference on Israeli national security. The conference with a star line-up of academic and political speakers focused largely on the nuclear threat of Iran to Israel. What was surprising to me is that, as I periodically glanced at the numbers watching, the peak audience was 270. When Senator Ben Menendez, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, spoke at the end, there were only 27 tuned in. Shocking! For such a high level and politically and militarily critical conference that was well publicized? Fortunately, it is available on the websites of both Haaretz and the UCLA Center for Israeli studies.

My impression was that the politicians and speakers shared an overwhelming consensus about Iran and its nuclear program. Benny Gantz, Israel’s Defence Minister, in his opening remarks, zeroed in on Iran’s quest to become a regional hegemon. But Iran presented a global as well as regional threat. However, the nuclear threat provided the umbrella for its conventional disruptive activities on the ground, whether with respect to maritime shipping, the democratic process in Iraq or the effort to make the regimes in Syria and Lebanon satraps of Iran. In addition to Assad and Hezbollah, all the satraps are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran’s expeditionary Qods Force, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS or ‘Etelaat’). The satraps include the Popular Mobilization Units/Shia militias in Iraq, the Ansar Allah/Houthis movement in Yemen, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and, to some extent, Hamas in Gaza. In contrast, and in opposition, Israel seeks to forge alliances rather than develop proxies in the Middle East.

However, the nuclear threat posed the most significant existential threat to Israel. In contrast, for the U.S., Iran was a threat to international peace but not an existential one. Only Israel had been singled out by Iran for elimination. The U.S. could afford to allow Iran to become an almost-nuclear power. Israel could not. Thus, Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, reiterated America’s longstanding insistence that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons while Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned against Iran being allowed to become a nuclear threshold country. The difficulties focused on forging a united front that would be both effective as well as furthering both the security interests of Israel and the peace policies of the U.S. in the Gulf. There was a shadow of darkness between the Israeli policy committed to Iran never becoming a power capable of producing a nuclear bomb within a short time frame and the American determination that Iran never become an actual nuclear power. A goal of “no daylight between the U.S. and Israel is a chimera. Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, emphasized this difference but insisted that the Bennett government would strenuously avoid a public confrontation with the Biden government even though Israel could not tolerate Iran even becoming a potential nuclear power.

The facts are ominous. Iran has now acquired nuclear material purified to 60%, well beyond the 3.67% permitted under JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action negotiated by the Obama regime. Further, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has accumulated 17.7 kg (39 pounds) of the material enriched to 60% fissile purity and eighty-four times the limit set under the JCPOA. When the isotope U-235 is enriched to 90% (now needing only a short time), with more efficient bombs, Iran will have sufficient to make almost 2 bombs and more than double the amount it had only three months previously. (“Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained 64 kg of highly enriched uranium.)

Further, Iran already has a stockpile of over 210 KG of 20% enriched uranium. More ominous, Iran is now using its advanced much faster centrifuges to purify instead of the older models. In addition, Iran is now building centrifuges capable of operating at six times the speed of even its existing new array of advanced centrifuges. Iran will soon be able to make a breakthrough to nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks rather than a year. Iran continues to deny IAEA inspectors access to its centrifuge workshop and the TESA Karaj workshop which manufactures parts for the centrifuges and nuclear enrichment machines.

The IAEA has had no access to Iranian nuclear sites or enrichment processes since February according to the agency’s chief, Rafael Mariano Grossi. Yossi Cohen, former head of Mossad, stressed that Israel could not afford to allow Iran to become a power with the capacity to make nuclear weapons let alone just prevent Iran from actually acquiring such weapons. The core issue was nuclear capability not just a nuclear breakthrough. Cohen insisted that Israel was still capable of crippling Iran’s nuclear program by military means. Israel recently launched its public relations campaign to emphasize that the military option is on the table, that it is developing military scenarios, making contingency plans and providing a budget. Is this smoke and mirrors or the promise of real action?

But how could such an Iranian capability be eliminated once the knowledge and technology are mastered? Only if its high-speed centrifuges are destroyed. Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons had to be eliminated, preferably through diplomacy but, if necessary, by the use of military force according to these specialists.  If negotiations provide the route, the sunset clauses of the JCPOA have to be greatly extended.  In its current form, the JCPOA was a sanctions relief deal not an agreement to end Iran’s capability of producing nuclear weapons. Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri-Kani of Iran heading the Iranian negotiating team in fact insisted that the imminent resumption of talks would not be about the nuclear issue but about the lifting of sanctions.

The original Mark Kirk (Rep.) and Robert Menendez (Dem.) amendment to the 2011 annual defence budget imposing sanctions on the economic lifeline of Iran received unanimous Senate support and was the catalyst for the 2015 agreement. But the JCPOA is just an agreement that allows subsequent presidents to change course and even abrogate the deal; it is not a treaty requiring two-thirds support in the Senate. And it is almost certain that Iran would not be able to secure a treaty that would prevent a Trump from abrogating the agreement.

In addition, the weaponization and militarization of its program also had to end as well. Iran has developed intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit central Europe and eventually North America. The evidence suggests that Iran did not even want to go back to the flawed JCPOA even as Sima Shine, the head of the Iran program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, stressed Israel’s great fear that this would be the outcome of renewed negotiations. Iran is demanding not only the removal of ALL sanctions, including the sanctions for Iran’s human rights violations and its support of terrorism, but the payment of compensation for the past losses that Iran suffered as a result of those sanctions.  These claims were not just a bluff but an attempt at sneaking towards nuclear weapons with salami slicing tactics. First jump to 5%. Then 20%. Then 60% enrichment. The U.S. may not wish to join Israel in a military attack, but would it provide the logistic and diplomatic clout and legal right to defend Israel’s right to do so?

Doesn’t the position of the new Israeli Bennett government sound remarkably akin to the position of the Netanyahu regime? Yes, but with one major difference. Bibi made a fateful alliance with Trump and made the Democrats his enemy. The Bennett government through a diplomatic offensive is seeking to rebuild joint support across the aisle for its position. Bennett is committed to dialogue and engagement rather than confrontation. The Israeli intelligence and military establishment, in contrast to Netanyahu generally, agreed with Likud former defence minister, Moshe Yalon, that, “The Iran deal was a mistake; withdrawing from it was even worse” [my own position in retrospect]. The Israelis do not support a renewed JCPOA. They want a preventive program. They want to ensure that Iran no longer has the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons even as the political climate in the U.S. in the Democratic Party has shifted further away from support for Israel, particularly in the views of young people even within the Jewish community. But it is a shift of a minority within the Democratic Party. However, the shift is also taking place among young evangelicals as well according to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

The black cloud that hangs over closer cooperation on Iranian policy between Israel and the U.S. is the lack of progress towards a two-state solution and the successive failures of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Micah Goodman may advise shrinking the conflict, but the number of voices advocating alternative solutions, such as the one-state proposal of people like Peter Beinart or the confederation push of Ameer Fakhoury, director of the research center at Neve Shalom (Wahat al Salam), has increased.

At the same time, Iran has been attempting to paper over its differences with the Saudis and the other Gulf states, particularly over Yemen. It has already forged an agreement with the UAE that led to that country’s withdrawal from Yemen in return for immunity from Houthi attacks on its ports and shipping. But political movements in the Middle East have also undermined the Iranian position. In Lebanon, Hezbollah now confronts resistance in the streets. Hamas is openly negotiating for improved relations between Israel and Gaza. In the recent elections in Iraq, Iran’s influence considerably diminished.

On the other hand, Iran has significantly improved its connections with China and China has become increasingly dependent on Iranian oil as it flouts the sanctions openly. Last month, half of Iran’s exported 1.1 million barrels per day of crude oil went to China. After the UAE, China has become Iran’s largest trading partner. China entered into an economic agreement with Iran to invest over $400 billion over 25 years. Further, as the U.S. continues to pivot to the Far East and disengage increasingly from the Middle East through military withdrawals and drawdowns, its leverage on Iran has diminished as well as any impression that the U.S. is willing to resort to military force to advance its position in that area of the world.

Iran also feels that North Korea has provided a lesson on how to resist America as it slices its way forward with its nuclear program.  After all, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya under pressure both gave up their nuclear program. They are both dead. In contrast Kim Jung-un remains alive and seemingly untouchable.

Take Biden’s resolve to prevent the militarization of Iran’s nuclear program and the reluctance of the American regime to threaten the use of military force let alone use it is consistent with his failure to enforce many of the economic sanctions on the books.  The regime of “maximal sanctions” is over. Further, unlike Obama, Biden no longer insists that “all options” are on the table. Further, Biden’s freedom to act is far more limited than Trump’s. However, Trump’s Iranian strategy, developed as a result of pressure from Netanyahu, had been an abject failure. If Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and failed to live up to its “red lines” with respect to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013, Trump twice announced withdrawals from Syria, failed to take any action when Iran openly advanced its nuclear program and ignored the terms of the JCPOA, and failed to do anything when Iran attacked the Abqaiq and Khurais Saudi oil-processing facilities on 14 September 2019. In the 12 May 2019 Fujayrah Iranian attack on an Emirati registered vessel, two Saudi registered oil tankers and a Norwegian registered oil tanker, the U.S., as the maritime police of the Gulf region, failed to respond. Trump was only willing to support a maximum economic sanctions program but without the backing of a credible military threat. However, he did order the assassination of Qasem Suleimani.

The U.S. Navy jointly with six other countries in the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) through its operational arm, the Coalition Task Force (CTF) Sentinel, and the larger Combined Maritime Forces, is charged with ensuring freedom of navigation in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility where the Iranians have been involved in tanker hijackings. In June, Iran seized the tanker Winsome and the Oman Pride in Sohar. Last July (2020), Iran seized the tanker Gulf Sky in Emirati waters. However, in August, the U.S. Navy responded and seized more than 1 million barrels of Iranian gasoline bound for Venezuela aboard four tankers. Iran responded in turn by attempting to seize other tankers.

Iran may not actually become a nuclear power. However, it may be sufficient to develop the capacity to be a nuclear power within a short timeframe.

In the meanwhile, Iran has tremendously advanced its conventional military capabilities. Its anti-aircraft defences have greatly improved, and its nuclear production facilities have become even more protected from an aerial attack as they have been buried even deeper. Its maritime military capabilities have certainly advanced. At the same time, it is not clear that any military action could significantly set back its nuclear program. Certainly, many U.S. strategic military experts have warned Israel that any military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be counterproductive leading Iran to speed up its nuclear program even more.

There is one additional significant change. Though not yet a major player compared to Israel, Iran has developed its cyber military capabilities compared to when the Stuxnet Worm attack seriously set back Iran’s facilities twelve years ago. However, Israel has also advanced enormously, not only on the cyber front – note the cyberattack on Iran’s Mahan Air on 21 November. Mahan Air has been a target of the West ever since the U.S. blacklisted the airline in 2011 for allegedly “providing financial, material and technological support” to the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force and ferrying weapons and personnel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Although the air carrier claimed that it had “thwarted” the attack and that its flight schedule was not affected, messages sent by hackers to its passengers told a different story.  

Cyberattacks on Iran have become more frequent. In October, its gas stations were struck resulting in drivers joining long lineups for hours to get gas for their cars. Trains have been delayed and even cancelled as a result of cyber attacks. As an Iran openly committed to supporting terror in the region and the destruction of Israel approaches the nuclear threshold, the threat of Israel using military force may just be a mask to hide its enormous increase in capacity to employ cyber warfare.  At the same time, Iran’s ability to defend its nuclear program against cyber attacks has also greatly improved. Officials in the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command have insisted that Tehran’s improved defences against cyberattacks means that Israel would not be able to cripple Iran’s centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site as it did a decade ago. Iran is now employing its advanced centrifuges at Fordow in open defiance of the JCPOA. However, when military action, however limited, is fronted by cyber warfare and sabotage, perhaps the Israeli threat could be credible.

Thus, as Iran resumes its negotiations with the West on 29 November, pessimism clouds the discussions. Coercive diplomacy does not seem to be part of the negotiations. Iran continues its efforts to widen the gap between the American policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a bomb and the Israeli policy of eliminating Iran’s capability of making a bomb. The latter goal seems like pie-in-the-sky to many American Iranian specialists. They seem willing to ease economic sanctions and simply freeze Iran’s nuclear program in place. On the other hand, some hope for a partial agreement, limited in both time and scope to get around the deadlock. Others call for a longer and stronger JCPOA. In that case, the Raisi government is likely to head for the exit and continue its efforts to obscure its clandestine nuclear program and prevent any meaningful inspections. The prospects for successful talks are very dim indeed. If so, the prospect of a military attack by Israel increases and cyber attacks will certainly escalate.