Sunday, July 18, 2010

When the Truth is Inconvenient:
A Preview of 'Countdown To Zero'

[NOTE: I have not seen this film yet. It is a "preview," not a "review." I reserve the right and welcome the opportunity to retract or revise the advance conclusions I have made. Believe me, I want to be wrong about this stuff.

But I'm not holding my breath.


A new documentary, directed by Lucy Walker and produced by Lawrence Bender, entitled Countdown To Zero, is set for wide release on July 23, 2010. The film has been heavily publicized and promoted for many months now and is surely already a heavily-favored Oscar contender.

Though the stated goals of the film, exposing the horrifying danger of nuclear weapons and reducing the planet's nuclear stockpile to zero, are noble and necessary indeed, some ideas promoted within the film - which can be gleaned solely from the film's trailer and recent interviews with film contributor Valerie Plame and producer Lawrence Bender - appear to ominously echo the same sensational claims made about Iraq's non-existent WMD, this time about the United States' favorite scapegoat, Iran.

Countdown To Zero acknowledges that there are currently an estimated 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, spread among nine nations. Though I have not yet seen this film, I am confident that it omits some vital information when mentioning these nuclear-armed countries and their stockpiles, namely that the list consists of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (The United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom), the only three states on earth to refuse to become signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Israel, Pakistan, India), and the only country to have ever withdrawn its membership from the Treaty (North Korea).

Additionally, the film states that Israel only has about 80 nuclear bombs, in stark contrast with many estimates that put its nuclear arsenal somewhere between 200 and 400 warheads.

The film lauds the Obama Administration's position on nuclear weapons and promotes the claim that Obama is really interested in reducing the US stockpile, using the START treaty with Russia as an example, as if agreeing to decommission a few hundred old nukes is evidence of an "historic" commitment to disarm. This seems a bit hard to believe considering that Obama has already requested $80 billion for rebuilding and upgrading the US nuclear arsenal in clear violation of the requirements of the NPT. Obama's twenty-year spending plan calls for the United States to actually increase the nuclear weapons budget to about $8 billion a year and while spending $175 billion between 2010 to 2030 on new weapons production, testing and simulation facilities, and on extending the life of nuclear weapons already in the arsenal. Meanwhile, the Pentagon's current and future spending to maintain and operate the equipment that delivers the warheads, such as missiles, bombers and submarines, is not even included in this plan. The Los Angeles Times reports that "spending for the weapons complex would peak between 2014 and 2018 under the plan."

The legal transgressions of the United States with regard to its NPT obligations are legion. In fact, the US has nuclear deals with both India and Israel, despite the fact that neither country is a member to the NPT. These deals, as per the US' non-proliferation requirements, are illegal. Ironically, the US opposes China's recent nuclear deal with Pakistan citing, of all things, the terms of the NPT.

Additionally, the Obama Administration's new Nuclear Posture Review, which is praised by the film's producer, actually leaves the door wide open for a first-strike nuclear attack on Iran, which it accuses of NPT violations on par with North Korea, thereby demonstrating a startling lack of truth in the Pentagon's assessment of the Iranian program. The NPR doesn't even mention India, Pakistan, or Israel at all.

The film's trailer features scary music, lots of mushroom clouds, and menacing titles like "Rogue Nations" and "Terrorists" over montage clips of Kim Jong Il, Osama bin Laden, flag-waving Iranian crowds and images of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a lab coat. It's clear what the agenda is here.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is one of Countdown To Zero's talking heads-of-state. More than living up to his war criminal track record of inventing pretenses for foreign invasions, Blair (with his serious face on) looks into the camera and states, "Iran. North Korea. They are prepared to start trading nuclear weapons technology." This is coming from a man who lied about Saddam Hussein's capabilities, is unrepentant in the face of reality, and who actively advocates military strikes on Iran in order to destroy its nuclear energy program. In January 2010, during the British Iraq Inquiry, Blair made it clear that "Tehran's actions have made him even more worried today that a rogue state could supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists than he was when he took Britain to war with Iraq." He told the Chilcot committee,

"My judgment – and it may be other people don't take this view, and that's for the leaders of today to make their judgment – is we don't take any risks with this issue.

"My fear was – and I would say I hold this fear stronger today than I did back then as a result of what Iran particularly today is doing – my fear is that states that are highly repressive or failed, the danger of a WMD link is that they become porous, they construct all sorts of different alliances with people."
Since then, former UK ambassador to Tehran Sir Richard Dalton has revealed that Blair's view that Iran had cooperated with and aided al-Qaeda due to "common interest" was an "exaggeration" and a "misreading" and misinterpretation of the truth. Dalton recently stated that the Iranian "objective was never to destabilise Iraq."

In fact, the film intentionally blurs the lines between sovereign states and terrorist organizations and concentrates on the devastating consequences of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of nefarious groups. A review of the film points out that Countdown To Zero "claims that the pieces are all in place: that al-Qaeda, and also Iran, badly wants a nuclear weapon," then questions the film's sensationalism by musing, "if it really is that easy, then why hasn’t it been done?"

In a recent interview with Keith Olbermann, outed CIA operative Valerie Plame, who believes fervently that al-Qaeda wants a nuclear bomb and has been actively seeking the build or acquire one and says so in the film, had the opportunity to dispel some of the widely-held myths about the Iranian nuclear program, but chose instead to repeat and bolster them. Olbermann, left the door to truth wide open, as he asked:
"2002, as you will recall, we were told nukes, nukes to terrorists: Iraq. Now we’re told, nukes, nukes to terrorists: Iran. How much of it is hysteria and how much of it is real? And how can that threat and the idea that a state sponsor for some sort of terrorism might actually, that connection might actually exist at some point?"
Plame slammed the door in his face. "That’s the scary part," she replied. "That it is not hysteria. The threat is very real." She also revealed that Countdown To Zero doesn’t tackle the issues of nuclear fuel, enrichment, or energy in any way.

Beyond the single off-hand mention, it is highly unlikely that Israel's massive nuclear arsenal is addressed any further in the film, especially with Lawrence Bender, a Reagan-loving Zionist, at the helm. During an April 2010 broadcast of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, Bender, who also produced An Inconvenient Truth and Pulp Fiction, was a featured guest and Maher steered the conversation around to discuss which countries actually have nuclear weapons. The discussion proceeded like this:
Maher: I want to give the people some facts here so they have something to work off of, because I think this is an issue that people don't know a lot about. You bring it up in the movie, people have no clue like how many nations have nuclear weapons, how many nuclear weapons there are in the world. There are about 25,000, most of them in Russia and the United States, of course.

Bender: About 15,000 in Russia, 10,000 in the United States.

Maher: But nine countries have them that we know of, I mean, I would say the ones that worry us the most: India, Pakistan, and Israel.

Bender: [scoffs]

Maher: Ok...

Bender: [mockingly] Right right right, cuz we're real worried that Israel's gonna blow up the world.

Maher: [Audience laughs] But they might have cause to use one, let's say that.

Bender: [dismissive] Ok, I don't...yeah...I don't think so, but...I mean they, y'know, I guess Israel...

Maher: Israel's hardcore. [Audience and Bender laugh] I love Israel, but, y'know, but if you fuck with them, they will blow the fuck out of you.

[Audience erupts into applause]

Bender: They do have a pretty strong conventional army, though, that we support and I think is - [trails off]
Later in the show, when filmmaker Laura Flanders finally starts questioning Maher and Bender's praise of Obama's lip-service nuclear initiatives and Israel's denial of having nuclear weapons, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker David Remnick steps into the fray in order to further laud Israel and classify their nuclear arsenal as a non-issue and non-threat (during a conversation that's supposed to be about global disarmament, no less!). Remnick states, "The idea that Israel is gonna use first-strike nuclear weapons is just wrong, I think...they're not gonna use this as a first strike weapon, nor is Russia, nor is the United States. I think the real fear, and maybe you [Flanders] don't agree, but the real fear has to do with Pakistan and Iran becoming a nuclear weapon country."

Bender enthusiastically concurs, exclaiming, "Absolutely!"

Then, to his credit, Maher jumps in and says, "There is a big double standard when it comes to Israel and nuclear weapons, I mean, let's get real," to which Bender replies, in horror, "No, I don't think so." Remnick counters, "But we're talking about use and this is quite a different issue from the Israeli-Palestinian issue which is, I think we'd agree on."

At this point, Bender, in an effort to take the heat off Israel, chimes in, "But let's not focus on, there's no reason to focus on this issue..."

The conversation then moves on to another topic.

So, according to the producer of the film itself, we should all just ignore Israel's deadly arsenal of up to 400 nuclear weapons, which is unmonitored and unsupervised by the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA), in contrast to Iran's wholly legal civilian nuclear energy program. Iran's nuclear sites and facilities are all under the 24-hour video surveillance by the Agency, which has unfettered access to inspect and monitor all activity, and has conducted 38 unannounced inspections since March 2007. Every single IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program have consistently affirmed that, not only does Iran not even have the technology to enrich uranium to bomb grade (over 90%), Iran is not deviating nuclear material to any unknown applications and never has, Iran's stockpile of fissile material is fully accounted for, and Iran's known nuclear facilities are fully monitored and there's no way they could be used to build a secret bomb without first kicking the IAEA out of the country.

Apparently, according to Bender, of all the countries in the world that actually have nukes, Israel is the non-threat, as opposed to the country that abides by international treaties and doesn't even have a single nuclear warhead. With Israel's history of violence, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and the use of illegal and banned chemical weaponry on civilian populations, who could argue? It's not like they've ever shown criminal disregard and outright contempt for international law or anything, right?

Meanwhile, the IAEA has passed a resolution "expressing concern about the Israeli nuclear capabilities and called upon Israel to accede to the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards," which Israel defiantly rebuffs and the United States ignores.

Furthermore, this Spring, when the 189 member nations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty agreed to "the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction," Israel denounced the accord, describing it as "deeply flawed and hypocritical," and declared, "As a nonsignatory state of the NPT, Israel is not obligated by the decisions of this Conference, which has no authority over Israel. Given the distorted nature of this resolution, Israel will not be able to take part in its implementation."

Obama, the hero of Countdown To Zero for his supposed non-proliferation efforts, also criticized the document (even though the U.S .signed it), saying that his administration "strongly oppose[s] efforts to single out Israel, and will oppose actions that jeopardize Israel’s national security." National security adviser, General James L. Jones, also released a statement which read, "The United States deplores the decision to single out Israel in the Middle East section of the NPT document."

The document, in fact, calls upon Pakistan, India, and Israel to all sign the treaty and abide by its protocols "without further delay and without any preconditions," and demands that North Korea abandon "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs."

During his address to the UN General Assembly last September, Obama spoke of the necessity of supporting "efforts to strengthen the NPT" and warned that "those nations that refuse to live up to their obligations must face consequences." He continued,
"Let me be clear, this is not about singling out individual nations - it is about standing up for the rights of all nations that do live up to their responsibilities. Because a world in which IAEA inspections are avoided and the United Nation's demands are ignored will leave all people less safe, and all nations less secure."
Obama then accused the government of Iran of ignoring "international standards" by putting "the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of [its] own people." Obama promised to hold Iran "accountable," and declared that "The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced." And when, Mr. President, will Israel be held accountable...for anything?

This past April, Obama held a nuclear conference in Washington which was attended by representatives of 47 countries and hailed as "the largest assembly of world leaders hosted by an American president since the 1945 San Francisco conference that founded the United Nations." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to attend for fear that his state's unacknowledged nuclear arsenal would not only be a topic of conversation, but of consternation. Representatives of Iran and North Korea were not invited.

Five days later, Tehran held its own nuclear conference, entitled "Nuclear Energy for All, Nuclear Weapons for None." Prior to the gathering, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki laid out the official Iranian position on nuclear arms. "Iran does not believe in nuclear weapons nor does it need one," he stated. "Iran believes that the era of nuclear weapons is over. These weapons are not even of use to those who possess them. If they were, they would have prevented the collapse of the Soviet Union. They would have prevented the Zionist regime's losses in Gaza and Lebanon."

A statement by Iranian head of state, Ayatollah Khamenei, declared that "any use of or even threat to use nuclear weapons is a serious and material violation of indisputable rules of humanitarian law and a cogent example of a war crime." His message concluded, "We regard the use of these weapons to be illegal and haram [forbidden by religion], and it is incumbent on all to protect humankind from this grave disaster."

The President of the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons (on civilians, no less) has made no such pronouncements, yet he has won a Noble Peace Prize while presiding over two deadly occupations and bankrolling another. During his acceptance speech for the prize, Obama took the opportunity to justify war and point out the limitations of non-violent resistance, saying that, "The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." He also made time for some threats. "Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable," he declared, in reference clearly implicating Iran.

The two-day Tehran conference, which was attended by official delegations and "eminent experts" from about 60 countries, resulted in a statement which "stressed the importance of redoubling efforts to overcome the current deadlock to achieve nuclear disarmament in all its aspects and promotion of multilateralism in the field of nuclear disarmament and non proliferation."

The declaration also "affirmed the inalienable right of the NPT State Parties to use nuclear energy in all its aspects," called for the promotion of international cooperation as an obligated by Article IV of the treaty, and "emphasized that attacking the peaceful nuclear facilities results in grave negative consequences for human beings and the environment, and is a gross violation of international law and the UN Charter."

Meanwhile, U.S. officials, from the President on down, frequently warn Iran that "all options are on the table" with regard to a military attack on its nuclear facilities if Iran doesn't give up its inalienable rights and do what they say. This was made perfectly clear, especially in relation to the Obama Administration's Nuclear Posture Review, when Robert Gates sent, what he termed, "a message for Iran," during an April 6, 2010 press conference held alongside Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. With regard to an unprovoked nuclear attack on Iran, as now authorized in the NPR, Gates stated that "if you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you." Gates chose not to elaborate on which rules Iran wasn't playing by, nor did he address the rules by which Israel plays.

Two weeks ago, Obama reaffirmed his administration's commitment to double standards when it comes to Israel during Netanyahu's conjugal visit to the White House. Stating that, of all countries in the world, "Israel has unique security requirements," Obama then pledged to the Israeli Prime Minister that, with regards to any international efforts towards weapons control and decommissioning nuclear weapons, "United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests." Obama also promised to maintain Israel's "qualitative military edge" in the region.

A Time article published this past week reports that "the U.S. Army's Central Command, which is in charge of organizing military operations in the Middle East, has made some real progress in planning targeted air strikes [on Iran]." Reporter Joe Klein reveals that an Israeli military source told him, "There really wasn't a military option a year ago...But they've gotten serious about the planning, and the option is real now."

This, Mr. Bender, is your Noble laureate. This is your champion of peace.

Furthermore, apparently Israel has been brought into the planning process for an Iran assault in order to curb the possibility of Israel acting alone. This means that two powerful nuclear-armed states, one that violates the NPT with abandon and one that refuses to even sign the treaty, are actively planning on attacking a third country, which has no nuclear weapons of its own, on the suspicion that this third country might decide to build nuclear weapons at some undetermined point in the future, a suspicion for which there is absolutely no evidence.

It should not need repeating that Article 2 of the U.N. Charter, to which both the United States and Israel are bound, clearly forbids "the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."

Basically, based on the trailer for this film and hearing interviews with its own producer and participants, all of which ignore Israel's arsenal in favor of scaremongering about Iran, it becomes clear what one of the purposes of Countdown To Zero really is: yet another glossy attempt to jump on the Obama bandwagon and further beat the drums of war against the Islamic Republic on behalf of Israel.

It is a shame that a film on such an important topic and vital goal should, in part, just repackage anti-Iran rhetoric and Israeli exceptionalism as a call for non-proliferation and disarmament. It would have been refreshing for the filmmakers of Countdown To Zero to abandon the same old propagandistic falsehoods in favor of revealing to its audience some vital truths, however inconvenient they may be to the current 'Iranian Threat' narrative.

Entertainment Weekly describes Countdown To Zero as "a piece of responsible fear-mongering" and "nuclear-anxiety porn."

Bender, in a recent interview on the ABC News/Washington Post broadcast Top Line, credited the overwhelmingly positive response to the film to "good story-telling."

Unfortunately, not all documentaries tell true stories. This one, in particular, appears to be chock full of pulp fiction.



Nima Shirazi said...

For another critical preview of the film, please read Darwin Bond-Graham's article Countdown to Co-optation.

An excerpt:

"What audiences are going to learn from Countdown to Zero is that nuclear weapons are a threat today because the bad guys might get a hold of them. They'll learn that al-Qaeda is seeking nuclear weapons, that it is their sworn duty; That highly enriched uranium is easy to smuggle; That "we are on the verge of a nuclear 9-11"; That tens of thousands of pounds of uranium are stored under virtually no security around the globe. In other words they'll learn that dark scary men, muslims, "terrorists" and anarchists are trying to kill them with nuclear weapons, and that nations like Iran and North Korea will gladly assist them. Their feelings of revulsion for nuclear weapons will be stimulated and channeled against these dark enemies of civilization."

Derek J said...

Mr. Shirazi:

In my view, there are no advance conclusions. Only assumptions. And here, your assumptions are based on a two-minute trailer and a small handful of cherry-picked negative reviews of a 90-minute documentary that has received considerable critical acclaim.

I encourage you to dig a little deeper into the film itself.

As your review ranges far afield from the actual content of the film, I won’t go point-by-point. If I did, I’d start with your guess that Countdown to Zero omits “vital information” about nuclear weapon states and note that it explicitly identifies them as it traces the proliferation of this technology.

I’d also explain that the New START Treaty, while modest, is a critical step down the road to disarmament; that the deployed warhead limits it imposes are 74% lower than the limit of the 1991 START Treaty and 30% lower than the deployed strategic warhead limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

I would also point out that the film does not blur the line between sovereign states and terrorist groups. In fact, this distinction is incredibly important to the disarmament movement, because it is the basis of the argument that nuclear deterrence is profoundly irrelevant to terrorist groups: our arsenal does not provide a check against their use.

But you’ll find this all on your own when you watch the film, which speaks for itself -- and speaks rather well.

As you sit down to watch the film -- I hope you take the time to do so (I’m happy to send you a copy once it’s out on DVD) -- I want you to keep in mind one thing. Countdown to Zero is a tool, an instrument for putting the issue of nuclear weapons back on the public radar. Yes, it is imperfect; folks on the left or the right will not be completely satisfied with it or the way it frames the issue. But do not let its flaws blind you to its core message -- that we are safer and more secure in a world without nuclear weapons; that no one, not even the United States, should possess them -- or its value in communicating that message to people who have never spared a thought to the threat nuclear weapons pose to the world.

This isn’t a film about the complex political and military history of the United States and its engagement with the world (although, there’s an interesting moment in an interview with a Russian who stole highly enriched uranium: “Terrorists all over the world were created by Americans. They created bin Laden, they trained the Taliban in the Scottish mountains”). Yes, a thrust of the film is the danger of nuclear terrorism. But it is not the only thrust, or even the main one. Nuclear weapons are the danger; all related dangers stem from their mere existence. Hence the call for zero.

There is such a provocative -- and significant -- moment in the film, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remarks, “What right do you have to deprive us? If it’s a good thing, then we should have it too… if it’s bad, why do you have it?” His question goes unanswered, and that silence, I think, speaks volumes. The argument is subtle -- because a film like this simply will not resonate with an American audience if it is heavy-handed -- but it’s there nevertheless: perceptions of hypocrisy have consistently undermined calls for nonproliferation and disarmament. To convince others to set aside the most powerful weapons known to man, we must do so as well.

Anyway. As I said, I encourage you to dig deeper into the film itself -- to watch it and give it a fair shot, to evaluate it with respect to what it has set out to do, rather than what it could have but did not.

I look forward to reading your final conclusions.