Comic Book Foreign Policy (or the Batman Theory of Foreign Policy)

Readers may be familiar with the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics. Now, there's a competing theory.

Readers may be familiar with the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics (short version: the US can do whatever it wants if it just has even willpower). Now, it appears we can add another member of the Justice League to our understanding of foreign policy. On Friday, author Andrew Klavan had a piece in the WSJ comparing Batman and George W. Bush (yes, you read that correctly): What Bush and Batman Have in Common

A cry for help goes out from a city beleaguered by violence and fear: A beam of light flashed into the night sky, the dark symbol of a bat projected onto the surface of the racing clouds . . .

Oh, wait a minute. That’s not a bat, actually. In fact, when you trace the outline with your finger, it looks kind of like . . . a “W.”

There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.

Call me crazy, but I am betting pretty heavily that the producers of the latest Batman flick aren’t out to sing the praises of the 43rd president, but oh well.

Klavan’s piece seems to have two basic points within it. One is about about foreign/security policy under the war on terror and the other is about movies on general.

The Batman Theory of Foreign Policy. The logic here appears to be the brute force and general havoc is sometimes necessary when going after the bad guys. Batman works in the shadows and seeks to control crime in Gotham by brute force and by doing things that the cops can’t do. However, Klavan’s view that one can actually look at Batman as even a useful allegory about the war on terror illustrates perhaps the key problem with what has been the underlying logic in much of the Bush administration’s approach to counter-terrorism, i.e., that it is that it is all very simply: just punish the bad guys.

There are two basic assumptions inherent in the overall approach: 1) whatever the good guy does in pursing the bad guy is ultimately good and is justified because the good guy only wants good, and 2) the good guy only using his powers against the bad buys. It assumes above all else that it is easy to identify the bad guys, as in movies (or the comics) where they wear costumes and they are quite obvious in their malefaction. For example, the most ardent supporters of the administration think that this is the way the War on Terror works–for example, that everyone at Gitmo is obviously a terrorist (even if we know that that is not the case) and that they are all on the same level as Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers. In that world, just having the wrong name or being in the wrong place at the wrong time isn’t a problem as the wrong people are never punished or harmed because, again, we know who the bad guys are and no mistakes are ever made. In the comics, only the bad guys are punished and they deserve everything that they get. The neoconservatives like to think that that is what happens in real life, but it isn’t and one cannot formulate policy based on that notion as whenever a nation-state starts to throw its weight around, innocents will always be hurt and to pretend otherwise is foolishness.

Indeed, it would seem that we thought that that Batman approach was going to work in Iraq: jump in, defeat the supervillan (Saddam) and his henchmen and that would solve all the problems. Lest anyone didn’t notice, unlike in the comics, defeating the head honcho didn’t fix everything in Iraq–not by a longshot.

And, I suppose that when it comes to Dubya’s Rogue’s Gallery, the less said about Osama bin Laden the better, or the fact that Bush ultimately negotiated with Kim Jong Il and with the Iranians as well.

“Conservative” Movies. Part of what Klavan is dealing with as well is that notion that Batman represents a specific type of “conservative” movie:

“The Dark Knight,” then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year’s “300,” “The Dark Knight” is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.

In regards to movies and ideology he states:

time after time, left-wing films about the war on terror — films like “In The Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Redacted” — which preach moral equivalence and advocate surrender, that disrespect the military and their mission, that seem unable to distinguish the difference between America and Islamo-fascism, have bombed more spectacularly than Operation Shock and Awe.

Why is it then that left-wingers feel free to make their films direct and realistic, whereas Hollywood conservatives have to put on a mask in order to speak what they know to be the truth? Why is it, indeed, that the conservative values that power our defense — values like morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right — only appear in fantasy or comic-inspired films like “300,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Narnia,” “Spiderman 3” and now “The Dark Knight”?

First, I am not sure why these are “conservative” movies, per se (although of those mentioned, 300 was pretty clearly embraced as a neoconservative opus—see a discussion of this here.). I don’t think that it is legitimate to say that the presence of a clear good guy and a clear bad guy means that a movie is necessarily “conservative.” While Klavan asserts that these views can somehow only be projected by Hollywood by “putting on a mask” the main thing that all of these movies have in common is that they are all fantasies and are ultimately simple tales where the good guys and bad guy are clear and the script can control how the tale ends (indeed in all of these movies we know from the very beginning that Good with triumph over Evil—which is at least in part why we go see them in the first place). The sad thing is that in the real world it is rarely that simple, and even when it is the end of the story is not predetermined.

I have seen none of the “left wing” films he cites, so cannot comment on their content, however to compare their box office performance to the blockbuster fantasy films (and I have seen all of those listed except 300) in question is absurd. Even if they had been realistic yet “conservative” films about the war on terror, they would have likely bombed as well. Let’s face facts: mass appeal movies are escapist vehicles, and realistic films tend not to do that well at the box office. Indeed, I suppose that United 93, which I did see, was a realistic “conservative” movie about terrorism and it hardly had the same box office as the LotR trilogy. United 93 simply wasn’t entertaining, while The Return of the King was.

The only “realistic” movie that I suspect that Klavan would consider “left wing” of this type that I can think of that I have seen was The War Within, which did show the radicalization of a young Pakistani man as the result of a rendition by the CIA. The film’s goal was not to justify terrorism but it did make the clear argument that bad choices made by the US and its allies can have horrible consequences. Such films may not make us cheer, but they may make us think, which is hardly a bad thing.

On the Evil Question. Understand, I am not saying that there isn’t evil in the world, there clearly is (and yes, sometimes people don’t want to call it that). I will even admit that I initially applauded Bush’s “Axis of Evil” notion, but the reality is, stark views of the world work better in the world of fiction than in the real one and often make it more difficult to accomplish one’s goals. For example: if one of our national goals is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, then having tagged them as “evil” makes dealing with them a tad difficult. How does one sit down and talk to evil? After all, as Klavan notes, Batman simply pummels evil. Beyond that, if I have called you evil, do you really want to talk to me? And there is the fact that by invading one Axis state (Iraq) we upped the ante on the security dilemma for the Iranians making the acquisition of nuclear weapons even more desirable to them from their point of view. Ultimately we haven’t been well-served by this approach.

In the movies Mordor is an unrepentant, unredeemable place filled with nothing but evil (Sauron, Nazgûl, Orcs and the like). If it is destroyed, nothing good dies; no innocents are harmed. However, the same cannot be said, for example, of North Korea or Iran. Even if one casts Kim Jong Il or Mahmood Ahmejinedad in the Sauron role, the people of those states are as often the victims of their governments rather than the teeming minions of evil. Beyond that, in the movie the destruction of evil is ultimately a fairly simply thing: put Ring A in Volcano B. Sure it was hard to get there, and there was self-sacrifice along the way, but it was still a pretty easy plan. There is no such easy path in the real world, which is why comic books and fantasy novels aren’t particularly good blueprints for foreign policy.

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Triumph says:

    Hey: Don’t knock comic book foreign policy. One of McCain’s great ideas is to establish a “League of Democracies.”

    On the issue of evil, your remarks remind me that it might be a good time for folks to revisit Hannah Arendt’s consideration of the topic rather than Bush’s rather unsophisticated version.

  2. Anthony says:

    Odd that. I was reading the review in the culture supplement of today’s Sunday Times (the British one, not NYT) and the reviewer seemed to imply that there was a faint but clumsily handled (he was quite critical) anti-Bush message floating around in there. Certainly as far as I am aware there is no evidence whatsoever that either of the Nolan brothers is a “Hollywood Conservative”*.

    Frankly, I think this (the WSJ review, not the blog treatment of it) is the sort of conservative commentary we could do with less of.

    *Ditto those behind Lord of the Rings, though there’s a legitimate debate over the political underpinnings of the book. That said, while Tolkien was undoubtedly a conservative, he was arguably rather more “American Conservative” than “NRO Corner”.

  3. Wouldn’t it be cool for President Bush to step up to the podium and say, “I’m Batman.”

  4. Christopher says:

    Steven, I suppose like most liberals, misses the whole point of Klavan’s article.

    It isn’t that the producers meant to create some conservative movie. Instead, they wrote a movie that espouses traditional American values of justice, and what is right and moral. Those things resonate with the populace. Showing moral equivalence and degrading our nation doesn’t resonate.

    While voters hate the war in Iraq, they still re-elected President Bush because they know winning the war is important, and won’t take too kindly to a candidate who promotes American surrender. Wait and watch, OTB readers. Liberals like Steven will be very disappointed on election day (polls show the race about even. EVEN? w Bush’s unpopularity? How can that be so? lol!). Maybe seeing Batman again will help them get through it.

  5. Christopher,

    Really, my reaction to Klavan has nothing to do with my desired outcomes for this year’s election, but perhaps I wasn’t clear enough.

    And you apparently know more about my goals for the Fall than do I.

    And I know that you think that “liberal” is an epithet, but if you want to sling it at me, go ahead and put “classical” in front of it.

    Beyond any of that, even if we assume that I am an in-the-tank lifelong Democrat for Obama, I am not sure what that has to do with my post.

    Still, I can respect the fact you don’t agree-it isn’t like I didn’t expect dissenting views.

  6. brainy435 says:

    “Beyond that, if I have called you evil, do you really want to talk to me?”

    Did I miss it when we referred to them as The Great Satan? Or is it justifiable for OTHER countries to call us, every single American, evil but we can’t point out that the leadership of certain countries are evil?

    Guess it’s all morally equivelent.

  7. Wayne says:

    I do think there were similarities between Batman and the real world and the conflicts the U.S. is dealing with. It is probably more of a coincidence than anything. For example the obvious one is when Batman had a choice of doing nothing or torturing the Joker in an attempt to save a love one. Then there is a conflict of having all these laws that hardly anyone obeyed. What good are the Geneva conventions if you’re the only one obeying them? Then there was the cell phone surveillance. If Batman didn’t use it many would have died but it is a power that could easily corrupt. The trick just like in the movie is knowing what line if you cross will make you become a “bad guy”. Not fighting crime and making the world a better place makes it possible for someone to not do dirty deeds. However turning your back makes you guiltier than the ones getting their hands dirty.

  8. Michael says:

    Did I miss it when we referred to them as The Great Satan? Or is it justifiable for OTHER countries to call us, every single American, evil but we can’t point out that the leadership of certain countries are evil?

    Nobody is saying that it’s justifiable for them to call us evil. What we’re saying is that just because they are calling us evil, doesn’t mean we need to call them evil. We’re also saying that just because they call us evil, doesn’t mean it would be beneficial to us to call them evil. Some actions warrant retaliation in kind, but name calling isn’t one of them. That’s not moral equivalence, that’s cost/benefit rationalizing.

  9. Michael says:

    Then there was the cell phone surveillance. If Batman didn’t use it many would have died but it is a power that could easily corrupt. The trick just like in the movie is knowing what line if you cross will make you become a “bad guy”.

    The thing is, if you really believe that you have to break a law to save lives, you’re going to break the law. We don’t need to make torture legal, just because it may one day save millions of lives. If that day comes, no moral person is going to say “gee, I’d really like to save a million people, but I might go to jail”.

  10. sam says:

    I suppose we should put Klavan’s effort up down there with Miller’s “50 greatest conservative rock songs” in Fatuous Derby.

  11. Wayne says:

    “If that day comes, no moral person is going to say “gee, I’d really like to save a million people, but I might go to jail”

    One it is usually “there is a fair probability if I break the rules I may saves lives”.

    Two when is it moral to do so, one million lives, 100 lives or one life?

    Three and I’m not sure how to say this but for those who are close to the action and are moral rely on those who are not as close to help them from crossing that line. When those who are not close become too unreasonable and unrealistic the system breaks down.

  12. Wayne says:

    One more comment. There are people who won’t sacrifice their lives or go to jail for the “possibility” of saving some faceless person. It is usually “let someone else make that decision”.

  13. Bruce Moomaw says:

    Read too many items like this one and you find yourself starting to think about Spengler, Toynbee and the collapse of civilizations.