The would-be ruler of an oil-rich Arab state is planning a policy reform that includes allowing girls to go to school, and signing an oil contract with China. But days before he takes over he is assassinated when a remote controlled bomb destroys his bulletproof limousine in the middle of the desert.
But who would want such an enlightened prince out of the way?
The answer given in "Syriana", the new Hollywood blockbuster starring George Clooney, is simple: The murder was planned and carried out by the CIA, the dirty-tricks arm of the United States of America.
But why would the US want an enlightened Arab leader murdered at a time that President George W. Bush is publicly calling for such leaders to emerge in the Arab world?
Again, the answer provided by the scriptwriters is straightforward: The US government is controlled by Texas oil interests that cannot allow any Arab state to sign an oil contract with China.
I saw the film in a pre-release showing in New York last month and did not expect it to be already available throughout the Arab world in a pirated videocassette version. And, yet, in the past week or so I have received more than a dozen emails from Arab friends throughout the Middle East citing the film as, in the word of one of them, another "sure proof" that the US will never tolerate democratic leaders in that neck of the wood.
According to an old saying one can never convince anyone who doesn't wish to be convinced. The makers of "Syriana" are preaching to the converted if only because an extraordinarily large number of Arabs are comfortable in the certainty of their victimhood. Long before "Syriana" hit the silver screen those Arabs were convinced that whatever misfortune has befallen them is due to some conspiracy by a perfidious Western power.
In North Africa where France ruled for more than a century every shortcoming, and every major crime, is blamed on the French. From Egypt to the Indian Ocean all was the fault of the British, until the Americans emerged as a more convincing protagonist in the fantasyland of conspiracy theories. (In Libya where Italy ruled for a while in the last century, even the fact that the telephones don't work in 2006 is blamed on the Italians.)
Would it change anything if one were to remind the conspiracy theorists that none of the high profile political murders in the Arab world over the past century had anything to do with the US or any other foreign power?
Let us start with Rafik Al-Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister, who was murdered last February. Was he killed by the CIA or, as Abdul-Halim Khaddam, Syria's former Vice President, now asserts by a criminal coterie in Damascus?
The list of Arab leaders murdered since 1900 is a long one. It includes six prime ministers, three kings, a ruling Imam, seven presidents of the republic, and dozens of ministers, parliamentarians and senior military officials. Every single one of them was killed either by Islamist militants (often from the Muslim Brotherhood) or by pan-Arab nationalists or by radical Arab security services.
That many Arabs should welcome the suggestion that their tragedies are due to evil doings by foreigners maybe understandable.
It is less so when so many Americans come together to make a film to portray their nation as evil incarnate.
"Syriana" is not only about a single political murder. It also depicts the US as the power behind much of the terrorism coming from the Middle East. The film shows American oil companies as employers of Asian slave labor while the CIA is the key source of supply for bombs used by terrorists.
So, why would any self-respecting American want to write or direct or play in "Syriana"? If the US is as evil as they suggest should they not be ashamed of themselves? And if the oil companies control the US government, presumably including the Congress, should we conclude that Hollywood is the last bastion of American democracy?
One answer to why anyone might want to make such a film is, of course, the very American desire to make money. And as things stand today there is a large market for dissent in the United States. In a recent trip to the US I noticed that unless you took a dig at the Americans no one would even listen to you. In one session when I politely suggested that Bush might be a better choice than either Mullah Omar or Saddam Hussein I was nearly booed by my American interlocutors.
The truth is that there is a market for self-loathing in the US today and many, including the producers of "Syriana", are determined to cash in on it.
Here is how the incomparable Evelyn Waugh described the present American situation when the makers of "Syriana" were still nothing but glimmers in their daddies' eyes: "There is no more agreeable position than that of dissident from a stable democratic society."
The reason is simple: In a stable democratic society in which you are protected by law you can lie, cheat, and mislead, all in the name of political dissent, and be rewarded with fame and fortune.
The fact that the CIA is little more than a costly leaking device used by rival groups within the US establishment to lump accusations and counter accusations at one other need not bother the makers of "Syriana". The CIA masters, for their part, would be pleased with "Syriana" if only because it claims that they can do anything at all!
The self-loathing party in the US would do well to ponder the second part of the above mentioned quotation from Waugh: " The more elaborate the society the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat."
The self-loathing party in the US, which includes a disturbingly large part of the elite, is doing three things.
First, it says that America, being the evil power it is, is a legitimate target for revenge attacks by Arab radicals and others.
Secondly, it tells the American people that all this talk about democracy is nonsense if only because major decisions are ultimately taken by a cabal of businessmen, and politicians and lawyers in their pay.
Lastly, and perhaps without realizing it, the self-loathing Americans reduce the Arabs to the level of mere objects in their history. It is the almighty America that decides every single detail of Arab life with the Arabs as, at best, onlookers and, at worst, victims of American violence. The Arabs are even denied credit for their own terrorist acts as "Syriana" shows that it is not they but the CIA that decides who kills whom and where.
Pretending to be sympathetic to the "Arab victims of American Imperialism", the film is, in fact, an example of ethno-centrism gone wild. Its message is: The Arabs are nothing, not even self-motivated terrorists, but mere puppets manipulated by us in the omnipotent US!
By suggesting that the US has stolen the Arab oil and decision-making process, the makers of "Syriana" are, in fact, trying to rob the Arabs of something more important: Their history. The amazing thing is that so many Arabs appear to be ready to help the thief.
Or, perhaps, it is not so amazing after all.
Adversaries in history often end up resembling each other. So it is, perhaps, not surprising that the Arabs are learning the art of self-loathing from the Americans while the Americans develop a taste for Arab-style conspiracy theories.