CAMDEN, Maine — Laura Poitras is searching for a “game changer.”
The elections Tuesday proved that, despite trillions in war spending and fresh casualties on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are paying little attention to foreign affairs. Exit polls found that only one in 10 voters considered the war in Afghanistan their top priority, and politicians — including President Obama — excised any mention of the conflict from their stump speeches.
Poitras, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who spent months documenting the grim details of life under occupation in Iraq, has lately been considering the question of what, exactly, will get Americans to rethink the way they engage the rest of the world. In an interview here at the Pop Tech conference, where she discussed her most recent film “The Oath,” about two former aides to Osama bin Laden, Poitras considered how American attitudes toward the wars have changed over time.
“I’ve been constantly wondering, ‘What’s the game-changer?’” Poitras said. “I still remember when the Abu Ghraib photographs hit the front page, and you almost fainted. I mean, it was sort of catastrophic. Simply shocking.”
Six years later, when the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks obtained and released hundreds of thousands of secret reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — including new evidence of civilian casualties, torture of prisoners by American allies and the existence of a clandestine “assassination unit” called Task Force 373 — the response, both among the public and the press, was muted.
“I don’t know if we’ve become immune to information, or is it the information is not as shocking in basic ways, or we’ve just become immune to the fact that we’re a country that does things that we’re not proud of,” Poitras said. “I think that we have become a little bit numb.”
The consequences of war fatigue in America are many, and they aren’t limited to debates about troop withdrawals, negotiations with the Taliban and aerial bombings in northwest Pakistan. The lackluster public discourse about America’s military incursions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the Arab world has also had far-reaching consequences for counterterrorism and national security policy. The less Americans understand about the Arab world, the harder it is to fight and contain the spread of Islamic extremism, most experts agree.
Nowhere is that fact more apparent than in Yemen, an arid country of deep poverty on the southern edge of the Arab Peninsula. Yemen, population 23 million, has emerged as a central staging ground for al-Qaida’s attacks on the United States, including an attempted airplane bombing in December and the mailing of two explosive devices on cargo planes last week. The fractured country, with large swaths of lawless territory ruled by tribes friendly to al-Qaida, has become fertile ground for the spread of Islamic extremism.
Poitras’s latest film is set partially in Yemen, where she follows the story of Abu Jandal, the former chief bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and a preacher of radical Islamism to Yemeni youth. Poitras’s film challenges conventional Western notions about al-Qaida and Islamic extremism, and Poitras said she witnessed firsthand the role American foreign policy has played in motivating Yemeni youth to join terrorist groups.
“We’re the recruiters for radicalism,” Poitras said. “I saw it in Yemen. There’s a whole young generation of people who are being shipped off to fight in Iraq. We created that phenomenon. We took this very fringe movement, and made it into this kind of broad social movement, and disenfranchised and really dangerous.”
The answer, Poitras said, is not to shrink from the fight against Islamic extremism, but to use America’s military and intelligence capabilities in a way that doesn’t alienate large swaths of the Arab world.
“The answer is to deal with the threat of al-Qaida in a smart way, and a smart way is not occupying countries, particularly countries that have nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11,” Poitras said. “But you have to do it intelligently, which means having people on the ground knowing how networks build and how they spread, and not basically using this sort of blunt hammer approach that just ends up creating more recruits.”
Political considerations, of course, have thwarted that effort. Poitras — whose film also documented the military trial of Salim Hamdan, bin Laden’s personal driver, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — expressed disappointment at the Obama administration’s failure to deliver on a promise to close the prison within one year of taking office. Democrats, she said, could have easily followed through on that commitment, given that they controlled all the levers of power in Washington until the elections on Tuesday.
“If you don’t want to have a conversation, you don’t actually have to if you hold all the power. And if they wanted to close Guantanamo, they could have done it,” Poitras said. “I can only understand it as people don’t want to expend political capital because they’re worried about their jobs, which is a failure of leadership.”
Of course, the political terrain has only grown more treacherous for Obama and the Democrats since voters, disquieted over the economy, returned Republicans to power on Tuesday. A reconsideration of American military policy seems even more unlikely now, as Obama prepares to fight for reelection. Some Republicans, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have even called on Obama to amend his Afghanistan policy and retract his deadline for the withdrawal of troops from that country.
Will a “game changer,” along the lines of the Pentagon Papers, emerge to prompt a national re-evaluation of American war policy? Perhaps, but the possibility seems remote. Poitras, for her part, believes the most effective medium for inspiring change remains film. She’s currently working on the final installment in her trilogy about the U.S. after September 11, this one about domestic surveillance.
“For me, I think it’s usually images,” Poitras said. “That’s why I make films.”
She added: “There are probably things that we haven’t seen that could be potentially game-changers, where we just say, ‘We don’t want to be that country.’”