Teaching foreign policy with film

A guest post from Karl F. Inderfurth, John O. Rankin Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University and former Assistant Secretary of State

I have greatly enjoyed the running exchange on the best films for a foreign policy film festival, started by Stephen Walt and then joined by Daniel Drezner and Fred Kaplan.

But this is not surprising.  Three years ago I began teaching a 13 week undergraduate course at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs entitled "Film and U.S. Foreign Policy."

I am certainly not the first professor to begin a course with Santayana's famous quote: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."   But I may be the first to add - so go see these movies.

The takeoff point for the course is Errol Morris' documentary The Fog of War on the 11 lessons drawn from the controversial life (understatement) of Robert McNamara (i.e. "empathize with your enemy," "rationality will not save us," "proportionality should be a guideline in war," "be prepared to reexamine your reasoning"). Students are asked to draw comparable lessons from the films we see.  Each film is also supplemented with readings to take the students deeper into the subject.

Enough said. Consider the above the trailer and what follows the main attraction.  Comments welcomed.


1. Fog of War, An Errol Morris Film


2.   The Quiet American (Michael Caine version, not the original)  //  Graham Greene, The Quiet American and William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American

3.   Path to War //  Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam


4. The Kite Runner //  Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

5. Charlie Wilson's War //  Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001


6.  Black Hawk Down //  Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (esp. Epilogue and Afterward)


7.  Hotel Rwanda (also Sometimes in April) /  Samantha Power, ‘A Problem from Hell': America and the Age of Genocide.


8.   Dr. Stangelove //  John Hersey, Hiroshima.

9.   Thirteen Days // Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Krushchev and Castro On the Brink of Nuclear War

10.  Last Best Chance and Dirty War //  Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe


11.  Paradise Now (also a Sri Lankan film The Terrorist) // Christoph Reuter, My Life is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing (also Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism)


12.   Battle of Algiers // Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

13.   No End in Sight ( besides Fog of War, the only other documentary film shown)/  Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (to be replaced by Ricks' latest, The Gamble: Gen. David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008)


The freedom of Saberi, and the plight of Lee and Ling

I breathed a great sigh of relief with the Iranian government's announcement of the release of journalist Roxana Saberi, who Tehran convicted of spying for the United States.

Saberi was initially arrested in January for buying a bottle of wine. When in custody, officials realized she had no press credentials (which had been revoked in 2006). Her trial lasted only an hour, and she was sent to the infamous Evin prison with an eight-year sentence. 

And, joining Spencer Ackerman here, I hope that Saberi's release will draw attention to the plight of two other imprisoned journalists: Euna Lee and Laura Ling of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's Current TV.

North Korea has held the pair incommunicado since the end of March. The Wall Street Journal reports:

U.S. officials have said less about Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling than they have about an American reporter, Roxana Saberi, who was recently convicted of espionage in Iran. The strategy is partly a gamble that not provoking the North Koreans may lead to a speedy resolution, analysts say, but it's also a sign of the increased uncertainty in dealing with Pyongyang.

U.S. officials have said little about the journalists' situation, but have indicated they aren't making progress with Pyongyang. A person not in government who is familiar with the situation said that North Korea isn't talking to the U.S. at all.

Here's from a McClatchy story (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

North Korea appears to be holding the women in a protocol house in Pyongyang.

"The rumor was that they are being housed at one of the guest villas," said Han S. Park, a University of Georgia expert who was visiting North Korea as part of a private U.S. delegation after the women were captured. Park told CNN International that the North Koreans scoffed at any suggestion that the Americans were receiving harsh treatment.

"They laughed. 'We are not Guantanamo.' That's what they said," Park said.

Still, it's a worrisome situation. Washington has far more dialogue and slowly warming relations with Tehran. More importantly, both governments had something at stake in ensuring the Saberi incident didn't become the Saberi fiasco.

Not so with Lee and Ling, and the U.S. and North Korean governments. Even if the Swedish diplomat who conducts relations for the U.S. managed to negotiate for their release, he'd have few obvious carrots or sticks to reach for, and the DPRK would have little reason to be magnanimous. 

I also hope the U.S. considers releasing or charging the foreign journalist it has in custody in Iraq. The U.S. says that Reuters photographer Ibrahim Jassam, arrested in a raid on his home in September, poses a threat to security and continues to hold him -- despite an Iraqi court ruling this winter that he should be freed. 

For lists of and information on currently imprisoned reporters, see here and here. (The worse offender in the detention of journalists? China.)