Bitter Lake is a 2015 documentary from Adam Curtis, one of our favorite filmmaker with an unparalleled style and incisive ideas. In this film, Adam sets out on the trail of the West’s inability to understand modern Jihadism, as well as most of the world’s current events. The tipping point happened when right wing Western politicians simplified the vision of the world as an answer to the growing economic and social problems of the 1970’s.
The roots, however, lie in a deal sealed in Bitter Lake, a water body part of the Suez canal. There, President Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia negotiated, agreed and signed the Qincy Agreement, under which Saudi Arabia would provide oil to the USA while the USA will provide military security to the kingdom. Roosevelt sought to maintain America’s leadership in the world as a force for peace and saw the strategic value of oil.
As we’ve seen in a recent article, Saudi Arabia was established thanks to a partnership between the Saud family and a puritanical way of Islam, Wahhabism. As part of the Qincy Agreement, Ibn Saud thus asked that foreign influence be forbidden into Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs. In turn, the king used the oil earnings to finance the spread of Wahhabism throughout the world. It didn’t bother the West since this policy was in line with the American policy to fight the (atheist) USSR during the Cold War.
Meanwhile, at about the same time, the King of Afghanistan asked American engineers to build a dam in Helmand as part of his plan to modernize his country. As an unexpected side effect, the dam raised water table in the surrounding region, making poppies the only thriving type of crop. Besides, the dam also created rivalries for land as it was redistributed to the Afghan Premier’s tribesmen, the Pashtun. Unknowingly, Western powers had entered the complex political landscape of Afghanistan’s tribes, who continued to fight each others until the Soviet 1979 invasion.
Then in 1973 Saudi Arabia raised the price of oil as an answer to the American support to Israel during the Yom Kippur war. It immediately sent Western countries into a devastating economic crisis. It was a new kind of crisis, combining two economic concepts previously thought to be unable to coexist: economic stagnation and inflation. It was called “stagflation” and traditional governments were unable to combat it effectively, leading to the election of right wing governments that applied radical economic theories along with simplified foreign policy. In effect, these governments put forward a Manichean vision of the world, reducing complex realities into easily identified good and evil.
At the same time, thanks to the high oil prices, banks started to recycle the huge profits of Gulf monarchies, adequately named petro-dollars. This financial manna attracted governments, who turned to banks to lend to consumers and started to relax regulation, creating a credit boom that steadily increased the power of the financial sector.
Meanwhile, half way around the world, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan provided Saudi Arabia with an opportunity to export its homegrown jihadists, with the hope that they would die there. The West also supported the Afghans and helped these fighters, whose various backgrounds and motivations were simplified and branded as freedom fighters. But contrary to Western ideals and Saudis’ hopes, the fighters started to spread extremist ideas to both the local population and other foreign fighters until late after the Soviet withdrawal.
All the while, Western governments were selling as much military hardware as they could to Gulf monarchies who were enjoying the benefits of high oil prices. Yet these monarchies still required American intervention to counter Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, leading to a massive influx of Western forces in Saudi Arabia. Jihadists were infuriated by the presence of foreign troops in the country of two of Islam’s most Holy sites, as well as of Western support of the Saudi monarchy. As a result, they decided to attack the far enemy (aka the Western world), and more specifically America).
It all culminated in the 9/11 hijackings, leading America to invade Afghanistan within 2 months and setting out to build modern democratic country, the same initiative that had been tried for last 80 years without result. Predictably, within a few years of support of the corrupt central government, Afghans started turning against the foreign soldiers (ISAF) but also using them to destroy their opponents by denouncing them as Taliban. Little by little, ISAF soldiers started fighting anyone and everyone, believing they were all Taliban. They couldn’t understand the complex ethnic, tribal and religious landscape of an unrulable country. And they couldn’t believe in the somehow vague goals of their unending presence in a remote, backward country.
Then in 2008, the world stood still before the financial crisis. The banks had relentlessly accumulated power, recklessly lent and fraudulently created complex products using garbage loans. When the financial system unraveled, nobody knew how to handle it, let alone fix it. The governments were out of idea, so they bailed out the banks by taking their bad loans. In turn, the banks further increased their power by betting against the governments, whose debt increased rapidly as a direct result from the crisis. But no official knows how to limit their power.
In the end, we’re all at a loss of understanding what is happening in the world. We can’t believe in anything because our simplistic vision of events conflicts with the tortuous realities of the ground. This is particularly true for conflicts and Islamic terrorism: in our good vs. evil understanding of the world, we cannot begin to comprehend the deeper motivations of Daesh fighters or the Assad government.
To conclude, this is a great documentary backed by Adam Curtis’ incredible footage from the BBC archives. His ideas are insightful and challenging, bringing a new perspective to current events and critically to our understanding of the world. But it lacks a constant coherent narrative that binds it all together. Instead, long footage (sometimes up to several minutes) tend to lose the watcher’s attention, making it hard to remember the background of particular events. In the end, Bitter Lake could have been made twice as powerful a movie by using only half the footage time.
It doesn’t matter: you have to see it.
About Carlito Riego
"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi