ForeignPolicy

What a Cheesy 1980s Teen-Flick Can Teach Us About the Bush Doctrine

From rejecting diplomacy to abusing prisoners to disdaining Europe, "Red Dawn" offers a blueprint for the Bush years.

Although movement conservatives routinely accuse Hollywood filmmakers of treason and sedition, they also spend a lot of time combing through Hollywood films searching for scraps of patriotic themes and messages to exploit. From the bodily function comedy Knocked Up to the homoerotic Greek sweatfest 300 to the summer bubblegum action flick Transformers, the members of the Right's Konservetkult have found an almost endless supply of pro-conservative messages in the unlikeliest of places. However, there is one film from the 1980s that conservatives can legitimately claim promotes their political worldview and values.

Red Dawn, an M-grade action-thriller starring a young Patrick Swayze, has been justifiably touted by movement conservatives as the defining work of the right wing's artistic canon. In his infamously short-lived blog on the Washington Post Web site, RedState.org founder Ben Domenech praised Red Dawn as "the greatest pro-gun movie ever" because "they actually show the jackbooted communist thugs prying the guns from cold dead hands."  Meanwhile, one of columnist Jonah Goldberg's readers was even more enthusiastic about the film, saying that thinking about it made him want to "grab a cold one and shout ‘Wolverines!' from my roof deck."

Just what is it about Red Dawn that sends a thrill up conservatives' legs? Well the plot of the film, such as it is, revolves around the Soviet and Cuban armies invading and occupying the Colorado town of Calumet (Population: fewer than 8,000) and senselessly slaughtering patriotic Yankees who prove unwilling to part with their private property.  

(Why the Soviets would need to use several tanks and helicopters to occupy such a small town in the middle of nowhere is never really explained. Presumably, the godless city-dwellers on the coasts failed to pose any resistance as they were too busy throwing surrender parades to honor their new overlords, thus leaving the burden of starting an anti-Commie resistance movement to the red-blooded Amur'kins living in the Heartland.)

The film's first scene, appropriately enough, revolves a black history teacher who foolishly tries to negotiate with the Commie troopers as they parachute into the high school parking lot at the start of the invasion. Indeed, the silly diplomatic teacher is barely able to speak a complete sentence to the communist invaders before they viciously open fire on him and blow him away. This opening sequence nicely illustrates one of the chief principles of Bush-era conservatism: That America is being made weak by effete intellectuals who put too much emphasis on their talkin' and their learnin' when they should be doin' more a-killin'.

Although there have been countless articles in the National Review and the Weekly Standard trashing the State Department -- and diplomacy in general -- it was National Review editor Rich Lowry who most succinctly laid the framework for this portion of the Bush doctrine when he lambasted then-Secretary of State Colin Powell for trying to "sabotage" America's post-9/11 foreign policy. And what had Powell done to deserve this public thrashing, you ask? Why, he had shown disrespect toward Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who wanted "a wider war, including an effort to oust Saddam, while Powell wants essentially to settle for an attempt at taking out bin Laden." That bastard! How much worse would this country had been if we'd merely killed the man responsible for 9/11, instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives invading a country that posed no threat to our national security?!    

In tandem with the film's dislike of diplomacy, Red Dawn also shares the contemporary Right's disdain for continental Europeans, whom they deem insufficiently dedicated to waging perpetual warfare against Third World nations. In the film's counterfactual universe, America has been abandoned to its Soviet invaders by its erstwhile "allies" in Old Europe, who decided that fighting two world wars was enough for one century. Of course, Bush-era foreign policy has taken hatred for Europe to new heights not even dreamed by the makers of Red Dawn, as several of Bush's neocon toadies have actually recommended treating Europeans as outright enemies. The most famous example of this came in David Frum's and Richard Perle's war-dork manifesto, An End to Evil, where Frum declared that "the United States has enemies within Europe, and they are trying to transform the E.U. into an adversarial power bloc against the United States." Picking up on this theme, fellow dork Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds ominously warned that someday soon "the United States will decide that 'you're for us or against us' applies to France, too" and that France had better watch out because "the French have more enemies, and fewer resources, than we do."

The biggest parallel between Red Dawn and the Bush doctrine, however, is its views on American exceptionalism, which states that the American government can behave outside the bounds of international law and custom because it's naturally better and more enlightened than other governments. In one Red Dawn scene that would doubtlessly warm John Yoo's black little heart, the American insurgents torture a captured Ruskie prisoner by burning cigarette butts on his skin. When the godless Commie bastard predictably has no useful information to give his captors, they decide to summarily execute him. This then prompts the Commie to complain that he is not being treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. Swayze responds: "I never heard of it!"

All of this prisoner abuse and blatant disregard for international law proves to be too much for one of Swayze's comrades, however, and he tries to stop the future Dirty Dancer from carrying out his executions.

"What's the difference between us and them?" asks the silly American, who mistakenly thinks that appealing to moral principles will soothe Swayze's bloodlust. Swayze looks his friend in the eye and angrily explains to him that the difference between the Americans and the Russians is that "WE… LIVE… HERE!!!" And voila! A steel-tight justification for torture and extralegal executions is provided.

Dennis Prager provided an outline for this particular plank of the Bush doctrine in a 2005 column that chided liberals for looking to law as "the highest good," instead of instinctively knowing that that "America often knows better than the world what is right and wrong." In Prager's calculus, being "right" means that one "loves John Bolton, has contempt for the United Nations, mistrusts the World Court, regards Amnesty International as another morally confused leftist organization, thinks little of the world's media and academic elites, and regards 'world opinion' as morally confused and left-wing media manipulated." In other words, in order to be "right," you have to hate the vast majority of people in the world. Or to simplify things further, conservative Americans are always right because, "WE… LIVE… HERE!!!!!"

This sort of arrogance may seem completely unwarranted coming from the same crew of geniuses who brought us such fiascos as the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and Terri Schiavo. And indeed, as the elections of 2006 and 2008 showed, the Right's belief that it is unquestionably and divinely right about everything started to look less credible once it started racking up large body counts. But while the Bush doctrine of hating foreigners and preventatively invading their countries has run out of steam for the time being, its central beliefs will sadly always be with us. Past empires, from Rome to Britain, had all outlined similar imperial doctrines that cited their nation's "specialness" to justify aggressively expanding their power and influence throughout the world. Even if Bush's era of misrule has permanently crippled America's ability to unilaterally invade and occupy countries without restraint, it isn't a stretch to think that future major powers will come up with similar justifications for their imperial ventures (Chinese exceptionalism, anyone?). 

While Red Dawn has not aged well as a film, the worldview that it espouses is tragically timeless.