Doug Liman has performed half a public service with his new film, Fair Game.  By retelling the story of the neoconservative attack on Amb. Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, he has once more exposed how eager these ideologues are to destroy anyone who gets in their way.  Unfortunately, he stops short of reaching the heart of the matter.

In July 2003, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, decided that Wilson had committed the unpardonable sin.  In an article published in the July 6 New York Times, Wilson had violated the neoconservative one-percent doctrine: If Saddam Hussein ever entertained the merest velleity of attacking our country, we had to invade Iraq and utterly obliterate his regime.  According to the doctrine, calculating his chance for success was entirely unnecessary.

Wilson demurred from this doctrine quite publicly.  He questioned George W. Bush’s remark in his 2003 State of the Union Address to the effect that Hussein had attempted to buy 500 tons of yellowcake in Africa.  Bush, Wilson suggested in restrained, diplomatic language, may have “twisted . . . some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program,” which could have caused him “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”  Wilson’s suspicions were well founded.  The CIA had sent him to Niger, the purported location of the would-be sale, in February 2002 to investigate.  Having served as a diplomat in Niger in the 1970’s and the late 90’s, Wilson was chosen for his knowledge of the country and his contacts with its leaders.  While there, he determined that there had been no such sale.  Moving 100,000 pounds of yellowcake across the Sahara, he noted, would have attracted considerable attention and created a lengthy paper trail of official reports.  There were no witnesses and no documents.

Wilson quickly became a prime target of neocon wrath.  In making a reasonable case for reexamining our casus belli, Wilson had become a traitor in their eyes.  The usual armchair warriors at FOX News—O’Reilly, Hannity, and company—sat up in their recliners and prepared to defend their imperiled president.  To aid these stalwarts in their risky mission, administration officials armed them with a special weapon.  They leaked to at least seven members of the press that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA.  For reasons known only to himself, the Washington Post’s Robert Novak bit at once, “breaking the story” the following day after confirming it with two more administration officials.  Novak’s revelation not only ended Plame’s 18-year CIA career but put her contacts in considerable danger.  One of her missions had been to cajole Iraqi scientists into revealing what they knew of Saddam’s weapons program, a capital crime in that sunny land.

Soon reports appeared charging that Wilson’s trip to Niger was courtesy of his wife.  We were to understand she had arranged it as a frivolous junket undertaken at taxpayer expense.  It didn’t matter that as an operative she didn’t have such authority.  At the same time, others in the neocon pack were reporting that Plame was a Langley nobody, a mere secretary.  At bottom, it didn’t matter what she was.  As far as the neocons were concerned, both she and Wilson were traitors.

U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald thought otherwise. Revealing the identity of a covert CIA operative is a federal crime, and Fitzgerald wanted to know who committed it.  Ultimately, he would convict Scooter Libby for lying and obstructing justice, after which the perpetually befogged President Bush commuted his sentence, saving him from a well-earned if meager 30 months behind bars.

Liman races by these facts with swooshing montages punctuated with news footage, stopping here and there to implicate a few key figures.  Karl Rove puts in an appearance to explain the provenance of the title Plame chose for her memoir and Liman, for his film.  “Fair game” was the term Rove cavalierly applied to Plame.  He doubtlessly used it to signal his troops in the media that it was time to focus their sights on Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and fire at will.  Karl’s such a sport!

To play the couple, Liman cast Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.  Their performances are quite convincing.  Watts draws on her thespian intuition to register the practical, career-minded Plame’s behavior when confronted by her loathsome detractors.  There’s some shouting and tears, but, for the most part, she uses her welling blue eyes to convey Plame’s gathering anguish as both her professional and personal identities come under assault by a cadre of heartless hacks.  We can see that beyond her own losses, she feels deepening remorse that her outing will put the individuals she’s recruited overseas in prison or worse.  Penn’s Wilson is less reserved.  His profession demands reasonableness, but when pushed hard enough he explodes.  In one scene, he finds himself being attacked in a restaurant by an Ann Coulter type who loudly and repeatedly proclaims him a traitor.  After holding his peace for a minute or two, he shouts back, calling the harridan a hag.  Penn makes Wilson an understandable mixture of anger and shame, a man grieving at what he has brought down on his wife and himself.

Liman’s film has many virtues, but it ignores what is most telling about this affair: why Cheney and his neocon underlings, principally Libby, were hellbent on destroying Wilson and Plame.  This is odd because the answer is in one of the books Liman consulted to make his film: The Politics of Truth, by Joseph Wilson himself.

In an Appendix, Wilson has included a number of articles he wrote both before and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  One of them is his New York Times editorial, “What I Didn’t See in Africa.”  Many consider it to be the beginning of his neoconservative troubles, but I think an earlier piece might have served as the tripwire.  In the March 3, 2003, issue of The Nation, 17 days before we invaded Iraq, Wilson published an article entitled “Republic or Empire?” that might have found welcome in these pages.  He pointed out what should have been obvious.  “Even without an invasion,” Saddam was “finished.”  Iraq was swarming with weapons inspectors, and the international will to disarm the dictator had become irreversible if for no other reason than that the rest of the world didn’t want America to go to war.  “What’s the point of this new American imperialism?” Wilson asks rhetorically, and then provides the answer:

The neoconservatives with a stranglehold on the foreign policy of the Republican Party, a party that traditionally eschewed foreign military adventures, want to go beyond expanding U.S. global influence . . . on the region. . . . The new imperialists will not rest until governments that ape our world view are implanted throughout the region, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking, smacking of hubris in the extreme.

Wilson had unmasked the neocons’ hijacking of the government, exposed their preposterous strategy, and made clear their willingness to spill young American blood to achieve their goals.  He was a threat—a highly credible one, at that.  Unlike any of his cakewalking critics, he had served in Kuwait and Iraq.  During the run-up to the Gulf War, he had successfully negotiated face to face with Saddam for the release of American hostages.  He knew Hussein to be a monster, but he also knew he could be managed by skillfully applying a carrot-and-stick diplomacy.  Furthermore, he knew that in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Hussein had been forced to scrap his nuclear program.

Wilson notes that, in his diplomatic career, he had been apolitical by choice and inclination, but after the neocons put him in the public spotlight he found he was gaining allies from both the right and the left, including Pat Buchanan and David Corn.  This encouraged him to battle his detractors openly:

President Bush [should] fire . . . the entire band of neoconservatives that occupy positions of responsibility under him.  This would clear the administration of parasites who are loyal only to their agenda and who have found the Republican party a willing host for more than twenty years.

[He should start with the] signatories of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) . . . clustered at the National Security Council, in the Defense and State Departments, and within Vice President Cheney’s own parallel national security office.  [These officials are] not accountable to Congress and virtually unknown to the American people. . . . Never in the history of our democracy has there been established such an influential and pervasive center of power with the ability to circumvent long-standing accepted reporting structures and to skew decision-making practices.  It has been described to me chillingly by a former senior government official as a coup d’etat within the State.

This is a man who knows where the bodies have been buried.  And while he walks gingerly when it comes to the neoconservatives’ dearest objective, the defense of Israel, he nevertheless makes it clear that PNAC is serving two masters:

A more cynical reading of the agenda of certain Bush advisers could conclude that the Balkanization of Iraq was always an acceptable outcome, because Israel would then find itself surrounded by small Arab countries worried about each other instead of forming a solid block against Israel.

Wilson ultimately argues that we would best honor our commitment to Israel by deploying a policy that realistically seeks justice for everyone in the region, a policy that would also advance our own interests.  We can thank those clever neocons for giving him the platform to say so.