Howard Gordon, the writer/producer behind Fox’s “24,” got a real-life dose of political intrigue during a recent trip to Iraq organized by the Pacific Council on International Policy, a nonpartisan international affairs group with close ties to the U.S. Department of Defense. Gordon talks here about spending the night in Saddam Hussein’s palace, why American Jews should care about progress in Iraq and how Hollywood could be doing more to spread American values.
Jewish Journal: What exactly does a Hollywood producer do in Iraq these days? Get any movie ideas?
Howard Gordon: (Laughs). Foreign affairs and international policy have always been things I’ve been interested in. This was an opportunity for civilians to educate themselves and get face time with policy thinkers and government leaders, so we were briefed by a number of military and state department groups from morning until night.
JJ: Since you were on a government-sponsored mission, I assume there was some kind of message they wanted you to communicate back home. What is it?
HG: Everybody has a sober view that this [war] is a project whose result we will not know for five to 10 years down the road. But if it’s in our national interest to have a stable and democratic Iraq, it’s going to take continued political will in supporting that vision and supporting Iraq as it develops. Our job was to help craft a narrative, a public narrative in light of the drawdown in troops and the move from military to civilian control.
JJ: Because of regional concerns, such as Iraqi proximity to Israel and growing Iranian influence in Iraq, is there a message that concerns the American Jewish community in particular?
HG: I think I have to speak more as an American than as a Jew. Iraq has still not acknowledged Israel — that’s a policy that the Iraqis are going to have to determine themselves. But to the extent that democracy is a moderating force, should that happen, it will accrue to Israel’s interest.
JJ: Many have said that Iraqi instability presents the opportunity for Iran to strengthen itself, and that coupled with its nuclear program, Iran’s power could destabilize the entire Middle East.
HG: Iraq is a country that’s rebuilding, and there are opportunities for regional actors to exert their influence. Obviously, I’m against the Iranian acquisition of a bomb — not just insofar as it threatens Israel and regional stability, but insofar as the Iranian regime could exert its influence over the entire region and ignite a nuclear arms race elsewhere. One reason for a stable, democratic Iraq would be as a bulwark against theocracy in Iran.
JJ: Did the talking points communicated by American and Iraqi officials cohere with what you saw around you?
HG: We did get to witness two very promising signs. The political situation in Iraq is evolving; during a recent election there was fear of civil war breaking out or that there’d be violence at the polls; there wasn’t. The other thing is, Iraqis are managing their own security. With our troops being drawn down to zero, Iraqi federal police are functioning, and apparently very well.
JJ: Did you feel safe traveling around?
HG: We were very, very protected. We went around in armored caravans.
JJ: It sounds like a real-life version of ‘24.’
HG: My only regret is that I wish I could have had more time with Iraqi [civilians] outside the international zone.
JJ: I read that you stayed at Saddam Hussein’s palace — that must have been nice.
HG: [We stayed at] Camp Victory, his hunting lodge — one of his many palaces. It was fairly opulent, surrounded by lakes he created by damming the Euphrates, which apparently caused some ecological disaster. It reminded me of imperial Rome.
JJ: It’s widely accepted at this point that U.S. attention has shifted from the war in Iraq to the war in Afghanistan. Is that a problem for Iraq?
HG: I think a lot of the politics gets left behind among some of the soldiers. They’re not there to make policy, they’re there for a job. These guys, the military, weren’t arguing over the politics, they were distilling the mission.
JJ: It’s interesting that you speak of sustaining American interest in Iraq when most Jews in America are not sending their kids to fight overseas — as opposed to, say, in Israel, where everyone serves in the military.
HG: There’s a tremendous gap between our military and our civilian populations, and that’s part of the problem we were there to address: How do you keep on the front pages a war that is being fought by other people’s children?
JJ: Do you think Hollywood is invested in the outcome of this war?
HG: There is a disconnect [in Hollywood] between the content that we create and its impact on the world. One of the things that Hollywood needs to understand is that it has an impact: We are the face of America; what we create is how people perceive us. I’m not suggesting we create self-conscious propaganda, but we do have an outsized power. It probably wouldn’t be a bad thing if more people like me open our eyes to the influence that we have beyond our own borders.
JJ: If Hollywood were more mindful of the impact its content has around the world, what might it be doing?
HG: We have an opportunity to present certain essential truths about America. America is a country based on ideas and values, so if we represent that, it is going to be seen and exported across the world. That’s the best advertisement for an America that is too often vilified: We’re imperfect, but we’re the greatest country in the history of man.