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Hologram for a King might trigger US soul-searching

Is US self-perception as do-gooding global superhero starting to fade?

Hologram For The King

by Rachel Shabi

That it is irritating is a given: It is, after all, a Hollywood film. So yes, if you're watching the new Tom Hanks movie, A Hologram for the King, set in Saudi Arabia, you're going to be gritting your teeth at quite a bit of sappiness - and also, at the general condescension to a viewer's intelligence in its delivery of plot or character development.

On top of which, you may find it irksome that the film's two main Arab characters aren't played by Arab actors. But still, A Hologram for the King, based on the book by David Eggers, does work on a few levels - and it works as a statement of US self-perception, of its own standing in the Arab world and of itself as superpower in decline.

This is all carried by the Tom Hanks character, Alan Clay, a US salesman, ageing and struggling to stay solvent, dealing with a bust-up marriage and a bruising business past in which he sold US workers out in a bad deal with China. He is in Saudi Arabia trying to sell the King some 3D IT software for a new desert city that has yet to be built.

Outsourcing of the American dream 

So this is about US economic decline, the outsourcing of the American dream - and America overseas, as represented by Hanks, isn’t special, it isn't even that relevant: In the end, the Saudi king opts for a faster, cheaper Chinese offer of the same kit that Clay's trying to peddle.

Meanwhile, the happy ending that Hollywood films must have is provided not by the USA but by the KSA, where a female doctor removes a painful  (and painfully metaphoric) growth from his back - thereby providing a touching love interest - and where the economy offers Clay, who stays there, better employment and a route back to financial stability.

Is this a film about the USA coming to grips with its own loss of standing in the world?
Is this a film about the USA coming to grips with its own loss of standing in the world? It's tempting to put it there: after all, this is the focus of so much current foreign policy commentary.

For more interestingly, this is also the terrain examined in Noam Chomsky’s new book, Who Rules the World, extracts of which suggest an exploration of America's retrenchment, or not, across strategically key areas of the world, the Middle East obviously being one them.

And this would tie in nicely with perceptions of the US emerging from the Middle East. US policy in the region has long been viewed as destabilising and self-serving, but now you could say there's an extra layer of jaundiced weariness.

One recent poll shows that Iraqis overwhelmingly don't trust the US to help counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) - which can't be a huge surprise to anyone, given the devastation and tragedy the US inflicted upon Iraq with its crippling sanctions and subsequent invasion.

This destruction of a previously functioning society is one of the reasons that ISIL could take root - so why would the US be sought as solution to that? In fact, 90 percent of young Iraqis now view the US as an enemy of the country.

Catastrophic interventions

Meanwhile, the most recent polling, late last year, from the Arab American Institute shows that, across the Middle East, public opinion is clear in not wanting US military interventions, anywhere - the idea of a US military effort to tackle extremism is viewed highly negatively across eight polled countries.

As well as the catastrophic interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there is perhaps also an element of America's purely self-interested agendas having been stripped bare, witnessed in the lack of firm (non-military) action in the face of Syria's humanitarian crisis, or significant attempts to help tackle the global migration crisis.

ALSO READ: How Hollywood helped sanitise the 'war on terror'

The rejection of military intervention across the Arab world now also chimes with US public opinion - albeit for different reasons. Drawn out failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, costing trillions of dollars and too many lives have clearly had an impact on the US appetite for invasions, sorry "humanitarian" interventions that "bring democracy" to in the Middle East.

The human cost to the US is clearly on-going - not just for those who have lost lives, but also for those lives horribly shattered by injuries, including trauma and stress casualties.

But the US hasn't diminished as a superpower. Clearly its geopolitical interests in the Middle East remain intact: the area is still covered in US military bases, client states and agreeable dictators set up in its service. So perhaps what has really changed - and what films such as a Hologram for a King explore - is that the US self-perception as do-gooding global superhero might be starting to fade?

When people in Middle Eastern countries are asked what they would like to see from the US, two things come up: economic investment and an actual push for - as opposed to just paying lip service to - political solutions to conflicts, in Syria as well as between Israelis and Palestinians.

In this sense, nothing has changed; the requirements are still clear: the US should use its power and influence to push for negotiated solutions. But now, as before: no military meddling.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.

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