TV

24: Wish Fulfillment for Policy Wonks

Most people know 24 as a taut thrill ride in real time. But there is a seamier side of the show that caters to the unfulfilled fantasy lives of our nation’s foreign policy and national security policymakers.

It’s a foreign policy nightmare. A country with a radical Islamic government that hates the U.S. is developing a nuclear weapons capability. Nukes and terrorists are pretty scary on their own; combine the two and it’s time to hide in the bunker. If only our enemies would talk to us. We could work it out.

But wait. What’s that you say? An American President is sitting down right now with the leader of this Islamic Republic? They’re not only talking, but they’re within striking distance of an agreement to end the rogue weapons program. All they need is to agree on the composition of an international inspection regime. Furious international diplomacy ensues – and an accord is reached. There will be peace in the Middle East.

Clearly, this is the crowning achievement of the Obama Administration. The culmination of its stated policy of engagement with our enemies. Oh, wait. It’s not the Obama Administration talking to Iran. It’s the Taylor Administration talking to the Islamic Republic of Kamistan – no, you won’t find it on a map – in the first episode of this season of 24. In the real world, Iran is still charging ahead with its nuclear program and thumbing its nose at any proposed compromise.

24 has always captured the imagination of policymakers in a slightly disturbing way. It started in its first few seasons when the attacks of 9/11 were fresh in our minds. The neocons in the Bush Administration wanted to take strong action against terrorists. Most of all they wanted to catch terrorists and have them spill the beans about everything bad that was going to happen in the world. Problem is gathering that type of intelligence is a long and imprecise undertaking. It’s not like you pick up a bad guy, slap him around a little and he tells you exactly what you need to know.

Then, they flipped on their TV sets and saw 24. There was Jack Bauer. With just a touch of torture, he’d get the terrorist to tell him exactly what he needed to know to thwart the most diabolical of plans. And every terrorist plot was undermined in less than 24 hours. That’s the kind of results they were looking for.

The obsession of some Republicans with the show got it unfairly branded as catering to conservatives. But like every good piece of entertainment, 24 wants a bipartisan audience. The last two seasons have shown that 24 is also looking to warm the hearts of the national security Democrats, who want to be both strong and compassionate. So suddenly last season, Jack Bauer felt bad about some of the things he’d done. He’s still going to torture people if it has to happen, but he’ll also make friends with a Muslim Imam and tell another agent that, gosh darn it, torture is just not for everyone.

Which brings us to this season. Turns out we’ve got friends in the Muslim world at the highest levels and they want mutually beneficial peace agreements. You can almost hear the sigh of relief coming from Obama’s National Security Council. Of course, this being 24, an assassination attempt and some human rights violations are getting in the way. But Democratic policy wonks can just watch the first episode of this season over and over – just as the neocons can re-watch season one – and convince themselves that this is exactly how the world is supposed to work. If only they had a better writing staff.

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