Pervez, Hamid and George with a boiling tureen of cheese fondue

By Marina Hyde (THE GUARDIAN, 30/09/06):

How many «man behind the curtain» moments can the war on terror sustain, one wonders, before the fabric of the illusion is irreparably torn, and all sane people are reduced to a state of such gibbering fear at the scale of the incompetence behind it that they are forced to retreat to mountain caves and distil drinking water from their own urine until the last battle?

The curtain image, you’ll recall, refers to the moment in the Wizard of Oz at which Dorothy and her friends become aware that – far from being an omnipotent sorcerer – the great and powerful Oz is in fact nothing more than mechanical smoke and mirrors. This contraption is operated from behind a screen by a small white-haired gentleman, who attempts to deny his unmasking by calling into his voice modulator: «Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!»

This week’s arras-rending moment came as George Bush announced that he planned to address the escalating hostility between Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, and the chatshow-happy memoirist Pervez Musharraf, who moonlights as leader of Pakistan, by hosting a small dinner at the White House on Wednesday. «It’ll be interesting for me,» the president explained, «to watch the body language of these two leaders to determine how tense things are.»

Aha. So that’s our strategy for dealing with this one … It’s not that there’s anything especially disturbing in finding the global struggle against violent extremism deploying the same analytical techniques that allow GMTV to slaver over a new set of photographs of the Beckhams in the name of «psychology». It just seems such a shame not to go the whole hog and put Fiona Phillips in charge of the state department.

Were it not already too much information to discover that the success of the hunt for Osama bin Laden depends on how President Bush interprets Karzai folding his arms when the aperitif tray goes round, the White House later took it upon itself to make the menu public. The first course, we learned, would include a fondue; and while it’s probably stretching it to assume that the three leaders sat with skewers around a boiling tureen of cheese, the detail may be regarded as pushing nervy students of the war on terror one step closer to panic.

Mankind surely cannot bear very much more of this reality. It is all very well calling for greater openness in the manner in which this war on an abstract noun is perpetrated, but when the vision behind the curtain is this bathetic, there seems to be a strong case for not letting daylight in on magic. It is, after all, only weeks since Bush was accidentally overheard outlining his diplomatic vision for Lebanon at the G8. «What they need to do,» he explained to Tony Blair, «is get Syria to get Hizbullah to stop doing this shit.» Without wishing to undermine this neo-Metternichian strategem … do you share the need to think that their plans are more nuanced than that?

It cannot be a coincidence that when creating both superheroes and arch villains, fiction writers are given to equipping them with complex support structures such as batcaves or death stars. Fans might take the Caped Crusader rather less seriously if his key prop for combating Gotham’s evildoers was The Bluffer’s Guide to Desmond Morris.

In art they refer to the fourth wall, one of the conventions of the suspension of disbelief that forms sufficient boundary between the audience and the action to allow them to accept fictions as real. When a character breaks it by taking the audience into the mechanics of the illusion – in the manner of a Brechtian player, or Ian McShane in Lovejoy – it forces a rather more critical engagement with the spectacle. In politics, such a breach threatens the entire enterprise, with the business at the G8 summit the equivalent of bringing up the mic on the actor who’s playing Henry V when he’s offstage, and overhearing him ring Dyno-Rod between the siege of Harfleur and Agincourt.

Not that Bush has ever been madly convincing. Do you recall that TV interview before he acceded to the presidency, when he was asked to name the leader of Pakistan? A long pause. «The general,» he replied with a slight squirm. Do we have a name here? the interviewer pressed. General who? An even longer pause. «We just call him the general …»

Excruciating enough alone, but along with the current escalation in revelatory asides by next Wednesday’s dinner companions, this outbreak of «man behind the curtain» moments threatens to reach critical mass. Consider the latest bewildering intervention from Hamid Karzai, who, in the course of branding Musharraf dangerously blase, informs Newsweek: «Mullah Omar is, for sure, in Quetta, Pakistan, and [Musharraf] knows that. We have given him the GPS numbers of his house and the telephone number.»

To which the only reasonable response seems to be: shadowy Taliban leader and unknowable recluse Mullah Omar has a landline? Handy, perhaps, should the ISI, Pakistan’s secret service, wish to phone ahead, though the courtesy call might of course backfire, forcing the Taliban leader to mute the television and exclaim in irritation: «Who’s that ringing in the middle of the Darrell Hair press conference?»

A little less reality, gentlemen, before we permanently lose our grip on the fiction.