U.S. officials havent convinced Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to create a multiethnic state--but maybe they should show him Ivanhoe.
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  • U.S. officials haven’t convinced Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to create a multiethnic state—but maybe they should show him Ivanhoe.

The ending of the 1937 Jean Renoir movie Grand Illusion gently comments on the absurdity of war. The fleeing French prisoners cross the border into Switzerland and the pursuing Germans lower their guns out of respect for the rules of combat: it’s improper to shoot your enemies in a neutral country.

Such were the vagaries of World War I, which began a century ago when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and Europe divided into hostile alliances. It was a simple time! Now imagine a war in which two soldiers from allied armies pursue a common enemy across a frontier—at which point said enemy teams up with one of his pursuers and together they shoot the other.

It’s not a difficult image to conjure up. On Monday I heard the Middle East declared such a “mess” on WBEZ that the United States and Russia find themselves allies in one country, Iraq, yet adversaries next door in Syria. We can say the same about the United States and Iran, hostiles when the subject is nuclear weapons and confederates when it’s the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The ancient rule of thumb the enemy of my enemy is my friend has worn out its relevance. Today everyone’s a frenemy.

America’s immediate concern is that Iraq is falling apart. In Iraq, as in Vietnam before it, America failed to impose its ideals on a distant people by arms or charm. Eleven years of hard work down the drain! And now the partition of the country into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish segments is gaining favor, not as a good idea but as a dismal idea that’s less dismal than its alternative: endless sectarian war.

But before we surrender our dream of the Iraq that deserves to be—peaceful, united, democratic, multiethnic, and eternally grateful to America—there’s one thing left to try. Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department is adept at peddling fantasy, but Hollywood’s a master of it.

Secretary of State John Kerry needs to sit down with the prime minister of Iraq—Nouri al-Maliki for now, though he may soon be bounced—and screen the most inspiring movie I have seen on the subject of overcoming sectarian discord: Ivanhoe.

Twelfth-century England, as recalled by Hollywood in 1952, was a troubled and divided land: relations between Normans and Saxons were iffy at best, and much blood was spilled. King Richard the Lionheart had been taken prisoner for ransom by Leopold of Austria as he returned from the Third Crusade, and his younger brother—Prince John, a Maliki-like mediocrity if ever there was one—occupied the throne. John was as partial to the Normans as Maliki is to the Shiites.

The movie ends in a scene overwhelming in its power.

The valiant Ivanhoe, a Saxon (played by Robert Taylor), has just mortally wounded De Bois-Guilbert, a Norman (played by George Sanders) in hand-to-hand combat waged to save the fetching Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) from being burned at the stake as a Jewish witch by the sniveling Prince John.

As we wonder what John’s next move will be, we hear the thunder of hoof beats! It’s Richard himself, galloping onto the jousting field with his retinue. The King is back! A stricken look crosses John’s face and he kneels. All kneel. There is a hush.

Richard looks majestically out upon the throng. And in the screening room, Secretary of State Kerry now leans toward Maliki. Kerry’s eyes glisten. He touches Maliki’s sleeve. “I get goose bumps whenever I watch this,” he whispers.

“Before me kneels a nation divided,” Richard thunders. “Rise as one man. And that one, for England!”

It was that simple. The people just had to be asked nicely. The throng roars. As would later be said in a different context, “You never heard such cheering.”

And Kerry says to Maliki, “Man, what I’d give to have your opportunity to be the remembered forever as the People’s Unifier!”

Maliki now understands that he stands on the threshold of greatness and is overwhelmed. “I’ll have lunch with a Sunni tomorrow,” he vows.

It probably should be acknowledged that there’s an outside possibility Maliki would reply instead, “I’ve never cared much for crusaders, frankly. Besides, it is written that Richard was king for ten years and spent a total of six months in England before he died in France.” But this flicker of skepticism could be easily brushed aside.

“That’s not necessarily untrue,” Kerry would say right back. “But the point is that peaceful, democratic, multiethnic states pretty much run themselves.”