“No End in Sight”: How hosed are we?

If you’re spending too much time worrying about the economy in the U.S., I have the perfect prescription: Spend an evening watching Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-nominated No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq and it’ll make our national hardship seem like a partly cloudy Fourth of July.

Ferguson is a former political scientist and a first-time filmmaker. This 2007 documentary was nominated for an Oscar, but it lost to Taxi to the Dark Side (about another war-related issue: America’s policy on torture). Ferguson’s look at the first years following the fall of Iraq doesn’t take cheap shots or make leaps of uber-liberal logic. Instead, it relies on sources deep inside the Bush administration to paint a picture of abject incompetence at the top.

In other words, thanks to a host of credible interview subjects, it’s not easy to dismiss Ferguson’s argument as “guesswork and hand-wringing” (words Bush officials used to dismiss some gloomy analysis of the chaos by its own lieutenants). Authorities like Richard Armitage (second-in-command to Colin Powell at the State Dept.), Jay Garner (the general initially put in charge of the occupation), Robert Hutchings (former chairman of the National Intelligence Council), Lawrence Wilkerson (Powell’s chief of staff), and Iraqi Ambassador Barbara Bodine combine to deliver a consistent message that’s hard to dismiss.

“If my speaking out adds even infinitesimally to the criticism that counts of this administration, then that’s good,” said Hutchings. “I just can’t hold my peace any longer.” He speaks like a man haunted.

The assertion of “No End in Sight” is that the Bush administration went into Iraq pitifully uninformed and unprepared to run a nation, and then it made a mess that generated more hatred of the U.S. than goodwill. The title means just what it says: When will we be done paying for this war — literally and figuratively?

Here’s the list of accusations:

* Life under Saddam was bad… Global sanctions against Iraq after the Persian Gulf War impoverished the citizenry, while Saddam and his elite remained very well off.

* …but life after him is worse. Poor as they were, the citizens of Saddam’s regime were not, at least, living in a bombed out husk of a country. Modern life in Iraq, as seen by Ferguson’s lens, is a vision straight from Hobbes: nasty, brutish and short.

* The looting that occurred immediately after the fall ignited a state of lawlessness that we’re still trying to control. How did statue-toppling Iraqis shift from gratitude to abject hatred of their liberators? Ferguson’s subjects lay the blame at the critical moment at the beginning, when the worst instincts of human nature were allowed to go unchecked. Looting was rampant and complete, from national treasures to rebar in concrete walls. What the Iraqis did to their own country is pitiful, no doubt about it, and I wish Ferguson had included a little analysis of why so many people — some of whom must have been normally upstanding and ethical — found themselves serving their most desperate impulses. The extent of the chaos is heartbreaking.

But back in Washington, it seems the Defense Department wasn’t taking it too seriously. Ferguson uses the famous Rumsfeld press briefing clip where he laughed off the news coverage of looting:

"Henny penny!" he cried.

“I picked up a newspaper today, and I couldn’t believe it. I read eight headlines that talked about: Chaos! Violence! Unrest! And it was just henny-penny, the sky is falling,” Rumsfeld said to a chorus of chuckles. “The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase. And you think: My goodness, were there that many vases?”

Folks on the ground in Iraq weren’t chortling.

“I think that’s the probably the day we lost the Iraqis,” said Ambassador Bodine.

What would it have taken? A declaration of marital law (which ORHA had recommended)— or at least the will to tell our guys on the ground to stop the destruction. Lieutenant Seth Moulton said it best with the understated confidence of a soldier: “We’re a platoon of Marines. We could certainly stop looting if that were our assigned task.”

* ORHA had inadequate time, resources and administration support to enact solid occupation plans. The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was formed 60 days before the invasion. Its job: to manage the occupation of a foreign nation. Once the invasion was over (which, you’ll recall, happened in a jiffy), they had few resources inside Baghdad to call upon. Ferguson files interview after interview supporting this charge: The Bush administration threw together a toothless group, routinely ignored what little insight it was able to provide, and gave them no time or traction to accomplish anything. Gen. Garner, the group’s leader, was ousted a month after the fall.

* Paul Bremer made a bad situation worse with three monumentally bad decisions. Garner was replaced by diplomat and businessman L. Paul Bremer. There’s great consensus in this film that Bremer did three tone-deaf things straight away:

1. He stopped the formation of an interim Iraqi government (Jay Garner was working to establish one, thereby including Iraqis in the decision-making process; the Bremer reversal was a surprise to Garner and Armitage, at the very least);

2. he banned some 50,000 members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party from public service (some may have been high-placed, corrupt cronies, but most were government functionaries and technorati — essentially the bulk of the institutional knowledge); and

3. he disbanded the army (adding a dissatisfied and heavily armed cohort to the swelling ranks of the unemployed).

* The U.S. left a void in leadership that could be filled by only one thing: radical Islam. Iraq was a fairly secular, fairly stable regime before, but in the chaos that followed American occupation — and Ferguson is very firm about this, it was utter chaos — people turned to an outlet that gave them structure, gave them purpose, and gave them a return (relatively) to cultural pride: Muqtada al-Sadr and his radical Islamic agenda. Al-Sadr was certainly well-motivated to tap the discontent and channel it into a lasting insurgency.

No End in Sight makes a compelling case that the Bush administration made sloppy, ill-informed decisions — worse still, that they actively dismissed the wisdom of people who had superior experience and insight. It’s hard to come away with any opinion other than Bush’s White House ignored debate and new information (or perhaps, any information) in favor of answers they wanted to hear. Rumsfeld and Bremer toed the administration’s view that this was a quick, small, winnable war, and the result is a runaway cancer growing in a volatile part of the world.

We upended a beehive, and I get the cold chillies when I imagine my children having to deal with the stings for the rest of their lives, too.

Lt. Moulton gets the last word in the film: "Are you telling me that's the best America can do? No. Don't tell me that, don't tell the Marines who fought for a month in Najaf that. Don't tell the Marines who are still fighting every day in Fallujah that's the best America can do. That makes me angry."

Lt. Moulton gets the last word in the film: "Are you telling me that's the best America can do? No. Don't tell me that, don't tell the Marines who fought for a month in Najaf that. Don't tell the Marines who are still fighting every day in Fallujah that's the best America can do. That makes me angry."

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