Lost in the Movies: No End in Sight

No End in Sight

No End in Sight is one of the best Iraq documentaries because it is isn't powered by justifiable rage but rather sheer disbelief and frustration. Its director, Charles Ferguson, ostensibly pro-war in 2003, does not focus too extensively on the reasons for going to war or even on the subterfuge involved in the preparations. This it leaves to other documentaries (whatever the motives, this plays as effectively as Michael Moore introducing the uninsured in Sicko and then announcing that the movie would not be about them). Instead, No End in Sight chronicles the unbelievably incompetent and damaging way that the arrogant Bush administration, and especially the Department of Defense, conducted the postwar reconstruction. Or lack thereof. Complete lack thereof. In World War II, the plans for postwar Japan and Germany were drawn up two years in advance. For Iraq, a war of choice in which we had all the time in the world to think ahead, postwar planning did not begin in earnest until two months before the invasion began. This boggles the mind, but it's only the beginning.

In an argument which grows in weight and damnation as the documentary proceeds, Ferguson chronicles disastrous decision after disastrous decision. A few of these would have been enough to condemn the Bush administration for posterity. In bulk, they lead us to the conclusion that, even aside from Katrina and financial negligence and corruption and misconduct of the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for bin Laden, even aside from the terrible decisions to go into Iraq in the first place, just on the basis of postwar Iraq, the Bush administration is in contention for the worst presidency in American history. To a large extent, they created the conditions on the ground, and then continued to obstinately deny their existence, proclaiming premature victory, waving away challenges, and waxing poetic about democracy and peace while people they sent into harm's way were dying.

OK, let's take a moment here. What exactly were those mistakes? Aside from waiting so long to start planning: placement of inexperienced (in Iraq, postwar reconstruction, and military affairs) civilians in charge of important positions - in fact almost all positions of power in the country; organization of postwar reconstruction under Donald Rumsfeld, rather than State with Colin Powell, and failure to restructure this set-up in the face of violence and poor administration; insufficient troop strength to secure the country after the invasion; inactivity in the face of looting which frightened Iraqi citizens; insufficient protection of national assets (except for oil fields) which were destroyed in looting, resulting in complete decimation of Iraq's infrastructure; remove from the lives of daily Iraqis through sequestering in the Green Zone, even before there was a dangerous insurgency; appointment of recent college graduates, with little to no real-world experience, in positions of power in Iraq - one professor ran into a student who was put in charge of Baghdad traffic planning, as a sort of fun summer activity; inability of civilian leadership to listen to military advice, on everything from troop strength to military disbanding; failure to secure weapons caches; constant reshuffling of personnel in charge, without informing them of decisions made in Washington; reliance on the shady and corrupt Ahmed Chalabi, who had no real connections to Iraq after decades in exile; denial of the insurgency once it emerged; free reign given to contractors who committed violent acts which alienated Iraqis further from U.S. authority...well, you get the idea.

And this is not even to address two of the most dangerous, and damning, blunders L. Paul Bremer, civilian administrator of Iraq for much of 2003, made shortly after arriving in country: de-Baathification, in which massive quantities of government employees, including teachers and minor officials, were purged for connections to Saddam's ruling party; and disbanding of the military which sent hundreds of thousands of armed, angry, unemployed Iraqis into the insurgency. Bremer is interviewed, looking embarrassed, trying and failing to dissemble, as is Douglas Slocombe, another official whose disingenuous justifications are exposed in brutal fashion, cutting between his statements and those of another official, whom he is unable to counter. Most of the interviewees come off well and tend to pass the buck onto Bremer, Slocombe, and the various officials who don't appear before the camera (of the Washington administration officials, only Richard Armitage, Colin Powell's deputy secretary of state, makes an appearance). Some of this seems a little too convenient and occasional doubts are raised as a result.

Barbara Bodine, coordinator for central Iraq in charge of Baghdad, is scathing in her critiques of bureaucratic ineffectiveness, but having just watched "Frontline" I was suddenly uncertain of her credibility. That show reminds us that she obstructed a hunt for Al Qaeda in Yemen following the USS Cole bombing, clashing with FBI Agent John O'Neil (she has claimed these clashes were exaggerated). In other words, even given the overwhelming evidence provided in this film, it's useful to remember that everyone has their own agenda and some people might be trying to wash their own hands of the mess.

At the same time, much of what the film posits, regardless of who posits it, is irrefutable. The White House and the Defense Department put on their ideological blinders, choosing to believe that after taking out Saddam, Iraqis would calmly and proudly take their country back after decades of dictatorship, and a civil democracy would magically rise from the ashes of Baathism. When reality intervened, they proved unable and unwilling to deal with it, continuing to issue denials, making incredibly poor decisions, and placing power in the hands of loyalists rather than those who were good at their job.

The documentary is dark, subdued in style but with a fierce intensity in its pacing and accumulation of material. The majority is constructed from talking-head interviews interspersed with footage of Baghdad falling to pieces and the mayhem that ensued. It carries with it an impassable stamp of authority, a sense that this is not about ideological axe-grinding or knee-jerk dislike of Bush, but rather a reaction of common sense and nuanced intelligence against a complete debacle, a failure of leadership, and a colossal hubris. The documentary is titled "No End in Sight," though conditions on the ground have improved somewhat since it was released, and plans have been made to start withdrawing U.S. troops soon. Yet the film's damnation of Bush's obstinacy (it took 3 1/2 years to fire Rumsfeld, the man who insisted on a "light footprint" strategy years after we'd been sinking into the sand) still stands. There's an end in sight, and it's January 20, 2009, but whether or not that date is the beginning of the end, or merely the end of the beginning, remains to be seen.


Anonymous said...

I will agree that plenty of mistakes were made by the Bush administration before and after the war. What baffels me completely is how Bodine who botched the investigation of the attack on the Cole was then given a postion of power again. Bodine was and is incompetent. She is just as guilty as Clinton, and Bush in not taking a stance to protect Americans, but instead to protect a dictator(Saleh of Yemen) with a history of supporting Al-Qaeda. Now that we have been informed that a Judicary Committe will be held next year, we have our doubts. Will Obama push the whole nasty Cole affair under the rug as two other presidents, and Bodine did? Unfortuantely I think he will. I hope I am wrong.
Gary G. Swenchonis, Sr

Joel Bocko said...

Gary, thanks for your comment. The first time I saw "No End in Sight" I didn't know anything about Bodine. This time, as I indictated in the review, I'd just seen the Frontline episode about FBI Agent O'Neil which did not paint Bodine in a flattering light, to say the least. So I was somewhat surprised to see her used as a credible witness in the film, although it's interesting that Armitage - who I've always respected, and who comes off well here - says she was fired for being difficult.

I don't know much about the Cole situation, other than what I saw in that documentary, so I don't know if her culpability is as great as you say. Ironically, given that the movie essentially uses her as a voice of reason, she could instead be another example of how the administration bungled things (I wonder if this would refelect badly on State though, and hence the filmmakers - who were largely gunning for Defense - didn't paint her in a negative light. This would be an unfortunate blemish on the film if it's true.)

Anyway, I take it you view the Cole incident as something more than mere bureaucratic incompetence and narrow self-interest. Do you have any books or websites you'd recommend that go into details?

Dean Treadway said...

A tremendous overview of a detailed documentary that perfectly recreates the poor choices made by the Bush adminstration. An excellent review of a necessary film. I wish I had written it myself.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks - "poor choices made by the Bush administration" - this could indeed descruve much of the election series, which was not my intention but speaks volumes about where we've been.

(Revision of previous - now deleted - comment.)

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