The Wonks of War 

For those eager to learn more about what went wrong in Iraq, there's No End in Sight.

So how did we lose the war in Iraq? Let us count the ways. Or rather, let Charles Ferguson's devastating new documentary, No End in Sight, total up the blunders for us.

Berkeley resident Ferguson, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations as well as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote, produced, and directed the film, his first, to provide what he calls "a rigorously accurate, comprehensive film about Iraq" and the United States' involvement in that country.

Because Ferguson is a political scientist, No End in Sight differs from the documentaries and narrative films that have tried to explain America's adventure in Iraq anecdotally. In place of the subjective tone-poetics of Iraq in Fragments, the foot soldier's slice of life in Gunner Palace, or the behind-the-scenes broadcast-media politics of Control Room — all worthy films in their own right — Ferguson's chronicle trots out a procession of policy wonks: think-tank advisers, former government officials from both the United States and Iraq (those who agreed to talk, of course), and journalists, plus a few military thrown in for emphasis. There's no shortage of opinion, but what Ferguson is aiming for in this fascinating 102-minute dissection is a professional critique of foreign policy.

That might sound dry, but for any American who witnessed the frantic post-9/11 run-up to the conflict, digested the countless reports of violent setbacks since "Mission Accomplished," and wondered what was really going on, the painstaking chronology parts the clouds and lets the sunlight in. It's an ugly picture, but at last we can plainly see the truth behind the sales jobs and platitudes. The majority of the film's wonks of war refuse to deal in promises and fearmongering, and if their analyses focus more on strategic and tactical problems than on the larger question of why the United States should dare to meddle in Iraq in the first place, remember these are high-level enablers, not historians and certainly not elected officials. Nor are they particularly philosophical about the nature of war. To most of them it's a job of work. Morality has little to do with it.

Using talking-heads testimony interspersed with original footage from Iraq, the film backgrounds the country itself: Saddam Hussein's 1968 rise to power, the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), the first Gulf War in 1991, and the UN economic sanctions against Iraq — all factors in the grudge-match mentality of such Washington neocons as Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld (neither of whom agreed to be interviewed) that eventually led to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by US-led coalition forces.

From the beginning, there were significant unmet needs among the Americans conducting operations in Iraq, including lack of military and foreign policy experience, lack of knowledge about the Mideast, and the fact that almost no one spoke Arabic. For his part, President George W. Bush couldn't be bothered to read even one-page summaries of reports on the situation. Power became consolidated in the Pentagon. There were never enough troops to do the job. After the fall of Baghdad, while the oil ministry was the only building protected by US forces, the rest of the country was looted. As one source puts it, "guys with guns took over" the newly liberated country — Iraqi guys like Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

The consensus of Ferguson's cast of experts is that everything began to fall apart in late 2003. Among the huge mistakes: the decision not to form an Iraqi provisional government, the so-called "de-Ba'athification" process, and, perhaps worst of all, the disbanding of the Iraqi military, which, combined with 40 to 50 percent unemployment, put large numbers of angry, well-trained, out-of-work troops on the streets. Iraq was turned into a land of militias, insurgents, criminals, warlords, and "rogue elements." Americans have been passing the buck ever since, Vice President Dick Cheney's 2005 "last throes" speech notwithstanding.

As of early 2007, the direct cost of the Iraq war to the United States was $379 billion. The final tab, with all effects accounted for, will probably be closer to $1.86 trillion. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, in addition to more than three thousand Americans. Some three million Iraqis have fled their country since the war's start. And the single biggest beneficiary of the war, as this somber film points out, is Iran. Questions sprout up like wildflowers. Who was really in charge of this war? How much did the president know? Asks one of Ferguson's witnesses, a former Marine officer: "Are you really telling me that's the best that America can do?" There's a subject for further research. In the meantime, see No End in Sight.


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