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    Middle East
     Sep 28, 2007
How the 'gang of four' lost Iraq
No End in Sight
directed by Charles Ferguson
By Khody Akhavi

WASHINGTON - Iraq, a quagmire? "No, that's someone else's business," then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld brusquely told the White House press corps in the summer of 2003. "I don't do quagmires."

The scene is played twice in Charles Ferguson's documentary No End in Sight, as if cruel irony were easier to swallow the second

time around.

But the first-time director's devastating and lucid account of the George W Bush administration's mismanagement of the Iraq war does not rely on rapid-fire news clips of public officials touting discredited intelligence to make its case. Nor is it a documentary filled with the polemics of anti-war activists decrying the broader neo-conservative agenda.

Ferguson - founder and president of Representational Pictures and the recipient of a Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival - doesn't present much that is factually new, nor does he analyze the Bush administration's rationale for going to war.

Instead, No End in Sight focuses on the early months after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, a short-lived period of restrained hope when the nation was freed from the binds of a dictator. What makes this film so revealing (and painful) to watch is the meticulous way in which Ferguson, a former Brookings Institute scholar with a doctorate in political science, dissects the incompetence of an administration so eager to go to war it forgot to plan for its aftermath.

The collection of news footage, narrated history and interviews details a contemptible and widely acknowledged pattern of White House folly and hubris. As Ferguson convincingly shows, the Bush White House made a series of policy decisions that would determine a disastrous course of events - the descent of Iraq into civil chaos under the dysfunctional stewardship of an occupying force.

Within the first two months, L Paul Bremer III, appointed by President Bush to oversee the Iraqi reconstruction, makes several major and irreversible mistakes, including halting the formation of an early Iraqi government immediately after the fall of Baghdad; de-Ba'athification, a policy that dispensed with most of the bureaucrats and technocrats who knew how to manage the country's ministries; and the decree to disband the Iraqi military, which disfranchised half a million armed Iraqi men.

Contrary to the mainstream US narrative that places the blame for Iraq's plight squarely on the shoulders of insurgents, Ferguson's film argues that the war was lost by the coalition in its first month as US forces, at the behest of their leadership, remained on the sidelines and failed to protect Baghdad's citizens from the rampant looting that accompanied Saddam's flight.

Ferguson makes it abundantly clear where the main culpability lies, pointing the finger at the "gang of four": Vice President Dick Cheney, former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, Bremer and Rumsfeld. All four declined to be interviewed for the film.

Curiously, Bush is described as an aloof leader who does not bother to read National Intelligence Estimates that contradict the predetermined ideological imperatives pushed by his advisers. He is noticeably absent from the decision-making process, and thus becomes a willing victim of the cronyism he institutionalized.

In many cases, the criticism leveled at US officials comes directly from the lips of former diplomats and generals, men and women who were appointed to help rebuild Iraq, who worked on the ground to implement US policy, only to have their advice brushed aside by the distant arm of Washington's bureaucracy.

They include Barbara Bodine, a diplomat who was placed in charge of the city of Baghdad by the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), which was placed under the direct auspices of the Defense Department; retired Lieutenant-General Jay Garner, who oversaw ORHA before the arrival of Bremer; and an array of Bush appointees who tried and failed to shape Iraq policy, such as Richard Armitage, ex-deputy secretary of state, and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for former secretary of state Colin Powell.

Upon arriving Baghdad, Bodine discovers that there are no desks or typewriters for her ORHA staffers to work from, and that only five of her employees speak Arabic. "There were no plans," she admits in the film.

Garner, who was in Iraq for less than two months before being relieved by Bremer, complains of being shut out of ORHA planning before the invasion. The agency, under the direct control of Rumsfeld, was formed less than 90 days before US troops arrived in Iraq. Museums and government ministries remained unguarded, and the sense of disorder led to increased looting. Unprotected ammunition dumps provided future insurgents with copious weapons caches.

But the most damning testimony comes from Colonel Paul Hughes, a military man who was part of the ORHA transition team after the US invasion. Hughes was responsible for efforts to reorganize the Iraqi Army until Bremer's arrival. Amid the mayhem in Baghdad, his efforts to gain the trust of Iraq's military officers and reconstitute some semblance of order on the city's streets are thwarted by the incompetence of Bush appointees.

As Ferguson alternates between interviews with Hughes and the supercilious Walter Slocombe, senior adviser for national security and defense to the CPA, two competing narratives emerge.

"We didn't disband the army. The army disbanded itself ... There was no army to disband," says Slocombe.

But Hughes is having none of it. "If the military had been kept together and treated with respect, we could have nipped the insurgency in the bud," he says. In fact, he counters, the first incidents of roadside bombing in the Iraqi capital occurred several days after Bremer officially disbanded the Iraqi military.

"I think this decision to disband the army came as a surprise to most of us," says Armitage in the film. "I thought we had just created a problem. We had a lot of out-of-work [Iraqi] soldiers."

The message of No End in Sight is one of incompetence. The film shows what happens when a small circle of Pentagon civilians initiate disastrous policies without consulting those on the ground. Ferguson's effort to contextualize and explain the Bush administration's mistakes makes this film essential viewing for anyone who has followed - and exacerbated - the "quagmire" ensuing in Iraq.

Let us hope a copy finds its way to the White House's doorstep.

(Inter Press Service)

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(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Sep 26, 2007)


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