"No End in Sight" (2007)

Bremer & Garner

I saw the documentary film “No End in Sight” last night, Charles Ferguson’s film on Iraq. While the title makes it sound forward-looking, for the most part the film focuses on the beginnings of the war, in the first half of 2003. It consists of interviews with officials and military who were in Iraq, particularly those who were initially in charge of the ‘reconstruction’ like Jay Garner, along with some news footage of other top officials who would not be interviewed for the film.

While there are many reasons that the Iraq situation has gotten as messy as it is now, the film essentially makes the case that some bad decisions and lack of planning for the aftermath of toppling the regime pretty much ensured a bad outcome. Worst decision according to the film was to disband the Iraqi army, which put a huge number of men out of work and at the same time doing little to secure arms caches around the country. The U.S. Army did not appear to support the decision, and it seems as if Bush was not even informed of it until after it was a done deal.

The film asks the question of why this happened, and seems to suggest that in the end the key decisions were made by a very small group with little reconstruction experience, who were not open to opposing ideas or drawing upon people who did have that experience. You know what they say about good intentions.

Ferguson is an interesting character; he has a Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT, and made a bundle with a software company that was sold to Microsoft. The film is pretty even-handed in my opinion; it’s not at all like a Michael Moore effort. I think he made this film essentially to try to answer his own questions about how things got to be such a mess. His depressing finding is that it seems like things could and should have gone a whole lot better.

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  • Jim  On August 13, 2007 at 11:16 am

    “His depressing finding is that it seems like things could and should have gone a whole lot better.”

    This statement is true of every war man has ever fought, when the skeptics review the effort having knowledge not available real time. Don’t be too depressed!

  • Curt  On August 13, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    I’m not sure that this view is any more encouraging! But if we want to learn something, I think we have to study the decision making.
    Of course things rarely go according to plan, and in any war you have to react to the situation at hand. But in the Iraq case it seems like very little planning at all was done for the period following the overthrow (whereas the overthrow itself was well planned and seemed to go according to plan). Given that the war was begun at a date our our choosing, there seems to be little excuse for a lack of planning (or perhaps it was a lack of use of a plan, since the State Dept had people who did do a lot of work in this arena).
    Of course it’s possible that even with the best made plans it would have ended up the way it is now or even worse. But at least we would have given it our best shot, and I’m not convinced that we did.
    Today I saw a Cheney video clip from 1994, where he defended the decision to stay out of Baghdad in the first Gulf War, and his reasons all made sense, and in fact seem to have all been proven out in the last few years. So it isn’t that no one could anticipate the problems we would be facing.

  • Jim  On August 15, 2007 at 8:57 am

    Do you think we would have gone into Baghdad in the First Gulf War if the World Trade Tower had been knocked down in 1990?

  • Curt  On August 15, 2007 at 9:26 am

    I suspect we probably would have – but – that evades the issue I’m talking about here, which is about post-overthrow planning (or lack thereof).
    9/11 gave the Administration the motivation to decide to take down Saddam. But the war did not start until some 18 months later, when we chose to do it. The problems that Cheney discusses in 1994 did not go away – so it was reasonable to assume that taking Iraq would be difficult, and one would think that they’d do a very thorough and careful planning job before starting the task. It doesn’t appear that they did that (history will make its judgment on that of course).
    So if that is true, that post-overthrow planning was neglected, this is what still confuses me – did the Administration people just fool themselves into thinking that it would be easy and that all would go well? Is there another explanation?

  • Jim  On August 15, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    George Bush and his administration certainly did not “fool themselves” in any aspect of the problem, as the below quote confirms – this was only 9 days after 9/11.

    “Americans are asking: How will we fight and win this war? We will direct every resource at our command — every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war — to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network.

    This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat.

    Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. (Applause.) From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

    Address to a Joint Session of congress and the American People, September 20, 2001

    I think perhaps you should not expect planning that looks good with hindsight when you are critiquing a war effort – even one where you can schedule the beginning. I likewise think that we should not strongly defend their excellence in planning. The truth is particularly murky in wars.

    I tend to wonder where we would be today if the left had supported the actions he mentions in the above address, instead of fighting this “dumb” president with his “wizard” behind the curtain (Rove).

  • Curt  On August 16, 2007 at 9:21 am

    Again, my scope in this post has been limited to the early planning and execution of the Iraq War, not the entire War on Terror. I agree that the truth is murky – there’s a lot of rationalization, CYA, etc. – so it’s hard to figure out exactly what happened and why. But – I’ve yet to see any credible report that comes to the conclusion that we really did “use every resource” in the Iraq planning.

    Are you saying that we as a country should not attempt to ensure that our strategies really are working, achieving the goals set out by the President? How can we do that unless we analyze what’s happened so far, attempt to judge what’s worked, what hasn’t? Given that the war on terror is to be a long effort – I don’t think we can afford to wait til it’s ‘over’.

    If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re arguing that we should just leave all this to the government, not worry about it, not analyze it, cause they will do a good job… 🙂

  • Jim  On August 16, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    The below quote is from W’s Address to the Nation prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This was not regarding the entire war on terror.

    “A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict. And helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment.

    President Bush Addresses the Nation, March 19,2003”

    I think a difference between you and I, as between the left and right, is that you do not believe we are in a war on terrror and you certainly do not believe that Iraq is part of that war on terror. Am I right?

    Iraq planning was faulty, as the planning of all wars is faulty. This is just a fact.

    No, I am not saying that we should not attempt to analyze our governments strategies, but we should do the analysis with a reasonable expectation of what to expect the results to show and not as a vedetta against a President who we hate.

    Re your last paragraph: you may not “know better”. I believe there are some basic government services that you must leave to the government, and one of them is the defense of our nation. Problems with that are corrected at the polls, not with analysis. War is too difficult to analyze correctly. That does not mean we don’t study the strategies and tactics, but we do not try to force change in mid-stream with our very limited knowledge.

  • Curt  On August 16, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    There are a few points here…

    1. I certainly do believe that we are in a war on terror – I fully understand that there are folks out there who plan to do harm to the West. I do believe that Iraq is part of that effort, potentially more so today than four years ago. Since we are committed to fighting those people I’d like to make sure that we do it in the most effective way possible, considering costs and benefits to various strategies.

    Before it was started, I did not think war on Iraq was the right thing to do. Once it was started, and since then, I have been trying to figure out how we might best proceed, since I didn’t think we can just pull out. There don’t seem to be any ‘magic bullets’ at this point. As you indicate, I can’t know enough about the current situation to know what is best to do now. My guess is that the surge will be continued for some time longer – is that the best possible strategy? I honest don’t know.

    2. Yes, there are plenty of folks who really hate Bush. I don’t feel that I’m one of them. I disagree with his approach on many things, but not on everything, and that will be true with most any president. I try to write and think for myself, not as a representative of ‘the left’.

    3. Indeed it is the government’s role to handle defense (however, in Iraq there are apparently a large number of contractors involved with many aspects – that’s another thing that I’d say should be analyzed as to how well it works, along with looking at the volunteer army).

    4. In not such a long time the U.S. will elect a new president. Part of that decision will involve some analysis of who will do the best job in the war. Some of the people running for office have more information about the war than others, and I’ll be interested to hear what they say about what they might do differently (or not), what they feel they’ve learned from our efforts thus far, how they might direct things. Very likely we will change policies somewhat at that point (as we have with the surge), and it will surely still be ‘mid-stream’ at that point.

    5. So my interest in looking at the planning of Iraq because it just may be the case that we carry out operations against other regimes, under Bush or someone else. I think it’s worthwhile to take a critical look at the planning, to acknowledge what seemed to work and what didn’t, and to see if we can do better. I think it’s best to acknowledge some errors when necessary and try to learn.

  • Curt  On August 17, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    A few more thoughts…

    On the war on terror: where I do have some issues with the war is that it is clearly a different kind of war than most earlier wars, in that we’re not fighting a state army, and the end will not be reached with some unconditional surrender. In part it will be a long effort exactly because it is even a bit hard to fully define success. Is it when there have been no terrorist attacks for a certain number of years? Is it when there are no people on the planet thinking about terrorist acts? Is it when there is no regime left that gives any support to terrorists? All of the above? If we pull troops out of Iraq, have we lost? If we decide at some point that pulling troops is our best strategic action, then that is not a loss.

    The nature of it also raises all sorts of issues around civil liberties, enemy combatants, privacy vs public safety, etc. These are not easy issues, and almost without doubt the government and its agents will end up doing things to protect the country that we’d probably all rather not know about. But I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t be wary and careful in our thinking about how to handle these issues.

    On Bush: in my view, Bush had a great deal of support for Afghanistan. As the war in Iraq approached, there were certainly a fair number who were opposed to the idea, but again once it started I think most Americans supported the war effort. By election time in 2004, some of that support had faded, but he had enough to win the election.

    (if Kerry had won in 2004, I think we would have seen a larger surge in Iraq in 2005 – would it have altered the course? – I don’t know).

    After the election, Bush seemed to spend a lot more effort on Social Security than on the war. As I remember it, we heard a lot of ‘stay the course’ in 2005–2006, and I think support for Bush steadily dropped in support over that time, I’d say because many Americans, rightly or wrongly, felt that things were just drifting along.

    In late 2006, Democrats took back Congress, I’d say in large part due to that that dissatisfaction. And it seemed like it took that election to force a rethinking of strategy that led to the current surge, and it also led to the creation of some benchmarks for success (whether these will work or not is yet to be seen, but I think the motivation is correct, to set some guidepost to measure progress).

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