Monday, August 13, 2007

No End in Sight

Over the weekend, I went to see the new documentary No End in Sight, a chronicle of the mind-numbing series of blunder upon blunder upon blunder committed by the Bush Administration in its conduct of the Iraq occupation. The overall themes are agonizingly familiar by now: meticulous plans crafted over years by experts with knowledge of the country and its people, tossed out in favor of ideologically driven fantasies thrown together off the cuff by people who in many cases had never been to Iraq, didn't speak Arabic, and knew nothing of the fissures within Iraqi society; personnel chosen more for their views on Roe v. Wade than for any relevant expertise; military and civilian experts on the ground in Baghdad overruled by the White House; catastrophically inadequate planning for the aftermath of the invasion; insensitivity to the Iraqi people; and just plain obviously stupid mistakes.

At the core of the quagmire, though, stand three glaring mistakes.

  1. Failure to secure Baghdad — except, of course, the oil ministry — in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.

  2. De-Ba'athification on an insanely overbroad scope, eliminating not only Saddam loyalists, but also thousands of government employees who joined the Ba'ath Party only because it was a requirement of their jobs.

  3. Abruptly disbanding the Iraqi army without any plans for mitigating the disruption to society.
A number of senior administration officials, including Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Jerry Bremer, declined requests to be interviewed for the film, but a few officials did appear, including Richard Armitage (the man who outed Valerie Plame as a covert CIA operative, and who was Deputy Secretary of State), Larry Wilkerson (Colin Powell's chief of staff), Gen. Jay Garner (L. Paul Bremer's predecessor in Baghdad, head of ORHA, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance), and Ambassador Barbara Bodine (in charge of Baghdad in the early days of the occupation), to name a few.

The failure to secure Baghdad created an atmosphere of lawlessness in which the only sources of protection available to most Iraqi citizens were the various sectarian militias, including the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Brigade of SCIRI, among others. Baghdad quickly turned into a patchwork of zones controlled in effect by rival warlords. Furthermore, in the eyes of the Iraqi people and of the world, the United States, particularly in the person of Donald Rumsfeld, showed its indifference to the citizens of Baghdad, to their vital infrastructure, and to their cultural heritage tracing back 7,000 years. Guarding only the oil ministry sent an unmistakable signal as to our intentions and our priorities.

Casting aside a great swath of the government and the entire structure of the army created a pool of hundreds of thousands of people who were suddenly unemployed, broke, humiliated, shut out of public life (and in many cases unemployable in their areas of expertise), and heavily armed. And yet the administration still claims that "no one could have predicted" the rise of an insurgency against the U.S. occupation — never mind that many people not only could have but in fact did predict exactly that. The "commanders on the ground" that Bush so often proclaims his deference to, felt strongly that it was an enormous mistake to disband the Iraqi army, but the order from Washington left Bremer no flexibility: send them home with $50 severance pay (weeks later) and all the firepower they can carry, and cross your fingers in the hope that they don't turn those weapons against U.S. soldiers and diplomats. What could go wrong?

The Bush administration's plans were predicated on the fantasy, promulgated by the likes of Ahmed Chalabi, that the Americans would be "greeted as liberators," and that in the space of a few short months there would be a functioning Iraqi government (with Chalabi as prime minister, of course) moving forward with the rebuilding of a prosperous, democratic Iraq. Advisors who were "reality-based" in any way were systematically shut out of the process.

I still believe that it was a mistake to invade Iraq. It posed no immediate military threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. By our government's own estimation, Saddam Hussein was hemmed in, without the freedom to act on any large scale. Yes, the sanctions were a leaky sieve, funneling money through the black market to Saddam and his friends while at the same time devastating the public, but the gaps in the sanction regime were not sufficient cause to invade. Nor were the various UN Security Council resolutions that Saddam violated or simply ignored. All of those were reasons to maintain pressure on Saddam, and perhaps to begin building an international consensus for regime change, but not enough to invade before that consensus had formed. However, the decision to invade was the least of the mistakes made by the Bushies.

If we had gone into Baghdad with enough troops to secure the city — and to secure the various ammunition stashes Saddam left dotted across the countryside — we would be facing a completely different situation today. We would have had to go through the government and the army to root out the Saddam loyalists, the war criminals, and others unfit to serve their country. It would have been difficult and tedious work, requiring considerable expertise, judgment, patience, and experience. However, at the end of that process we would have had the basic framework of a government and an army capable of taking over when the coalition troops left. We would not have had hundreds of thousands of trained, heavily armed ex-soldiers with nothing better to do than attack our troops. Seems like that might have been a good idea, dontcha think? We might even have had an exit strategy on a timeline measured in months rather than decades.

Of course, if you're reading this blog, you probably never had any illusions that the Bushies knew anything at all about what they're trying to do, so your seeing this film would be to some extent a case of preaching to the choir. What we really need to do is get the dwindling minority of Americans who approve of Bush's handling of the Iraq occupation — including, at least by their floor votes, many Democrats in Congress — to see this film.

No End in Sight is currently showing in the following metropolitan areas: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Portland OR, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It will screen in over 80 cities in 35 states (plus D.C.) over the next two months; for details, click on "Theatres" in the main navigation menu on the web site.

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