Exclusive to STR
November 7, 2007
When the Iraq war began, Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" dubbed it "Mess-O-Potamia" and boy, was he ever right. But this month a documentary movie was released which makes some sense of the chaos and helps those who, like me, have had difficulty seeing the forest for the trees get a better idea of what has been going on since April 2003. It's called "No End in Sight " and was made by Charles Ferguson with $2M of his own money. I call it a valuable contribution to historical analysis and say he deserves a handsome return on his investment. In less than two hours, I learned more of the tragedy of Iraq than I have from four years of network news; so to the film, hereinafter "NEIS", I give a big thumb-up.
There is no such thing as objective history, for every historian brings to any subject his own bias - and NEIS is no exception. Ferguson was a Fellow at the Brookings Institute, so we'd be surprised to see much sympathy for the Bush Administration, and there is no such surprise. Ultimately the movie is seriously flawed, as I'll show below--but let me also outline its merits and show why it's well worth watching.
Ferguson begins his story after the military victory was won; there is no extended treatment of what led up to the war, whether there was lying about WMDs, etc. He does not even remark on the brilliance of the victory--that US-led forces were able to do in three weeks what Iranian ones had failed to do in eight years. He starts when the official war ends and when the real one starts, and the message of NEIS is one of almost incredible, bungling incompetence.
Sometimes, we libertarians say that war is the only thing that government can do better than the market can. This is false on theoretical grounds (a market consists only of people interacting on the basis of voluntary contracts, so by definition war is impossible; hence a government waging war not only has no equal, it does not even have a rival) but also, as NEIS shows, in practice also. The success of the three-week invasion aside, the occupation of Iraq was a disaster from the get-go. Ferguson identifies four major blunders:
- there was no planning done for post-victory Iraq until 60 days before the invasion began
- the defeated Iraqi army, which might have helped reconstruct the country, was disbanded at once
- likewise any civil administrator carrying a Baath Party card was let go
- dozens of huge weapon dumps were left unguarded for anyone to help themselves
All of these were laid at the door of Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Rice--none of whom consented to be interviewed. NEIS does feature several interviews with other top people in the FedGov, all of whom help describe (reluctantly or otherwise) how fully these four blunders led quickly to the chaos we have seen daily ever since.
The lack of planning for reconstruction is contrasted with the case of Germany , for which detailed work began in 1943, two years before it was needed. By implication, Ferguson says that the Allied Control Commission there did a good job after 1945, and so can share credit for that country's spectacular economic bounce-back; I say he got that wrong. Germany 's Wirtschaftswunder  began only when Ludwig Erhard  bypassed the ACC by announcing in 1948 that wages and prices would immediately float freely instead of being regulated. There had been no such intention on the victors' part; thus, German reconstruction succeeded in spite of the occupiers' policy, not because of it. So the NEIS comparison with that case is hardly compelling. But for the resilience of Germans like Erhard, the grinding poverty of 1945-47 Germany might have continued a very long time.
NEIS makes a better case for using the Iraqi Army rather than handing all its members a pink slip. By end-April 2003, resum's had been collected from all 130,000 members, and officers were coming to the Americans to say "Here we are, ready, willing and qualified to help you reconstruct our country. What will you have us do?" But the answer was to go home and be quiet and no longer to draw any pay. Thus, 130,000 patriotic young men with military training and ample command of the language and customs were suddenly out of work and any possible respect for the invader was destroyed. Here too, however, the film falls short; there was a case for not allowing that army to continue in existence, and that case (that Saddam was still uncaptured, the intent was to withdraw US troops starting in August, so might not such a potent force re-group after that departure and reverse the toppling of the dictator?) is not even mentioned, let alone answered. If a further comparison were made with 1945 Germany , I don't recall that anything was done with the Wehrmacht other than fully to dissolve it.
Removal of Baathist civil servants does appears foolish, presuming the aim to be to restore a smoothly functioning Iraqi State ; for most had joined the Party only so as to get a job. The ACC in Germany was wiser in that respect, for as that war wound down, Germans were left free to administer cities, towns and villages, subject of course to overall control by the victors. There was a long process of denazification, but it aimed only to identify the most virulent Nazis and put them on trial. In Iraq , the pool of the resentful unemployed was swollen even by school librarians and teachers; hence even more youths were let loose on the street, looking for ways to hit back.
The fourth blunder--that of the unguarded weapons caches--was the one that completed the perfect storm; those newly-resentful and idle young men went to arm themselves, and four bloody years began. Unless the real intention was to create the shambles on purpose, it's hard to see that omission as anything but crass idiocy on the part of Bush the Decider.
NEIS shows ample coverage of the battle between the various Iraqi groups, like Sunni and Shia, as each leader tries to gain supremacy ready for when the Americans leave. In fact, the film points out that another big failure of the FedGov was not to perceive that there never was an "Iraqi people" waiting to be liberated so as to live in peace. They celebrated Saddam's ouster by getting busy slaughtering each other at once. However, a further weakness of the movie is that it fails to explain why, exactly, these groups so hate each other. Not once does a representative or spokesman for any of them come on-screen, even in silhouette, to explain what's up. No doubt it would have been difficult to find one, but surely not impossible; Al Jazeera is not far away and seems to have the needed contacts. To round out my understanding of the situation, I'd like to have heard from some of those people; they are, after all, thugs to a degree neither more nor less than the Bushies or any other bomb-toting government. I'd also like to have seen comment about why the FedGov apparently changed its mind about partitioning  Iraq, and whether that might have better promoted peace among the rival factions, but none was offered.
Now to the biggest shortfall of "No End in Sight," and to try to justify the title here.
A useful technique for evaluating almost anything is to ask something like "Okay, suppose the problem(s) you identify were fully solved. What then?" In the case of NEIS' expos' of Mess-O-Potamia, FedGov incompetence is the problem, so let's hypothesize that Bush were not stupid and all his advisers were wise. What would have happened?
Planning for a peaceful, democratic Iraqi state would have started no later than January 2001 (when plans for an invasion were in fact being formed) and while its Army might have been stood down in May 2003, it would have been done in an orderly way, with severance pay for those laid off. Civil servants would have been kept in place, except for the worst of the Baathists. All weapons dumps would have been guarded and their contents transferred to US control or exploded in the desert. Possibly, the NeoCon plan to partition the country into Sunni, Kurd and Shia zones would have been implemented, with or without participation by neighboring states. By 2004, it would have been quite safe to start withdrawing occupation forces who would, in any case, have been enjoying quite a peaceful stay. Democracy would have been served, the Republicans would still control Congress, and Hillary would pose no threat for 2008.
Is that what you and I want? Does that solve the real problems?
I didn't think so. What NEIS most fails to do is to pose the right questions. It does not ask "Why should the US Government concern itself with another country 6,000 miles away?" or "Why is anyone in the Muslim world angry about America ?" or "Who appointed America policeman of the world?" or "Why must America control its oil spigot?"
Had it done so, NEIS might have concluded not so much that the Iraq war has been badly run, but that it should never have been run at all, that how Iraqis choose to live is no business of Americans, that oil cartels don't work long because it makes a lousy beverage, that government is not needed for "defense" any more than it's needed for any other useful function in society, and that its persistent pursuit of a foreign policy (any foreign policy) inevitably endangers the very people it claims to protect. By analyzing the situation relentlessly and rationally, in fact, Charles Ferguson would have found himself becoming a market anarchist. But that would never do, so of course those questions were never posed.
The "One End in Sight"? To withdraw at once from the maelstrom Bush has created, yes of course, but also to withdraw from every other country where US troops are stationed, to terminate all sticks and carrots applied to foreign governments and so to cancel all foreign policy. Can a government exist without some kind of foreign policy (favoring A, damaging B)? I doubt it, and so think that for that reason alone, government itself must also dissolve.
Absent government here, no Arab would have blamed Americans for displacing him from Palestine, no Muslim would have resented US interference in his country's affairs nor retaliated by hijacking planes, taking hostages, bombing Navy ships or US embassies or demolishing the Twin Towers. Nothing can change the past, but absent government here in the future, perhaps excepting a short hangover period, there would be no "terrorist threat" (especially not the big one, from the IRS ) no cassus belli and no means to wage one. Now, that's a solution.