"Bad Management" or Doomed from the Start?


The war and occupation of Iraq has attracted schemers of all stripes. Kenneth Pollock assured us that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. Then he admitted his error. Now Pollock and fellow Brookings inmate Michael O’Hanlon declare that we can win.

They saw for themselves, spending a day on a guided tour of Baghdad’s green zone.

Presidential aspirant Senator Joe Biden devised a scheme to redraw Iraq’s boundaries. Hillary joins frustrated Administration officials to blame the puppet Iraqi government for the morass. Bush blames Democrats for wanting to have withdrawal timetables from Iraq.

In an August 24 speech to the notoriously hawkish Kansas Veterans of Foreign Wars, the President alluded to the horrors of premature U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Did Bush mean more U.S. soldiers should have died there before withdrawing; or just more dead Vietnamese civilians?

Even in college Bush didn’t grasp history; nor excel at management. Robert Dallek (Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, 2007) said Bush’s distortions “boggle my mind.” He told the Washington Post: “We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn’t work our will.” Dallek added: “We’ve been in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II. It’s a disasterŠ.But the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out.” Some Bush critics avoid the “going in” part and focus only on Bush’s “bungling” of the occupation.

A new documentary reflects that efficient management school of empire. In his documentary “No End in Sight,” Charles Ferguson argues the “if only it had been managed correctly” line. In a form that has come to typify modern documentaries — power point presentations on video — Ferguson assembles a convincing array of participants in the Iraq war and occupation to make a case that Bush and company grossly mismanaged the war and post-war reconstruction effort. “There were 500 ways to do it [the reconstruction] wrong and two or three ways to do it right,” said Ambassador (Yemen 1997-2001) Barbara Bodine, who worked in Baghdad at the onset of the U.S. occupation. “What we didn’t understand is that we were going to go through all 500.”

Following the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, U.S. forces discovered a paucity of Arabic-speaking personnel, inadequate phone service and no plan for winning Iraqi hearts and minds — outside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

Ferguson’s talking critical heads range from former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (2001-2005), Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (2002-2005) and former National Intelligence Council Chairman Robert Hutchings (2003-2005) to Iraq’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN Faisal al-Istrabadi and Lieutenant Seth Moulton (U.S. Marines). Most complain about Bush’s mistakes: the military did nothing to stop looting after the initial conquest of Iraq; Bush dismantled Iraq’s Ba’ath Party and the government bureaucracy it ran; Bush ordered the dissolution of the 400,000 man army and didn’t immediately establish a viable interim Iraqi government.

Had these errors not occurred, the film’s commentators imply, Washington might have dethroned the dirty dictator and brought democracy to Iraq. They blame Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and their gang of neo-con intellectuals-cum-policy makers led by Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith. These ignorant policy wonks dispatched J. Paul Bremer with a “privatization uber alles” mission. Bremer pretended to consult with knowledgeable people on the ground, but according to General Jay Garner, Colonel Paul Hughes and other initial supporters of Bush’s invasion (Ferguson claims Ambassador Bodine opposed Bush’s war), he paid no attention. His agenda mocked Iraqi reality.

The film doesn’t address why Bush went to war, how he misled and lied to the public; nor do the film’s critics confront the evolution of Bush’s stated reasons for going to war. They also don’t deal with his perpetually moving goalposts: dismantling the threatening WMD and destroying Iraq’s links to Al Qaeda, to toppling — and later executing — Hussein and bringing democracy, to making the U.S. secure, to not being able to tolerate the consequences of withdrawal.

The well-filmed talking heads share screen time with clips of Bush and Rumsfeld assuring decisive victory and success in Baghdad. But the filmmaker doesn’t ask the on-camera experts why they would have conceived that a rich, spoiled brat — remember how The Great Gatsby’s Jay and Daisy Buchanan “smashed up things and creatures and let other people clean up the mess” — would miraculously change character as “a war time President” and become a model of American efficiency. As if anyone runs wars efficiently!

Ferguson’s failure to confront this issue makes the film’s underlying premise problematic.

Because Bush invaded Iraq without a reconstruction plan, the world now witnesses a country in daily chaos, Ferguson implies. The film emphasizes how Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld ignored the State Department’s massive “Future of Iraq” project, which began to plan for a post-Saddam Iraq in October 2001. The camera zooms in on the 13 volume study, as if by using this hubris-laced tome as a guideline Bush could have “fixed” Iraq.

Among other major shortcomings, the study’s authors didn’t stress that Iraqis could be divided into “Sunni,” “Shiite,” “Kurd” and “Turkmen.” State’s “scholars” didn’t predict sectarian war. Like Bush and Rumsfeld, they assumed that Iraqi identity would remain intact after the invasion. But they did warn that “The people of Iraq are being promised a new future and they will expect immediate results. The credibility of the new regime and the United States will depend on how quickly these promises are translated to reality.”

The “Future of Iraq” project — like the Bush administration — didn’t consider larger security concerns, including the refugee crisis, Iran’s influence in Iraq, sectarian violence and the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Even ideal reconstruction plans cannot undo original sin: the illegal war against Iraq.

The film’s best parts highlight Iraqi civilian and U.S. soldiers’ voices, but it reverts to power point when documenting the early days of the occupation (overusing actor Campbell Scott’s narration). Nevertheless, interested Members of Congress ought to add “No End in Sight” to their arsenal of tools for extracting the U.S. from Iraq. As Bush seeks support to extend his war, this film shows the tragi-comic ineptness of his Administration and the stupidity of its daily operations.

The film’s collection of “shoulda” testimonies — “don’t should on yourself” — don’t address the question of how the U.S. should proceed in Iraq: withdraw immediately, gradually or remain indefinitely and blame the puppet government and Iran for lack of “progress.” After two hours of testimony on bungling, we thought of historian Gabriel Kolko’s observation: wars don’t turn out the way they are supposed to. “Are you telling me that’s the best America can do?” asks dejected-looking Lieutenant Seth Moulton.

The answer is “yes.”

In Vietnam, the U.S. military killed 4 million Vietnamese and lost the war. Rather than continuing to debate about who will better “manage” Iraq, Democratic presidential aspirants should consider the Iraq war in light of wars in Korea and Vietnam and rethink their assessment of war-making itself.

SAUL LANDAU‘s new book is A Bush and Botox World. He is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. Farrah Hassen is a Seymour Melman fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.