August 23, 2007

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No End in Sight (NR)
The Bush administration screws up in just about every way possible with the execution of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation in No End in Sight, a documentary which, if you haven’t felt really good and angry at the government lately, gives you ample opportunity to do so.

It’s not particularly revelatory to hear that the U.S. — “us” in every sense of the word — made a spectacular mess of Iraq. It is, though, fascinating to see how. The documentary focuses more or less on the early occupation period — sometime between when the Saddam Hussein statues were coming down and when the insurgency and the violence caused by it became an almost routine part of the daily news. Before the invasion, a hastily gathered group of people were charged with overseeing the occupation of a post-Saddam country. They didn’t have a lot of resources but they started to pull together ideas for how to recreate a working government in Iraq. Some worked on security, some on infrastructure, some on forming a new government.

All — at least all of the former military and Middle East experts who tell their stories here — were ignored.

Against the advice of these folks, post-invasion Baghdad was allowed to loot itself to pieces. The military secured only the oil ministry but offered no police protection to the rest of the city and crimes against government buildings quickly turned into crimes against fellow Iraqis.

Paul Bremer, a Johnny-come-lately to the heavy lifting of the Iraq occupation, and his gang show up months later to take over from the original occupation authority with orders that seem now almost criminally stupid. They pursue a policy of de-Baathification, which, in addition to ousting Saddam’s top lieutenants more or less permanently fired anyone who had any knowledge of how to run the country. Despite work done by Col. Paul Hughes, who is interviewed here and at times seems about to boil with quiet rage, to call back the Iraqi army to serve as a security force in the country, the new Bremer-led occupation authority disbands the military, a huge employer in the country. Thus, angry, unemployed, armed young men were let loose into the country with nothing to do and little hope for new legitimate work. An initial burst of goodwill from the Iraqis toward America for getting rid of the awful Saddam gave way to a hatred for leaving the country to the mercy of a far more awful “liberation.”

I’m sure the remaining 30-odd percent of presidential supporters will say this is a partisan hatchet piece but No End in Sight seems decidedly reasonable. The interviewees here aren’t liberal naysayers; they’re journalists, Iraqis and, most importantly, the U.S. government officials who tried to make the occupation work. They tried to do what they were told they were doing — liberate a country and offer it a chance at a better future. The cavalierness with which their efforts were ignored or undone is astounding. (In one particularly galling part of the film, people talk about how experienced career bureaucrats and experts are eventually replaced with Republican party people, some of them college graduates who are too young to have any idea what they’re doing beyond calling in a rich donor-parent’s favor in exchange for bragging rights about having been to Iraq.) Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t have me as engrossed as the wonky discussions of this movie did. It’s the technical, more than the political, nature of the mistakes here that the movie presents really well and that leave you feeling the most frustrated and dismayed.

Not surprisingly, Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and the seemingly absent President George W. Bush don’t appear in this documentary and probably won’t be appearing anywhere to explain themselves on Iraq with any honesty any time soon. (If we’re lucky, decades from now we’ll get some Robert McNamara-like explanation a la Fog of War, not that that cautionary tale was heeded by anyone here.) But the movie makes you feel that we deserve some kind of an explanation from the administration for why they made the decisions that they did. No End in Sight presents its case too well to be brushed off with any kind of cheap Crossfire-like blue-vs.-red rebuttal. A-

Not rated. Written and directed by Charles Ferguson, No End in Sight is an hour and 42 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Magnolia Pictures. It is currently playing in the Boston area.