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“No End in Sight”: Spooking the White House?

Posting on Salon.com last week, former Clinton administration adviser Sidney Blumenthal created a bit of a stir when he wrote that the recently released doc “No End in Sight” was “spooking” the White House as it mounts a PR offensive next month to stay the course in Iraq.

Over the weekend in Variety I profiled the movie’s filmmaker, Charles Ferguson, a policy expert and Internet entrepreneur who invested $2 million of his own money to make the pic, which chronicles the U.S.’s mistakes in Iraq largely through the eyes of those who were involved.

“No End in Sight” is, by and large, a standard talking heads doc, narrated by Campbell Scott. And much of the information is not news in Washington circles, as it already has come through in books like “Fiasco” and “State of Denial.” In fact, a recent screening at the Capitol reportedly was not well attended.

But “No End in Sight” is still captivating because it is so basic. Absent any filmmaking gimmick or a super charged point-of-view, it strings the facts together through the first-hand accounts of people like Richard Armitage (below), Lawrence Wilkerson, Jay Garner and Barbara Bodine. They largely were believers in the idea of removing Saddam, as was Ferguson, but quickly found an administration ill-prepared to govern Iraq and ill-informed about the country it was to occupy. Those who opposed the way that things were being planned were marginalized. Or there was suspicion of partisan loyalties.

An example: Garner’s group, originally put in charge of post-war occupation, went into Iraq in 2003 with 160 unarmored SUVs for 400 people. “Of those 400 people, there were 11 people who spoke Arabic,” Ferguson says. “They did not have e-mail. They did not have Internet access. And they had eight satellite telephones. Now I didn’t think that part of being a Republican was being opposed to e-mails and telephones. I didn’t think that was a liberal, conservative, Republican or Democratic issue. That’s just fucking insane. And there were many things like that.”

Much blame is pinned on Paul Bremer, who succeeded Garner as the head of the post-war occupation, but it is clear that many of his decisions came via Washington support or directive. After initially agreeing to be interviewed, Bremer then backed out. Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and President Bush all declined. Ferguson does cull video of Rumsfeld’s famous press conferences, in which he initially dismisses the insurgency and says, “I don’t do quagmires.”

One adviser who agreed to be interviewed, Walt Slocombe, responsible for overseeing the creation of a new Iraqi army, defends the planning, but was not in the inner circle. That leaves lingering questions as to “why” so many decisions were made.

“I don’t know if we are ever going to know, because these critical decisions were made by an extraordinarily small number of people,” Ferguson says. “We are really talking, in an honest way, about less than six. And often with no one else in the room, which is unheard of in Washington DC.”

Ferguson was sympathetic to the idea of removing Saddam — for reasons of regional stability and on humanitarian grounds, but “even before the war started there were disturbing signs.”

“There was lack of attention to the international community,” he says. “They were almost going out of their way to offend the international community.” He also cites the way they booted Gen. Eric Shinseki after he suggested that many more troops would be needed than were being planned.

“They were very secretive and they were very effective in withholding information, but the things you could see on the outside worried me, and then pretty quickly after the war I began to hear disturbing things,” he says. “What I ended up finding out and concluding, was that by August or September of 2003, it was all over.”

As for the media, Ferguson is a bit mystified why more outlets didn’t start reporting about the extent of the insurgency much earlier. He himself started to get a clearer picture of the problems in the country in the latter part of 2003, in talks with George Packer, in Iraq filing dispatches for the New Yorker.

“I don’t think (coverage) has improved all that much,” he says. “It has certainly gotten more skeptical. People don’t take the administration’s word for things. …I am still concerned that it is relatively superficial. In fact, there aren’t too many reporters left in Iraq, in part because it is too dangerous and in part because it is no longer ‘hot, cool’ news.”

He rejects a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “A War We Might Just Win,” in which Brookings scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack wrote that the security situation in Iraq was improving.

“They have basically an absolutely perfect record,” Ferguson says. “They have been wrong about everything they have said since 2002. First of all, it is factually very dubious. When I speak with Iraqis, and I ask Iraqis what did you think of that article, and is there any chance that they were right, they all say, ‘No. It is crazy.’ They all said the same thing about these guys, and that is that they parachute into Iraq and they travel completely and solely with the American military, and they talk only to the people the American military wants them to talk to. They stay for a grand total of eight days and then they write this article like they know anything.”

Ferguson is not optimistic about what will happen. In regular contact with Iraqis he has met through the years, as well as those he interviewed on a month-long trip to the country in 2006, he says that the “structural decline of the country is continuing.” He points to deteriorating infrastructure, like the lack of running water for half of Baghdad’s population.

Like many scholars, he does not see any winning solution, only the need to “keep trying things and be prepared to change things if they don’t work.”

“Most of the people I speak with think that if the United States withdraws precipitously, it will be a really serious bloodbath,” he says. “I would be delighted if everyone would tell me, ‘If the United States withdraws, everything will be OK. The Iraqis would be able to negotiate among themselves. They would make a deal and things would be alright. That is not what most people tell me. What most people tell me is that the presence of U.S. forces causes a lot of anger and stress, but it also keeps the lid on. And if that lid is taken off, the result is probably going to be very unattractive.”

He adds, “At some point, whether because the military is going to be broken or through congressional pressure or both, they are going to have to start withdrawing troops. I have very little confidence they will do this as well as it could be done. And I think that, even in the best of conditions when they start doing that  there is a high likelihood of a bloodbath and even a regional war involving the Iranians on one side and the Saudis on the other.”

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