Frontline’s “Losing Iraq” is, in essence, the foreign-policy companion to the PBS news program’s recent domestic-surveillance treatise “United States of Secrets,” offering an evenhanded approach to a topic where reason is often drowned out elsewhere by partisan rhetoric. Both documentaries, moreover — and this one again falls under the aegis of Michael Kirk — don’t point fingers so much as apportion responsibility, detailing the Bush administration screw-ups that created the mess in Iraq, followed by the Obama administration’s neglect, which congealed to create the current mess. What the 90-minute telecast doesn’t offer, alas, is what’s desperately needed: A viable solution.
Interviewing a who’s who of participants and journalists, “Losing Iraq” spends considerable time on the early miscalculations and missteps once the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled, highlighted by what journalist Thomas Ricks dubbed President Bush’s “a premature victory speech” in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
Foremost, the Bush hierarchy lacked any thought-out plan for managing the country, and remained in what military analyst Anthony Cordesman describes as “in a state of denial” about the insurgency, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissing them as “dead-enders” who were “harassing coalition forces.”
Key decisions under L. Paul Bremer’s leadership included dissolving the Iraqi military and de-Baathification of the government – moves that virtually ensured chaos, given the role those forces played in maintaining order during Hussein’s rule. (Bremer, who is interviewed, also acknowledges getting off to a rough start by suggesting soldiers could shoot looters, a policy that was summarily rejected, underscoring his lack of control over the military.)
The lack of seasoned military leadership also exacted a toll, as did choosing Nouri al-Maliki as the country’s leader. Finally, there’s Bush’s last-ditch gamble, the surge under Gen. David Petraeus (also among those interviewed), which restored a semblance of order. Yet that, too, unraveled, as Maliki lost access to the Commander-in-Chief once Obama took charge, experts note, as the administration essentially back-burner-ed Iraq, while Maliki took ill-advised sectarian actions that hastened the rise of the Islamic extremists, known as ISIS, who have quickly and alarmingly expanded their power within the country.
In Frontline’s press release, Kirk has labeled Iraq “the tragic accumulation of many mistakes,” and as the documentary makes clear, no one of them can be blamed for what’s transpired – except, perhaps, Colin Powell’s famous pre-invasion warning, as detailed in Bob Woodward’s book “Plan of Attack,” invoking the Pottery Barn rule, “You break it, you own it.”
With “Losing Iraq,” Frontline has provided a helpfully dispassionate primer on the blood-stained road that has made Iraq one of the most divisive issues of a century politically defined by its wanton partisanship. “Salvaging Iraq,” alas, must wait for another day – and it’s a production, sadly, which no one seems likely to see anytime soon.