With everybody holding their breath, waiting for Gen. Petraeus' report on our "progress" in Iraq, this may be the perfect time to see No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson's own report on our "progress" in Iraq. A dot-com millionaire with a Ph.D. in political science, Ferguson is the opposite of Michael Moore. He doesn't grandstand. He doesn't tar-and-feather the Bush administration. He doesn't go for laughs, nor does he get any. But No End in Sight, which he paid for with his own $2 million, may be the first documentary since Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 that's tried to give us The Big Picture of this still-unfolding tragedy, certainly the first one released in movie theaters. How did we go so quickly from "Mission Accomplished" to "Mission: Impossible"? Ferguson has the answers, and he'd like to share them with you.
Most of them are familiar to anyone who's followed the news during the last four years, but there's something about having them all lined up, like the charges in an indictment. And there's something about watching former participants in the rebuilding of Iraq break ranks with the Bush administration over how the occupation was planned and carried out. To say that mistakes were made would be a vast understatement. If you buy Ferguson's argument (and it's certainly a persuasive one), Bush's inner circle - Rumsfeld, Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, in particular - has displayed both arrogance and ignorance, a deadly combination. And all the skeptics, from Colin Powell on down, were either forced to get with the program or get marginalized. Bush himself, the documentary claims, was strangely uninvolved, fiddling while Baghdad burned.
"Yes, yes, Bush!" Iraqi children are shown shouting at war's end, one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of news clips that Ferguson and his editors have masterfully woven together with interviews of various high-ranking officials and some carefully chosen foot soldiers. But just as you can win the battle and lose the war, you can win the war and lose the war's aftermath, and No End in Sight suggests we lost this war's aftermath before it had even begun. "There were no plans," says Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who was let go for failing to toe the party line. And make no mistake, there was a party line, Rumsfeld having been put in charge of just about everything having to do with the war. Ferguson includes numerous excerpts from press conferences in which the now former defense secretary spun the facts so hard it must have left him dizzy.
But it's some key personnel a little farther down the chain of command who get most of the face time, the higher ups having taken the Fifth when Ferguson requested interviews with them. We meet Gen. Jay Garner and Col. Paul Hughes, both of whom raised red flags but now wish they'd raised holy hell. But in retrospect, there may not have been any way of stopping Paul Bremer, head of the Provisional Coalition Authority, who basically ran (some would say ran into the ground) Iraq beginning in May 2003. Ferguson zeroes in on three decisions that Bremer made, any one of which might have had dire consequences but which, taken together, almost guaranteed an insurgency. First, he delayed Iraq's sovereignty for a year, then he purged Iraq's civil service of its Baath Party loyalists. And then - the coup de grace - he disbanded Iraq's army, sending a half million bitterly unemployed soldiers out into the streets.
The rest is history, or at least will be someday, and it's hard to believe that No End in Sight won't be one of the documents that future historians sift through when trying to make sense out of this fiasco. And the documentary's so skillfully put together you have to remind yourself that Ferguson may have striven to be fair but he didn't necessarily strive to be balanced. He has an argument to make, and he makes it very effectively. But you may find yourself wishing that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, even Bush, had participated, if only to hear what their arguments would be. That none of them have any military experience to speak of (Rumsfeld was a Navy pilot during the '50s but saw no action) would only add to the pleasure of hearing them speak out in favor of a war they're largely responsible for, a war whose aftermath is turning out to be more costly than the war itself.
"I don't do quagmires," Rumsfeld jokes in one of those press conferences. He may have gotten out just in time.