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September 17, 2007 | Comments ()

By John Williams | Film Reviews | September 17, 2007 |


George W. Bush was not born to be a great leader.

Wait. Before you angrily leave the Department of Time-Wasting Understatement, hear me out.

There are different kinds of leadership. And it’s quite possible that W. would be nominally effective at certain types, like the type that requires nudging and winking a lot while getting essentially sympathetic personalities to overcome minor differences and achieve an unexceptional goal. Or the type that requires selecting an Employee of the Month and hanging his or her framed picture somewhere visible, near the cash register or on the wall in the hallway that leads to the restroom.

Which is to say that in some alternate universe, George W. Bush might be someone who lived a modest life in a modest place, telling the occasional inappropriate joke, harboring prejudices of a severity and consequence not much different than the prejudices harbored by almost all people, working just enough to appreciate his weekends and eventual retirement, and enjoying an 89% approval rating among his friends and family. The world needs that kind of leadership, too, and I mean that.

Unfortunately, as ever, we occupy this universe.

When I moved to Brooklyn in the fall of 2000, “hanging chad” was about to become a household phrase in this country, and many people around me were proclaiming a potential Bush victory as the last station stop before our train pulled into Hell. But there’s a particular breed of New York liberal who is almost identical to a particular breed of, say, South Carolina conservative, in one crucial sense — their views compose a single, fixed entity, lacking a fluid relationship with real life. When they’re right about something political, it’s purely accidental, like the old saying about a stopped clock.

In an age of normalcy, it’s possible — just possible — that Bush might have sauntered his way through an unremarkable term or two, pushing for a few intolerant reforms with not much success but mostly hewing to the middle of the road in order to be liked, which seemed his main goal — and, in fact, was often trumpeted as his greatest asset — early in his political career. It’s possible he would have attracted only the kind of truly partisan animosity that now attends every twitch of political life in the U.S. But normalcy — as it had been defined in America, anyway — turned its key in at the front desk on 9/11. And Bush’s approval ratings — as low as 26% this summer — can’t be explained away by partisan hatred, any more than Michael Vick’s current approval ratings can be explained away by racism.

No End in Sight, to reach the issue at hand, is a documentary about the pivotal months after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It was produced, written, and directed by Charles Ferguson, which makes it tempting to call it a labor of love, but it’s more a labor of conscience.

Ferguson is upset and he has a clear agenda, but unlike Michael Moore, he doesn’t seem to believe that Earth would enjoy full employment, widespread peace, and be coated in chocolate with a giant nougat center instead of a molten core if only President Bush and a few CEOs were deported to Mars. Ferguson doesn’t waste any time (or at least not much) bemoaning the fact that we got into the war in the first place. And he wastes just as little time investigating ways to redeem the effort. He seems to be saying, “What’s done is done. Now, why did it happen like it did?”

No End in Sight recycles all the greatest-hit sound bites, from “mission accomplished” to “stuff happens” to “bring ‘em on,” and I don’t mean that as a criticism. Those statements haven’t lost any of their sting if you’re a citizen of this country, like I am, who thought we might approach the likely complex and disastrous fallout of “regime change” with more preparedness and fewer sneers from the podium in the White House press room.

What Ferguson understands, though he never says it explicitly, is that lingering on an issue like Abu Ghraib, while satisfying our lust for graphic wrongdoing, is ultimately a distraction from the less dramatic but higher level and much more crucial decisions which helped create the level of chaos that engulfed Iraq in the wake of our march to Baghdad. His method is to interview those who had the inner circle’s ear in the early days of the war, but who were largely ignored and eventually dismissed. None of them, however, come across as bitter also-rans — they’re disappointed and confounded, but also eminently qualified, and the only anger on display is simmering, never boiling. The movie is all the more effective for that.

In 2003, retired general Jay Garner was selected as the head of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) in Iraq. Paul Hughes was a member of ORHA charged with reorganizing the Iraqi army, and Lawrence Wilkerson was Colin Powell’s chief of staff. These three, though joined by others in a devastating chorus (including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Ambassador Barbara Bodine), recount the primary mistakes of those first few months — the decision to allow widespread looting and disorder; the purging of Baath party members from public service, many of whom had joined the party under Hussein’s rule only to protect their lives; and perhaps most critically, the disbanding of the Iraqi army and secret police.

That last decision was made as Paul Bremer replaced Garner, and it undid extensive work Hughes had been doing to keep track of some 500,000 Iraqis who served in those positions. It released half a million angry, unemployed, and fully armed men into the country’s population, and it was done, according to those interviewed in No End in Sight, without consulting the president. Bush is the yawning chasm at the center of the story, as he’s rarely mentioned by anyone as a strong player in any decision, confirming his reputation for gladly passing responsibility to the more experienced people around him.

Ferguson asked several major players in the administration to be interviewed for the film, and they unsurprisingly declined. The evidence for their incompetence and arrogance is abundant, but despite its levelheaded approach, No End in Sight would have benefited from a modicum of contrarian analysis. For instance, while the disbanding of the army was clearly a rash, catastrophic decision, we’re never told how we might have easily dealt with or trusted such a large group of soldiers who we so poorly understood and who likely had complex, potentially antagonistic relationships with each other.

Likewise, the looting is one of the saddest parts of the story. At least some small portion of the human suffering is caused by petty factionalism and committed by (and to) guilty parties, but to see a library full of ancient manuscripts turned to ash is to witness the destruction of innocent cultural artifacts that deserved to outlive even their most violent and ignorant stewards. Watching Rumsfeld’s sarcasm and indifference in response to that destruction is freshly horrific. But scholar Samantha Power’s claim that less looting might have kept Iraqis from eventually forming sectarian militias seems like a stretch, to say the least. The problems in Iraq remain mutual, shared by the bumbling U.S. occupation and a population all too willing to embrace violence and ancient animosities.

Because No End in Sight is admirably unsensational, it can be a little dull, and because it’s a synthesis of previously reported material, it lacks the force of revelation. I suppose there’s some illiterate GOP hard-liner in a hut somewhere on the plains whose last exposure to the war came when he caught a fleeting glance of Saddam Hussein’s statue falling while flipping the channel from QVC to “Wife Swap,” but even most of those who still echo the president’s rhetoric on Iraq know the facts on display here: the debate about necessary troop levels; the consolidation of authority given to Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bremer, and not many others; the mysteriously unused billions allocated for reconstruction…

It’s a sad litany, and the movie’s real achievement is to demystify it, to turn it into a procession of stupid technocratic decisions that could have been made differently. This makes for a valuable addition to the record — and a refreshing change from the Moore-ification of dissent, in which liberals try to out-Fox their opponents — even if it doesn’t always make for riveting cinema. No End in Sight is mostly composed of static head shots of disillusioned wonks on parade, but to paraphrase Wilkerson, it certainly represents the criticism of the Bush administration that counts.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

Bring 'Em On

No End in Sight / John Williams

Film Reviews | September 17, 2007 | Comments ()



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