No End in Sight

Sunday’s New York Times contains a review of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, the book version of his documentary film of the same name. The book is basically a 500 page compilation of the interviews Ferguson did for the film.

Like most of those who reviewed the film, the reviewer, Barry Gewen, has only good things to say about Ferguson’s project. For the most part, he’s right to praise. Ferguson made a fortune in software (after getting a PhD in Political Science from MIT!) and used a chunk of his wealth to travel to Iraq at great risk and make a first-rate documentary, even though he’d never before made a film. You have to give the guy credit.

On the other hand, both the film and book at least implicitly subscribe to the incompetence dodge: the idea that the problem in Iraq was the Bush Administration’s execution of the occupation, not the thing itself; means not ends. Ferguson, a liberal hawk who supported the war and, from what I can tell, still does, says in his preface that the purpose of the film was to answer the “big question of how and why all this had occurred.” “All this” means the disaster in Iraq. He answers by dissecting the management of the early occupation, particularly the decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and fire most Ba’athists from Iraq’s government. He demonstrates that these decisions were ill-considered, ill-advised and aided the insurgency. By stopping there, Ferguson implies that he has answered his question by looking at the tactics of occupation; that this incompetence is what went wrong in Iraq.

The Bush Administration was incompetent and then some in Iraq, but the occupation failed because it involved Americans trying to reorder the government of a far-off country with plenty of grievances and arms but no liberal ideology. It’s too much to say that success was impossible, but failure was likely, no matter who was President.

Gewen flags a quote Ambassador Barbara Bodine gives in the book: “There were 500 ways to do it wrong, and two or three ways to do it right,” Bodine tells Ferguson. “What we didn’t understand is that we were gonna go through all 500.”

What Gewen doesn’t say is that if she’s right and the odds of success are 1/250, the lesson is don’t chance it.

For an explanation of why civil war was likely in Iraq after an American invasion, no matter how well the President planned and whether they dissolved the Iraqi Army, read the essay, “Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq,” that I wrote for Cato with Harvey Sapolsky and Chris Preble.

On why getting this right matters, see Andrew Bacevich:

How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.

Banal maybe, but worth repeating.