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No End in Sight: The Botched Occupation of Iraq

The new film “No End in Sight” charts the course of the United States’ failed experiment to secure Iraq.

The Bush administration’s key failure in Iraq was thinking it “could do regime change without doing nation-building,” Ambassador Barbara Bodine said Tuesday at a Center for American Progress screening of “No End in Sight,” a new documentary about the failures of the planning and management of the post-war occupation in Iraq.

Through interviews with key players in the occupation’s management and original footage of the situation on the ground in Iraq, the film is a compelling and gut-wrenching retelling of how grievous errors in U.S. policy helped to create the insurgency and chaos that currently engulf Iraq.

Those interviewed in the film include Bodine, who was in charge of Baghdad in the spring immediately following the invasion; former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, and Gen. Jay Garner, who helmed the occupation of Iraq through May 2003, when L. Paul Bremer took over.

Bodine was on hand for a panel discussion after the screening in addition to retired Colonel Paul Hughes, who worked at the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq following the invasion, and Charles Ferguson, the film’s director. The discussion was moderated by CAP Senior Fellow Brian Katulis, an author of CAP’s new Iraq strategy report, “Strategic Reset: Reclaiming Control of U.S. Security in the Middle East.” The report calls for a redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq in one year combined with intensified security and diplomatic efforts to stabilize the Middle East. It argues that the United States has no good options in Iraq given the strategic and tactical mistakes made in Iraq since the war was conceived, and that simply staying the course with an indefinite military presence will not advance American national security interests.

“No End in Sight” traces those mistakes, highlighting a few key errors. First, largely because key war planners within the Bush administration lacked military and post-war reconstruction experience, they grossly underestimated the number of troops required to secure the country after the invasion.

This failure led directly to a second major one: allowing the looting of Baghdad, including the national museum, library, and archives. “That’s when we lost [the Iraqis],” Bodine says in the film: the United States’ failure to protect irreplaceable Iraqi cultural treasures and infrastructure necessary for daily life signified to average Iraqis that the Coalition occupiers did not care about them at all.

A third key mistake was the decision of the post-war director of reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, L. Paul Bremer, to disband the Iraqi military after the invasion. Bremer consulted few people on the ground about the decision and ignored the advice of State Department and military officials in making it. The army’s disbanding left 500,000 armed men unemployed, unable to support their families, and infuriated at the United States for leaving them with nothing. Rather than battling an insurgency, the film argues, many former Iraqi soldiers helped to create one.

Ferguson said at the post-screening discussion that what shocked him about U.S. planning and management of the invasion and occupation was “so stupid—so crudely, sloppily, crazily careless.” There was an “utterly shocking disregard for reality and frequently astonishing incompetence” on the administration’s part, he said. Bodine, Hughes, and other key officials interviewed for the film also expressed extreme frustration with the administration’s decision to undertake regime change without being able to confront the difficulties of nation-building.

There was a tendency to “see Iraq as a blank slate on which we could create the Middle Eastern country of our dreams,” Bodine said. U.S. policymakers in Iraq had “a hubristic idea about what was in our power to create.”

What of the current situation in Iraq, and the country’s future? “The conflict today is really all about power redistribution,” Col. Hughes said. People who have lost power want it back; people who have power now want to keep it. He suggested that future U.S. policy in Iraq be made by considering “what are the interests of this country and how can we best serve those interests.”

Rather than referee a civil war, U.S. policymakers should undertake a strategic reset in Iraq that puts U.S. military strategy back on course to protect American national security interests. Unless the United States looks beyond the deteriorating situation in Iraq to counter the threat from global terror networks and ensure stability in the entire Middle East and Gulf region, there truly will be no end in sight.

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