End in Sight: Iraq's Descent into Chaos
Charles H. Ferguson
As is typical in Washington, the administration
has solved the crisis in Iraq by redefining success. No longer is the goal a
liberal, multi-ethnic nation ready to lead the rest of the Middle East towards
democracy, enlightenment, and the American Way. Now the objective is preserving
a nominal country in which the various sectarian groups minimize violence by
living apart and ignoring the inefficient, ineffective, corrupt, and largely
irrelevant central government. A situation that in 2003 would have been considered
a grotesque failure is now treated as victory, a product of the far-sighted
"surge," advanced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is ready to initiate
as many new wars as necessary to continue promoting democracy, enlightenment,
and the American Way. Bombs Away!
the administration busy rewriting history, it is worth remembering what the
neocon ivory tower warriors promised and delivered in Iraq. Charles Ferguson,
an internet entrepreneur with an interest in foreign policy produced a documentary
on Iraq essentially how the administration mismanaged virtually every
decision, big and small. No End In Sight draws from the research for
the television show and is filled with interviews with people ranging from policymakers
to front line soldiers. Ferguson, who originally leaned in favor of the war,
has painted a portrait of arrogance and incompetence more devastating than anything
coming from the Democratic National Committee.
To read Ferguson's summary is to marvel at the sheer
stupidity of the so-called "adults" running U.S. foreign policy.
"They won't start any planning for the occupation at all until two
months before the war, and then they'll start completely from scratch. They'll
exclude the State Department and CIA people who know the most about the country.
They won't have telephones or email for months after they arrive in Iraq. Our
troops will stand by as nearly every major building in the country is looted,
destroyed, and burned."
After tossing millions of bureaucrats and soldiers onto the
street, the administration was shocked to find a growing
insurgency. Yet as opposition builds, writes Ferguson, "they
will deny its existence and refuse to negotiate, even when
leaders of the insurgency signal a desire for compromise. They
will airlift $12 billion in hundred-dollar bills into the
country, with no accounting controls, and three-quarters of it
will remain permanently unaccounted for." Twenty-somethings will
be vetted to write Iraqi laws based on their opposition to
abortion rather than their knowledge of Arabic. And as sectarian
violence swells, the administration and its acolytes will insist
that the media is ignoring all of the good news trash being
collected, harbors being dredged, cell phones being used.
Had tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of
thousands, or perhaps millions, of Iraqis not been wounded,
maimed, and killed because of the administration's misbegotten
adventure, the Iraq saga would be a comedy routine. But there is
nothing funny about the catastrophe that has enveloped Iraq,
courtesy the neocon war party.
Ferguson's comprehensive volume methodically details the idiocies that masqueraded
as U.S. policy. The war itself went well, but was merely the first installment
of a lengthy conflict that the neocons never expected to have to fight. A matter
of almost religious doctrine was the belief that Washington merely had to show
up to rule. George Packer, a journalist who helped convince Ferguson to make
his documentary, observed that the administration idea of installing Ahmed Chalabi
as president and then cutting troop levels to 30,000 "was a ludicrous plan.
It was a plan that didn't begin to grapple with how difficult and dangerous
and complex these postwar situations are." But then, "Donald Rumsfeld
and the officials under him decided that they were not going to be deterred
by history" or the contrary experience of any prior conflict.
Ferguson's book well covers the many almost legendary
examples of administration idiocy and hubris. Refusing to
seriously plan for the occupation. Failing to involve anyone
knowledgeable about Iraq in what little planning was done.
Allowing the country to descend into lawless chaos. Creating a
top-down occupation essentially run by College Republicans and
largely excluding Iraqis. Generating tens of thousands of
recruits for the insurgency by discharging the military and
barring even minor Baathists from government jobs. Discounting
the idea that a serious insurgency could develop. Exacerbating
sectarian divisions through occupation policy. Helplessly
watching the explosion in sectarian violence.
Through it all the Bush administration remained a
fantasyland in which only good news was tolerated. The knock on
President George W. Bush, notes Ferguson, is not that he was
disengaged, but that he was involved in the major decisions.
Alas, his involvement occurred in a different dimension, cleansed
of inconvenient ideas, facts, and conclusions.
For instance, Feisal al-Istrabadi, for a time Iraq's ambassador to the United
Nations, observed: "those of us who were saying things that were different,
we were not allowed. There was a I was going to say a glass barrier,
but there was a concrete barrier. Our voices were silenced. Those who were not
on board the ideological, you know, the sweets-and-flowers agenda, nobody wanted
to hear from us."
Similar is the account of Barbara Bodine, a senior foreign
service officer employed in Baghdad by the occupation. She
explains, "with this administration, the difference is they don't
want to hear the inconvenient fact. And if removing you,
excluding you, from the meeting or the process or the structure
is the way not to have to deal with your inconvenience, then
that's what they'll do. They prefer an echo chamber."
Even when good advice got through, it had no apparent impact. Larry Diamond
of the Hoover Institution, who worked in the occupation authority, says that
he "strongly urged the administration to make a clear, emphatic, declaratory
statement that we were not seeking permanent military bases in Iraq, and would
not seek them." But no such declaration was made because the administration
in fact expected to gain permanent bases for use against any state in the region
that refused to kowtow to Washington's demands. Even now it is not clear that
the administration has abandoned its goal of a long-term
military presence in Iraq.
Unfortunately, Iraqi civilians and American service
personnel were unable to enjoy the fantasies being built in the
sky by administration officials. They lived on and patrolled the
bloody streets of Baghdad and other cities, towns, and villages
across Iraq. "By 2006, killings were so numerous that most were
no longer reported, and it became increasingly difficult to
assess the level or the source of violence," writes Ferguson.
Far from feeling liberated, average Iraqis complained to Ferguson
that life was worse than under Saddam Hussein, that the value of
life had become "trivial."
Antagonism towards the U.S. was fueled by occupation practices. Ferguson notes
that "If one combines raids, arrests, detentions, and shootings of civilians,
it seems likely that by 2007, U.S. military conduct had directly affected, wounded,
or killed over 100,000 Iraqis, and possibly well over 200,000." Yet U.S.
actions "seem to have been frequently indiscriminate or misguided,"
with the result "that the military's error rate was quite high in its dealings
with Iraqis, both friendly and hostile." But such errors should come as
no surprise for an administration that never expected to have to fight a guerrilla
Over time U.S. forces got much better, but by then the
insurgency, as well as al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, had burgeoned.
Increasing American force levels last year sharply reduced the
levels of violence, but, like all the king's horses and all the
king's men, could not put the Iraqi Humpty Dumpty back together
again. Ferguson explains:
"As of late 2007, Iraq is a quasi-warlord society with a paralyzed
central government whose individual ministries are controlled by various political
parties and militias. The country is denominated by four regional power struggles,
which often approach open warfare, conducted through a combination of politics,
corruption, crime, and militia violence. ... Iraq is in a state of near civil
war, which is barely contained by the American military presence. The country
suffers from an extremely high level of criminal violence and pervasive corruption.
The south and Baghdad are predominantly controlled by fundamentalist Shiite
militias and their affiliated political parties. American occupation forces
have been progressively marginalized. The recent American troop surge is generally
regarded as having produced a substantial but unsustainable reduction in violence,
without altering the fundamental processes under way in the country, including
continuing ethnic cleansing, geographical segregation along sectarian lines,
deteriorating infrastructure, and political paralysis."
No End in Sight covers all of these problems in detail. The discussion
of casualties, both American and Iraqi, is particularly poignant. Moreover,
four to five million Iraqis have fled their homes one-sixth or more of the
population. The equivalent number in the U.S. would be more than 50 million.
Harvard's Samantha Power makes the telling observation that
"One of the elements that kind of unites the U.S. relationship to
Iraq across time is a disregard or just a nonconsideration of the
welfare of the Iraqi people." Indeed, one has to believe that
there is a special level of Hell reserved for ivory tower social
engineers who cavalierly initiate war with little concern for the
likely consequences on those unwillingly providing the
Equally important is Ferguson's assessment of the impact on the U.S. and the
world. The ultimate financial cost of the war to the American people is likely
to exceed $2 trillion. Washington has strengthened Iran, turning it into the
region's principal Islamic power. And the Bush administration's botched preventive
war has exacerbated the problem of terrorism.
Jessica Stern of Harvard told Ferguson: "The United States
has facilitated the next iteration of that international jihadi
movement. We have given that movement the best possible
training." Contrary to the fantasies prevalent in Washington,
the terrorists will not all stay in Iraq to be killed. Rather,
observes Stern, "This is not a kind of roach motel, where we
gather the world's international jihadis and kill them in Iraq.
They will escape from that motel, and we've already seen that in
Jordan they are now very well-trained and very angry. And I
believe we will eventually see them on Western streets."
Moreover, the war has created more terrorists. There is no
fixed number of jihadists who must be killed. Rather, there is a
large pool of potential terrorists who are motivated in part by
what the U.S. government does. The war in Iraq has created yet
another grievance. Thus, complains Stern, "the war in Iraq has
really facilitated bin Laden's effors to continue to spread that
jihadi movement internationally."
Perhaps the book's most sobering conclusion is that the so-called "surge"
cannot be sustained. Iraqi observers seem to be particularly skeptical. Violence
is down, yes, but they expect it to eventually rise since little has changed
about Iraqi society or governance.
Larry Diamond makes much the same point. He contends:
"unless we get a political consensus among the principal Iraqi
parties on what the rules of the game and the constitutional
structure are going to be on these and related realms, there is
no chance of stabilizing the country. And the most that we can
do is what we are doing there now, which is basically become the
police force for the country they certainly don't have one and
hold up the floor." And we are doing this "so these different
Iraqi political parties, factions, militias, incipient warlords
and whatnot, can seek to corner power and resources in the
uncertainty of the current situation and with the extraordinary
greed that characterizes political and military actors in this
This does not warrant the sacrifice of more American lives
or waste of more American treasure, he persuasively argues.
Which is the bottom line that the hawks who desire to fight to
the last soldier and Marine must eventually confront.
Getting out of Iraq obviously is the most important goal of
U.S. policy today. The war was a horrible mistake based on
flawed intelligence with horrendous humanitarian consequences for
Iraqis. It is bleeding precious lives from patriotic communities
across the U.S. and generating a flood of red ink for an already
spendthrift government. The misbegotten conflict has weakened
America, degraded American security, and wrecked America's
There is an equally important longer-term objective. Never
again. Never again a war of choice. Never again a war based on
fantasy expectations. Never again a war without realistic
planning. Never again a war of ideology against interest. Never
again a "humanitarian" war. Never again the public turning
government over to crackpot ideologues, giving them the power to
kill, bomb, and destroy. Never again.