succumbing to peer pressure

Sunday, August 19, 2007

No End In Sight

I went to see this devastating documentary Friday night, and have been trying to figure out what I want to say about it since then. On the one hand, I want to urge everyone to see it, because it's incredibly well done. On the other hand, as today's Doonesbury points out, a majority of Americans seem to have already reached the conclusions outlined so clearly in the film (we have seriously screwed up nearly every decision regarding our occupation of Iraq). So who's left who needs to see the movie? Politicians. And although I am cynical enough to know it probably won't make a difference, I was heartened to read in today's AJC that the filmmaker, Charles Ferguson, has sent copies to military education institutions and members of the current administration. What Ferguson lays out, in compelling interviews with Ex-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Gen. Jay Garner, Bush national security adviser Walter Slocombe, and others, is not so much a polemic diatribe a la Michael Moore but a calm criticism of policy decisions made by the administration. His message, in my opinion, is that we need, we must, examine these mistakes and learn from them, and quit digging ourselves deeper and deeper into this hole.

In a nutshell, two months before the invasion of Iraq, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) was created with the following directive:

To prepare for all this (the coordinated, balanced progress of economic and security reconstruction in a post-conflict Iraq), the President (George Walker Bush) directed on January 20 the creation of a post-war planning office. Although located within the Policy organization in the Department of Defense, this office is staffed by officials detailed from departments and agencies throughout the government. Its job is detailed planning and implementation. The intention is not to theorize but to do practical work - to prepare for action on the ground, if and when the time comes for such work. In the event of war, most of the people in the office will deploy to Iraq. We have named it the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and we describe it as an 'expeditionary' office.

Two months! We started planning for the occupation of Germany two years in advance! Nevertheless, the people staffing ORHA, many of whom are interviewed in the movie, had a lot of experience in and knowledge about the middle east and set about making very rational plans about post-war Iraq. (at least, what seem to me to have been very rational, common sense plans based on their collective work in Bosnia, Mogadishu, and the first Gulf War; Barbara Bodine was actually taken hostage for 40 days during the first Gulf War) These plans included ways to win civilian support, such as a list of important cultural sites to protect from looting (which was inevitably ignored) and ways to rapidly incorporate locals in rebuilding efforts (not only providing them with a sense of ownership but also providing jobs and a way of life for people who might otherwise turn to militias for their sense of identity). As the months and years dragged on, members of ORHA were one by one replaced by politicians with little or no military or Middle East experience or expertise. Eventually ORHA itself was replaced with the Coalition Provisional Authority. Things continued to go downhill from there. As Bodine says in the movie, she and her colleagues used to joke that there were 500 ways to do this thing wrong, and only about two or three ways to get it right. She just didn't realize we were going to go through all 500 before moving on to the two or three. And as one of the soldiers interviewed in the movie says, rather poignantly, don't tell me this is the best America can do. Because that will just piss me off. We are better than this. We have to do better than this.

Personally, if I were a presidential candidate, I would immediately begin reaching out to these former ORHA employees. They may be our best shot at redemption in Iraq.

So although the movie is mostly heartbreaking, there is a tiny silver lining in the knowledge that somewhere, sometime, there were members of this administration being thoughtful about the process of occupation in Iraq. The fact that those people have trouble sleeping at night, feeling guilty for not working harder to make themselves heard, makes me wonder how the people who ignored their advice can possibly sleep at night.


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