RT Talks Iraq with No End in Sight Director Charles Ferguson

First-time filmmaker details policy errors during the occupation

by | July 24, 2007 | Comments

As support for the war in Iraq slips in the polls, many are wondering where things went wrong. Director Charles Ferguson chronicles the missteps in U.S. foreign policy that have led to the current chaos in Iraq in his film, No End in Sight.

Featuring incisive interviews with the likes of former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, General Jay Garner, and Ambassador Barbara Bodine, as well as journalists, soldiers, and average-Joe Iraqis, No End in Sight is a tightly-edited, comprehensive look at the conflict. Ferguson’s film makes a compelling case that the occupation could have worked out, had the government been more responsive to the reality on the ground.

A few decisions are singled out as being particularly detrimental, including the inaction of U.S. forces as looters tore through Baghdad and the disbanding of the Iraqi military, each of which sowed the seeds of insurgency. No End in Sight posits that many of the directives were made by a small group in Washington who were not in tune with the reality in Iraq, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer.

First-time director Ferguson brings an impressive resume to the proceedings. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and visiting scholar at the University of California-Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he made No End in Sight with $400,000 of his own money. Early response indicates that his efforts have paid off: No End in Sight won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and currently boasts a 91 percent rating on the Tomatometer. Ferguson talked with Rotten Tomatoes about how the occupation could have been handled, and what can be done to lessen the damage to a volatile region.

Charles Ferguson
No End in Sight Director Charles Ferguson

RT: This is your first movie. What was the impetus to make this film??

CF: Well, there was a general one, and that’s that I’ve loved film for a long time, and I’ve had a secret — or not-so-secret — desire to make films for a long time. And I reached a point in my life when I could, when I had the time and the financial security to do so. The other was that my interest in film collided with Iraq. In early to mid- 2004 I had dinner with [New Yorker staff writer] George Packer, who was just beginning to write his book, which was one of the earliest and best books about the Iraq war, The Assassins’ Gate. George made it clear over the course of that dinner that things in Iraq were a lot different than generally supposed and generally thought in American public opinion, and even in American journalistic and political circles. I had the idea to do [the film] then. I spoke to a number of people about it, and they dissuaded me, saying that, “First of all, it’s a difficult first film to make,” which is true to some extent. But they also said, “It’s so obvious and large and important a subject that 10 other people are going to be making this movie, so don’t worry about it.” And they turned out to be wrong. A year later, nobody had made a serious film, or any film really, about American policy in Iraq, and I said, “I’m gonna make this movie.”

RT: There have been a bunch of documentaries and even a few fiction films about Iraq. But No End in Sight seems to take more a comprehensive view of the whole foreign policy aspect of the conflict.

CF: There have been a number of films about the Iraq war, and some of them have been very good. I thought The War Tapes was a good portrayal of what life is like for a GI on the ground in Iraq. But they have been very fine-grained, very personal. And for reasons that I actually don’t fully understand, nobody took a broad look at what this was all about, how we got to this point.

RT: One of the things that Barbara Bodine (who was in charge of Baghdad in the early days of the occupation) said in the film that has struck a nerve is, “There were 500 ways to do this wrong, and only two ways to do this right.” Was the Iraq occupation something that was doomed from the beginning, or could it have worked, had the military not been disbanded, or had the looting around Baghdad been curtailed?

CF: That is the 64 thousand, million, billion, trillion dollar question. I’ve spoken to an enormous number of people about this question, and there’s a wide array of perspectives and views about it. But I would say the center of gravity of expert opinion, and the opinion of people who were there was that this could have worked. Worked not in the sense of a neoconservative, democratic paradise. That couldn’t have happened. This was a terribly scarred, troubled country that had lived under a brutal dictatorship since 1979, and had lived under extremely draconian economic sanctions for more than a decade. So it was a very messed-up place, and it wasn’t going to be perfect overnight. But it could have become basically a normal, stable society. It didn’t have to be the way Iraq is now.

RT: Right. Iraq had an infrastructure, and certain advantages that would seemingly make it more viable than Afghanistan, which had to be rebuilt from the ground up.

CF: Oh yes, much more viable than Afghanistan, and the place has oil. This did not have to happen.

RT: Did you support the war originally?

CF: Before the war, I was actually sympathetic to the idea of using military force to remove Saddam [Hussein], partially on regional stability, WMD grounds, and partially on humanitarian grounds, because Saddam was a genocidal dictator, and he was being contained only by very extreme economic sanctions that had impoverished the Iraqi people, and were in fact killing large numbers of Iraqis through health problems and malnutrition. I felt that if it was possible to remove him and to put in place at least a stable, non-genocidal government, that that would be a good thing. But that’s not what the Bush Administration did, unfortunately.

RT: A lot of the people you have in the film seemed optimistic in the early stages of the occupation. And they felt they were undercut in many different ways.

CF: Yes, that’s correct. Even people who were against the war were in many cases optimistic that it could be done well. Barbara Bodine, for example, was not in favor of going to war against Saddam, [and] felt it was not in America’s national interest. My own view is it’s a subject about which reasonable people can disagree, whether it was a good thing or an important thing for America to remove Saddam by force. But many people, even those who opposed the war, felt that if the occupation was run intelligently, this could come out well. And they tried very hard to make it come out well, and their efforts were undercut by a disastrous series of policy decisions made by a very small number of people in Washington, D.C.

RT: Do you believe the decisions they made were on strictly political grounds? Did Paul Bremer really think disbanding the Iraqi army, and the de-Baathification of the government was gong to work out, or did he and others just not know what the reality on the ground was?

CF: I think was a combination of both. [Bremer] obviously didn’t know anything. He made those enormously important, critical decisions jointly with three or four other people when Bremer was still in Washington, D.C., before he’d gone to Iraq for the first time. He’d been on the job a total of nine days, had not spoken to most people on the ground, had never met them, he had never lived in the mid-East before, he didn’t speak Arabic, he’d never been in the military, he’d never been involved in a post-war reconstruction. So obviously, his ability to make these judgments was very limited. And he seemed to have felt that he didn’t need to know, that he didn’t need to consult anybody. The people who made these decisions, a very small number of them, less than a half dozen, really seemed to have felt that they new what was best, period. I think it was ideology. I don’t think it was politics, which is not to say that they weren’t political, or politically self-interested. They were. But I don’t think they made these decisions for political reasons. I think they really believed that what they were doing was right. I think it was ideology, and blindness, and arrogance.

L. Paul Bremer and Jay Garner

RT: Your feeling was that President Bush was out of the loop on a lot of the decisions that were made.

CF: Initially, yes. For the period leading up to the war, and the first 18 months after the war, President Bush seems to have been remarkably disinterested, remarkably disengaged. Many people told me that they were in briefings or cabinet meetings with the president where there would be a presentation and then a recommendation, which had been developed by Rumsfeld, Cheney, or Bremer. And Bush would basically just say yes, and would not ask many questions, not inquire, not be critical, rarely made an independent decision, was not interested in what people had to say, didn’t read national intelligence estimates.

RT: You have an impressive group of experts in the film. It would have been nice, if difficult, to get Cheney on camera —

CF: We tried. Very hard. The rebuttal is in some sense available in many of their public [statements]. What I really wanted was, I wanted to ask them detailed questions about exactly what had occurred, and why they did the things they did. By the time I approached them, I was in possession of an enormous amount of information, and I think it would not have been possible for them to get away with the generalities that they typically use in their public statements. And I think that’s why they refused to speak with me, unfortunately. I tried extremely hard to reach these people. I approached them directly. I approached them indirectly. A number of these people and I have mutual friends. Paul Wolfowitz and I have mutual friends. Bremer and I have mutual friends. I obtained Bremer’s personal e-mail address. I talked with his publicist. He initially said yes, actually, but then he backed out.

RT: So, what was it like on the ground in Iraq?

CF: Tense. Dangerous. Fascinating. Grim.

RT: You have a few Iraqis on camera essentially saying that Saddam was bad, but their current lives are worse. Do they have hope for the future?

CF: I think most Iraqis now are deeply despondent. Indeed, three million of them have already left the country, and there’s another one to two million displaced internally. It’s a terribly pessimistic country right now. I think most of them think this is going to go on for a long time.

RT: So where do we go from here?

CF: There’s no question that the American presence is going to have to be reduced. It’s politically unsustainable in terms of American public opinion and American politics. It’s also militarily unsustainable. It’s putting an enormous strain on the American military. The American military presence is going to decline. It’s going to wind down. Probably, there will be a significant, though smaller, American military presence in Iraq for a very long time, because most people think that if America withdrew completely from Iraq there would be a horrific bloodbath and very possibly a regional war, with Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan on the other, that would kill millions of people and destabilize the entire region. So there’s going to be an American presence. I think the big question is when, and how, and in what direction, American diplomacy and policy is going to change. And I have to say that I’m not optimistic that that’s going to happen while President Bush is still in office. Unfortunately, much of the function that American troops are really performing right now is not the reconstruction of Iraq, which I don’t think is a realistic goal at this point. What they’re really doing is riot control on a national and regional level. They’re keeping the situation from getting completely, totally, chaotically, horrifically out of control.

RT: What are your hopes for the film?

CF: I certainly intend and hope to influence people’s thinking, and I’m very optimistic that that will happen. Obviously the public mood and the political mood are changing, and becoming much more critical of the administration, and critical of the conduct of the war and the occupation. But people don’t know what happened here. Most people don’t. And most people so far with whom I’ve spoken who’ve seen the film have been deeply shocked when they see what actually happened, and how these decisions were actually made, and how we got to this point. And it is indeed actually shocking that our government would conduct itself this way. I made this film so that it would affect people’s thinking, and I’m optimistic that that will occur. Thus far the reception has been very good, and people have been very gratified and very responsive. For example, the trailer to the film was posted on the internet about three weeks ago on a number of sites. One of them was YouTube. In the first two weeks it was on YouTube, 20,000 people looked at it. In the third week, 175,000 people looked at it. That suggests that people are interested.

RT: Do you have any plans to make more movies in the future?

CF: I would love to. I found the process of making this film enormously fulfilling. It was one of the most enjoyable, most rewarding things that I’ve ever done. I’m not sure what will be next, what will be easiest to get funding for, but yeah, I’ve got many, many things that I’d like to do.