RT Talks Iraq with No End in Sight Director Charles Ferguson

First-time filmmaker details policy errors during the occupation

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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.