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Frontline's 'Bush's War': Not About Bush or His War

If you don’t want to read this entire review, or watch all four and a half hours of Frontline’s big fifth anniversary Iraq extravaganza, Bush’s War, here’s the short version:

Bush lied, people died.

It’s hard to know where to start with everything that is wrong with this two-part series, airing at 9 p.m. March 24 and 25 on PBS. So I’ll start with what’s right with it.

As television goes, it is a relatively comprehensive review of the major decisions and controversies of the Iraq war, with a little 9/11, Afghanistan precede. It makes some, though not many, attempts to be fair and thorough in presenting the perspectives of both sides. When you watch it, you might learn a few things. You’ll remember a lot. It won’t change your mind about anything.

We’ve got that out of the way. On to what’s wrong. I’m not sure in the space I can reasonably fill here, short of exceeding Frontline’s own 4:30-hour limit, that I’ll be able to enumerate them all. It’s daunting.

Let’s start with the title. This documentary is not actually about George Bush, or his war. It is about his Cabinet’s infighting. In fact, they probably should have called it “The Cabinet’s Infighting,” though that might not be a big viewer draw. Maybe “The Cabinet Infighting of Bush’s War.” Too clunky. How about: “Cheney-Rumsfeld Lied, People Died.” That’s catchier, and would not only get the viewers but lots of press.

Because this entire documentary, from beginning to end, is not even a Bush-bash, it’s all Cheney-Rumsfeld bash. Bush, in the documentary named after him, gets some cameos, a walk-on here and there. He does have some speaking parts, he’s not entirely a spearholder. But Frontline makes it clear in what disregard they hold the president of the United States. He is a chump who gets pushed around and manipulated by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, despite the best, but tragically flawed efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet. While the influence of those parties cannot be denied by any fair observer, it is not until he finally decides to get rid of Rumsfeld that the president of the United States presented as having much in the way of independent thought at all.

The Frontline documentarians, of course, avoid expressing any opinions. They rely on the liberal use … pun intended … of a series of scribblers from the New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications to do that for them. In fact, when Frontline can’t find actual participants to do so, Frontline relies on ink-stained wretches to ascribe motives to people and in one astonishing case, to fantasize what a particular meeting must have been like, along with presenting as fact the conjecture that results from the newsman’s usual second-, third- or fourth-in-line position in the game of information telegraph.

Of the actual participants in events, there is a heavy reliance on well-known Rumsfeld-Cheney adversaries such Richard Clarke, Richard Armitage, with no mention of the fact that they, and virtually everyone in this depiction of recent history, have axes to grind and their own sullied legacies to patch up. Few people actually close or aligned with Rumsfeld or Cheney appear to have been interviewed. Possibly because they knew how this was going to end up.

Frontline very much carries the water of the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, the advocates of which apparently couldn’t be prevailed on to shut up, hence all the airtime. Though Tenet ultimately is thrown under the bus by Frontline as much as it describes Bush having done so, the CIA’s view of both Afghanistan and Iraq gets a friendly airing. One of the more remarkable, unchallenged and unelaborated gripes is that after Sept. 11, 2001, the eager, action-ready CIA was forced to twiddle its thumbs in Afghanistan for almost an entire month before the U.S. military finally showed up on Oct. 7. This is stated without apparent irony, even though we’ve been informed that George Bush intended a sober, measured approach. There is no discussion of the fact that 26 days might in fact be lightning speed when it comes to planning and moving forces into place for the takedown of a foreign regime on its own turf.

Frontline takes a diversion into Guantanamo, where you will learn that the Cheney-Rumsfeld junta threw out the Geneva Conventions and authorized military tribunals, the turning on of lights, removal of religious materials, and other atrocities. I must have missed the part where they discussed the fact that the hated Crusader Gulag at Guantanamo does not actually violate the Geneva Conventions and that the people held there are unlawful combatants. Horror is expressed at what Gitmo might inspire our adversaries to do to our own soldiers. I must have missed the part where Frontline discusses what al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, the Iranian regime and others actually have done to the civilians and soldiers they have seized. The videotaped pleas for mercy, the forced confessions, the use of hostages to blackmail governments, the beatings, the beheadings, the bodies dumped by the road, etc.

We’re now done with Afghanistan, which apparently is not part of Bush’s war except to the extent it enabled the Cheney-Rumsfeld regime’s Iraq agenda.

Frontline moves on to offer some detail on the stock versions of the pre-war intelligence failures and supposed distortions. It is largely an unquestioning review of conventional wisdom, and you’ll learn nothing here. The belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction is presented largely as a fact pushed by Cheney rather than as something believed by every major intelligence agency in the world, including those of nations that vehemently opposed this war. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin is once again allowed to oppose the war on humanitarian grounds with no mention of France’s keen interest in doing business with Saddam. The “16 words” controversy is presented by none other than Joe Wilson, with no mention of the view that – yellowcake deal or no yellowcake deal — Saddam Hussein in fact had been in the market for uranium in Africa. You can also remain innocent of the fact that Joe Wilson is himself a controversial figure whose qualifications for his task are highly questionable and were in fact a bizarre case of nepotism.

To Frontline‘s credit, however, the utter failure of the CIA to have a clue what was going on in Iraq, to the point of lacking an intelligence estimate on Iraq’s WMD, is noted.

This is probably a good place to mention one of the (other) fundamental shortcomings of this documentary. It takes place in a fishbowl. A Washington D.C. fishbowl, in which history largely doesn’t exist. The Sept. 11 attacks are presented only as a horrific event that prompted Cheney and Rumsfeld to start rabidly pushing for the invasion of Iraq. The history of Saddam Hussein, and the many reasons why his removal made sense and still makes sense get lip service at best. The fact that the UN sanctions regime was on the verge of collapse, the danger that posed, and what was subsequently learned about Saddam’s plans to resume his weapons programs in that event get no airing. The questions that remain about what Saddam might have done with the dormant elements of his WMD programs and whether they were shipped to Syria, not mentioned. The positive geopolitical ramifications of the removal of Saddam Hussein … Libya’s capitulation and last summer’s revelation that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program after the invasion of Iraq, if only briefly … not part of the scope of this project. Presumably the recently released Pentagon study that found extensive contacts between Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agents and al Qaeda came out after this Frontline series was put to bed. But there is no reason to think Frontline, like most of the American media, wouldn’t just have reported the “no direct operational links” part.

All of that history is in the rearview mirror and academic at this point … except perhaps the Iran part. All of that is arguably irrelevant to our nation’s current concerns … except perhaps the Iran part. And that’s why Frontline’s most egregious omission is in the second part of its series, on the conduct of the war.

There is little to argue with Frontline‘s presentation of the post-invasion period at first. Rumsfeld horribly and aggressively bollixed Iraq, from going in too light, to refusing to consider and prepare for the aftermath of the invasion, to refusing to recognize the problems as they mounted over a period of three years. The insider view of the top may provide you some new insight here. The daily bomb roundup and intensive atrocity fixation that has marked the American media’s generally abysmal coverage of this war has tended to avoid any serious examination of larger trends and generalship, or distort it through a lens of Bush-induced disaster. Frontline does give in to some of that shocking headline-oriented coverage in the war period, lingering wistfully on Abu Ghraib. The bomb reportage focuses on significant trends, watershed events and their effects in a more meaningful way, but suffers from a repetition of footage that hardly seems necessary.

More significantly, Frontline offers a concise review of the leadership struggles, culminating with the ouster of Donald Rumsfeld. Here Frontline misses a great ironic snark opportunity, though it is not hard to see why. In portraying Rumsfeld’s last year or so as an effort to just get the troops out of Iraq, marked by the “light footprint” pullback to bases, heavily armored patrols and an effort to build up Iraqi forces, Frontline fails to observe how closely that approach resembles the abandonment-at-all-costs desires of the Democratic-led Congress that came in screaming for Rumsfeld’s head.

Removal of said head is a triumphant moment for Frontline, but sadly, it is also the end of the program. In what is Frontline‘s greatest omission and failure, the counter-insurgency strategy is, charitably, only marginally part of this presentation. The development of the surge strategy gets short shrift. To the extent it is discussed at all, it is presented as something Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow dreamed up, based on Col. H.R. McMaster’s experience in Tal Afar, apparently highlighted to further stress what a bonehead Rumsfeld is. The more complex gestation of that strategy is not even alluded to. Its implementation is presented as something only intended to prevent Bush from exiting office with a defeat. The entire year of 2007 is relegated to a single narrated paragraph at the end.

Let me repeat that. The entire year of 2007 is relegated to a single, intoned paragraph, which basically suggests disaster is imminent. Here, read it yourself. It’s only a few lines:


Violence is down in Iraq. They are cautiously calling clear, hold and build a success. But at a cost. The troops and reserves are stretched dangerously thin. The military worries how long the surge can be sustained. In his last State of the Union address, George W. Bush made a final plea to history …


“The mission in Iraq has been difficult and trying for our nation. But it is in the vital interest of the United States that we succeed. We must do the difficult work today so that years form now, people will look back and say that this generation rose to the moment, prevailed in a tough fght, and left behind a more hopeful region and a safer America.”


Soon Bush’s war will be handed to someone new.

Well, Frontline calls it a plea. Given the great political pressure out there to abandon Iraq to a wretched fate that would likely dwarf anything we’ve seen to date, while ceding domination of that troubled region to the terrorism-supporting Islamic radicals of Iran, I’d describe it more as an admonishment for the United States to remain engaged in the world, to recognize its obligations and see to its own interests. But that’s a minor issue.

While Frontline had thrown away significant air time marveling at the notion that so little could be known about an American wartime commander, Gen. George Casey, Frontline didn’t manage to find any time at all to mention the name of the most significant Iraq commander of all, Gen. David Petraeus.

You could view all four and a half hours of this series and remain innocent of any knowledge of the dramatic turning of the tribes in Anbar that began in late 2006, as the Sunnis woke up to their own interest. Of the hard-fought, highly successful campaigns of 2007 to run al-Qaeda out of Baghdad, Diyala, the southern “Triangle of Death,” not a peep. The fact that Moqtada al-Sadr has been intimidated into maintaining his truce, and that his forces are divided, nothing. The growth and increasing operational role of the Iraqi forces … it’s like it never happened. The revelations about the ongoing role of Iran in Iraq and the dangers Iran poses to the broader region … a struggle in which the future of Iraq is indisputably a lynchpin … nada. The repeated failures of the Democratic-led Congress to force a precipitous withdrawal, and the sharp divisions within that Democratic majority, not a squeak.

Never mind the risk of genocide were the political incompetents of the anti-war movement able to effect their goals. On anything that might assist the American electorate in understanding this poorly reported war as we head into a critical election year, Frontline is utterly silent. It is shockingly irresponsible, and in its absence, a gross distortion of the situation in Iraq, in the broader region and in Washington.

But this documentary is not in fact about the Iraq War, or about American interests in a new century, where circumstances have been dramatically altered by events set in motion long before George Bush took office. Nor, as I mentioned, is it actually about George Bush. Bush’s War is a narrowly focused, warmed-over Donald Rumsfeld-Dick Cheney hatefest.

Despite all these faults, “Bush’s War” may be worth watching, as a starting point for discussion and debate. It may also be good for your circulation. If you hate the Bush administration, your prejudices and acrimony will be nurtured. If you happen to hold any other view, I’d recommend viewing this as a quaint artifact of the political battles of the first decade of the 21st century. I’d caution, however, it is four and a half hours you won’t get back.

My apologies for failing to be much more concise in reaction than Frontline was in its presentation.

Disclosure: I accepted a paid Frontline advertisement on my Webpage, www.julescrittenden.com, as I have accepted advertising for other PBS programs in the past. I have endeavored not to let this remuneration for advertising space influence this review in any way.

Jules Crittenden blogs at Forward Movement.