Villains, heroes, no happy ending

Times Staff Writer

It was five years ago last week that the Marines from Camp Pendleton surged across the Line of Departure into Iraq to begin the U.S. ground campaign to topple Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader was soon gone, but the armed forces’ stay had just begun.

Predictably, the fifth anniversary has provoked a flurry of news stories seeking to assess how the war began, how it’s going and, from an American perspective, when it’s going to end.

The “Frontline” contribution to the anniversary genre is the two-part “Bush’s War,” largely drawn from pre- vious “Frontline” documentaries with a sprinkling of new material. The effort has the strengths and shortcomings of the “Frontline” approach: smart interviewing and good summaries but a sometimes tediously Washington-centric viewpoint and lack of historic context.

The two-parter begins with a recitation of the now-familiar tale of White House intrigue involving President Bush, Vice President Cheney and the rest of the cast in the days and weeks after Sept. 11.

That many of the key players are no longer in government -- Colin L. Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, L. Paul Bremer III, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, most prominently among them -- gives a certain staleness to this rerun parsing of who said what to whom in what closed-door meeting.


There is also a kind of error by omission.

“Frontline’s” methodology seems to imply that the Iraq war is the first time that U.S. war planning has been influenced by political concerns, interagency wrangling, clashing egos and hunches masquerading as hard intelligence. Several shelves of books about previous wars suggest that those human elements are ever present in how the U.S. wages war.

“Bush’s War” lionizes the CIA’s work in Afghanistan and sides with former Secretary of State Powell in his various behind-the-scenes skirmishes, proof again that public figures who submit to interviews, or know how to effectively dole out information on background, usually get a better deal from journalists than those who do not.

There is no indication that former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld assisted the “Frontline” staff. That’s too bad, because despite his brash personality, the issues raised by Rumsfeld about whether the U.S. Army had become too ponderous and logistics-heavy for high-speed modern warfare were legitimate ones.

It also appears that “Frontline” got no help from Cheney, who comes off as the villain of the piece, hard core in his views, willing to ride roughshod over the CIA and State Department to get what he wanted.

Some of the best lines belong to Tom Ricks, Pulitzer Prize-winning military reporter for the Washington Post. Here’s Ricks on Cheney:

“Dick Cheney is the Moby Dick of the Bush administration. And it’s all very mysterious and it only occurs between him and President Bush, but you get a sense that as soon as the meeting’s over, he sits down with the president and says: ‘OK, here’s what you need to take away from this.’ ”

As for the human factor figuring into war planning, try retired Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong’s explanation of how he and Army Gen. Tommy Franks decided to endorse the bid by Rumsfeld and Cheney to convince Bush to order an invasion.

“Gen. Franks likes margaritas,” DeLong said, “and I’ve got a margarita recipe -- of course, I’m a tequila connoisseur. And so we sat down and had some margaritas and tequila and walked through ‘Is this the right thing to do for us, for the country? Can we look our troops in the eyes and say, ‘You’re going to die tomorrow and here’s why?’ And the answer was yes.”

(That other high-ranking Marine officers, presumably without access to DeLong’s margarita recipe, continued to believe they needed more troops than Rumsfeld was allowing them is a point not made by “Frontline.”)

Part 2 of “Bush’s War” tries in quickie fashion to bring matters up to date. Its strength is that it breaks more away from Washington as the center of the Earth and reports on matters “on the ground” in Iraq.

First there was the bloody fight for Fallouja in 2004 and the president’s probably ill-considered decision to tell an impatient American public that the battle had been more decisive than it had been.

“In the battle for Fallouja, the terrorists hid weapons in the cemetery,” Bush tells the country. “They hid ammunition in private homes. They hid bombs in mosques. But they could not hide from the United States Marines.”

Then in February 2006 came the bombing of the Shiite mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest shrines in the country.

New York Times reporter Michael Gordon tells “Frontline” that the bombing was “a diabolical attempt by Al Qaeda to stimulate a civil war and to create a conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis, making Iraq essentially ungovernable and chaotic, an entity that the Americans can no longer control.”

A lot has happened since that bombing: the alliance between Sunni sheiks and the U.S., the surge of soldiers and Marines into Iraq, the turnaround of Anbar province, a sharp decrease in the casualty rates of U.S. forces.

“Frontline’s” attempt to encompass some of these events seems rushed and incomplete. The tendency to see things in terms of U.S. politics intrudes.

The final words in “Bush’s War” go to the president in his State of the Union address this year. “The mission in Iraq has been difficult and trying for our nation,” he said.

On that, there can be no disagreement.



‘Frontline: Bush’s War’

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 11:30 tonight; 9 to 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Rating: Not rated.