Geoff FordenThe Green Zone: an ACW Movie Review

“ ‘Where did this intel come from? Did we get it from the UN?’ ‘No, it’s been vetted by the US Government.’ ” Or words to that effect, I don’t have a transcript for the movie The Green Zone. I’m just your humble ACW movie reviewer.

I’m not sure what the connotation of that bit of dialog was supposed to be. Was the Matt Damon character blaming the lack of good intelligence on the UN? Or was he wanting to know if it had a reasonable pedigree? I sort of suspect the former, since that was the feeling at the time, at least in the US Government. After all, I remember leaving the UN Headquarters late at night after sitting all day on the meeting of the independent panel of international experts reviewing our conclusions about the Iraqi missile program when some lady standing outside the fence started yelling “Boo UN! Boo!” Later in the movie, however, I could feel a bit of pride when the chubby guy from the CIA, referring to a Priority 1 site, said, “There’s nothing there, that place was hit by the UN two months ago.” This feeling of satisfaction was, unfortunately, soon followed by a sinking feeling when the person I watched the movie asked as we walked out, “Is that how the real Al Rawi died?”

Movies have a license to simplify complex problems or make the audience feel a certain way all within 120 minutes. In ‘The Green Zone,’ the writers simplified the bureaucratic dynamics of the Intelligence Community, the Secretary of Defense, and the White House by essentially blaming the war on one guy lying about Iraqi WMD when he had just been told differently by an Iraqi general. It’s possible to learn to hate a person in a short amount of time if he is a liar and tries to have Matt Damon killed. It’s very hard, however, to hate the interplay between high ranking policy makers who kept on sending intel analyses back because they just don’t believe them. The true point that the film makers were making—and it is in there—is that the Bush Administration wanted intelligence reports that said there was WMD in Iraq.

A Trip to Amman

In the movie, Poundstone falsifies a raw intel report about a meeting he had with him in Amman, Jordan. The Poundstone character promises him, probably as an inducement to reveal the WMD locations, that he would play an important role in the “new Iraq.” Instead, Al Rawi assures him that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Does Poundstone believe him? The movie is not clear on this since the meeting supposedly predates the time it covers. It would, of course, have been very foolish to believe a single source about such an important issue. While there are examples of single intel sources being used extensively in the lead up to the Iraq invasion—Curveball is a prime example—there were other sources to back them up. Unfortunately, there were at least as many sources that refuted them. That is both why it is necessary for an unbiased analysis and why it was possible for “higher ups” to insist the analysis be redone. Their intuition told them to believe the WMD “myth.” (Not that there wasn’t WMD in Iraq after the First Gulf War and that the Iraqi Government lied about it. They apparently used all the left over chemical weapons on the Shia and the Kurds to suppress the rebellion that the war ignited.)

General Al Rawi is an interesting (fictional) character. Did he go to Amman to try to wave off the invasion? Or did he go there for personal gain, to secure a position in the new Iraqi Government? One could interpret the movie to say that he was a true Iraqi patriot and had gone to try to avert the coming war. When that failed, the movie seems to say, he was willing to try to reduce the suffering of his country by using his influence over the Iraqi Army to bring about a new stability. Since Al Rawi never existed, he is just a convenient technique to simply the problems of de-Ba’athification. At that, I think he succeeds wonderfully.

Secret Initiatives

But what is most interesting about him is that there were secret Iraqi diplomatic missions sent out to try to avert the war. I know from my personal experience at UNMOVIC that, by February 2003, Iraq was desperate to forestall the invasion. At the beginning of the final crisis, which I place at the time of Pres. Bush’s September 2002 speech to the UN General Assembly, Iraq was defiant and committed to stonewalling the international community’s just demands that they either disarm or prove that they had already disarmed their WMD. Iraq responded to that speech by supplying UNMOVIC with the backlog of their semiannual reports. These reports were intended to keep the UN informed on the status of industrial sites that had WMD-potential. They make pretty dry reading, consisting mostly of lists of chemicals or equipment located at each site.

Iraq had stopped supplying the United Nations with these reports when the UNSCOM inspectors left in 1998. We therefore got four years worth of reports on hundreds of potential WMD sites. But there was a clear message if you read between the lines—and I mean that quite literally. Iraq was once again poking a finger in the UN’s eye. For instance, where they were supposed to list newly purchased equipment (equipment that we inspectors would certainly check up on once we got back into the country) they said they were purchased “on the local market.” That was, of course, impossible in the most literal sense of the phrase. These pieces of equipment were manufactured in the West, most after the inspectors left in 1998. A more honest answer would have been “they were smuggled in and we are not about to tell you about that!” Oh, yes; about my “between the lines” comment. Every windows file has a tag associated with it that lets the files originator write a short memo that follows the file around. Many of those late reports had “Did you really believe you would ever see these reports?” as their message, written in English. (Many had something written in Arabic, but I never got those translated.)

A Frenetic Last Month

By February of 2003, a month or less before the war started, Iraq had undergone a dramatic transformation. They were clearly desperate to cooperate with the UN and avert the war, something they obviously considered would be a tragedy for their country. By mid-February, they were swamping us with new initiatives to try to resolve the remaining WMD questions. Many of these were impractical or technically impossible but their shear number symbolized Iraq’s mental state. Of these dozens and dozens of new initiatives they sent us that month, there were two that stick in my memory. Both proposed to use a sampling method to “verify” that the amount of VX, in one proposal, and anthrax, in the other, dumped in the desert accounted for all the poisonous material they had produced. There were significant technical flaws with this proposal which even their own write-up showed. For instance, it would be impossible to simply count the number of anthrax spores in a hundred or so core samples and infer the total amount of anthrax dumped at the site, which is a brief summary of one of their proposals. Even if we were willing to count them, it would have been impossible to take that number and infer the total originally involved. Spores die—even hardy anthrax spores—or migrate away as the wind or underground water moves them. Iraq’s own control region samples, outside the declared dump site, showed a significant amount of contamination. Similar problems existed in the VX proposal. (It turns out that, after the war, Iraqi bioweaponeers admitted dumping the rest of the anthrax at a different site, one too close to one of Saddam’s palaces for them to admit.) However, even admitting the flaws in the initiatives—flaws that might very well have been intentional—these initiatives showed a significant change in Iraq’s desire to cooperate. Unfortunately, as we believed at the time and have been confirmed since then, they also did show a willingness to reveal the truth about Iraq’s WMD.

Dr. Hans Blix, as the Executive Chairman of UNMOVIC, was brilliant at judging Iraq’s level of cooperation in near real time. This function, which he was mandated to perform by the UN Security Council’s resolution creating UNMOVIC, was both vitally important and very difficult to assess. It was important because it seems unlikely to me that the United Kingdom, for one, would have joined the coalition if Dr. Blix had been able to unambiguously state that Iraq was fully cooperating with the inspections. Could the war have been averted if such a level of cooperation was present? I think it could have. But we needed that full cooperation to finally resolve the remaining issues and it is clear that Iraq was holding out on giving that.

Now, let me return to General Al Rawi. As I said, he—perhaps by accident—does represent a(nother) real Iraqi initiative. In that last month, the same thirty days during which we were being swamped by Iraqi disarmament initiatives, Iraqi diplomats were desperately reaching out to the Bush Administration to try to avert the war. But instead of Amman, these meetings took place in London and instead of a “Pentagon Special Intelligence” officer (Poundstone), the Iraqis were reaching out to Richard Perle. And instead of an Iraqi general, the Iraqis were using a Lebanese-American businessman. They are reported to have offered to let 2,000 FBI agents into Iraq to search for WMD. (Here, too, I feel a certain amount of pride. It’s clear to me that the Iraqis realized that 2,000 FBI agents would be less effective than the 300 UN weapons inspectors. One needs only consider the Anthrax terrorism investigation to see why.) What would have happened if UNMOVIC had known about those secret diplomatic initiatives? I know I would have been convinced that Iraq had made a strategic decision to cooperate with the inspections. It might still have been a hard slog to get the truth, but I am confident we could have verified the disarmament of Iraq by inspections alone.

By the way, I loved this movie! It kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.

Comments

  1. Joe Cirincione (History)

    I share your enthusiasm for Green Zone. I saw it last night with 4 others. We all enjoyed it.

    Clearly, the movie simplifies the sordid reality of the way we were misled into war, including narrowing the villains down to one Doug Feith-like character and the heroes to one soldier.

    But it makes 4 key points:

    1. The Administration lied about the existence of WMD in Iraq, then tried to cover it up.
    2. The press was complicit in the lies.
    3. The occupation was chaotic and uninformed from day one.
    4. This war was unnecessary, expensive and unsuccessful.

    There is no way you leave the theater without a visceral experience of those essential truths.

  2. anon

    It’s just Hollywood’s version of the facts.

  3. Avner Cohen (History)

    Well, Geoffrey, back to the question you asked me last night, after I urged you to see The Green Zone: which film is more persuasive, better—The Green Zone or The Hurt Locker. It is hard to say. Both are excellent. As I told you, the Green Zone is more political, less personal; it is about political dilemmas not about addiction to danger.

    I agree with what Joe said but I would add this:

    1. There were inherent conflicts between different U.S. organizations, such as the US Army and the CIA, and different personalities within those organizations….. to the point of actually physical fights.

    2. The critical decision was the decision to disparage the Iraqi Army. This decision was fateful for the whole occupation of Iraq. It was an ideological decision.

    3. The Iraqi side: there is no sense in the American side how to reach the heart and mind of the Iraqis. Actually, the two Iraqis, the General and the young patriot, were quite convincing.

    4. Some great cinematography: the airport scene, the swimming pool scene, and more.

    Yes, it kept me breathless all the way to the end.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    > the Iraqis were reaching out to Richard Perle.

    OK, I’m totally into cognitive dissonance on that one.

    Why Perle? If him, why not Cheney?

  5. Geoff Forden (History)

    Have you read the NYT article I linked to, Allen? That seems to me to contain the best explanation.

  6. Philipp Bleek

    The atmospherics of The Hurt Locker were great—e.g. shaky handicam, external sounds dropping away to convey the tension and focus of scenes. But much of the script was a bit wacky, and unnecessarily so—they could have made a much more accurate movie that wrestled with the same issues without losing credibility by getting so much so wrong. There’s a good discussion here: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/01/essay-15/. Haven’t seen the Green Zone yet, but hoping the same issues don’t apply.

  7. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    The problem with America today is we equate paranoia with being alert, and analysis and second guessing with Chamberlain’esq appeasement. It’s a shame that the British war commission gets almost no press coverage here. It seems the only discussion we can have over 5 min in the popular press happens in movies.

    To this day you can’t find anyone in American politics willing to say it was in America’s interests to have Saddam in power. He kept the Iranians at bay, straddled the balance of power between Suni and Sheite, had to fight the same battles we have to, and tortured the same people we did at the same places. I wonder when all is said and done, who killed more innocent Iraqi’s?

  8. Azr@el (History)

    I caught the “online” version of the Green Zone a couple of weeks ago. It was a bit choppy as far as presenting an overall story; the punchline of the story was pretty much worn thread bare upon the sleeve of the first scene. It defeated any dramatic effect the film hoped to have. I walked away not sympathizing with any of the characters; the protagonist came across as the sort of fellow who’d one day find his wife in bed her lover, discover his kids belonged to various neighbors and would still agree to pay alimony least he rock the boat. The CIA guy came across as pitching above pay grade and promising what he couldn’t deliver upon; i.e. fairly accurate depiction. The military came across a magnitude more competent than they actually are; especially the delta force team. If our military was anywhere near that in terms of proficiency and cognitive capability would Mesopotamia really have been that bad, would Afghanistan be the bleeding wound it is today?

    Overall it was topical cinema, if not for the temporal proximity to the war, no one save a few messed up vets would waste their time on a first view. Hurt Locker a more narcissistic vision would probably carry down the road a little better. Avatar a film celebrating US overreach will probably become a classic. Strange world one wakes up to, que sera sera.

    I had a professor who told me that the circumstances around our entry into the Spanish American war were unique to that particular era. I guess I was too young and intimidated at the time to point out that the fourth estate bears a good measure of culpability for our entry into the Far West Eurasian Civil War of 1914, the Korean Civil War, the Vietnamese Civil War, The 2nd US-Iraqi war and ultimately the great next global war when we miscalculate and attack Iran.

  9. Mike (History)

    @Andrew –

    Kept the balance of power between the muslim groups? You realize that the majority of Kurds are Sunni, right? I don’t really think the mass murder of peoples of an ethnic group can be considered ‘Keeping the balance.’

  10. Andy (History)

    Joe,

    1. The Administration lied about the existence of WMD in Iraq, then tried to cover it up.

    I take a bit more nuanced view. I think your statement is true regarding nuclear and biological weapons, but chemical weapons is another matter. The intelligence community consistently assessed Iraq probably retained some production capability as well as actual stockpiles of chemical weapons and this assessment predated the Bush administration. When I was in the intel community in the 1990’s (until 2000) the intelligence I read on chemical weapons did not substantively differ from what was alleged in 2001-2003.

    Still, the deception regarding Iraq’s nuclear and biological programs were the critical elements justifying the war and I don’t think the US Congress would have authorized it solely on the basis of the chemical weapons intelligence.

  11. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    @Mike

    Mike I see your point of view if you consider balance to be in the ‘Fox News’ view on the subject with the implication that fair is attached to it. I define balance as balance, justice has nothing to do with it. Iraq was where Suni met Shea, and Suni held the upper hand. All I was saying was there was a balance that held for a long time. And if I may add, now that we have reset that balance Iran has gained a lot of regional power as a result. One might argue this is a good thing if the popular movement for a civil government in Iran topples the theocratic Iranian state. But until that happens I’d say the resetting of the balance of cultural forces is less likely to run parallel with Western interests than the previous balance.

  12. Mike (History)

    @Andrew-

    I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t bring polarizing generalizations into discussion. There is nothing “Fox News” about my comment, unless you are willing to disregard the genocides that took place under Saddam.

    Your response leads me to believe you know nothing about the subject at all. Since the 10th century there had been fighting between Muslim sects and between Arabs and Kurds. The only uniting Saddam did was to repress them all before he tried to eliminate the Kurds.

    […]

    Editor’s note: I did not find Andrew’s comment as personal as you did. Of course, things always look different when you are the subject of a comment. If Andrew did intend his comment on a personal level, I hope he apologizes. I have deleted your last sentence since it was clearly intended to be taken personally (not that I understood where you were going with it.) I further hope that everyone contributing to this thread keeps the discussion on a non-personal level.

    On a more substantive level, I think Saddam did do other things to bring Iraqi ethnic groups together before using chemical weapons on Kurds (and Shiites). He tried, in the beginning of his reign, to instill a sense of nationalism in all Iraqis by highlighting the greatness of the area before Islam came. He spent a lot of money and effort on this by restoring historical sites and promoting regional specialties.
    GEF

  13. Paul Stokes (History)

    I’m just curious about a minor point you made: “It’s clear to me that the Iraqis realized that 2,000 FBI agents would be less effective than the 300 UN weapons inspectors. One needs only consider the Anthrax terrorism investigation to see why.”

    Why did it matter to the Iraqis about the relative competence of the FBI and the UNMOVIC team? They didn’t seem to have much to hide.
    (I ask as a former nuclear inspector in Iraq.)

  14. Geoff Forden (History)

    Paul,

    Iraq was desperately trying to hide the fact that they had used poison gas on their Kurdish and Shia populations after the 1991 war. If there had been a proper accounting of their chemical weapons, this fact would have eventually come out (or the chemical folder would never have been closed). In fact, a proper accounting of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war was the number one remaining unresolved disarmament issues in the chemical folder. This was, in some sense, an official position. There was an “unoffical” reason reason too. By that I mean decisions taken at a level considerably below the Revolutionary Command Council. The biological weapons program ended up dumping about 1000 liters of concentrated anthrax very close to one of Saddam’s palaces (it was done at night during one of the last days of the 1991 war, we know this from interviews done by the ISG). There was a great desire among these bioweaponeers to hide this from Saddam. They were therefore trapped into lying about this to UNSCOM and UNMOVIC. Its not clear to me if this later issue was a consideration in their preference for FBI agents, but I think the gassing of the Kurds and Shia was.

    You see, Iraq had things to hide from the international community besides WMD. (But definitely related!)

  15. anon

    Watched the movie today & like others I really enjoyed the movie. However, (imo)if it’s intended to represent the real events, I would rate it as pure propaganda.

  16. zj

    I just finished Georges Sada’s book “Saddam’s Secrets.” He was an Iraqi general and makes pretty strong claims that Iraq sent CW to Syria before the war. Do any of you buy this? And is there any reasons to specifically believe or not believe his testimony?

  17. Bahram Chubin (History)

    Geoff:

    Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds was not ever really a secret. The world had knowledge of it while it happened, including video documentation (e.g. video of Halabcha) and reports of witnesses.

    * * *

    What about Scott Ritter’s statement that if Saddam stopped the inspections it was because the inspections were exceeding the legal mandate by allowing intelligence services to spy on Saddam’s security apparatus? Richard Butler denied that, but Hans Blix confirmed this in 2003. I think Blix is a credible tie-breaker.

    All this makes me cynical about the credibility and legitimacy of the United Nations as far as its dealings with states like Iraq and Iran are concerned. Rather than being a just arbiter of conflicts, I feel that the UN is just another instrument the big powers manipulate in order to have their way in the world.

  18. Geoff Forden (History)

    Bahram,

    Halabcha occurred BEFORE the 1991 Gulf War. The gassing I was referring to occurred AFTER. To conflate the two just proves my point.

    I don’t really feel like I have to address anything Scott Ritter says.

    I am unaware of any statements by Dr. Blix that would support that assertion.

  19. Bahram Chubin (History)

    Geoff, From what I recall from an early 2003 or late 2002 CNN-online story, Blix admitted the involvement of spy agencies in earlier inspections, and emphasized that that kind of thing will not be repeated. I think he was trying to set Saddam’s mind at ease.

    I’m curious about the point you make about Ritter. I know he has political opinions. But is Ritter known as somebody who falsifies things? He seems to have been the one person who was right about the absence of WMD in Iraq.

  20. Bahram Chubin (History)

    Blix confirms that the UN inspectors gave access to spy agencies in violations of their legal mandate:

    (1) “Hans Blix, chief UN weapons inspector, argues that UN credibility was badly hurt by disclosures about covert CIA, British MI6 and Israeli Mossad operations with the former UN inspection teams… Some of the intercepts and other data were used to help identify and target President Saddam’s suspected hideouts when US and British bombers launched the Desert Fox air strikes in December, 1998, after the UN inspectors were withdrawn, former inspectors say.” (From http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/10/23/1034561546457.html
    )

    (2) Quote form Blix: “I thought that in the ’90s sometimes the inspectors from New York had been a bit too Rambo-like, and of course inspectors from the teams often had people from the intelligence side, both from the U.S. and the U.K.” (http://bostonreview.net/BRwebonly/blix.php)

    (3) “Although the accusations were denied at the time, the involvement of at least the CIA was later confirmed by the UN, by the US administration and by former weapons inspectors.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/11/iraq.ewenmacaskill)

  21. Geoff Forden (History)

    I interpret the quotes you give from Dr. Blix differently and given his careful use of language, I feel very certain he was just saying that some weapons inspectors had worked for intelligence agencies before coming to UNSCOM. Thats rather uncontroversial.

    As for Ritter, even this is taking too much time on that subject.

  22. Bahram Chubin (History)

    Geoff: If Blix meant only that former spies joined the inspections, as you suggest, he probably would have said that people who were “formerly” with US & British intelligence joined the inspections. The absence of the qualifier “former” is telling.

    Also, in context, he is being critical of inspection practices in the 90’s, so what he says about spy agencies is by no means “uncontroversial.” He disapproves of people from US and British intelligence having been involved. Why? Probably because they did what spies do. Click on the link to see the negative context of his remarks.

    Finally, his remarks came after Ritter’s whistle-blowing. So, he seems to implicitly confirm Ritter’s criticism. He certainly says nothing that distances him from Ritter’s accusations.

    I respect your choice not to discuss Ritter. As for me, he has my respect for his courage in saying before the invasion that there were few WMD’s in Iraq. For that, he was painted as crazy by CNN, New York Times, etc. Yet, no other expert spoke the truth to power at that time.

    Best wishes,
    Bahram

  23. Geoff Forden (History)

    Bahram,

    If you are trying to convince me that Dr. Blix said there was “spying” going on with the sanction of UNSCOM, you havent done it. I will refer you to Dr. Blix himself for any further discussion on this matter.

    If you want to respect Mr. Ritter for saying there were no WMDs in Iraq, that is fine with me too. I would just mention that if a person says enough different things he will eventually be right.

  24. Bahram Chubin (History)

    Geoff: OK, I have the task of digging more deeply into old news to see if I can find the original Blix interview that I seem to recall as having put the matter more explicitly.

    As for Ritter, I used the word “few” WMD instead of “no” WMD. To my knowledge, Ritter didn’t say that there were absolutely no WMD’s. He thought something may have been left over from the early 90’s. His point was that (1) the bulk of the weapons were destroyed by the UN, and (2) Iraq’s WMD’s were a false pretext for the invasion. The second claim is admittedly still debatable, but I think the evidence for it now is extremely strong.

    Nobody else, neither Democrat nor Republican, had the courage to state these two truths when it mattered most, i.e. in the months leading up to the invasion. To me, this matters a lot, because countless lives were lost in Iraq, beginning with those of many draftees in Saddam’s army, and because some cities were destroyed, like Falluja.

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