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`Endgame' has its own agenda

The PBS documentary focuses on the Bush administration's strategic shortcomings in Iraq.

June 19, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

A common complaint about the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq is that it has lacked an exit strategy.

"Endgame," the latest "Frontline" look at the war, argues the opposite: that the Bush strategy has always emphasized getting the U.S. to the exit as fast as possible but neglected to have a workable strategy for success.

It's a provocative moment in an otherwise routine recitation of the shortcomings of the war planners at the White House and Pentagon: not enough troops, failure to see the insurgency coming, the on-again-off-again response to the murder of the contractors in Fallouja, etc.

If "Endgame" were a newspaper story, it would be called a clip-job (a phrase from the era before computers): Just take the clippings from past stories, roll in a few fresh quotes and, voila, weekend feature story.

As such, "Endgame" has both the virtues and vices of the genre. It's a primer for people who haven't been following Iraq. But it offers little new and has been gapped by recent developments that it doesn't mention: the U.S. success in forming an alliance with tribal sheiks in Al Anbar province, for example.

The politics of "Endgame" are more obvious than the previous Iraq documentaries by writer-producer-director Michael Kirk. This, after all, is PBS, the anti-Fox News.

The talking heads rounded up for interviews -- journalists, policy wonks, retired generals -- either agree with the overall thesis that the war has been so mismanaged that the "surge" in Baghdad is the last hope or they're silent on it.

If "Endgame" sent a reporter to Iraq for a firsthand look, it's not apparent in the product. There is no denying that the sectarian violence in Baghdad has been catastrophic, but that's hardly news. "Endgame" insists on being relentlessly Washington-centric -- relating who said what to whom in what meeting.

Kirk's work also has a tendency to think the worst of U.S. troops. In his "The Torture Question," a previous "Frontline" documentary, it was allegations about brutality at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere that extended beyond what was proven during that scandal. In "Endgame" he recycles a film snippet of a Marine killing an insurgent in a mosque during the November 2004 fight in Fallouja.

The clip underscores the idea that although the U.S. routed the insurgents from Fallouja, "Sunni refugees carried dark tales of what they described as a brutal American assault."

These are the same refugees, presumably, now streaming back to Fallouja for protection by the U.S. and the Iraqi security forces from the Shia death squads in Baghdad. "Endgame" missed that turn of events.

And the mosque shooting? Captured on film by an NBC correspondent embedded with the troops, it caused an international furor at the time and was shown repeatedly on U.S. and Arab television.

The corporal was pulled from the battlefield and sent back to the U.S. pending an investigation. After interviewing other Marines and reviewing the clip, the commanding general ruled that the corporal had reason to believe that the insurgent, while wounded and prone, still posed a threat and may have been hiding a weapon.

The context of the shooting and the general's decision were widely reported at the time. But those are clippings that "Endgame" chose not to use.


`Frontline: Endgame'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Rating: not rated

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