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My Year in Iraq

by L. Paul Bremer with Malcom Montgomery
432 pages,
ISBN: 141654058X


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Theatre of Chaos
by Hugh Graham

While he was Washington's man in Iraq, Paul Bremer was thought by security experts to be "the most threatened American in the world." One plot on his life was aborted because of a traffic jam; in another a roadside bomb came within a few seconds of killing him. One time he had to travel in a convoy of 17 Humvees, 3 Blackwater helicopters, 2 Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter-bombers for "top cover". This was the Iraq that Bremer left behind him.
In his memoir, My Year in Iraq, he offers his own reasons for the chaos. They rarely come down to anything he did, for people like Bremer tend not to acknowledge their mistakes. He has been around the block as Secretary of State Kissinger's chief of staff, Reagan's ambassador at large for counterterrorism, and has held various diplomatic posts. It seems that his appointment, which he calls "the biggest challenge of my life" involved only a few friendly phone calls. It's probably true, since he had little or no experience in the Arab world; he was a political appointee, a "Neocon" confederate of the small Iraq group attached to the White House.
Perhaps he was the right man for the job in one important sense. He was an authoritarian, and he had no compunction about requesting as much authority as he felt was necessary to stand a difficult country back on its feet. He made certain that Bush and also Defence Secretary Rumsfeld granted him all of the powers he asked for.
This story is told in a tone that manages to take all the chaos in stride; it's a fast, affable tone that absorbs a tidal wave of disasters in which his own responsibility has not gone unnoticed, and has created controversy if not a scandal. Still, he's relatively straightforward about many things: the security vacuum, the looting, the dearth of US troops. And he is absolutely right, when, against powerful opposition, he argues that no army can work as a police force. On the other hand, he refers to the lack of border security, which enabled Iranian agents and foreign insurgents to pour into the country, as if it were an incidental matter that had little to do with him. Similarly, he implies that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Graib and the absence of a system for tracking detainees were beyond his control.
Of course it's easy to blame Bremer for everything that went wrong, and the press has made a blood sport of it. But the truth is mixed and much of the mess came from the folly of invading Iraq in the first place¨without a detailed plan.
In one or two sentences Bremer deals with the controversy engendered by the Pentagon's rejection of the State Department's plan for postwar Iraq by saying that it wasn't a real plan. The Pentagon had its own plan, but, as it turned out, for the "wrong contingency", since the war produced few refugees and little damage to the infrastructure. That it would produce an angry insurgency and an overwhelming policing problem was in fact foreseen by the State Department. Bremer doesn't address this. Instead he dismisses critics who complained of the lack of a plan by holding up his own plan, forged too late and under duress in July, 2003, as proof of readiness.
Careful never to sound defensive, he deals blithely with one disaster after another. It's true that the collapse of Iraq's infrastructure cannot entirely be attributed to Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority. He is convincing when he tells us that Saddam's mismanagement, his sluggish, overly subsidised economy, tribal favouritism and war with Iran had worn down if not destroyed much of the country's ability to function.
But under Saddam sewers didn't always flood the streets, water plants didn't always grind to a halt, and electrical services didn't dwindle to three hours a day. It was Bremer's de-Baathification policy that stripped the bureaucracy of too many functionaries. With pride, he describes the "best efforts" made to retain lower, hands-on functionaries who were not ideological Baathists. But in almost all other accounts, the de-Baathification went far too deep, causing the infrastructure being rebuilt to languish. Later in his account, Bremer writes about the careful vetting and rehiring of lower-level Baathists.
It has become a commonplace that the wholesale dissolution of the Iraqi army only aided in the mass recruiting by the Iraqi resistance. Here the issue is far from clear. Bremer's claim that the Iraqi army collapsed and fled is justified. In a sense, his infamous May 23 "Dissolution of Entities" order reflected, rather than caused, the situation. Moreover, the dissolution was ultimately a Pentagon idea. However, his take begins to look questionable when he opines that the Shia conscripts and NCOs would never consent to being recalled into old formations with "brutal" Sunni officers. Even in Bremer's account, US commanders Abizaid and Sanchez argued that they could. Furthermore, later in his book, Bremer himself curiously boasts of the tens of thousands of former Iraqi conscripts and officers he helped bring back into the "New Iraqi Army".
Bremer had to contend with the terrifying prospect of imminent US troop reductions, and no amount of tact can disguise his dislike of Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, the near-equal he called "Don" only in private. He speaks of Rumsfeld "terrorizing subordinates", of clumsily trying to micromanage Iraq with an "eight-thousand mile screw-driver," of his silence in answer to desperate requests, and of his arrogance. Indeed, one of Bremer's greatest victories was to cut Rumsfeld out of the loop by getting direct access to President Bush.
This is a cagy, political book, doubtlessly influenced by cowriter Malcom Montgomery, an expert who has assisted General Tommy Franks and others with their political memoirs. Improbably, all the scenes are remembered in word-for-word quoted dialogue as if to render them credible as eye-witness accounts. Much of it is "Yes sir", "I agree sir," "I'll get on it right away sir." Everyone agrees with him and hops at his every word. Other passages quote the enthusiasm of various Iraqis about freedom, democracy, and America's mission in Iraq.
The serious lack of Arab and regional expertise in Bremer's command is hardly mentioned. When it is, such expertise is made to look like a perk, a frill. Bremer speculates that an Iraqi rapid reaction force could have "skills and experience far beyond those of the Coalition forces¨language, cultural awareness, basic street smarts and networks of informers." He does not mention that Americans with those skills had been left behind in the State Department.
Expertise in Arab political and decision-making culture would have helped Bremer enormously. Everyone, even Bremer, lamented the inaugural Iraqi Governing Council. Yet the listless, bickering body was Bremer's own creation, as he recounts in detail. He invited participation from the notoriously sectarian and unpragmatic leaders of exile groups such as Al Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq because they made him nervous. Then he seems to have balanced the council along sectarian lines because sectarianism made him nervous as well. He forged an unrepresentative body, but is loath to accept responsibility for it. Having given it a sham authority, he complained when it refused to act. He forced western-style win-lose votes on it, ignoring the Arab custom of seeking consensus, and then complained of its intransigence.
Similarly, while discovering the immense power and prestige wielded by Shia head cleric, the Ayatollah Sistani, among Iraq's Shia majority, Bremer was flying by the seat of his pants. He presents the Ayatollah as a stubborn and confusing negotiator on constitutional and electoral matters, but other peoples' accounts reveal that Sistani had to wait for proper translations of Bremer's proposals and then was given pause by the fine print. Another thing Bremer doesn't mention is that his own cumbersome, rigged "caucus" electoral system was effectively blocked by the head cleric. It was in fact Bremer's most humiliating failure.
On another Shia matter, Bremer deserves limited credit. Prior to the invasion, few Americans seem to have known of the danger presented by the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr. But Bremer saw early on that al Sadr had to be dealt with before he became powerful. Repeatedly, the Pentagon refused to act for fear of stirring up the country, and here again we share Bremer's frustration until he himself got troops to move in on al Sadr, in the spring of 2004, after the cleric's newspaper, A Hawza, listed the names of collaborators with the occupation. By then it was too late; Bremer's efforts incited Moqtada's two large and costly rebellions.
Over all, by the time Bremer left Iraq, it does seem as if he had prevented a misbegotten project from turning into a full-scale catastrophe. He was often arrogant and simplistic in his analysis, as his memoir betrays in its breezier, more facile moments. It must have been a good deal harder than he makes it seem. After all, he fought two monoliths¨the Pentagon and Ayatollah Sistani. Both wanted faster elections. Sistani wanted more democracy while the Pentagon wanted less. Bremer opted for the slow route of a Council, an interim government, a constitution, and elections. He made a cliff-hanging democracy where none was thought possible and he did it in thirteen months. If it all falls apart, the fault will probably lie less with Bremer than with the dreaming ideologues who sent him. ˛
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