Paul Bremer’s self-serving defence of his role as the US’s vice-consul in Iraq

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Dhu al-Qa'dah 10, 1427 2006-12-01

Book Review

by Nasr Salem (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 10, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1427)

Overblown rhetoric, ideological blinkers, wishful thinking and self-delusion have defined America’s decision to go to war againstIraq. Such fanciful constructions, and the attendant misperceptions, blinded US decision-makers to realities on the ground before they went to war. They also seem to continue to preclude the possibility of any sort of introspection and critical analysis of what went wrong. This book is a typical example of this mentality. There is no attempt at critical examination in Bremer’s memoir, no hint of a willingness to take advantage of the retrospective insights available to hindsight, not even a trace of remorse about the fact that the policies he has helped to make might have contributed to the current calamitous plight of the Iraqi people. One finds only an obsession with self-justification, and echoes of arrogance and self-aggrandizement. But amid the myriad shortcomings, the author inadvertently provides revelations of failure.

“Baghdad was burning” when Bremer arrived in the Iraqi capital on May 12, 2003, aboard a US Air Force C-130 (p. 3). When he left after some fourteen months as America’s proconsul in Iraq, Baghdad was still burning; the Iraqi conflagration continues to date. Within days of his arrival in Iraq, Bremer made a number of decisions and issued diktats that effectively stoked the fires. On May 16, 2003, he signed Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 1, which barred high-level Ba’athists, including doctors, teachers, university professors and other professionals, from government work. This was followed by the “Dissolution of Entities” Order, disbanding the Iraqi defence ministry, the related armed forces and all security and intelligence apparatuses. These shortsighted acts aggravated the sense of loss on the part of the Sunni Arab minority, which has been politically privileged throughout Iraq’s modern history, ultimately contributing to a security vacuum, fuelling the insurgency, and enabling lawlessness to spread throughout the country.

Bremer’s account of these decisions takes pains to justify them. Among other things, he argues that upon his arrival in Baghdad, “the old army had long since disappeared. When Iraqi draftees had seen which way the war was going in 2003, they simply deserted and went home to their farms and families… So the issue was not whether to use an existing force, but whether … we should try to recall units of the old army to “stand up” the new one on the pattern of the old”. Bremer is dismissive of the idea of recalling the old Iraqi army, yet he provides no good reason for such a stand other than hinting that “[a]ny idea of recalling the former force, or part of it … ran up against major policy and practical obstacles” (p. 53). His argument that, had the CPA decided to recall the old army, it “would not have been able to offer command positions to more than a tiny percentage of the old officer caste” is at best weak. It is true that such a move would have made those left out “as disgruntled as they already have been, probably more so for seeing a few of their old comrades back in power” (p. 56). It is also true, however, that such a move would have turned some of the anger of those left out against their old comrades in arms. Dismantling the Iraqi army created, by a stroke of the pen, a large pool of unemployed and discontented soldiers, many of them well-trained and battle-hardened, who were willing to recruit into the insurgency.

“De-Ba’athification” and disbanding the Iraqi armed services effectively put an end to efforts to implement a swift transfer of power to an Iraqi government. These efforts had been started by Bremer’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, head of the Pentagon’s original civil administration in Iraq, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, ORHA, who forged working relations with senior leaders of the Iraqi army. The idea had been to recall some of the disbanded units and deploy them in security and reconstruction missions. This sudden, radical change of course on how to handle post-invasion Iraq indicated the US decision-makers’ lack of a clear policy before their troops bombed their way to Baghdad.

The failure of Washington’s point-man in Iraq to foresee the risks involved in these decisions stems partly from the neo-conservative assumptions underpinning the entire US project in Iraq. The neo-cons’ aversion to challenging tasks such as nation-building precluded advanced planning for the postwar period. Throughout the book, Bush appears to demonstrate the lack of a post-invasion vision. His input and instructions are for the most part limited to vacuous slogans and dull platitudes, all devoid of policy content or relevance, such as “we are not going to fail in Iraq” (p. 209, emphasis in original). But the failure also stems partly from Bremer’s lack of knowledge about and understanding of Iraq. Bremer assumed his new post in Iraq after 23 years of service at theUS state department under six secretaries of state. During these years he rose to the rank of ambassador at large for counter-terrorism, and chaired the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism. Impressive as his record in the US foreign service might be, Bremer lacked relevant experience in the Middle East. He had never travelled to Iraq, spoke no Arabic, and had never been assigned to any post dealing with postwar reconstruction.

Upon his arrival in Baghdad, Bremer had almost absolute powers. He describes his role in Iraq as having been “neither [Donald] Rumsfeld’s nor [Colin] Powell’s man. I was the president’s man” (p.12). In his first meeting with a seven-man body of new Iraqi leaders, known as the Iraqi Leadership Council (ILC), he declared his intention of preventing the creation of an interim Iraqi government. He let the anti-Saddam exiles know that the US was not “about to turn over the keys to the kingdom” (p. 44). Thusthe search for candidates needed to expand the ILC into a 25-member Governing Council was set into motion. Yet Bremer’s thirst for power also led him to sideline other key American players in Iraq, such as Zalmay Khalilzad, presidential envoy and current USambassador to Baghdad, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who as commander of the Combined Joint Task-Force 7 was the highest-ranking military officer in Iraq during Bremer’s stint in Baghdad.

Bremer’s memoir takes the reader to behind-the-scenes meetings in Baghdad in which Iraqi leaders were involved in difficult negotiations to fashion institutions for the governance of a country whose deeply divided population has been traumatized by decades of dictatorship, wars and sanctions. Bremer derides the Governing Council, with its constantly bickering members, as ineffective, claiming that its “effectiveness was hampered, from the first day to the last, by lax work habits. They established a pattern of meeting Monday through Thursday, usually just in the mornings, but even then not starting until after 10:00 A.M. After treating themselves to a lavish luncheon, members would drift off to other activities or a long siesta in the baking afternoon” (p. 123).

Among the many political battles that Bremer found himself fighting in Iraq, his battle of wills with Ayatullah al-Udhma Ali al-Sistani over a new constitution for the country is the most notable. Bremer originally wanted an appointed body of Iraqis to draft a new constitution with the help of American advisers. But Sistani “issued a fatwa insisting that the constitution be written by Iraqis and that the constitutional conference must be elected, not appointed by the Coalition” (p. 94). Throughout this protracted row over the constitution, the Najaf-based Shi’a ‘alim, who categorically refused to meet with US officials despite the fact that he “had encouraged [his] followers to cooperate with the Coalition” (p. 55), emerges as more democratic than the American career diplomat presumably appointed to “bring democracy” to Iraq.

But the difficult relations between Sistani and the Coalition did not amount to a total estrangement. Ayatullah Sistani, according to Bremer, did not heed a call by “Syrian President Bashar Assad [who] … sent him a confidential message suggesting that the ayatollah should “issue a fatwa calling for a jihad against the Coalition,” as Shia leaders had done in 1920 against the British” (p. 198). Moreover, Bremer maintained private channels to Sistani. This role was mainly played by Emad Dhia, an Iraqi-American who headed the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council. “A Detroit resident, Dhia had been born to a respected family in Najaf [the Al-Khirsan] and had often proven useful as a discreet conduit to the Grand Ayatollah” (p. 240).

Whereas the Coalition’s relations with Sistani oscillated between implicit cooperation, suspicion, distrust and benign rivalry, its relations with the young Shi’a firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr see-sawed between downright hostility and open armed conflict. Bremer refused a request from the Iraqi Ministerial Committee for National Security to include Muqtada in the political process. As early as the summer of 2003, Bremer was calling for action against Sadr. However, the US military and the CIA were nervous about such an operation. For instance, “the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, sent the president … a near-hysterical assessment about the “risks of action” against Muqtada. The Agency view was that we should ignore him and that his support, already weak, would gradually fade away” (p. 131). Troubled by the growing influence and activities of al-Sadr’s followers, and frustrated by Washington’s reluctance to take action against Muqtada, Bremer moved to close down al-Hawzah and round up some of Muqtada’s associates. These moves set off the first uprising against the US-led occupation of Iraq by Muqtada’s Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) fighters and Coalition and Iraqi troops throughout south-central and southern Iraq, as well as in Sadr City (eastern Baghdad).

My Year in Iraq is the first senior insider’s memoir on a critical period in post-invasion Iraq. But the book is very short on analysis. Despite the many interesting details presented throughout the book, it is frustrating that there is very little reflection on important speculative questions, such as the possible factors and events that might have contributed to America’s Iraqi fiasco, or the institutional, systemic and organizational problems within the CPA.

The flames Bremer mentions at the beginning of his memoir were mostly from fires started by looters. Those could have been put out or even prevented from starting, had there been a proper plan or vision for post-invasion Iraq that included a scheme for policing the country. But flames continue to engulf Iraq more than two years after he stopped being America’s viceroy in Iraq. These are now the flames of internecine fighting, chaos and the destructive passions of ethnic and sectarian strife. No amount of policing seems to be able to extinguish such fires, stoked by odious hatreds, especially in a country where members of the security forces are actively engaged in the activities of sectarian death squads. Rather than “building a future of hope”, Bremer’s “struggle” in Iraq helped to turn the country into an inferno that is in danger of letting the pandemonium of civil strife loose throughout the Middle East.

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