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The Mess

In January 2003, Rumsfeld appointed retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner to administer Iraq. Garner understood that his mission was to arrange the fastest possible transfer to an Iraqi government and, in early May, he announced his intention to appoint such a government by May 15. Garner’s team established working relations with senior leaders of the Iraqi army with a view to recalling disbanded units to handle security and to become reconstruction brigades. Garner’s top civilians were trying to revive Iraq’s looted ministries, working with the senior civil servants who remained after the ministers fled. Almost all of them were also high-level Baathists, this having been a prerequisite to advancement in Iraq’s public service.

Within a few days of his arrival, Bremer dissolved Iraq’s military forces, barred the top four levels of the Baath Party from public service, and told the Iraqi leaders that there would be no handover of power. Packer quotes Garner as saying he woke up the morning of May 17 to find “three or four hundred thousand enemies and no Iraqi face on the government.” I think Bremer was right about not reconstituting the armed forces and partially right about de-Baathification. Still, whether he was right or wrong, it was absurd to have had Garner pursuing the exact opposite course of action. Either the Bremer approach or the Garner approach could have been feasible strategy. Following both was a disaster. The President should have decided on a clear policy before US troops arrived in Baghdad and his failure to do so proved very costly.

Bremer says that Bush “was as vigorous and decisive in person as he appeared on television.” But in fact he gives an account of a superficial and weak leader. He had lunch with the President before leaving for Baghdad—a meeting joined by the Vice President and the national security team—but no decision seems to have been made on any of the major issues concerning Iraq’s future. Instead, Bremer got a blanket grant of authority that he clearly enjoyed exercising. The President’s directions seem to have been limited to such slogans as “we’re not going to fail” and “pace yourself, Jerry.” In Bremer’s account, the President was seriously interested in one issue: whether the leaders of the government that followed the CPA would publicly thank the United States. But there is no evidence that he cared about the specific questions that counted: Would the new prime minister have a broad base of support? Would he be able to bridge Iraq’s ethnic divisions? What political values should he have? Instead, Bush had only one demand: “It’s important to have someone who’s willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq.” According to Bremer, he came back to this single point three times in the same meeting. Similarly, Ghazi al-Yawar, an obscure Sunni Arab businessman, became Bush’s candidate for president of Iraq’s interim government because, as Bremer reports, Bush had “been favorably impressed with his open thanks to the Coalition.”


The day after his arrival, Bremer met with the CPA senior staff. He told them, “We all have to avoid arrogance.” Like the President he represented, Bremer spoke of the need for humility and acted the opposite. Three days after arriving, he informed Garner’s staff members that the very Iraqis that they had been working with were now banned from official jobs under the de-Baathification decree. For three weeks, the staff had been operating under instructions to work with the high-level civil servants who were now being banned. But Bremer showed no sympathy for their complaints. To his wife he sent a smug-sounding e-mail: “There was a sea of bitching and moaning…. An ungood time was had by all.” The US employees responded as bureaucrats do: with unflattering leaks to the press that did much to undermine Bremer’s administration.

Not only had Garner publicly committed the United States to establishing an Iraqi interim government by mid-May 2003, but a presidential envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad (now the US ambassador to Iraq), visited the new Iraqi leaders in April carrying the same message. Normally, a presidential envoy speaks for the President. But in the undisciplined Bush administration, it appeared the envoys said whatever they wanted. Bremer clearly had the authority to decide whether or not to form a new government and he decided not to. Bush made no decision one way or another.

On May 16, Bremer summoned the seven members of the Iraqi Leadership Council (ILC) that had been appointed by the US at the end of the war and told them he was now in charge. Again, his memoir conveys his satisfaction: “I was exerting the authority President Bush had granted me, ‘putting down the hammer.’ …I did not have to articulate the fact that, with the exception of Chaderchi [a Sunni Arab lawyer], they were all exiles, recently returned to Iraq. ‘Surely [Bremer told them] a representative government will have to include many Iraqis who lived here and suffered under Saddam for decades.’”

In fact, the ILC was reasonably representative. It included the leaders of the two Kurdish nationalist parties, the two main Shiite religious parties, two prominent secular Iraqi leaders (Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi), and Naseer Chaderchi. Contrary to what Bremer writes, the Kurds were not exiles; they had been running a nearly independent state in northern Iraq for twelve years. And in the January 2005 elections, five of the seven ILC members led parties that won 90 percent of the vote. (Chalabi was an exception. In January, he was elected to Parliament on the Shiite slate, but in the December 2005 elections headed a party that got no seats.) To make the ILC more representative, Bremer added eighteen new members, and renamed it the Iraqi Governing Council (GC). Collectively, Bremer’s new members won about 3 percent of the vote in 2005. He evidently had no idea of who was representative and who was not.

Bremer treated the Iraqi Governing Council more or less like a student council. In July 2003, he came up with the brilliant idea that the members of the Governing Council should “demand” that the Coalition Provisional Authority do things it was already planning to do, arguing that this would enhance the GC’s credibility. When they did not take up his suggestion, Bremer told the astonished members of the Governing Council: “Look, you can’t very well hope to run a country of 25 million without working hard. The Governing Council works fewer hours in a week than the CPA works every day.”

It seems never to have occurred to Bremer that the leading Iraqi politicians had no real interest in enhancing the credibility of the American-installed Governing Council. And they certainly had better things to do than to demand that the CPA do what it was already doing. Bremer seems surprised that the Governing Council members stopped attending meetings, sending lower-level substitutes. He had no ability to see himself from their perspective.

Two realities developed in Iraq. Inside the Green Zone, Bremer and his staff produced one hundred new laws that were intended to transform Iraq into what America wanted it to be. Some were pet conservative projects like Bremer’s decree imposing a flat 15 percent income tax in a country with no taxes; while others dealt with matters like copyrights, patents, telecommunications, and border controls. Meanwhile, outside the Green Zone, the Shiite leaders were building their new Islamic state; insurgents took over Sunni Arab lands; and the Kurds successfully resisted any effort to reduce their independence.

Bremer originally wanted to appoint Iraqis to write a new constitution with the help of right-wing Americans; it was to be a model for the Middle East, as well as a cause for celebration among Washington’s neoconservatives. The Bush administration’s bold ambitions were blocked by Ali al-Sistani, the elderly Shiite cleric living in a modest house in Najaf. Sistani insisted that elected Iraqis should both write the constitution and choose the post-occupation government. In the struggle of wills between the two, Sistani, who refused to meet Bremer, emerged as the democrat and the winner, confirming his status as the more important arbiter of Iraq’s future, although he was in fact an Iranian citizen.

The CPA’s performance on economic matters was abysmal. It never came close to restoring electricity to pre-war levels. In spite of billions spent on Iraq’s oil industry, the CPA’s ambitious plans to boost Iraq’s oil production failed, and in December 2005, exports fell to half the pre-war level. The CPA was never able to spend the billions Congress appropriated for reconstruction; nor could it properly account for $8.8 billion in Iraqi funds entrusted to its care. In his book, Bremer blames Washington red tape for delays in spending reconstruction funds. This is only part of the story. The White House and Pentagon wanted ideologically reliable Americans to take power in Iraq, not career bureaucrats they could not control. To carry out the CPA’s work, Washington sent to Baghdad a steady stream of American conservatives, mainly young people with no relevant expertise, no previous experience in the Middle East, and no knowledge of the region. Some were assigned to the budget office, but knew nothing about budgeting or federal procurement procedures; they spent money slowly and without proper accounting. While Bremer is generous in sharing credit with his personal staff, he says nothing about these recruits. Nor does he mention staff members who have written critically about the CPA, like the senior governance specialist Larry Diamond or the constitutional adviser Noah Feldman.*

With regard to the CPA’s accounting lapses, Bremer asserts that it is unfair to expect normal recordkeeping in a war zone. The CPA’s inspector general, in a shocking recent report, describes a situation that went beyond the occasional lapse. Millions of dollars were kept in shrink-wrapped “bricks” of hundred-dollar bills scattered about the CPA offices, often neither guarded nor locked up. Records were not kept. A soldier assigned to assist the Iraqi boxing team gambled away the funds he was given. No one could tell whether he had lost $20,000 or $60,000, since no one kept a record of how much money he had received.

The CPA’s other great failure was in maintaining security. Bremer has been harshly criticized for disbanding the Iraqi army. He argues that they had already demobilized themselves, and on this point he is largely right. I traveled around much of Iraq in April 2003, and I saw almost no one in uniform, and certainly no organized units. But, more importantly, the old Iraqi army was a Sunni Arab army. To reconstitute it would, as Bremer rightly points out, have provoked strong reactions from Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds; and it was in any case unlikely to have been loyal to Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated political order. But since the Baathist army had already dispersed, Bremer’s decree dissolving it was quite unnecessary; it was really a way to assert his own authority. To Sunni Arabs—including former officers who had no intention of returning to military service—it was an added, and gratuitous, humiliation.

Bremer argued for more American troops and he was deeply skeptical about the claims of the US military that they were building up a new Iraqi army. His skepticism proved justified when the Iraqi army created by the US largely disappeared in April 2004. Rumsfeld and Bush, he writes, never responded to his request for more US troops.

The Bush administration often cites Iraq’s interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), as its crowning achievement. Although the administration proclaimed that the TAL was written by Iraqis and that it was a major document in establishing Iraqi democracy, it was in fact written by US government lawyers, as is obvious from its prose. Bremer’s book reveals just how American it was. Not only did he and his staff drive it through the Governing Council, but he personally cleared important clauses with Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council. Not surprisingly, the American-written TAL never was accepted as legitimate by the people of Iraq. It was convenient for Iraqis to follow the TAL’s schedule for elections, but its principal requirements—including its excellent bill of rights and its provisions for strong central government—have never been applied outside the Green Zone.

Although some commentators have suggested that the Kurds were the big winners in the TAL, the Kurdish leaders felt Bremer bullied them into accepting less than the autonomy they had previously enjoyed. Bremer simply ignored Kurdistan’s proposals for the TAL, including the right to have its own military forces, and warned the two Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, that they would lose US support if they persisted in their demands. He got his way—but only on paper. The Kurdistan government never implemented the TAL provisions calling for a single national military force or those giving Baghdad control over Kurdistan’s oil and border crossings. Resentment of the TAL led the Kurds to organize a referendum in Kurdistan simultaneous with the January elections, in which 98 percent of Iraq’s Kurds expressed a preference for independence. And in the permanent constitution approved on October 15, 2005, the Kurds won every point that Bremer had refused. But there were no hard feelings. As one Kurdish leader tells me almost every time I see him, “We will erect a statue of Bremer here in Kurdistan. He did more than anyone else to break up Iraq.”

Bremer’s book is admirably free of self-pity and at times it is hard not to feel sorry for him. He had to live with the consequences of the administration’s failure to plan for Iraq’s future, as well as Bush’s weak leadership and his desire to win the war on the cheap. But Bremer also compounded White House errors, notably by not insisting that the CPA be staffed with competent professionals. His biggest error, however, was to think he knew best. He was in charge of Iraq, but could not accept the obvious: that Iraqis knew much more about their country than he would ever know. They were not, as he complains in his book, lazy or disorganized. They simply didn’t share his goal of a unified, democratic, and Western-oriented Iraq. The more Bremer tried to dictate, the less relevant he and the United States became. Bremer should have started by letting Iraqis run Iraq, not the ones he picked but the seven selected by the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. It is possible that Ahmad Chalabi would have emerged as Iraq’s prime minister, but only as the agent of the Kurds and the Shiite religious parties who were, and are, Iraq’s real power brokers. As deputy prime minister in the current Iraqi government, Chalabi has demonstrated both administrative skills and an ability to build alliances without having any electoral base at all. With all his flaws, an Ahmad Chalabi– led Iraqi government could not have done worse than Jerry Bremer and the CPA.


On June 28, 2004, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh escorted Bremer to a West Virginia Air National Guard C-130 plane on the tarmac of the Baghdad International Airport. As photographers snapped the picture that would appear in the next day’s newspapers, Bremer stood in the aircraft door and waved goodbye. The door closed, the farewell party left, and nothing happened. When the coast was clear, Bremer and his bodyguard left the C-130, ran to a nearby helicopter, flew to a different part of the airport, and then boarded a waiting jet to Jordan. If insurgents were planning to attack the C-130, he had outfoxed them.

June 30 was the scheduled date for the handover, but the White House decided to advance it by two days to outwit possible terrorists. At 10 AM on June 28, the CPA scheduled a joint press conference with Bremer and Iraq’s new prime minister, Ayad Allawi. When they arrived, the reporters were ushered into Allawi’s office to watch as Bremer handed a letter to Iraq’s Chief Justice formally transferring sovereignty. “I admitted,” he writes, “disappointment that we had not been able to establish a secure environment. ‘The insurgents have proven better organized and more difficult to penetrate than we had expected.’” There was an open line to President Bush and his team, who were then in Ankara for a NATO summit, but as Bremer, the best-protected man in Iraq, writes,

when the correspondents arrived at the former Governing Council building, our staff collected everybody’s cell phones, so that they could not report the event [in] real time, or immediately after, to allow me to leave Iraq first.

What started with neoconservative fantasies of cheering Iraqis greeting American liberators with flowers and sweets ended with a secret ceremony and a decoy plane.

  1. *

    Larry Diamond, Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq (Times Books, 2005); Noah Feldman, What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building (Princeton University Press, 2004).

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