March 1, 2006  

Memoir’s of a president’s man

“I would be the only paramount authority figure — other than dictator Saddam Hussein — that most Iraqis had ever known.”

So reflected L. Paul Bremer as an Air Force C-130 began in its spiral descent into Baghdad International Airport on May 12, 2003, the start of his 13-month tenure as presidential envoy to Iraq and administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA.

A year and a half after his departure from Baghdad and the dissolution of the CPA, Bremer has produced a memoir that seeks to recast and rehabilitate his leadership of postwar Iraq. There is a fitting irony in this. The CPA was always a paper universe, a place where orders and diktats flew about with little reference to reality. That Bremer would seek to rewrite his place in history, then, is wholly appropriate.

Despite its self-interest, however, “My Year in Iraq” offers some valuable insights into Bremer’s administration. In particular, the book’s narrative captures well the twin, contradictory impulses that afflicted so much of U.S. policy under the CPA: a fierce determination to concentrate formal decision-making authority as narrowly as possible and, simultaneously, a glib and confused approach toward actually using it. Much like America in Iraq, Bremer’s memoir takes responsibility for everything and for nothing.

Bremer came to Iraq as the consummate Washington insider. A friend of Donald Rumsfeld from his first tour as defense secretary during the Ford administration, Bremer had long experience as a foreign service officer, rising to the rank of ambassador and working in Washington under six secretaries of state.

Given his service in bureaucracy, Bremer’s instinct to see “unity of command” as the key to ending the chaos unfolding in Iraq is hardly surprising. Upon his appointment to head the CPA, he swiftly moved to sideline such individuals such as presidential envoy and current U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, whom Bremer feared might meddle in Iraqi affairs or otherwise detract from his authority. “My Year in Iraq” takes pains to make clear that Bremer answered to the Oval Office. “I was neither Rumsfeld’s nor Powell’s man,” he writes. “I was the president’s man.”

Such attitudes also help explain Bremer’s notoriously poor relationship with his U.S. military counterparts, especially Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force 7 and the highest-ranking officer in Iraq during Bremer’s term in Baghdad. While lauding his decision to co-locate offices with Sanchez for its recognition of the “crucial importance of close civilian-military coordination,” Bremer marshals scant evidence of cooperation between the CPA and the U.S. military under his watch — certainly much less than the close tête-à-têtes that have more recently characterized the interactions of Ambassador Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey. Whether Bremer had a clear notion of how the division of power between Central Command and the CPA should work, either going into Iraq or coming out of it, he doesn’t say.

In fact, many prominent military officers are notable in Bremer’s account largely for their absence. While “My Year in Iraq” includes a picture of its author with then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the book makes no other reference to the former commander of the 101st Airborne Division. It is a telling and problematic omission. Petraeus’ division, based in Mosul, was responsible for much of northern Iraq through early 2004, and the animosity that developed between the 101st and the Green Zone was legendary. Petraeus countermanded Bremer’s orders on issues ranging from de-Ba’athification to negotiations with neighboring states, attracting media attention that Bremer wanted to monopolize. Similarly, the book’s only mention of Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, based in Tikrit, comes when Bremer sends him a congratulatory note on the capture of Saddam.

The diminished profile of Sanchez, Petraeus and Odierno in “My Year in Iraq” is all the more striking given how much emphasis Bremer places on his discussions with a small inner circle of civilian advisers. These were, for the most part, savvy subordinates who realized that the key to success in the CPA was to keep quiet and not challenge their boss. In “My Year in Iraq,” they are celebrated as “personable,” “cheerful” and “brilliant.” Others who occasionally questioned his positions, such as senior British representative Jeremy Greenstock, barely appear in the narrative. Had Bremer welcomed criticism rather than bristled at it, his legacy might be far different.

Bremer is likewise dismissive toward the nascent Iraqi leadership. He derides the Iraqi Governing Council as ineffective on 18 different pages — despite the fact that their squabbling mirrored real political debate and was, in any case, hardly distinguishable from the bureaucratic jockeying that characterized the CPA. Even in retrospect, Bremer is unable to see that Iraqi politicians were not simply maneuvering for their own interests but were often reflecting subtle changes of public mood.

Governing Council members, in turn, bristled at Bremer’s self-aggrandizement, balking at demands that they receive him at the airport upon his return from a trip to the United States. “Does he think he is a potentate and we his courtiers?” one Shi’ite politician complained. Bremer describes in great detail his public appearances, apparently unaware of how they antagonized Iraqi pride and attracted ridicule beyond the Green Zone’s cement blast walls. In teahouses across Baghdad, Iraqis joked that the CPA stood for “Can’t Provide Anything.”

Bremer’s unwillingness to address difficult decisions in his narrative also detracts from the historical value of “My Year in Iraq.” No doubt, the Iraq he inherited was chaotic. Upon his arrival at the palace, he describes a “warts-and-all” briefing in which the staff of his predecessor, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, laid out the situation: little electricity, failing water treatment, schools closed, rampant looting. But rather than discuss prioritization and strategies to regain control, Bremer is glib. After what he depicts as an inspiring pep talk, he counsels, “We all have to avoid arrogance, either individual or institutional.” Bremer’s subsequent behavior, though, even as depicted in “My Year in Iraq,” suggests a failure of introspection and self-perception.

Bremer’s lack of vision and analysis is especially frustrating given his unique bird’s-eye view of Iraq’s reconstruction. He describes various difficulties as they unfold, but too often he fails to offer explanations about either why they emerged or how they might have been avoided. Likewise, in the book’s version of reality, problems have a tendency to fade after the CPA holds a meeting and proclaims a solution.

Take looting. “When the American-led forces occupied Haiti in 1994,” Bremer relates to his staff shortly after arriving in Baghdad, “our troops shot six looters breaking curfew and the looting stopped.” There is little mention of looting after this point in the book, leading the reader to think that the issue had been effectively addressed. It had not. On the contrary, well into the autumn of 2003, looters continued to topple electric pylons to strip copper wire. This was evident to any patrol driving past Musayib, site of a major power station south of Baghdad.

It is possible that Bremer, insulated as he was by his aides, was unaware of the extent to which Green Zone orders failed to translate into Iraqi realities. In October 2003, CPA chief of staff Pat Kennedy refused to put forward telephone calls from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who had queries regarding growing infringement on religious freedom. Three months later, members of religious militias still posted themselves in front of public schools, refusing entry to girls who did not conform to their notions of religious dress.

In January 2004, similarly, reports reached Bremer’s office that showed the Iraqi-Syrian frontier remained porous. Tire tracks marked breaches in the barbed wire delineating the border. But Bremer’s chief of staff dismissed these findings; Bremer had received assurances months before that the border was secure. Bremer’s front office also ignored multiple reports, first from staff and then in the open press, detailing Iranian infiltration into southern Iraq.

Bremer’s treatment of the April 2004 uprising of Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr is especially superficial. Bremer provides little description of the decision to arrest al-Sadr. “Frustrated with Washington’s inaction, I asked General Sanchez if he couldn’t round up some of Muqtada’s cronies,” does not suffice. True, al-Sadr had grown increasingly violent. His Jaysh al-Mahdi militia harassed coalition forces and ordinary Iraqis. But any chronicler could relate the decision. What’s lacking from Bremer is reflection. How, for instance, did the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia infiltrate so far and wide outside the notice of provincial CPA teams and the CIA? The sterility of Bremer’s account does not appear to be the result of any desire to protect classified information. Pentagon sources say his book’s revelation that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had urged Sistani to support al-Sadr’s uprising was an unauthorized disclosure.

Despite these faults, “My Year in Iraq” does provide a service in correcting certain false narratives that have achieved popular currency. Bremer reveals, for instance, that it was the State Department and not the Pentagon that dismissed the Future of Iraq Project. “It was never intended as a postwar plan,” Deputy Assistant of State Ryan Crocker tells him shortly after he assumes command of the CPA. Bremer also provides an in-depth, and badly needed, review of the state of Iraqi police and military forces upon his arrival, countering the entrenched notion that the dissolution of the old Iraqi Army sparked the insurgency. As he details, the Iraqi Army had disbanded itself weeks before his arrival.

Ultimately, however, Bremer’s occasional willingness to dip into frank and honest debate about the more controversial decisions of his tenure makes the book’s broader analytic failure to do so all the more frustrating. Bremer presided over the U.S. government’s most ambitious reconstruction project since the Marshall Plan, but his lack of introspection, at least as chronicled in “My Year in Iraq,” is striking. Events overwhelm and analysis falls short. Institutional and systematic problems within the CPA — including the dysfunctional relationship between Bremer and the U.S. military — go largely addressed. While historians will debate Bremer’s record for many years to come, “My Year in Iraq” sheds considerably less light than one otherwise might wish.

Michael Rubin is editor of Middle East Quarterly and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He served in the Coalition Provisional Authority governance group.