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My Year in Iraq : The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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My Year in Iraq : The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope

My Year in Iraq : The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope

When the US-British coalition forces entered Iraq in March 2003 those who opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein claimed that the invasion was part of a diabolic plan prepared by “neo-cons” to occupy the country and set permanent up bases. In other words Iraq was to become a land version of an aircraft carrier for “Anglo-Saxons” seeking to dominate the Middle East.

L Paul Bremer, a retired diplomat who was invited by the Pentagon to go to Baghdad as administrator just weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein on 9 April, must have heard that theory before leaving for Iraq. To his surprise, however, he quickly found out that there was no long-term, or even-medium-term, plan and that the last thing that the “Anglo-Saxons” wanted was to get involved in Iraq for years.

Bremer found out that Washington’s chief objective had been the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of his war machine. By the time Bremer arrived in Baghdad in May that objective had been achieved.

The choice of Bremer as “administrator” was a sure indication that the US didn’t quite know what it wanted in Iraq beyond liberation. The aim was not to impose democracy by force but to use force to remove impediments to the development of democracy. But no one in Washington knew how this was to be done. As a former diplomat and businessman Bremer had no qualifications to deal with what was clearly a political problem. A diplomat is an instrument of implementing policy rather than its architect. He can operate only on the basis of policies shaped by his political bosses. What Iraq needed at that time was a political figure, a ruler, or a “Pasha”, who would personify the function of the state in the absence of state.

Bremer, however, was thrown into the lion’s den with no plans, few instructions, and no control over instruments of power. Because he had been a relatively junior diplomat- his highest post was the largely ceremonial one of US Ambassador in Holland- he lacked the clout needed in Washington, where, as George Shultz once put it, everything is a battle royal and nothing gets done on a solid basis.

Worse still, as far as Bremer was concerned, was the fact that the Bush administration was divided over the little that they wanted to do in post-liberation Iraq. Bremer mocks the Iraqis for their “tribal and sectarian” politics. But his book shows that the American political elite acted in a more sectarian and tribal manner.

Bremer introduces the art of “gaming” which consists of designating right from the start, someone to take the blame for the possible failure of your policy. Thus anyone involved in policymaking in Washington must spend a good part of his time trying not to be “gamed.” He also shows how the Washington factions use the American media to fight one another, at times in the most ruthless manner. Even more interesting is the fact that the US media agree to be used in that way in exchange for “scoops”, “ leaks”, and “sensitive information” from “senior sources speaking on condition of anonymity”.

The book shows that an extraordinary part of Bremer’s time was spent on chairing endless bureaucratic meetings, answering often silly questions from Washington, entertaining Congressmen and Senators who felt that a pilgrimage to Baghdad was good for their electoral prospects, briefing the US media, and trying to find out what it was exactly that he was supposed to do.

No sooner had Bremer settled down in his trailer house in Baghdad that he got the impression that Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, wanted to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq and prepare to leave the country as fast as possible. According to Bremer the “neo-cons” wanted him to let the Iraqi exiles who had returned to Baghdad to form a provisional government as early as September 2003.

That, however, ran counter to the impression that Bremer had gained in meetings with President George W Bush who had insisted that the US should’ stay the course for as long as it takes” to turn Iraq into “a people-based democracy”. Within weeks of his arrival in Baghdad, Bremer had realised that achieving Bush’s objective could take years of political, economic and military commitment to Iraq rather than the months that Rumsfeld had in mind. Thus, he ignored the Pentagon’s demand to hand over power to the “exiles” whom he had organised in a Governing Council and, instead, focused on plans to liberalise the Iraqi economy, create a new police force, and seek “internal” new leaders.

In hindsight it is easy to see that Bremer was mistaken in ignoring Iraq’s immediate needs such as security and a minimum of public services in order to focus on “long-term” aims such as a new liberal economic model and an independent judiciary. In those days what Iraq needed was a series of urgent, short-term moves designed to immediately improve the lives of the people, to prevent the terrorists from getting organised, and to revive the basic structures of governance, preferably with an Iraqi face.

Nevertheless, to “game” Bremer would be unjust, especially when, overall, the Iraq project has been a success- at least so far.

Since nobody told Bremer exactly what he was supposed to do he did what he thought was right. And, when all is said and done, his record must be rated as satisfactory. Even today, many Iraqis recall “the Bremer days” with a certain nostalgia. Let us also recall the fact that just weeks after arriving in Baghdad Bremer produced a 157-page document called “ Strategic Plan” to give Iraq a new constitution and hold elections for a new democratic parliament. All the key objectives of that document have been achieved on time, and the least that anyone can do is to give Bremer part of the credit.

The Bremer memoir suffers from some of the usual defects of all political memoirs. He tries to portray the situation in Iraq when he arrived in the darkest colours possible. But anyone who visited Iraq in May 2003 would not recognise that picture. He says Iraq was “in chaos” when he arrived and, rather unfairly, dismisses the efforts of tens of thousands of relief workers, led by General Jay Garner, who had done a great job of preventing any major disaster.

Bremer is also less than kind about some of the American generals with whom he worked. He says General John Abizaid, wanted to revive Saddam Hussein’s army while General Rick Sanchez was too tired to develop a vision beyond the daily imperatives. At one point Bremer makes the surprising assertion that the US army “had no strategy to win” against the insurgents because its commanders and their bosses in the Pentagon thought only of troops rotations.

In one instance in Fallujah, according to Bremer, military discipline went out of the window when a US Marines general in charge of the locality hired one of Saddam’s generals and created a “Fallujah Brigade” without telling the American authorities.

What Bremer chooses to forget, however, is that in a democracy it is up to the politicians to guide and use the military and that it was the absence of political leadership in Baghdad that confused the generals. On two occasions, in Fallujah and Najaf, Bremer provoked a confrontation with the local rebels without having worked out the political consequences. As a result he was forced to back-track as soon as things got rough. The military had to wind down the machine they had built to crush Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf and Abu-Mussab al-Zarqawi in Fallujah.

The two episodes showed that while the aphorism “ war is too serious to be left to the generals” was true, it is equally true that politics is too serious to be left to a diplomat.

Bremer paints a picture of the new Iraqi leadership that is full of contradictions.

On one occasion he dismisses the Iraqi leaders, grouped in the Governing Council, as a bunch of lazy and unrepresentative exiles, and claims that “ they couldn’t even organise a parade”. But then, throughout the book, we see him praising most members of the same Governing Council in glowing terms.

Bremer recalls that Ibrahim al-Jaafari told him as early as May 2003 that the Saddamites were organising and bringing in Jihadists from other Arab countries and asked for joint action to stop them. Bremer dismissed al-Jaffari’s warning as a trick by a politician who wanted an early transfer of power to the Governing Council. Later, he tells us that polls conducted by his administration constantly showed al-Jaafari to be the most popular politician in Iraq.

Bremer was impressed by Adnan Pachachi whom he describes as “the father of Iraq’s democratic Bill of Rights”. He also has high praise for the Adel Abdul-Mahdi, , Hamid Majid Mussa, Ghazi al-Yawar, Rowsch Shaways, Iyad Allawi, and Muhsin Abdul-Hamid. Even Ahmad Chalabi, who made more trouble for Bremer than anyone else, gets praise for drafting an economic plan for new Iraq.

Having delayed the formation of a provisional government for months because he did want it to be dominated by the Governing Council, Bremer was ordered by Washington to accept the arbitration of the United Nations which sent Lakhdar Brahimi, a senior Algerian diplomat, to speed things up. Brahimi ended up recommending a government headed by Allawi and composed largely of the same Governing Council politicians that Bremer had rejected.

If there is any hero in this book it is George W Bush. Throughout the Bremer memoir we see Bush intervening at sensitive moments to keep everyone focused on his “ long-term objective: a democratic and prosperous Iraq supported by the US for as long as it needs to stand on its own feet. At one point, before his re-election in 2004, Bush tells Bremer that he would remain committed to building a democracy in Iraq even if that meant losing the presidential election. The strongest message that comes out of Bremer’s book is this: As long as Bush is in the White House the US will remain solidly behind Iraq’s new democracy and will do “ whatever it takes for as long as it takes” to make sure that despotism will not return to Iraq in any form- religious or secular.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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