Mission Overshadowed

Book cover
My Year in Iraqby By Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III with Malcolm McConnellSimon & Schuster. 417p $27

Baghdad is burning when Paul Bremer arrives in May 2003. It is still burning when he leaves 14 months later. The fires of looters have been replaced by attacks from an insurgency that intensified during his tour of duty as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Things get so hot in the land Bremer hoped to democratize that he has to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government two days ahead of schedule and scurry out of the country. After he allows the press to photograph him boarding a C-130 transport, Bremer, the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, sneaks out the plane’s cargo door and sprints across the tarmac to a Chinook helicopter for transport to a government jet, which then whisks him off to Jordan.

For some of us, such an exodus might prompt a crisis of faith or at least a few questions about the rightness of U.S. strategy in Iraq. Questions, let alone remorse, are notably lacking in Bremer’s gung-ho memoir chronicling his efforts at democracy-making in a country the United States had just invaded.

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Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, 62, is working in the private sector when I. Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz, then members of the Bush administration, ask him to become the presidential envoy to Iraq. Bremer is eager for the assignment. The job of running the occupation of Iraq would draw upon his skills as a seasoned diplomat and a veteran of the global war on terrorism. During his 23 years at the State Department, he served as Ambassador at Large for Counter Terrorism and more recently chaired the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism. Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he had wanted to use his expertise to help the United States in some way, any way. In less than 10 days, he rustles up a team of young military advisers and experienced diplomats to help him with the biggest reconstruction effort since the U.S. occupation of Japan and Germany in 1945.

Iraq is not at all like postwar Japan and Germany, Bremer quickly learns. We’ve defeated a hated regime, not a country, he tells his adviser Hume Horan. Thirty years of Saddam Hussein’s cock-eyed socialism and his repressive Baathist regime have left a nonfunctioning economy and a distrustful populace with little experience in self-rule.

Undaunted by the enormity of his assignment, Bremer tackles his new mission with energy and decisiveness. The coalition has a staff of several thousand employees, and he is a manager who believes in the unity of command. Swigging cups of espresso, he works 18- to 20-hour days and makes big decisions at dizzying speed. Within his first two months on the job, he requests more U.S. troops to quell the looting in the streets, signs the now famous De-Baathification of Iraqi Society order, disbands the Iraqi military, withdraws the country’s old currency and issues a new one.

The coalition has an ambitious plan for revamping the Iraqi state before transferring sovereignty. Bremer’s timeline for that transfer stresses later rather than sooner. He and his governance officials exhaust themselves identifying capable Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders. After much scoping and vetting, they cobble together the Iraqi Governing Council, whose members eventually write and sign an interim constitution in March 2004. The document, which sets a schedule for the drafting of a permanent constitution and elections, is a source of great pride for Bremer.

Multiple military crises, however, immediately overshadow this political accomplishment. In the spring of 2004, the occupation is cracking at the seams. The Abu Ghraib scandal erupts. The militias of the Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr attack several C.P.A. offices. Sunni political leaders threaten to resign from the G.C. over the U.S. assault on the Sunni-dominated city of Fallujah. In the book’s final chapter, Bremer, with the aid of United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, scrambles to assemble an Iraqi caretaker administration that can govern the country until elections.

My Year in Iraq tells an important historical taleselectively. Bremer’s ideological perspective prohibits him from examining the contradictionshypocrisiesof U.S. policy. He attributes Iraq’s wrecked economy almost exclusively to Hussein’s thievery, Baathist corruption and heavily subsidized state-owned industries. Bremer barely acknowledges the impact of sanctions and says nothing about U.S. bombing during the first Persian Gulf war, which deliberately targeted Iraqi infrastructure, or the war profiteering that occurred on his watch as administrator of the C.P.A. In Harper’s magazine (September 2004), the investigative journalist Naomi Klein argued that Bremer’s push for a new constitution was motivated by his desire to liberalize Iraqi investment law and open the country for foreign exploitation.

Bremer’s myopia makes for some profoundly ironic scenes. When members of the Iraqi Ministerial Committee for National Security urge him to include Muqtada, the militant cleric, in the political process, he refuses, because to do so would subvert the foundation of democratic rule. It was a fundamental precept that you did not shoot your way into power, he writes.

As I read this memoir, the news from Iraq became increasingly bleak. Sectarian violence accelerated at a breathtaking rate. A military report stated the country’s infrastructure was worse than during the era of sanctions. Perhaps it is too much to expect a diplomat to apologize publicly for democracy-building missions gone awry. But Bremer could have given us a more thoughtful accounting of what the United States has done in Iraq. Had he done so, we might better understand how to avoid future catastrophes and to repent for the one we have brought about.

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