L. Paul Bremer III with Malcolm McConnell
My Year in Iraq: the Struggle to Build a Future of Hope
Publisher: New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. pp417
Reviewer: David Tresilian
Paul Bremer, until recently a diplomat at the US State Department, achieved international fame in May 2003 when he was appointed administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and US presidential envoy in Iraq following the US-led invasion, posts he retained until June 2004. In his memoir My Year in Iraq : the Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, written with Malcolm McConnell, he sets out the record of this year as he sees it, taking in major events such as the bombing of the UN mission in Baghdad in August 2003, the capture of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in December, the breaking of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in January 2004 and the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi government in June 2004, followed by the dissolution of the CPA and Bremer’s own departure from Iraq.
When it was published earlier this year Bremer’s book was searched through by all those eager to learn from one of the story’s leading actors what really happened during this eventful year both in Iraq, and, just as importantly for the country’s future, in Washington. Type Paul Bremer and “My Year in Iraq” into an Internet search engine and in excess of 500,000 results come up, not bad for a title published just a month or two ago. Yet, does Bremer’s memoir greatly add to our knowledge of what happened in Iraq during this fateful year, or what went on behind the scenes in Washington? If the answer is that on the whole it does not contain any major revelations, the book nevertheless contains some intriguing nuggets, and these have contributed both to the extensive discussions of it and to what one must suppose have been its whacking sales.
One such nugget concerns Bremer’s views on the troop numbers required for any successful US-led occupation of Iraq. The invasion of the country having proved “a cakewalk”, the Saddam regime swiftly collapsing in the face of the invading Coalition forces, there seems to have been a view in Washington that the subsequent occupation of the country could be achieved just as easily. However, if Bremer ever shared this view he was quickly disabused of it by the “reality of occupying a large Muslim nation in the heart of the volatile Middle East.”
Arriving in Baghdad on 12 May 2003 a few days after receiving instructions from US President George W. Bush, Bremer says that “we could have been in a sci-fi movie about post-apocalyptic Los Angeles,” with Coalition forces apparently powerless to stop armed militiamen roaming the streets and continuing arson and looting.
Bremer’s remit was to get the Iraqi state up and running again following its collapse in the final days of the Saddam regime, and his thoughts turn to the reconstruction carried out in Germany and Japan after the Second World War under the watchful eyes of the Allies. For reconstruction to take place, however, it was essential that order be restored, and there were no local forces able to do this, he says. Members of the former Iraqi police were “at home guarding their families,” and the Iraqi army had “disappeared” or “self-demobilized” on contact with Coalition forces, melting away “under relentless bombardment from precision-guided weapons.”
When Bremer arrived to take control of the CPA, set up to replace the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (OHRA) led by US General Jay Garner, at the time the de facto government in Iraq, he found “not a single Iraqi military unit standing intact anywhere in the country.” Having been given “all executive, legislative, and judicial functions in Iraq,” one of Bremer’s first actions was to draw the attention of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to a study showing that 500,000 Coalition troops would be needed to stabilise the situation, more than three times the number then deployed. However, “I never heard back from him,” Bremer says, and troop numbers were not increased.
A second nugget from Bremer’s book is the impression it gives both of extraordinary energy on his part, perhaps, in a memoir, an inevitable form of special pleading, and the lack of planning that apparently reigned elsewhere, made worse by multiple lines of accountability. As a civilian, Bremer did not have authority over the Coalition troops stationed in Iraq. However, he was a “tough guy for a tough job,” at least according to President Bush in an example of the macho language employed throughout this book, and “the US Central Command (CENTCOM) — the Coalition’s military arm...had orders from the president and Rumsfeld to coordinate their operations with the CPA and me.”
It is easy to see that “coordinate” can mean as much, or as little, as those involved want it to mean, and there are points in Bremer’s narrative where US policy in Iraq, as expressed through the CPA, was either ambiguous or uncertain, reflecting disagreements in Washington or tensions between Bremer and his political bosses.
Bremer presents himself as a realist and a field man, impatient with the lack of knowledge and political maneuverings of his desk-bound Washington superiors. Rumsfeld, in particular, is presented as being guilty not only of ignorance of the situation in the field and deaf to requests for additional US forces to cope with the deteriorating security situation, but also of being ready to apply pressure in order to achieve the kind of positive media coverage that, following the toppling of symbols of the regime after the US-led invasion, was getting harder and harder to come by. “Ceaseless negativism” is how Bremer describes the international coverage of CPA actions in Iraq, and by the end of his book he is complaining of an “incessant barrage of Arab propaganda.”
In the face of this situation Rumsfeld pushed for cuts in the US military presence, to be made up for by newly trained Iraqi units and the increased deployment of Coalition (i.e. non-US) forces, and for greater progress in the handing over of sovereignty to an Iraqi government, which could then be billed as having replaced the US-led occupation.
On both counts Bremer was obliged to argue for slower progress than Rumsfeld and others in Washington would have liked. The CPA’s failure to dent the popularity of the Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, identified by Bremer as a threat to the country’s security, culminated in the debacle at Falluja in April 2004 and demonstrated problems with the new Iraqi forces: “total failure” is how Bremer evaluates their performance. Pressure from Washington to speed up the handing over of sovereignty to an Iraqi government also irritates Bremer, who moves from disbelief at the timetable initially proposed to a strategy of prodding an apparently reluctant Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), appointed by Bremer, into coming up with an interim constitution before Washington finally lost patience: for the members of the IGC it was a case of “shape up or be shipped out,” as he puts it.
While Bremer presents himself as resisting demands from Washington for greater speed, he does not hide his irritation at what he describes as the incompetence and motivated delays of the Iraqi politicians with whom he has to deal. He is sceptical of the claims made by Iraqi exiles brought back to the country in the wake of the US- led invasion, worrying that these people, at first named the Iraqi Leadership Council (ILC), were not representative of internal Iraqi opinion. He decides that the ILC should expand to form a larger, more representative group, later named the IGC, which should draft an interim constitution for the country and form a government.
However, this proves almost endlessly difficult to achieve: having decided that no elections should take place in Iraq until the technical means are in place to do so, Bremer is left with a strategy of “identifying” likely characters for the IGC from the various religious and ethnic groups making up the country, this process becoming an increasingly American affair as the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni representatives on the IGC, suspicious of each other and jockeying for position with the CPA, prove incapable of reaching agreement.
“Inertia,” “lax work habits,” and “paralysis” are charges Bremer lays against the IGC, and having reached a “crisis point on the Governing Council’s ineffectiveness” he decides to rename it a “Provisional Government” if this will help make progress on an interim constitution and government. Bremer presents this important decision in the form of a conversation with a member of the CPA’s Governance Team, and this gives a fair idea of the style of the book as a whole: “When we get the GC convened, we could take some Governing Council members, throw them together with the ministers, and call the resulting body the ‘Provisional Government’...”
“Sunni outreach” is a significant problem, Iraq’s Sunni community apparently being reluctant to cooperate with a Shia- and Kurdish-dominated IGC, and Bremer is obliged to fall back on Adnan Pachachi, Iraqi foreign minister in the 1960s and a prominent Sunni, for a position on what is now being called the Iraqi Interim Government. Pachachi is considered for the position of president, but is then sidelined (“I had been concerned by Pachachi’s overly emotional reaction to the crisis in Falluja”). Once viewed as a potential leader of a post-Saddam Iraq, the Shia politician Ahmed Chalabi also falls from favour, and another Shia candidate, Hussein al-Shahristani, is canvassed for the post of prime minister. Bremer is unhappy with al-Shahristani (“the more we talked, the clearer became his ambivalence about Coalition forces”), but more importantly so is President Bush: “It’s important to have someone who’s willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq....I want someone who will be grateful.”
A further Shia candidate, Ayad Allawi, a “tough guy” and someone who “had worked closely with Western and Arab intelligence organizations,” emerges as a candidate for prime minister, and at the end of this fascinating process of haggling, described in the second half of Bremer’s book, an Interim Iraqi Government finally emerges, to which sovereignty is transferred on June 28 2004.
Bremer left Iraq on the same afternoon, his departure stage-managed for the press. Having taken leave of an Iraqi government delegation at Baghdad airport, Bremer and his team wait inside a military C-130 plane on the tarmac before scrambling out and into a waiting helicopter and then another plane waiting to take them to Jordan. This elaborate bluff was necessary because of attacks on C-130s flying into and out of Baghdad: at the end of Bremer’s year in Iraq, there were concerns that the US government might not be able “to get me out of the country alive.”
Reviews of My Year in Iraq have emphasised Bremer’s defense of two controversial decisions made while he was CPA administrator: the decision to bar former members of the Iraqi Baath Party from playing a part in the new Iraq (the so-called “de-Baathification” order, more formally CPA Order No. 1 of 16 May 2003), and the decision to disband the Iraqi armed forces (CPA Order No. 2 of 23 May). Bremer insists that de- Baathification of the type set out under CPA Order No. 1 was the right step forward, referring to what he says was the parallel de-Nazification of Hitler’s Germany after World War II. Barring members of the Iraqi Baath from playing a part in post-Saddam Iraq was among the most popular of the CPA’s actions, he says, some members of the IGC, such as Ahmed Chalabi, demanding even “more aggressive de- Baathification.”
Disbanding the Iraqi armed forces, including the “Defense Ministry, all related national security ministries and offices, and all military formations, including the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, Baath Party militia, and the Fedayeen Saddam,” was also necessary to reassure the Iraqi Shia, he says, and most Iraqi forces had in any case already “self-demobilized”.
Finally, while Bremer reiterates the need for the new Iraqi institutions to be representative of all shades of opinion, not least because of the danger of alienating sections of the population before the reconstructed state had even got off the ground, some people seem more representative than others. Bremer responds sceptically to a “British idea” that a member of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) be appointed to the IGC, for example, only giving the go-ahead if “we could find someone who had cast off communism’s misbegotten ideas about how to run an economy.” A free- market communist was eventually found, but Bremer’s reluctance to appoint one is telling in view of the important role the IPC has played in the history of Iraq. If all the country’s ethnic and religious groups are to be represented, why not make arrangements for the representation of political ones?
Linked to Bremer’s desire to see Iraq in ethnic and religious terms is his discussion of the future shape of the Iraqi economy, again supported by a plastic view of Iraqi history. While Bremer emphasises the disastrous shape of Iraq’s economy in the 1990s, he puts this down to “socialist” mismanagement by the Saddam regime rather than to crippling UN sanctions. He says that “thirty-five years of mismanagement and outright theft ... had crippled the nation’s economy,” the damaging presence of “cockeyed socialist economic theory” starting with the Baath Party coup in 1968. Not only does Bremer seem unaware of Iraq’s earlier history, but bizarrely he also points out that Iraq was once one of the most prosperous countries in the region, “per capita income [peaking] at over $7,500 in 1980, which, with free education and subsidized health care, made Iraq a respectable middle-income country.”
Though Bremer, ever the good American, does not seem to notice it, this would have been during the devastating period of socialism.