Democrats placing early bets on postwar Iraq providing a reliable stream of bad news didn’t anticipate the administration’s great luck in finding someone to oversee the occupation and transition with the skills and experience of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III. The former aide to six secretaries of state, who served as chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism in 1999, was fittingly serving as CEO of the Marsh Crisis Consulting Company when President Bush tapped him as his personal envoy to Iraq. During the past week, Bremer has been in Washington where he’s conducted seemingly around-the-clock briefings on the latest progress in Iraq, presenting a status report generally at odds with typically bleak news accounts. If the confident and capable Bremer is as reassuring a presence in Baghdad as he’s been in the Beltway this week, we can safely count on the Iraqis’ growing trust and optimism.
Thursday, before his press conference with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bremer met at the Pentagon with a few journalists to talk about the progress made and the tasks ahead. He outlined developments in the key areas of the economy, politics, and security.
A unified currency has been created, and the independence of a central bank has been established. The country’s budget for the year has been made public. There are local councils in about 85 percent of Iraqi towns, including Baghdad, which has a 37-member council.
Iraqis themselves are making fundamental decisions about national governance. Although the national governing council is grappling with how to organize themselves, it is still expected to determine the process for drafting a constitution within the month. Depending on how quickly the council can establish a constitutional conference and drafting committee, sometime next year there will be a public referendum on the constitution, which Bremer wants to see preceded by an “intense political dialogue.” There will be plenty to debate. The role of religion, the degree of federalism, and the need to address the rights of ethnic minorities will undoubtedly be the subject of many Iraqi-pundit roundtables.
According to Bremer, the claim that there is a media vacuum preventing the Coalition from communicating with the Iraqi people is “a three-month-old story that we can’t kill.” Since May 13, there have been 12 hours a day of U.S.-produced television programming that reaches about 60 percent of the public. U.S. radio programming is on 24 hours a day, reaching 85 percent of the public. A U.S.-published newspaper, appearing five times a week, is competing with an estimated 150 Iraqi newspapers that have sprung up since the liberation. About 30 percent of Baghdad residents, and 15 percent nationwide, make up Al Jazeera’s growing audience, with satellite dishes selling for only about $150.
The role of Iraqis in providing security is steadily increasing. Bremer expects to have U.S. troops relieved of many of their “static positions” by Iraqi forces in the near future, permitting more of them to concentrate on rooting out remaining enemy fighters. In seeking intelligence, the Coalition is beginning to receive more help from Iraqis. The playing cards in the most-wanted deck have apparently yielded little intelligence, but the recent concentration of interrogations on lower-level Baathists appears to be paying off. Likewise, in the search for evidence of WMDs, Bremer explains that Dr. David Kay, the former U.N. weapons inspector, expects to learn far more from junior players than from Saddam’s ex-science adviser.
Recruiting centers for the Iraqi armed forces have been “mobbed” and Bremer expects to have the first army battalion trained by the end of September. A professional Iraqi police force now numbers 32,000 (with some attrition expected as backgrounds are thoroughly checked), which will grow to over 65,000 in the next 18 months. The Iraqi border police has been reestablished and there will be eight battalions of the Iraqi civil defense in the next 45 days.
Although the low-level Baathist and Fedayeen fighters carrying out the attacks on our troops are “trained, professional killers,” Bremer reports that there is “no sign yet of any central command.”
In his session with journalists Thursday, Bremer wasn’t asked about the status of basic services, but his reference to Iraq’s 35 years of “comprehensive mismanagement” served as a reminder that reliable utilities are not so much being “restored” as created anew.
Ambassador Bremer says that he hasn’t seen any evidence that the criticisms and complaints flying around Washington have caused the Iraqis to question our staying power. And, he’s betting that his fellow Americans share his determination to see a peaceful, stable, self-governing Iraq. “When the American people undertake a noble cause, we see it through. We’re not a bunch of quitters,” Bremer declares. Seems like a safer bet than Howard Dean’s.