Politics & Policy

An American in Baghdad

L. Paul Bremer III on his Year in Iraq.

An accomplished career diplomat who had never been to Iraq and didn’t know the language, Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer III was tapped by President George W. Bush to serve as presidential envoy to Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004, heading the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad–”eight thousand miles and at least a century removed from home.” As Bremer–who would frequently be dubbed “American viceroy”–notes in his new book on his time there, My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope (written with Malcolm McConnell), he flew into a liberated but burning Baghdad, where he “would be the only paramount authority figure–other than dictator Saddam Hussein–that most Iraqis had ever known.”

A chronological behind-the-scenes portrait of his and his staff’s year in Iraq, in My Year in Iraq, Bremer details the treacherous, sweltering days, the obstacles (including Pentagon “harassment”), and the historic achievements. In writing about dealing with Washington, he names names: who was a problem; who listened; who never responded. The controversy coming from the book will be over troop levels–Bremer writes about repeated messages to principals in Washington about the “too few resources” he was working with in Iraq.

In addition to little things like the ABCs of democracy and economy building, Bremer recounts other big issues, ones more under the radar. Like the ABCs–how increasing teachers’ salaries was an early priority–”from the equivalent $3 to $150 a month” while purging “textbooks and curricula of Baathist propaganda. This meant printing and distributing over five million books before schools reopened in October,” Bremer writes.

As Iraq continues to be among our most contentious topics of debate, in My Year in Iraq, Bremer defends successes and explains mistakes. About the future, he is optimistic. “Defying terrorists and pundits alike, Iraqis by the millions voted in the country’s first truly democratic elections in January 2005. Who can forget the moving image of thousands of Iraqi men and women waving their purple-stained fingers in pride? Nothing could better illustrate the thirst for self-government felt by the vast majority of the Iraqi people.” And he also strikes a cautionary note to his countrymen: “Recently, voices have been heard in America calling for the withdrawal of our forces or for setting a clear deadline for their return to the U.S. This would be an historic mistake, only serving to encourage the terrorists to wait us out before renewing their attacks. It would signal a defeat for America’s interests, not just in Iraq, but in the wider region. Terrorists everywhere would take heart.”

On Monday, Ambassador Bremer took some questions from NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about his Year in Iraq–the book, regrets, mischaracterizations, and the future.

Kathryn Jean Lopez:Ambassador Bremer, from before the time you landed on Iraqi soil you were concerned we didn’t have enough troops there. You write that in July 2003 you told Condi Rice “the Coalition’s got about half the number of soldiers we need here and we run a real risk of having this thing go south on us.” You had made this point to Don Rumsfeld and to the president, among others. So why do you believe it was that you never got ‘em?

L. Paul Bremer III: Look, the secretary of Defense and the president have lots of advisers around them, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others, who are military experts. They reported that the military commanders on the ground said they had enough troops to accomplish their missions. And some in our military believed that having additional troops would exacerbate the situation. I respected their view, but disagreed. I felt that our fundamental responsibility was to provide law and order and that by not stopping the looting right after Liberation, we gave the Iraqis, including the insurgents, the impression we were not prepared to be tough with law-breakers.

Lopez: You’re especially critical of the Pentagon in the book, but also of the president. What’s the point of pointing your finger at still-in-place leaders while we’re still at war?

Bremer: I am a strong supporter of the president, both in the war on terrorism and in the Liberation of Iraq. But I did have disagreements with officials in the Pentagon. These were based on honest differences of opinion.

I wrote this book because America has not undertaken a major occupation like this for a half century. And I thought it was important for historical purposes to record honestly and clearly how my colleagues and I approached the job in the hopes that if America is ever to have to do it again, our leaders could profit from our experiences.

Lopez: In the book you talk about the go-slow approach you took, and that the president encouraged you to take. You wanted to get yourself and everyone else you could back home as soon as possible, not move in as a long-term occupier–but while not rushing Iraqis, for whom this running-a-country-thing was all new. Was that a mistake? Why was it not possible to establish an interim Iraqi government immediately, as was done in Afghanistan?

Bremer: I certainly didn’t want to prolong the occupation a day longer than necessary. And I wanted to get a representative and responsible group of Iraqi leaders in place as quickly as possible. Some people thought that we should simply hand over right after Liberation to a small group of exiles we had been talking to during the war. But as I explain in my book, this group was clearly unrepresentative of Iraqi society. Of seven leaders, only one had lived and suffered directly in Iraq under Saddam. Sunnis were unrepresented and the group contained no women, no Christians and no Turkomens. I even gave the group time to broaden itself into a more representative organization which we would designate as the Iraqi government, but they were unable to do so. So instead, our Coalition experts worked for two months to come up with a more representative Iraqi government, which was appointed two months after I arrived. I don’t see how it could have been done any more quickly.

Lopez: You say we didn’t see the “insurgency” coming? Is the insurgency our fault?

Bremer: No, the insurgency is the fault of the insurgents and the terrorism is the fault of the terrorists. But it is true that I felt we took quite a while to develop intelligence about the insurgency.

Lopez: Ambassador, you write that you “regretted” that Jay Garner had on the fly settled in at an 80-acre former Saddam palace as the “occupiers” headquarters. So why didn’t you move out?

Bremer: True, I did not like the image of us settling into one of Saddam’s grotesque palaces. So I asked my chief of staff and the military to survey all possible alternative places for us to use as headquarters. They looked for weeks and their answer was that this was the only place big enough and central enough to house our people securely. It frustrated me that we couldn’t move out.

Lopez: Were you too isolated in the Green Zone in Baghdad?

Bremer: During my time in Iraq, I traveled extensively throughout the country, because as a diplomat I knew it was important to talk to people in their own places and to get around, to collect impressions of the situation on the ground. But it’s also true that for security reasons, I traveled with a large group of heavily armed security guards which made normal interaction with people on the street difficult. But what is often overlooked is that the Coalition had offices, staffed by Arabic speakers, in all 18 of Iraq’s provincial capitals. These brave men and women regularly moved around their districts and reported to us their impressions, spoke with leading Iraqis, and helped us build a large number of effective local organizations to draw more and more Iraqis into the political and economic life of the country.

Lopez: You and Dan Senor were pretty much the faces of post-liberation Iraq to the world for a while there. Was that a mistake? Could Iraqi faces as spokesmen have been useful?

Bremer: We tried very hard to get Iraqi leaders to speak out, to their own people, and to the world. Some of them, especially those who had been under Saddam’s regime of terror, had no experience with dealing with the press and were reluctant to do so. Others did speak out, but they tended, quite understandably, to put the emphasis on speaking to the Iraqi people, in Arabic, through the Iraqi press. They were less visible on American TV.

Lopez: The United Nations doesn’t come off too cooperative in your history of your year in Iraq. How much do you blame the U.N. for things that went wrong? And how deep are the Oil-for-Palaces wounds in Iraq?

Bremer: Most Iraqis I spoke to were quite suspicious of the U.N.’s motives in Iraq. Many considered that the organization for too long had looked the other way, tolerating Saddam’s tyranny. Some wondered why, after 12 years and 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, the U.N. was not willing to help liberate Iraq. And the Oil-for-Food program was widely seen as an example of U.N. corruption at its worst. On the other hand, the first U.N. Special Representative, Sergio de Mello, helped our efforts to identify responsible Iraqis for the first government. Later, the new representative, Lakhtar Brahimi, played a useful role in helping move the Iraqis along the path to democracy. So it’s a mixed picture.

Lopez: In the book you describe a hostile relationship pretty much from the beginning with Ahmad Chalabi. Was there any way around that? Do you believe you in any way mistreated someone who could have been a more valuable player in post-liberation Iraq?

Bremer: Mr Chalabi is a very intelligent man, and one of the few Iraqi leaders with a good understanding of what it will take to develop a modern economy in Iraq. He played an important role in helping us put in placed sensible macroeconomic policies. But Mr. Chalabi openly opposed our efforts to create a broadly-based Iraqi government in mid-2003 and placed himself in opposition to the president’s request for appropriated funds to help reconstruct Iraq’s dilapidated infrastructure. So the tone of the relationship was in his hands from the start.

Lopez: What was your biggest mistake while in Iraq and what are you proudest of?

Bremer: We were right to exclude the top Baathist-party officials from government jobs. Saddam modeled the party, openly, on the Nazi party–even having young members report on their parents. Our policy was designed to only the top one percent of the party’s members. And we were right to say that the implementation had to be handled by Iraqis. Only they could make the narrow distinctions about which Iraqis had joined the party because they believed the ideology, and which joined just to get a job or because of threats to family members. My mistake was turning the implementation over to a political body, the Governing Council, where it became embroiled in Iraqi political maneuvering. I should have foreseen this and instead put a judicial body in charge of implementation.

Our most important accomplishment was helping the Iraqis write their interim constitution. Signed on March 8, 2004, this document established a governmental structure with a balance of power, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and a broad list of fundamental individual and women’s rights. It also laid out the path to democracy, providing for the series of elections, and a new constitution, which the Iraqis followed from then until this day.

Lopez: What’s the biggest myth about your time in Iraq you want to set people straight about in this book?

Bremer: I suppose the myth that we made a mistake “disbanding” the Iraqi army. The facts are these: There was not a single Iraqi army unit intact in the country at Liberation. There was no army to “disband.” It had “self-demobilized,” in the Pentagon’s phrase. Hundreds of thousand of Shia draftees, seeing which way the war was going, had simply gone home. They were not going to come back into a hated army.

The army and intelligence services had been vital instruments of Saddam’s brutal regime. He had used the army in a years’ long campaign against the Kurds, killing tens of thousands of them, culminating in the use of chemical weapons against men, women, and children in 1988. The army had brutally suppressed the Shia uprising after the first Gulf war, machine gunning tens of thousands of Shia civilians into mass graves in the south. Together these two groups make up about 80 percent of the population.

So recalling the Iraqi army (which would have meant sending American soldiers into Shia homes, farms, and villages and forcing them back into the army under their Sunni officers) would have had dire political consequences. The Kurds told me clearly that they would not have accepted it, and would have seceded from Iraq. Such a move would probably have ended Shia cooperation with the Coalition and perhaps even led to a Shia uprising, initially against such an Iraqi army, and eventually against the Coalition.

But we knew we had to find a place in Iraqi society for the former army men. So we welcomed them back into the new army, including officers up to the level of colonel. And we started paying the other officers a monthly stipend, which continued right to the end of the occupation.

Lopez: What do you think happened on the WMD front? Do you worry they were there and moved?

Bremer: It is an excellent and unanswered question. It is important to remember that the intelligence services of all the major countries–including France, Germany, and Russia–believed Saddam still had WMDs. So if there was an intelligence failure, it was much bigger than just ours.

It is possible that Saddam was able to hide WMDs somewhere in Iraq. After all, it’s as big as California. Or some stuff may have been smuggled out of the country during the war, perhaps to Syria. One thing is certain: As Charlie Duelfer, who headed the group searching for the weapons, said in his last report, Saddam had kept intact the people, equipment, and programs and intended to resume them as soon as sanctions were lifted. And in early 2003 the president’s assessment, correct in my view, was that sanctions were eroding.

Saddam had declared himself our enemy, had tried to kill the first President Bush, had supported various terrorist groups, and had used terrible chemical weapons on his own citizens. Moreover, since 1998 it had been U.S. policy, embodied in a law signed by President Clinton, to seek “regime change” in Iraq. It follows that President Bush was right to conclude that time was not on our side. We had after all already practiced patient diplomacy for a dozen years.

Lopez: Could Saddam Hussein have been dealt with differently? He seems to be getting an awful lot of time to carry on in this trial?

Bremer: The very first thing the Governing Council did, the day after they took office in July 2003, was set up a committee to create a Special Tribunal to try Saddam and his cronies. This shows how strongly most Iraqis feel about bringing him to justice. And the Iraqis have many competent lawyers and jurists who have been involved in the Tribunal. Of course, the legal system in Iraq is not the same as ours and so the proceedings may seem a bit unusual to many of us. But I am confident that Saddam is getting something he never gave his own citizens–a fair trial.

Lopez: What do you anticipate Iraq looking like in five years? If one country, will it be a democracy? What will be the role of Islam? Or will it be three


Bremer: I hope and believe that Iraq will be united, stable, and democratic. Of course, Iraqi democracy won’t be like ours–but then neither is British democracy like ours. It will have its own Iraqi form. Islam is the religion of most Iraqis, a fact which is recognized in their constitution. But I doubt Iraq will go the way of Afghanistan under the Taliban or Iran today. Most Iraqis do not want a theocratic state.

Lopez: If there could be one face of the new Iraq every American could know, who might you introduce to us?

Bremer: I would propose Judge Raad Juhi. He is young, well educated Iraqi lawyer with great courage who fearlessly investigated the brutal murder of a respected Ayatollah right after Liberation and issued arrest warrants for the killers, who included Muqtada al-Sadr, a dangerous rabble-rousing cleric based in Najef. And he has led the prosecution of Saddam Hussein.

I remember my first meeting with Juhi. I met to thank him for his courage in the Muqtada case and to ask if he would be willing to speak in public about it, something which we both knew would put his life at risk. Without a moment’s hesitation, he agreed, saying it was his responsibility to the New Iraq and he was prepared to play his role. He did go public and it was an admirable decision.

Lopez: Do you keep in touch with Iraqis? What do you hear about what’s going on these days? Anything that will surprise people?

Bremer: Yes, I stay in touch by phone, e-mail, letter, and message with many Iraqis. I think what would surprise most Americans is how optimistic most Iraqis are about their future despite the daily terrorist attacks. You could say, “Well that’s because they’ve been down so long there’s nowhere to go but up.” But they are going up and one of the least-reported aspects of Iraq is the enormous economic advances they’ve made. According to the IMF, per-capita income has doubled in the past two years.

Lopez: Has the Smithsonian asked for the Timberlands?

Bremer: No. They are gathering dust in my closet where they belong.


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