A recent article in the Washington Post previewed the forthcoming book by former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith. In his book Feith apparently alleges that I was responsible for what he calls the single biggest mistake the United States made in Iraq. He claims that I unilaterally abandoned the president’s policy, promoted by Feith and others before the war, to grant sovereignty to a group of Iraqi exiles immediately after Saddam’s defeat. On March 16, Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute elaborated on this theme, arguing that a key error was that “we did not turn to well-established and broadly representative opponents” of Saddam.
Here are the facts.
Before the war, there had been disagreements within the American government about the length of the occupation of Iraq. Some, including Feith, argued that as soon as Saddam was ousted, we should turn over sovereignty to a small group of Iraqi exiles our government had been in touch with. Others, including officials at the State Department and CIA, emphasized the deep divisions in Iraqi society caused by Saddam’s long tyranny, and suggested the U.S. would be obliged to undertake a long-term effort to put Iraq on the path to representative government. The president apparently agreed with the short-occupation version sometime in March.
But by late April, and before I was asked to return to government, doubts had arisen among top American officials about a quick handover.
At the fall of Baghdad, there were no Iraqi political leaders inside the country commanding a significant following to whom we could hand over power. In contrast to Afghanistan, no one figure was acceptable to the entire country. Thus the only choice for an early transfer of power would have been to establish an Iraqi government made up of exiles who had been leaders in the pre-war Iraqi opposition abroad. But the group of Westernized exiles the American government had worked with before and during the war was far better known to American officials than to Iraqis who had remained in Iraq (except the Kurdish leaders). The exiles’ thinking, speech, and dress were those of men who had been living in another world.
Moreover, the exile leadership group did not reflect a balance of Iraq’s population. Sunnis were hardly represented; Kurds were overrepresented. The group included no women or members of important Iraqi minorities, such as Christians and Turkomen. In sum, this group was neither “well-established” nor “broadly representative.”
In my first meeting with the president, on May 6, 2003, he made clear that his policy was to take the time necessary to create a stable political environment in Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated this guidance at a meeting of the NSC principals two days later (attended by Feith). The vice president added that “we are not at the point where people we want to emerge can yet emerge.” The next day, at a full NSC meeting, after a discussion of the political process, the president said his message was “that this will take a long time.”
Whatever Feith may have made of the president’s clear guidance, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the same day circulated to NSC members a paper titled “Principles for Iraq,” in which he stated: “The transition from despotism to a democracy will not happen fast or easily. It cannot be rushed.” To underline the point, Secretary Rumsfeld sent a memo to Feith on May 21 (copied to me in Baghdad, where I had arrived on May 12 to head the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA) which said, “We need to lay a foundation for self-government. . . . We should not rush to elections.”
As we moved to implement the president’s plan, I kept Washington informed of our meetings with Iraqi political leaders. They asserted that the country needed a new constitution to give structure to post-Saddam political life. This led me to outline to Secretary Rumsfeld, on May 22, our proposed plan to move first to a constitution and then elections. The same day I forwarded through Rumsfeld my first report to the president, which reflected his guidance before I left for Iraq and which said that “full sovereignty under an Iraqi government can come after democratic elections, which themselves must be based on a constitution agreed by all the people. This process will take time.” The next day the president wrote back: “You have my full support and confidence. You also have the backing of our Administration that knows our work will take time. We will fend off the impatient . . . ”
That same day, May 23, I sent another memo to Rumsfeld, which described in detail the plans for an interim Iraqi administration that we hoped to set up by the end of June. First, though, I said that we needed to broaden the small unrepresentative group of exiles our government had been talking to. And I described the process of writing a new constitution, leading to elections that “might be held about a year from now.”
In the months following, I regularly reported our thinking on the political process to Washington. For example, on June 2, I sent a memo to Rumsfeld again describing the process we foresaw, noting the range of authorities we intended to give to the interim Iraqi government and stating that there was agreement among the Iraqis from across the spectrum “that a new constitution must precede a national election.” In meetings with the president, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Powell in Qatar on June 4-5, I went through the proposed plan again, and, in response to a question, said that in the best case we might get a constitution and more or less democratic elections within a year. But, I cautioned, it would be difficult to pull it off in that time frame.
Rumsfeld apparently concluded that the political process would take time. On June 17 he forwarded to me a memo sent to him by Paddy Ashdown, former high commissioner for Bosnia, in which Ashdown stated his concern that we not move too quickly to elections in Iraq, as he said we had done in Bosnia. He emphasized that the move to democracy would take time. “Plan on a decade, not months or years.” Two days later, the CPA sent a cable to the secretary of defense and secretary of state describing at length a meeting my British deputy, Ambassador John Sawers, and I had held with 25 Iraqi politicians the previous day. Sawers and I again described our plans for the political process, including the need for a constitution followed by elections for a sovereign Iraqi government. I told the Iraqis, as the cable reported, that “the length of this process would depend on the Iraqi people.”
In early July, former deputy secretary of defense John Hamre visited Iraq at Rumsfeld’s request and reported back to the secretary that “we believe the process outlined by Ambassador Bremer is sound. . . . [and the] formula for putting first priority on creating a near term governance council with a follow on constitutional process [is] right for the circumstances.” A CPA press release on July 3 reiterated this sequence of steps.
On July 4, I forwarded to Rumsfeld the first version of the CPA’s Strategic Plan for Iraq. We would “encourage the Iraqis to write as quickly as possible a modern constitution embodying democratic and individual rights and the rule of law. . . . The constitution will then be ratified, elections held for a sovereign Iraqi government at which point the coalition relinquishes sovereignty.” The process was laid out again in a public speech I made at the National Press Club in Washington on July 23. That day a copy of the Strategic Plan was hand-carried to the offices of all 535 members of Congress.
The next day, Hamre, in his capacity as president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sent Rumsfeld a report on a workshop his organization had held, at the request of Feith, to gather a group of American and Iraqi experts to examine “the problems of creating a solid basis for the long term political environment in Iraq.” Their conclusion? “There was unanimous agreement that rushing political reconstruction will critically handicap it, locking in a permanent advantage for well-organized groups whose interests are inimical to ours. . . . We need to buy some time.”
As late as September 2003, some at the Pentagon continued to push for a quick end of the occupation. When Rumsfeld asked for my views on September 13, 2003, I sent him a short memo arguing for following a steady path to constitutional government. The same day, the secretary wrote back to me that “I agree with your memo and will send it to POTUS (the president) and members of the NSC. You’re on the mark.”
Mr. Feith is an honorable public servant; possibly he was unaware of the many discussions my colleagues and I had with the president and his top advisers in the months after the establishment of the CPA. That record makes clear that the president’s policy was to take time setting up the interim Iraqi government as part of a longer-term process to build support for democracy in Iraq. As far as I know, Mr. Perle did not visit Iraq during the CPA time. So his inaccurate impressions of the exiles’ status in Iraq must have come to him secondhand.
President Bush’s decision not to rush the political process was correct. True, it sacrificed immediate Iraqi sovereignty; but it gave the Iraqis time to put in place the political structures needed for a democratic Iraq, to organize politically, to develop connections to voters, and to work with the CPA to establish a viable legal framework–including a constitutional process and elections — on which to build a new democracy.
Admittedly, it was an imperfect political process. The occupation lasted 14 months, which no doubt frustrated and angered some Iraqis. But the time we bought allowed the Iraqis to write a progressive constitution and to embark on the long, difficult path to democratic government.
— Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III is the former presidential envoy to Iraq.