Diplomatic baggage

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MY YEAR IN IRAQ: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope
by Paul Bremer and Malcolm McConnell
Simon & Schuster $27, 432 pages

If by some quirk or cataclysm of history the main source of information about what happened in Iraq in 2003-2004 turns out to be this memoir by L. Paul Bremer III, future generations would surely get the impression that this US occupation of part of the Arab heartland, if not quite a smashing success, had by dint of Ambassador Bremer’s skill and perseverance set Iraqis firmly on the road to freedom. Despite the fecklessness and provincialism, ignorance of history and free market economics of most Iraqi politicians, this account suggests, as well as the obtuseness and opportunism of much of the Washington bureaucracy and feebleness of America’s British allies, this MacArthur of Mesopotamia pulled it off.

The reality is that, nearly three years after the US invasion, Iraq is teetering on the abyss of all-out civil war. In the first year after Bremer’s departure there were more than 34,000 attacks on US occupation and allied Iraqi forces. There is now a slim chance that the democratic process he delayed will enable Iraqis to live together in a loose federal framework. That is less because of his design than because ordinary Iraqis have become so indignant at the occupation and so outraged by the savagery of sectarian war that they have flooded to the polls to cry: enough.

That appears to have opened a split in the insurgency between jihadis and nationalists, with Islamicised Sunni supremacists somewhere in the middle. The US occupation authorities not only pushed these variegated forces together but then declined until recently to use political weapons, such as selective amnesties, to try to separate them. Even now, when a Bremer successor, US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, has had limited success in getting the Shia majority to accommodate the Sunni minority, the impression of Washington’s European and Arab allies is that this is a tardy response to belated panic about Iran’s influence in Iraq.

To be fair to Bremer, however, when he arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, just over a month after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a great deal of damage had already been done. The triumphant invasion force failed to anticipate the collapse into lawlessness and looting. “Stuff happens,” as Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary and theorist of known unknowns, memorably summarised those early hours when, quite possibly, Iraq was lost.

Quite why Washington parachuted a former ambassador to the Netherlands - an unknown unknown outside the Beltway - into this chaos remains unclear. True, Bremer had been an ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism. But his viceroyship in Baghdad, if anything, showed a gift for stoking rather than countering it. His first edicts as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) disbanded the army, a measure that left 400,000 men destitute and angry, but armed and trained - easy prey to the insurgency then taking shape.

To judge by his own words (even if “ghost-written” by Malcolm McConnell), Bremer has a tone problem as well as a bit of a reality problem. Early on in the book, in the first of serial solipsisms, he observes that Iraq was not exporting any oil “when I arrived”. Of course it wasn’t. It is not just “stuff” but war that happens. The relevant point is that, even under rickety UN sanctions, Iraq exported far more oil in the year before the war than it has in the three years since.

Bremer’s long passages of plodding pedagogy alternate with frequent scoldings for Iraqis who keep “flunking their tests”. I had no sooner scribbled “Economics 101” in the margins of one such exposition than, turning the page, I read Bremer quoting himself: “’Huge subsidies distort activity’, I said. ‘Economics 101’.” A further 12 pages on and he tells “assembled international leaders” that: “It is an axiom that political and economic freedom go hand in hand.”

The book is studded with sub-Socratic dialogues to illustrate his wisdom. Some of these ostensibly reproduce conversations with leading Shia politicians, constructed to demonstrate Bremer’s single-point take on Iraqi history: that the Shia made a mistake rising against the British occupation in the 1920s. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, future prime minister “nodded, acknowledging my reference”. Abdelaziz al-Hakim, strongman of the future Shia majority, “got the reference”. Bremer italicises his insights, a bit like a bubble in a cartoon: “They got my point.” Good to know they did not flunk History 101, even if Bremer laments the lack of a Ludwig Erhard in Iraq.

Sometimes a ring of truth sounds through. Bremer says “nobody had given me a sense of how broken this country was”. Since the 1991 Gulf war, US satellites and warplanes had watched everything that moved in Iraq. But for knowledge about actual Iraqis, their hopes and fears, Washington had depended on the stirring tales fed into the Pentagon and White House by favoured groups of gilded exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi, championed by neo-conservatives in and around the administration, about whom Bremer is rightly sceptical.

Yet there is a judgment to be made about whether Bremer broke the country more. He certainly broke the back of the state, and his decision to disband the army destroyed an institution that predated Ba’athism. Even when he later comes across a pre-war memorandum purportedly from Saddam’s intelligence chiefs instructing the army to regroup to launch an insurgency, he still insists he was right. However strenuously he defends his decision, though, he goes to even greater lengths to demonstrate how everyone from Rumsfeld to the Pentagon janitor signed off on it.

Almost as damaging were the policies of Bremer and his masters on democracy and towards Moqtada al-Sadr, the minor Shia cleric now become a potent force in Iraq.

Bremer spent his 14 months in Baghdad in a tug-of-war with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shia spiritual authority, who refused to deal directly with the CPA. Bremer is at pains to detail the range of his intermediaries with Sistani. The Shia leader demanded a provisional government and an elected constituent assembly to draft a new constitution for Iraq. Bremer wanted a Governing Council under the CPA, and wanted to select, not elect, those who would write the national charter.

Bremer reckoned the proto-government of mostly exiles he had to deal with “couldn’t organise a parade, let alone run a country”, and that there were neither technical prerequisites such as voters’ rolls nor political conditions for an election. Sistani’s motives had to do with holding the ring and consolidating the position of the majority Shia, long under the boot of the Sunnis. But Sistani was right, insofar as only the legitimacy of an elected constituent assembly could build bridges from the exiles to local leadership and head off civil war. Bremer was, in effect, serially vetoed by Sistani, but the constituent process was held up so long that the insurgency wormed its way into the vacuum.

I had assumed Bremer did not understand Sistani’s position. Wrong. He did. He just knew better. Asked by one of his “governance staff” what is the connection between a provisional government and a constituent assembly, he says there is none. “It’s as if a senator from Nebraska promises to back a New York colleague’s dam bill in return for the New Yorker agreeing to support a road in Nebraska.” We wish.

On Sadr, it is a theme running through this book that only he and his aides knew what a threat he was. The Pentagon, the marines, the CIA and the army command all balked at confronting him, while the British and Spaniards were too cowardly. Yet six months into Bremer’s tenure, polls showed that while Iraqis distrusted the US, only 1 per cent backed Sadr. When the viceroy confronted the young radical, Sadr was turned overnight from a hooligan into a hero, with 68 per cent support, rivalling Sistani’s. As a second front of insurrection burst open, Bremer remarks casually that: “I asked [US army commander] Rick Sanchez to come up with a plan to control Moqtada’s militia in the south.” It is not clear whether, even now, the Bush administration realises that the main winner in December’s elections was Sadr.

When dealing with a primary source on given events, it is customary to say that anyone interested in them must read it. In this case, read it and weep.

David Gardner is an FT leader writer.

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