Paul Bremer was just following instructions

It is now conventional wisdom among the chattering classes that Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq was a “disastrous” affair, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich, in one of his weekly rants, termed it. Republicans and neocons disavow Bremer because they believe his incompetence may have cost the president his legacy; Democrats and liberals demean Bremer because they think he drank the Bush Kool-Aid about democracy without knowing much about Iraq. Most of all, Bremer is condemned for making a pair of catastrophic decisions right out of the box: calling for blanket de-Baathification of the Sunnis as his first order of business, then disbanding the Sunni-led Iraqi army as his second order, thus setting in motion the Sunni insurgency. Indeed, these criticisms today seem programmed into every journalist’s keyboard (just press “F1”). Bremer is an especially easy target in Washington because, unlike, say, Donald Rumsfeld, he rarely responds publicly.

Now, at last, we have Bremer’s response, his memoir My Year in Iraq (Simon & Schuster, $27.00). It is well worth reading. As this fast-moving, if rather dry, narrative makes clear, the picture of Bremer’s brief turn as a latter-day MacArthur (though Bremer casts himself more in the mold of the quiet McCloy, postwar administrator of Germany) is more complicated than the Beltway conventional wisdom has it. Far from being another Bush ideologue–though he firmly believed in the Iraq mission and is still loyal to the president–Bremer is better seen as the advance guard of the Bush II damage control team. These are the pragmatic second-term officials–like Gordon England at Defense, and Robert Zoellick, Nicholas Burns, and the passel of career diplomats Condoleezza Rice has hired for senior positions at State–who are now trying to clean up the mess left by the first-term ideologues. Led by Rice, who, while she was part of the problem in the first term, has blossomed as secretary of state, the damage control team has dispersed the neocons, who have been forced out, indicted, or isolated in stress positions (for example, Defense’s William Luti, once of the Office of Special Plans cabal, is now kept under wraps at Stephen Hadley’s National Security Council). And in their sheer numbers, the new pragmatists have blunted the power of Vice President Dick Cheney, once the fulcrum of foreign policy, and turned the tetchy Rumsfeld into a “potted plant,” as my Newsweek colleague Fareed Zakaria aptly called him.

Bremer was, in retrospect, probably the early harbinger of these fixer-uppers. “Baghdad was burning” is the opening line of his book, describing his flight under fire into Iraq on May 12, 2003–a little over a month after the fall of the capital city–and he makes it clear that his principal job was to rescue something successful and enduring out of the Pentagon’s pitiably poor planning as the Iraqi insurgency took off.

Bremer’s book is a pure narrative from start to finish–the last page has him stepping onto his helicopter to depart for good on June 28, 2004–with almost no effort at self-reflection. He simply chooses not to directly address many of the criticisms one hears lodged against him: that the CPA was largely staffed by young Republican ideologues with little expertise; or that the occupation authority made little effort to stem rampant corruption in the contracting process (as the CPA’s own former inspector general, Stuart Bowen, concluded in a withering critique). Still, it is clear that some of the criticism clearly stung more than others: for example, the charge that he was arrogant and unilateralist and did not understand the importance of figures like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. To rebut that perception Bremer peppers the text with the many mediated contacts he had with al-Sistani.

It’s also clear that one of his principal goals is to shift some of the blame–especially to Donald Rumsfeld. Along the way we learn just how disengaged Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was from “Phase IV” Iraq–everything that was supposed to happen after U.S. forces took Baghdad. Bremer’s book will do lasting damage to Rummy’s already crumbling reputation. In the first pages, before he even left for Iraq, Bremer writes of his shock at reading a RAND study that had recommended an occupation force of 500,000 troops, then leaving a copy of it for Rumsfeld with a cover note urging him to consider it. “I never heard anything back from him,” Bremer writes. As things grow worse, Rumsfeld continues to ignore his requests for more troops, and top generals such as Rick Sanchez are simply too cowed–or too worried about their next star–to confront the bullying defense secretary with their real needs. Bremer writes about a private meeting he has with Sanchez, then the top commander in Iraq, in May 2004, in which it is clear that the general has thought long and hard about the security problem. “‘What would you do if you had two more divisions, Rick?’ I asked him. He was a practical soldier who didn’t normally speculate about the hypothetical when there were so many concrete problems to address each day. But he answered immediately. ‘I’d control Baghdad.'”

Bremer makes much of his persistent warnings to everybody who would listen about the Pentagon’s reckless tendency to overstate the readiness of Iraqi security forces; his constant demands that the Pentagon take out the meddlesome Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr early (the Army meekly refused); and his regular admonitions that political progress would not be enough to stop the insurgency. If taken at his word, this account should help to restore some of his reputation. The book also shows, beyond any doubt, that some of the blame so routinely heaped on Bremer needs to be spread far more widely. His book makes plain–and this has been confirmed elsewhere–that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary Douglas Feith both signed off on his troop decision; that the president wanted de-Baathification; and that both Bush and Rice failed to act on Bremer’s concerns about the paucity of troops. They simply never give Bremer a clear answer, and he must return to the fight and make do with what he has.

The biggest disappointment of My Year in Iraq is that only very rarely does Bremer acknowledge any errors he might have made himself–and he clearly made plenty. (As with all the God-invoking Bushies, one sometimes wants to grab Bremer by the shoulders and quote Oliver Cromwell to him: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”) Indeed, the central question hanging over his tenure as Iraq’s civil administrator is not so much about those early mistakes he is blamed for, at least taken individually. It is whether he should have understood sooner that Rumsfeld was just not going to commit the resources that he, Bremer, knew were needed to achieve Bush’s mission: a top-to-bottom transformation of Iraq that included de-Baathification and a brand-new Iraqi security force.

Rumsfeld wanted a brief in-and-out occupation; Bush wanted a new model for the Mideast. The result is a tragic mismatch: an excess of vision paired with a scarcity of commitment, with Bremer left to arbitrate between the two. Perhaps he thought that Bush would do what presidents are supposed to do, which is take charge and remember that their defense secretaries work for them, not the other way around. But Bush wasn’t engaged enough in the details to realize what was happening, ignoring the numerous hints about troops that Bremer dropped in his direction (at one point, Bremer writes, it becomes clear that Bush has misunderstood Rummy’s troop withdrawal plans, thinking more soldiers would be sent in, but Bremer genteelly notes that “neither Rumsfeld nor I chose to correct the President in this forum.”)

This was the moment, if there ever were one, for second thoughts. Bremer does in fact change course once: In the first months of his tenure, in the summer of 2003, he doggedly follows the protocol in postwar Germany–a new constitution guaranteeing rights first, then voting, and only after that sovereignty. But the bloody autumn of 2003 prods him to adopt an accelerated schedule–instead of a full-blown constitution, the occupation would now create an interim “transitional administrative law,” then hand over sovereignty. It is not enough of a shift. And there is no evidence that, as the insurgency raged on and the troops were not forthcoming, Bremer ever had a real Kissingerian reckoning with himself, drawing the obvious conclusion: If we can’t occupy this country satisfactorily, then we need to hand it over quickly. Instead he stubbornly proceeds with his long-term, paternalistic plans as if Rumsfeld has actually secured Iraq and he, Bremer, is actually John McCloy. These plans include an 18-month scheme for transferring sovereignty, a giant bureaucratic occupation authority planted in the middle of Baghdad, and a feckless handoff to U.S. multinationals such as Bechtel that lumbered blindly ahead, taking months to draw up environmental impact statements while the country’s power supply foundered.

The problem, in other words, was not so much the separate decisions Bremer made: disbanding the army, blanket de-Baathification, and a smothering occupation. It was the cumulative impact that all these moves had in setting conditions for an angry insurgency in such a poor security environment. Bremer knew the old Iraqi army had largely dissolved (it is also clear, after two years of frustrating training efforts, that it was mostly incompetent). Yet Bremer also must have known–since his predecessor Jay Garner had told him–that some Iraqi units were beginning to drift back, identifying themselves to the Americans and looking for work (Garner had wanted to put them on reconstruction). Bremer must have known as well that the Pentagon had spent months before the war identifying Iraqi officers it could try to work with. Did it require such an act of imagination to realize that if Rumsfeld wasn’t going to give him the troops, he needed to adjust on this issue and reach out to the Iraqis?

Bremer’s myopia is also evident in his handling of one early opportunity for a fast transfer of sovereignty: the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council (GC). Bremer fights hard, rightly in my view, against the early Pentagon plan to install Ahmed Chalabi and a small group of exiles in charge. Instead he creates the GC by painstakingly and eloquently appealing to a broader group of Iraqis to come together. Yet after going to great lengths to form the GC, he makes clear he is giving it no real powers. And then he proceeds to disown and demean it, complaining of its “inertia” and short working hours. (Why should they work when they know he’s the one in charge?) He ignores Chalabi when the latter warns him–with what now looks like prescience–that “by slowing down this political process, you risk giving the impression that America intends to stay a long time in Iraq.” As the scholar Larry Diamond, one of Bremer’s former subordinates, says in his 2005 book Squandered Victory, Bremer was too quick to dismiss Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call for early elections, saying the country needed a new census and other formalities. But it may well have been practical, Diamond says, and taken some of the edge off Iraqi anger at the occupation. In his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in December, Bush himself also acknowledged, implicitly, that Bremer’s occupation had botched things by being too top-heavily American, especially in its use of contractors. After the speech, Bremer privately admitted this to friends. But such mea culpae do not appear in his book.

To give Bremer some credit, he was trying to reverse a rout–desperately seeking to leave something lasting behind in Iraq. Whether or not he had the resources, that goal could only be achieved by extirpating the Baath Party and giving Iraq a brand-new politics, rather than relying on the likes of Chalabi. Unfortunately for Bremer, de-Baathification got out of hand, and this, too, was hardly his fault entirely. Thanks to Chalabi’s Pentagon-aided early arrival in post-Saddam Iraq–he actually was flown in before Garner was–his Iraqi National Congress got hold of the Baath Party files and the de-Baathification committee. The result was that, for too long, Chalabi was allowed to conduct a McCarthyite purge of any public official he pleased, including hundreds of lower-level officials whose only sin was to adhere to a Saddam-era requirement to join the only party in town. These excesses also clearly helped to generate Sunni support for the insurgents. Even so, in his book Bremer does not adequately address the issue of why he did not do more to rein in Chalabi.

For all the mistakes he made, however, it is also clear that Bremer eventually scaled his steep learning curve. By early 2004 he is beginning to focus intently on the permanent structures he could leave behind, especially a new constitution. Bremer’s stubbornness serves him in good stead in this period as well. Especially during the crisis of March and April 2004–when everything seems to fall apart at once–he brilliantly juggles U.S. military demands to (at last) crush Moqtada al-Sadr, who has occupied Najaf, and to invade Fallujah, where four contractors have been brutally murdered, with political threats by the Governing Council to resign if these U.S. military efforts go too far. In the end, he negotiates a middle course, adopting an “Anaconda Plan” to squeeze al-Sadr’s forces in Najaf while staying out of the mosques and deftly winning over the GC to his plan for an interim government. It is Bremer at his very best.

And whatever his portion of the blame, it must now be conceded that Bremer’s political legacy–the new Iraqi government–is probably the main thing standing between the managed quagmire that is Iraq today and full-blown failed state status. Indeed Bremer’s number one legacy, the interim constitution or Transitional Administrative Law, became the basic DNA of the new Iraq. It has determined the balance of power, created many of the parameters for the new constitution (except, most dangerously, for the autonomous powers given to separate regions), and set the deadlines for elections and constitutional referenda that, for better or worse, the administration has religiously adhered to in an effort to wind down Bush’s Big Adventure. If Iraq falls apart or becomes a failed state, Bremer will undoubtedly get much of the blame. But if Bush–or his successors–ever can claim an acceptable outcome in Iraq, Bremer’s achievements should get some of the credit.

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance To Build A Better World.

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance To Build A Better World.

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