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Rebuilding Shakeup in Iraq

May 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the management shakeup, and what it means for Iraqi reconstruction, we turn to Michael Sheehan, who served as coordinator for counter-terrorism at the State Department during the last two years of the Clinton administration and Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan. He’s written widely on the politics of Iraq and the Middle East.

Professor Cole, we just heard from Pat Tyler and earlier in the broadcast from Elizabeth Farnsworth that there are a lot more questions than answers so far in this whole idea of how you reconstruct Iraq. What is the significance as far as you can tell from this shake-up?

JUAN COLE: Well, one main significance is that it’s been realized in Washington that an ex-general, a military figure, provides an unsuitable symbol for the reconstruction of Iraq. The Da’wa Party, a major Shiite Party, had refused to deal with General Garner. And many NGOs had also refused, non-governmental organizations who might provide aid, had refused to deal with his office because they saw it as a projection of an American military occupation.

So one plus of Bremer coming in is that he is a civilian; he’s an old State Department hand. And there are many forces inside and outside the country that would be willing to cooperate with him.

GWEN IFILL: Professor, we heard Ambassador Bremer saying earlier in the broadcast again that this is not about Jay Garner, that everything is fine with Jay Garner. They’re going to work together. Was he just being diplomatic?

JUAN COLE: Well, he is a diplomat. I don’t want to allege that there is anything wrong with Jay Garner. He has an excellent reputation, going back to the days when he essentially helped the Kurds avoid starving to death in the first Gulf War. But his operation has been dogged by many problems. It wasn’t swift to get on the ground.

Security is still a big problem. I think the U.S. military in Baghdad doesn’t realize how afraid people are, how much they object to the lack of security. Even during the past week the reassembled Baghdad police force had been disarmed by the U.S. Army and was refusing to go on patrols because they had no arms, whereas the criminals all had machine guns. So there have been many problems with the Garner operation, but I think a big problem was simply that he was seen as a military man.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Sheehan, give us your take on that. What do you think is the significance of this reordering of personnel?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: I think that’s right. Garner worked for the secretary of defense. And I think it’s important now that Jerry Bremer has the White House appointment, has the support of the Department of State and the Pentagon, and he’ll have the stature and the experience and the toughness in order to work the way through this very difficult transition which is natural after an intervention. There’s always a crisis of expectations. People want immediate changes, a better life for themselves after the intervention. It’s going to take a while to sort it out.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Bremer and you at different times held the same position. I gather you know him a little bit. Tell us about him, what kind of new blood will he be?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Ambassador Bremer has a tremendous amount of experience around the world as a diplomat, also in the private sector, and he has the experience and the stature, he has the connections back in Washington that’s going to help him navigate that very difficult political situation.

He’ll also understand the regional dimension of this and knows that he has to pull together all the regional actors involved, as well as try to sort through a regional transitional governance, so he’s going to have a lot of challenges ahead of him. And I think he’s an inspired choice, actually, to get this thing moving in the right direction.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Cole, let’s talk about those challenges. From everything you’ve been able to see and read and the people you’ve been able to talk to, what are the major logistical or political challenges for American forces or coalition forces right now on the ground in Iraq?

JUAN COLE: Well, there are two kinds of challenges. There are infrastructural challenges, organizational ones. Security has to be restored before anything else can happen. The police force has to be reassembled, joint patrols have to be mounted in places like Baghdad.

People have to be, to feel that they are safe to go out, to go shopping to open their shops. Most people don’t realize most of the shops are not open. Most of the banks are not open. How can you run an economy without access to cash, without access to consumer goods? So security is the main thing that has to be done.

The political challenge is to work with the forces that have emerged and have now filled the political vacuum caused by the fall of the Ba’ath. Many of these forces are willing to work with the Americans to rebuild Iraq. Some are not. Some radical Shiite groups who have armed militias in east Baghdad have openly said that they refused to cooperate with the Americans, at least the political leaders have. So drawing those forces into some kind of a dialogue will be necessary.

GWEN IFILL: And Michael Sheehan, among the people who have been critical about exactly how this reconstruction takes place, as Elizabeth once again referred to, is Kurdish leaders who come to the country and Shiite leaders who return from ex-exile and have said I don’t think this has to be an Islamic democracy which is not what the United States was heading for. Paul Bremer’s experience as an ambassador was not in Iraq or even in the Middle East. Is he prepared to handle that?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Well, he served as ambassador in the Netherlands as you probably know and also at some senior level posts in government. I think he’ll bring in the experts, the Iraqi experts, to help him sort out some of those issues. His challenge is going to be to put together a process that will enable the Iraqis to assemble some sort of representative transitional governance that will enable them to get through the next few months and years ahead. It’s going to be a difficult process. But he doesn’t necessarily have to be an Iraqi expert to get that done. I think his challenge is going to be pulling together the U.S. government, first of all, and then within Iraq, allowing them a process to select their own leadership.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Cole, whether you believe that Jay Garner was a success or a failure or Paul Bremer will be a success or a failure, should the Americans have known or been prepared that this would be a lot harder than it seemed?

JUAN COLE: Oh, absolutely. In fact, there were many people in the government who did know that. We have a lot of experience with these kinds of situations by now. Look at what happened in Panama City when the United States went in after General Noriega. Look what happened in Kosovo. So the whole experience of the U.S. military establishment and the civilian State Department points to a foreknowledge that things could collapse, that this kind of situation could eventuate.

I blame, if there’s someone to blame, I blame the civilian leaders of the Defense Department, the Rumsfelds and the Wolfowitzes. I think they rushed the Army into this war before it was really ready. They sent in a very thin troop– a small number of troops compared to the task that was before them – not with regard to the military task but with regard to the task of establishing order afterwards.

GWEN IFILL: Let me– excuse me. Let me pose that question also to Mr. Sheehan. Is there someone to blame here?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Well, I think that the military task was done very, very well. And they’d been preparing for at least a year before the intervention. I think the Bush administration was in some sort of denial about the nation-building task that they were going to be faced with, a term they didn’t like during the campaign and during the first part of the administration but now inevitably face that task. And I think they were very slow off the mark.

They should have had the other components of the government getting geared up like the military was for at least a year prior to the intervention to be on the next airplanes after the security was established on the ground, to begin to bring the local security, the services and the political process that was inevitably necessary. So clearly the administration gets bad marks on being prepared after the military conflict for the inevitable tasks of nation-building that they were going to face.

GWEN IFILL: Well, final question to you both. First, I’ll start with you, Mr. Sheehan, which is what has to happen now assuming that you put aside for a moment what has happened up until now, what has to happen now for this to be a successful enterprise?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Well, first and foremost as was mentioned earlier, they have to establish some basic security in Baghdad and the major cities and then to bring some basic services in, to get up and running so that the people do see a betterment of their lives. And then the most important and tricky aspect will be some sort of transitional governance for the Iraqis, that have the confidence of the Iraqi people and their regional neighbors that won’t feel threatened and feel secure with a new Iraqi regime.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Cole, same question to you. What has to happen now?

JUAN COLE: Beyond the immediate task of establishing security and getting the economy back working, I believe that many of the tasks ahead require a sense of legitimacy. I think that Bremer and his team should be much more open to a multilateral approach, to bringing in the United Nations and other countries into this process to give it that kind of international legitimacy.

GWEN IFILL: Juan Cole and Michael Sheehan, thank you very much for joining us.