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Interview with Paul Bremer

September 24, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And now Paul Bremer, the U.S. Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He’s been in Washington this week, testifying before congressional committees on the administration’s $87 billion Iraq money request. I spoke with him earlier this evening from the Pentagon.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

L. PAUL BREMER: Nice to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: Have you been surprised by the hostility that some members of Congress have shown toward what you and the United States are doing in Iraq?

L. PAUL BREMER: No. Look, this is a very big request that the president’s put forward. $87 billion even in Washington is a lot of money. I think it’s an essential part of success in Iraq. I think it’s vital that we get this money. Iraq has become, for better or for worse, the front on the war on terrorism, and so we’ve got to do this, and I can understand why congressmen and senators would take their responsibility seriously, but I think in the end we’ll get the money.

JIM LEHRER: Even today, Secretary Rumsfeld had questions that were actually going at the basic morality of the United States telling the Iraqis what they should do. How do you feel about that?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, I didn’t hear his testimony, so I’m not sure.

JIM LEHRER: Lehrer: No, no, he wasn’t saying it. Some of the senators over at the Senate Appropriations Committee were kind of questioning why should we… where did we get the right to tell the Iraqis, you know, what kind of government, when their government can come into being, all that sort of thing.

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, look, Mr. Lehrer, here’s the situation. We did a great and noble thing by freeing them from one of the most awful tyrannies around, but in doing that, we acquired some responsibilities. In fact, they are legal responsibilities. We’re the occupying power, and that means we have an obligation, I think a moral obligation, to be sure that when we leave Iraq we leave it better off than we found it, and that means putting in place a decent government, a functioning economy, a civil society that will look after the human rights of men and women all over Iraq. That’s our obligation. We have to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on this question about sovereignty, giving sovereignty to the governing council now and keeping executive control under you or through the U.N., even? What’s your position on that?

L. PAUL BREMER: I think there really is no shortcut to sovereignty.

We’ve laid out, the president has laid out, basically, a plan which gets to full sovereignty by means of getting a constitution written. I think we Americans, of all people, understand the importance of a good, legal, constitutional framework as the basis of political life.

The Iraqis don’t have a constitution. They need one, and you really can’t get to sovereignty without elections, and you can’t have elections without a constitution. So I think this idea of some early sovereignty that’s been floated by some members of the governing council and some of our allies in Europe is really a non-starter.

JIM LEHRER: And is it non-negotiable, from your point of view?

L. PAUL BREMER: I think it has to be a real fundamental approach, and I don’t see how we can change it, because I think if we change it, we run the risk of coming out wrong in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to those who say this would help the situation on the ground in Iraq, by the Iraqi people would see that they have, even though it’s symbolic, they’d have their country back, and that the United States is then going to help them on a transition — more of a transition rather than a control basis — and it might stop some of the violence and other things like that?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, you know, if it’s a question of authority, they’ve got very substantial authority now.

The governing council appointed a very highly skilled cabinet of 25 about two weeks ago. And by the way, Iraqi friends tell me it’s the best-educated cabinet in Iraq’s history, and I notice that of the 25 ministers, 17 have Ph.D.’s, so it’s probably the best-educated cabinet anywhere in the world right now. And they are running the ministries.

They’re running the government. They’re running the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Electricity. They’re responsible for the budget. So it’s not as if the Iraqis don’t have substantial authority right now, today. They’ve got it.

JIM LEHRER: And you don’t think giving them any more would help the situation on the ground?

L. PAUL BREMER: I don’t know what more you can give them. They’re already running the ministries. They’re already responsible for the budgets. The question of sovereignty is a legal problem. Under the law and under the U.N. Resolution 1483, we are the sovereign power there until such time as we can hand over to a permanent Iraqi government. That is a legal question that involves a constitution and elections. As for authority, they’ve got very substantial authority right now.

JIM LEHRER: Compare their authority with your authority.

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, I have the ultimate authority in the sense that, as a legal matter, I represent the coalition authority, which is the sovereign power there; but I have said ever since the governing council was established in July, I don’t intend to exercise my theoretical veto. As long as we stay in communication with each other, I anticipate we’ll work closely together as we have already, and the same goes for the ministers.

JIM LEHRER: As a practical matter, how is it going?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, it’s going very well. I think this group of ministers is a really impressive bunch. It’s not just that they have Ph.D.’s They’ve got Ph.D.’s in the right areas: The minister of agriculture is an agronomist; the minister of water resources, who I traveled with last week to see the marshlands, is a water hydrologist. I mean, these are very skillful people. They’re dedicated people. Many of them have come back from abroad to serve their country at great personal cost and, one might add, at personal risk.

JIM LEHRER: And are they technically answerable to you? I mean, how does it work? When a minister wants to make a decision in his or her area, how does it work, in terms of the relationship with you?

L. PAUL BREMER: They are answerable to the governing council, and the governing council is still trying to work out its own mechanism by which it exercises that supervisory control.

They are, as I understand it, trying to meet once a week with the ministers, and they will find ways to do that. I’ve encouraged them, for example, to adopt the system here which I’ve had so much fun with for the last 48 hours, of hearings. There’s no reason why the governing council couldn’t call ministers before them and explain their policies and their budgets. They’re responsible to the governing council.

JIM LEHRER: On the security issue, you know, there was more violence, you know, today. A homemade bomb went off in Baghdad, barely missed some American troops, killed one Iraqi, wounded 18 others, destroyed a couple of civilian buses. There was a fire fight in Tikrit. U.S. troops killed four Iraqis there. There was a Mosul bombing that killed two Iraqis, wounded a bunch in a theater. Of course there was that suicide bomber yesterday at the theater in..well, that was..the theater, yeah, it was at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

In other words, how does that all that fit in to what you’re just talking about, the governing, who’s responsible for safety, who’s responsible for security now?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, of course, we as the sovereign power bear the responsibility overall for security, but one of the main elements of the supplemental request the president has submitted is to get much more quickly the Iraqis doing much more of the security.

We’re trying to build an Iraqi police very quickly. We’re trying to build an Iraqi army very quickly. We are standing up an Iraqi civil defense corps. There’s money in the budget for all of those things which will put more of an Iraqi face on security and give them the responsibilities. Again, it’s another area where we are in fact thrusting authority and responsibility on the Iraqis. We are not holding back.

JIM LEHRER: Who’s responsible for preventing these kinds of incidents right now?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, it depends. There are 40,000 Iraqi police on duty around the country. If they detect an attack about to happen, the police are the ones who are supposed to stop it. They are the ones who are investigating, for example, the attack on the U.N. compound yesterday. It’s the Iraqi police who are in charge of the investigation, as it is with the other bombings. If we get intelligence that suggests an attack, then we use our tactical forces or the Iraqi police to try to stop them. I mean, we all are working together to try to get better security there.

JIM LEHRER: Are things really more secure now?

L. PAUL BREMER: Oh, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Are there fewer and fewer incidents on a daily basis than there have been?

L. PAUL BREMER: Oh, yes. You know, the country is basically peaceful.

We have incidents the way we did today in Baghdad, but more than 80 percent of the attacks on our forces are in a small area from Baghdad up to Tikrit. The North is quiet. The south is quiet. South of Baghdad we have very, very few incidents south of Baghdad, even going back to a full four months. So most of the country is at peace. We do have incidents.

We’ve got an increasing number of terrorists there, and it’s an important and significant threat.

JIM LEHRER: Why can’t something be done to keep those terrorists from coming into Iraq?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, you know, controlling borders, as our country knows, is not easy. The borders of Iraq are about the same length as the border between the United States and Mexico, and we haven’t had a lot of luck patrolling our border.

And the borders between Iraq and its neighbors are much more difficult from a topographical point of view, particularly in the North. We do have an effort, again part of the supplemental, to get a border patrol and a border police reinstituted to try to get better control over the borders. We’re going to use the new Iraqi army. The first battalion will graduate on schedule here in about two weeks. We’re going to use the Iraqi army to patrol the borders, and we’ve got coalition forces on the borders, but it’s not an easy job.

JIM LEHRER: What would you say to Secretary-General Annan of the United Nations, and others have said the same thing, that it’s not safe enough yet on the ground for the U.N. and others in a major way to come in there and do humanitarian works?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, I don’t think that’s… I don’t think that’s a correct assessment. I have almost 3,700 people working for me who are out in the, many of them, in the provinces, almost a third of them. More than 1,300 of them are working outside of Baghdad. We have many non-government organizations working there.

There’s still some U.N. people there. So there are thousands of people doing reconstruction every day. We’ve completed over 8,000 reconstruction projects in Iraq in the last three months. So there’s plenty of work to do, and people are doing it.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of Senator Biden’s suggestion to you yesterday at the hearing that there might be a double… he called it a “double heading” way to go here, that you would stay in place as the administrator, but you, instead of reporting to the United States, you would report to some international council that would come out of the United Nations?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, he asked me that question this morning, and I told him my honest answer is I just don’t know enough about how that could work to give him a good answer.

There are discussions going on in New York now about another U.N. resolution. The president said yesterday, he repeated yesterday, that we foresee the U.N. having a vital role in Iraq, and he mentioned several areas where he thought the U.N. could be helpful — to the constitution, elections, and so forth. I think we need to see how these discussions in New York evolve, and then we’ll see how that all comes out.

JIM LEHRER: But as the man on the ground in charge, do you feel U.N. participation would help the job?

L. PAUL BREMER: Oh, yes, and we’ve had U.N. — we’ve had more than a dozen U.N. agencies already working on reconstruction there. The U.N. itself has been there helping us get the Iraqis to think about how to conduct elections, voter registration — an area the U.N. has great skills in and a lot of experience. So we welcome that.

JIM LEHRER: What about the reluctance of other countries to send troops at this point without more of a U.N. mandate? Does that concern you?

L. PAUL BREMER: No. I think General Abizaid, who I’ve been with most of the afternoon, who is the commander of our forces overall in the region, is of the view that he has enough troops there. It would be better to get a higher ratio, I think, of foreign to American troops as a political matter, and it may well be that another resolution will help us in that respect. Some countries have said it will make it easier for them. But we will be able to continue on our own and with the coalition we have. Don’t forget there are 30 other countries who already do have troops on the ground with us. So it’s already an international operation.

JIM LEHRER: Does General Abizaid still want another division of troops, international troops, 20,000 more troops?

L. PAUL BREMER: Yes. He testified with me this afternoon and said he would welcome another division under the coalition, and we’ll have to see if this resolution comes out and what it says and whether it brings forth other troops. That would, of course, be welcome. We certainly would welcome others.

JIM LEHRER: You say there are politics involved in whether or not they’re international or American troops. You mean in terms of the U.N. and all of that, or do you mean on the ground in Iraq?

L. PAUL BREMER: Both. I think it helps show broader international support for the stabilization phase of the operations in Iraq to the international community, but it also puts less of a purely American, British face on the forces in Iraq, and makes it clear to the Iraqi people that the international community is giving broader support than it than it is now. So I think it serves both purposes.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, it makes the U.S. less of a target of people who want to make mischief — is that what you’re suggesting?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, there’s some… I’ve testified in the last couple of days that there are some indications that some of the patina of the joy of seeing us as liberators is wearing off a bit. Some people are considering us more as occupiers. I think to the degree we have more than the current 30 countries there involved in defense, it probably takes a little bit of the edge off of that kind of feeling. I don’t think it solves it. It’s almost natural. It’s not nice to be occupied.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What’s the problem on getting the electricity back on, Mr. Ambassador?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, the strategic problem is there’s just not enough electrical generating power there. Saddam underinvested in this and in so many other areas so that the total generating capacity is only two-thirds of demand. We are planning to get back to prewar generating levels in the next week or ten days. It’s about 4,400 megawatts. Demand is about 6,000 megawatts. And we’re going to have to build more generating power over the next six months to get back to meeting demand, and we’ll do that.

JIM LEHRER: Did you know that when you went over there, that this would be such a huge problem, just getting power, basic power to people?

L. PAUL BREMER: No, but that’s more of a reflection on the fact that I was a happily employed businessman ten days before I wound up in Baghdad, so I didn’t have time to study a lot of things, but I found it out when I got there pretty quickly.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Now, have you made that… where does that come on your list of priorities, in terms of getting electricity to the Iraqi people?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, it’s… my first priority is security. My second priority is electricity.

JIM LEHRER: And is that part of this $87 billion? If you get your $87 billion, what will that mean in terms of getting electricity to the folks?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, let me be clear that of the $87 billion, $66 billion is for military operations. The part that I’m concerned with is $20 billion. Of the $20 billion, about $6 billion is for electricity, and about $5 billion is for the army, the police, and the justice system.

JIM LEHRER: Can the $6 billion do the job?

L. PAUL BREMER: What the $6 billion can do is get us back to a position where we’re meeting not only current demand, which think is about 6,000 megawatts, but demand as the economy grows, as we hope it will grow over the next year and a half to two years. It will do the job for now.

The World Bank thinks that Iraq needs something like $13 billion or $14 billion in electricity over the next four or five years. What we’ve done with the supplemental that we’ve put up is to say what is the most urgent stuff that we can have a real impact on in the next twelve to eighteen months? And we think the $6 billion we’ve put in is sufficient for that.

JIM LEHRER: You just said that you came… you were a businessman minding your own business, picked up the phone, and suddenly you’re the administrator in Iraq. You’ve been over there now how long?

L. PAUL BREMER: I’ve been there since May.

JIM LEHRER: Since May. What has been your greatest disappointment thus far?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, I think this whole area of infrastructure rebuilding has been the most difficult problem. I think we just did not realize how fragile the electrical power system was, the water system, and then the interconnections with refineries, liquid petroleum gas plants.

Saddam spent 35 years stealing and wasting money, and all of these systems are very fragile and brittle, and you try to fix one thing and something else gets in trouble. You fix a boiler in some place, and a pipe explodes. It’s a sort of an endless round, and what we’ve got to do is build redundancy into these vital systems, and that’s what the supplemental will help us do.

JIM LEHRER: Other side of the coin: What are you most proud of, that you are personally proud of, for what you have done since May?

L. PAUL BREMER: You know, Jim, I don’t really think about my accomplishments.

I think the Iraqi people have shown extraordinary patience and courage in the last few months. They have really put a political system on the way to success, to a real democracy here. They have shown enormous patience.

There’s a Gallup poll out today, you probably saw it, that says that two-thirds of the Iraqi people, despite all the hardships they’ve gone through, believe that the war and liberation was worth every bit of it because they got rid of an awful, awful tyrant, and I think that really shows an enormous far-sightedness and courage on the part of the Iraqi people.

JIM LEHRER: I know you don’t want to put this in personal terms, but what is this doing for you or to you? I mean, what kind of… what is your personal attitude about your job right now?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, I think it’s a very important job, obviously. As you know, I’ve been involved in the fight against terrorism for almost 20 years, and just by happenstance I now find myself on the front lines of that fight against terrorism.

I think success for America in Iraq means defeating the terrorists there, and frankly I’d much rather… I’m not comfortable being on the front line — it’s personally dangerous — but if we can beat the terrorists in Iraq, we won’t have to fight them in Chicago or Des Moines or Seattle, and that is really a very highly motivating thing for me, but most importantly for the thousands of civilians and military that are working with me.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

L. PAUL BREMER: Nice to be with you.