Assessments of Bremer and his leadership as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, from longtime colleagues and those on the ground with him in Iraq. These comments are drawn from their FRONTLINE interviews.
How do you first hear about Bremer? How is he portrayed to you?
While he is known in foreign policy circles, [he] had never crossed my radar screen, or those of anybody who'd been sort of covering the world. He wasn't a Middle East expert. He wasn't a noted post-conflict guy. Yes, he was involved in the world of counter-terrorism, but had been largely out of government for 10 years. So he wasn't on anybody's sort of short list, at least outside the administration.
It became clear to me, later, that Bremer was picked by the vice president. … Bremer is old friends with Scooter Libby, who was Cheney's chief of staff. It is my understanding that Libby, among others, put Bremer's name forward. And Bremer was sort of the right kind of conservative. … They didn't want somebody too close to the first Bush, nor did they want somebody who couldn't deal with the rigor of being out there.
Bremer was seen as a guy who would be a loyal soldier, who would be somebody who had impeccable conservative credentials, and was known as sort of a decisive, take-charge guy. So, they said, "This is the sort of guy we need." … When he first came out there, Bremer really impressed me -- his willingness to take the risk, to work the hours that he did. This was a guy who really had an ambition to transform Iraq into a functioning democracy. …
In your book, others call him a control freak. What does that mean and where does it come from?
… Bremer had worked for Kissinger for some years, first as his special assistant when Kissinger was Secretary of State, and then later as the managing director of Kissinger's consulting firm. … After Bremer got into Baghdad, Colin Powell was meeting with Kissinger. Powell asked Kissinger, "Henry, can you tell me a little bit about Jerry Bremer's management style? And Kissinger said, "He's a control freak."
Bremer wanted everything in the palace to go through him. … Meaning that if the White House wanted one of Bremer's senior advisers on the interior ministry to provide a list of things, or to do X or Y, they couldn't do it unless Bremer signed off on it. …
He would say to people, "I don't want to deal with the Washington squirrel cage. I don't want somebody in Washington with an 8,000-mile screwdriver interfering with what we do here."
He viewed his palace out there in Baghdad not as an embassy that had any obligation to report back developments to Washington. They never sent the regular stream of cables back in those early months. Bremer would later say that, "Now, look, things were moving at such a quick pace, we didn't have the time to do that." But what it meant was that people in the White House, the State Department, Pentagon, they were all out of the loop.
Bremer also convinced Stephen Hadley, Rice's deputy at the NSC, to exempt him from having to take important decisions through the interagency process, this process that is meant to bring the heads of various cabinet departments together to vet things. And at that point, the White House was willing to give him a long leash, because, remember, Garner had been out there and had portrayed this image of not really being in charge and control. The policy was rudderless. Bremer had come. He was a take-charge guy. He was sent there by the president.
And so, Bremer wanted it, then let's give it to him, because the alternative was much worse. In those early months, what Bremer wanted, Bremer got. And Bremer amassed quite a degree of power and influence.
From what I've read, Dr. Rice had somebody reading the CPA Web site trying to see what decisions Bremer made that day.
The process of getting information from Baghdad was so dysfunctional, was so broken, they had to do crazy things like having somebody at the NSC check the CPA Web site. …
There was clearly a view among Bremer's people that folks in Washington didn't know better. Part of this comes from how Bremer organized his staff. Bremer did not go out and assemble a team filled with all of the smartest Arabists and post-conflict specialists in the U.S. government. He didn't want people who were more senior. He didn't want to worry that some ambassador level person he's bringing to Baghdad would be sort of having back channel communications with Colin Powell, or Richard Armitage, or somebody else. …
The other thing Bremer did was he assembled a staff who were largely young, ideologically sympathetic to him, and who didn't have any powerful patrons or allegiances back in Washington. Their only allegiance would be to Bremer.
... Jerry Bremer's one of my closest friends. We've been friends for 30 years, and I just have enormous regard for him. I think that historians will be much kinder to him than some of the contemporary pundits. …
If we're successful, [and] the kind of Iraq we wish does finally emerge, one of the two or three most important reasons will be [the interim constitution], which Jerry did around the clock. As I said, with the odds that if you were at Hialeah [Racetrack near Miami], this is a pony that's 27-1, and he did it. He just did it by the force of his personality and by his relationships, by his negotiating skill, by his energy, by his cohesion. By his imploration he did it, and it was an extraordinary accomplishment.
I think Bremer's sense was that things had spun out of control, and somebody needed to be in charge, and he was going to be that person. …
When Ambassador Bremer was going to Iraq, the original plan was that he was supposed to have a very able deputy who actually knew the political situation in the country, Zalmay Khalilzad, the person who's now our current ambassador. … [Khalilzad] had been dealing with the Iraqi opposition as an NSC staffperson for well over a year. … He knew all these players. …
The plan was that Khalilzad would go out there with Bremer because Bremer had never served in the Middle East, nor did he have any nation-building experience. … Now, given where the Bush administration was coming from, this apparent lack of qualifications was seen as a plus, because he didn't have the Middle East mind-set of the State Department, and he wasn't contaminated by the Clinton-era thinking. But there were really huge gaps in his résumé.
Really just about an hour before this appointment was to be announced, Khalilzad got the word that he wasn't going. [Then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell also got the word and said: "What's this? The one guy we have that actually knows these people and actually knows the situation is not going." He called up Condi Rice and said, "What's going on?" She said, "I had nothing to do with it." And indeed she didn't. It turned out that Ambassador Bremer, in a private meeting with President Bush, had insisted that he be the only one out there, that he be in charge. He didn't want to share his authority with Khalilzad. … And he [Khalilzad] is now the best thing the U.S. has going for [it] in Iraq.
How did you know each other?
We had both served together for several decades in the State Department. We were both foreign service officers. I first knew him when he was the executive assistant to [Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger in the mid-1970s in the Ford administration. I was also working for one of Kissinger's top advisers at the time, so I saw him fairly regularly then, and we had served together on a number of occasions since then and then become friends.
How would you describe him?
Well, he was very successful, and for good reason. He was a very competent, decisive, articulate, very funny, very amusing person with a sharp sense of humor. Tough, could get things done. Anybody who was Kissinger's right-hand man had to have a certain amount of steel in his personality. And quite decisive, and also a rather charismatic figure, someone who always managed to look 15 or 20 years younger than he was -- even though he was, in fact, quite young when he had achieved senior positions under Kissinger and thereafter. And also a person who inspired a good deal of loyalty and friendship.
I think his main weakness, of course, was in a sense his main strength from the standpoint of the Bush administration, which was that he had missed the Clinton administration. He had retired from the foreign service and gone into business in the early '90s, and consequently he wasn't tarred with any actual experience in nation-building. …
Why do you think he did it?
Why do I think he took the job? I think it was a combination of patriotism and probably, to some degree, boredom with what he was doing. … He'd gone into business, probably made a good deal of money, probably as much as he needed, and here he was being offered a chance to come back to what his first love, his chosen profession, at a position of great responsibility. So I think it was a combination of wanting to get back to something he knew well and knew he could do well and responding to a call, an appeal, from the president of the United States at a time of great national need.
Did he express a concern about residing in the Defense Department under Rumsfeld? I know he knew him, but was there a concern there?
I didn't detect any concern at the level of personalities, no. Bremer is somebody of considerable self-confidence, and I think he felt he could cope with whatever bureaucratic environment he found himself in successfully. Indeed, he was able to establish a relationship not just with Rumsfeld, but directly with the president.
He makes a good impression. He's somebody in whom presidents and secretaries of state quickly gain confidence. …
At the end of the year, you talked about it with him. How did he feel?
I think he feels that he did the best job he could in the circumstances that he was given. I think that's a fair judgment. You can quibble about this decision or that decision, and there certainly are decisions that he now believes he would make differently, but it was a chaotic environment. It was a makeshift bureaucracy, and he gave it some coherence, inspired a considerable degree of loyalty on his staff. Everybody who has worked for him remembers the experience as a positive one, and it's amazing that as much was achieved as was, given the tools with which he had to work.
What was your impression of Bremer?
I thought Ambassador Bremer was one of the hardest-working men I've ever been around in my life. I think he gets a lot of blame for a lot of things that are not his fault. I was only with him two and a half, three weeks, but the guy works 16 to 20 hours a day. He stayed over for 13 months, doing his best for our government and for the Iraqi people.
I think during that time, he produced an excellent document, the Transitional Administrative Law. And so, there's a lot of pluses to Bremer's time there that he hasn't gotten credit for, and there's a lot of negatives that he's shouldered that probably aren't his to shoulder.
Here's a guy who had worked for [Secretary of State to Nixon and Ford] Henry Kissinger, kind of respected in counterterrorism from a diplomatic point of view, but doesn't know a whole lot about the Middle East, doesn't speak Arabic, doesn't know the region, but has a reputation as an effective manager.
They throw him in the middle of this, even as there's a sense that Iraq isn't quite going the way we expected. They're determined to make a decisive entry. He's going to come in and really take charge -- which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think Iraqis wanted a sense that somebody was running this thing, that somebody was in charge. And he comes in with a bunch of policy pronouncements: … de-Baathification, dissolution of the military, free-market economics. All these things really just, I think, stir up Iraq in a revolutionary way that we're not prepared to happen. …
Tell me about Bremer's exit and the symbolism of [it].
… He snuck out of the country. At that point there were enough Americans who disliked him, but they kind of reveled in it. I remember talking to one former special forces soldier who is now in security there, who said basically: "He left the city like a rat. I'm glad he did, because that's what he was."
Bremer leaves -- first of all, calls reporters in for a very brief announcement, almost like [a] "Think fast," tosses the football to the Iraqis, I think to Prime Minister [Ayad] Allawi -- "I'm outta here" -- hops in a helicopter from the Green Zone out to the airport. Pretends to get in one plane, a C-130 for a ceremony, but after the Iraqis leave, because of security concerns, gets out of that plane and moves to, I think it was a Gulfstream IV that then flies him out.
This is not the way that one conducts a triumphant exit.
And what does it say?
It says he was a failure. It says the American effort up to that point hadn't worked. Now, I think the American effort has changed a lot since then. But what happened in that year under Bremer and Sanchez when the United States dug itself a pretty deep hole in Iraq? And the question since then has been, can we get out of the hole that they've dug?
When you look at that year and … where the responsibility might lie, where do you land?
It's easy to blame the individuals involved. They all bear responsibility. I would begin with President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz, Ambassador Bremer, Gen. Sanchez. I don't want to excuse them; I think they all made huge mistakes that were avoidable. They helped create the insurgency through their actions, through their concepts, through their policies, through their orders.
That said, you don't get a mess as big as Iraq through the acts of a few individuals. Iraq has gone down the way it has because our system isn't working. It's a systemic failure.
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