The Lost Year in Iraq [home page]
  • Home
  • Interviews
  • Timeline
  • Site Map
  • Discussion

james dobbins

dobbins

A career diplomat, James Dobbins participated in or oversaw postwar reconstruction efforts in five countries -- Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. After leaving the State Department, he moved to the RAND Corporation, where he directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center and conducted a study called America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq. Dobbins gave a draft of his report to CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer, III before Bremer left for Iraq, and Bremer later passed the report to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush. Here he recounts the lessons learned in his experience; explains how nation-building became a pejorative phrase; and analyzes why the Bush administration modeled its postwar assumptions on Germany after World War II -- and why that was a bad idea. Dobbins describes the CPA's efforts as "heroic amateurism." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 27, 2006.

As it becomes apparent to you that we're going to go to Iraq, what are you worrying about, based on your life experience, your work and what you know?

... My experience, of course, had been in managing the sort of post-conflict reconstruction programs in a variety of past failed states, if you will -- Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia -- over the previous decade, and I was aware how difficult, time-consuming, costly and manpower-intensive these efforts were. Looking at Iraq, the size of Iraq, which was much bigger than any of these other places where we had gone over the past decade, the conflicts within the society and the nature of the region itself, this struck me that this was going to be a lot more difficult than the administration seemed to anticipate.

How much more difficult?

I had been doing a study since leaving the government and coming to the RAND Corporation, looking at the American experience in nation-building, going back to Germany and Japan after the Second World War and then the more recent post-Cold War episodes. We had concluded that in dealing with a collapsed society and the aftermath of a conflict where the local institutions for security had either been totally discredited through their abuse or had been disintegrated as a result of the conflict, that the intervening power would need a force of approximately 20 men per 1,000 inhabitants in order to maintain security and prevent the emergence of a resistance movement. Translating that to Iraq, it meant between 400,000 and 500,000 men.

Roughly the numbers [former Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [Eric] Shinseki was talking about.

That's right. It's also roughly the number that Gen. [Anthony] Zinni, who had been the commander in chief for the Central Command [CENTCOM] preceding [Gen. Tommy] Franks, and who had looked at the same requirements in the late '90s, had come up with. I think his plan called for about 450,000. Shinseki said several hundred thousand. I think the Army staff that had been giving him briefings had been thinking in the range of about 400,000.

It's not rocket science to take the number of men that we had used in Bosnia or Kosovo, much smaller societies, and simply scale that off to the larger size of Iraq and say, "Hey, this could be pretty daunting."

[What did you think when you heard then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's dismissal of Shinseki's estimate?]

I was aware that the administration was making an effort to build public support, that a frank acknowledgement of the scale of the commitment might well undermine that support. I didn't consider it so much a case of deception as self-deception. That is, first they deceived themselves, and then they deceived everyone else.

Frankly, they weren't the first. You'll remember that when Bill Clinton put American troops into Bosnia, he promised that they would be out within a year. Now, even at that stage, our experience in Somalia and Haiti indicated to anybody who had been watching this even mildly closely, ... that was wildly optimistic. ... Yet I don't think that that was said with the intent of purposely deceiving the American people. I think it was a leap of faith. Administrations in these situations do tend to grasp at hopeful, positive scenarios which they think will make the enterprise more palatable.

The amount of resistance you encounter in one of these nation-building operations is the direct result of the amount of reform and change that you intend to introduce. ... In Iraq, we went in with a very ambitious set of objectives and a relatively modest initial commitment.

In the case of Iraq, the consequences were greater, because the scale of the operation was so much greater and because the amount of international support was so much less. Whereas in Bosnia we ended up spending 10 years there rather than one, and tens of billions of dollars rather than the few hundred million that might have been projected at the time, still we were only providing maybe about 20 percent of the manpower and about 20 percent of the money. Other people were providing the rest, and it's a small country. It's only 3 million people, so the consequences of that misappreciation, that underestimation, were much less than they turned out to be in Iraq.

What's with the disdain for the words "nation-building"? Why has that become a pejorative?

It did become a pejorative in the '90s; it hadn't previously been. In previous cases where the United States had played a role in post-conflict reconstruction -- in Germany and Japan, and then in Panama and Grenada and a number of other places over the 40 or so years after the end of the Second World War -- this was a recognized aspect of the military's role in those kinds of situations, and one in which they took considerable pride. It bolstered their image within the society in question and within the United States.

In the 1990s, the scale and scope of these operations increased dramatically, and several of them became rather spectacular failures. So it was the combination of the setbacks in Somalia, the controversies over in Haiti, and also the U.N.'s performance in Bosnia preceding the NATO arrival, all of which were controversial and marred by significant mishaps and errors of judgment.

But it wasn't just that there had been a few setbacks. It was that the number of these was increasing. During the Cold War, the United States intervened in a new country about once every 10 years. You had the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama. During the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, it went from once every 10 years to once every two years. You had Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo within a little more than an eight-year period. ...

Now I think that the concept has been somewhat rehabilitated. That is to say that there's a recognition in the aftermath of 9/11 that failed states have consequences; that the consequences aren't just disease and criminality and drugs and human misery and unwanted refugees; that the consequences can also be terrorism or direct threats to American territory and people, and that you need instruments to deal with these kinds of situations and to put these states back together again.

I think that the administration, although it hasn't embraced the term "nation-building," has embraced the concept. It set up an office in the State Department to do it. The president has issued a directive indicating how the agencies collaborate, and the Defense Department has issued a directive making these activities a core function of the U.S. military. ...

In the war's early going, are there a couple of things that you're wondering about, or do you already know that it's a train wreck coming?

No. I assumed that the administration and the U.S. military would have incorporated lessons from the '90s and taken the kind of preparatory steps that would have at least ameliorated many of the difficulties that eventually arose. I assumed, for instance, that there would be substantial numbers of military police and the forces that were available to move into the major cities immediately after the collapse of the regime. I assumed that they would anticipate that the regime's security apparatus would disintegrate ... [and] that maintaining security would fall heavily on U.S. and coalition forces. I assumed that they would have prepared commanders to assume that responsibility, to take that responsibility early on.

These assumptions were incorrect. We didn't pre-position significant numbers of military police; we hadn't prepared commanders to assume responsibility for public security rapidly; and we didn't anticipate that the regime's security apparatus would disintegrate and become largely useless. I think we should have, because this is, broadly speaking, what had happened in each of the previous episodes over the last decade. But I think that the administration had chosen to look to a different set of models and a different set of experiences for inspiration, and I think that that misled them as to the difficulties they were likely to encounter.

They chose to look to the American occupations of Germany and Japan for inspiration. They talked about modeling their efforts on those quite successful experiences of nation-building. One could see why these were attractive. They were attractive, first of all, because they were unqualified successes, whereas the experiences of the '90s -- Bosnia and Kosovo, for instance -- were at best qualified successes. But they were also successes that had absolutely nothing to do with Bill Clinton, and therefore they were politically safe. You could embrace them without embarrassment. ...

The problem, of course, was that while Germany and Japan were unqualified successes, Iraq in 2003 really looked a lot more like Yugoslavia in 1995 than Germany and Japan in 1945. Germany and Japan were very homogenous nations. They weren't ribboned by ethnic or cultural or religious or linguistic conflicts. They were first-world economies. You didn't have to tell them how to run a highly successful capitalist economy. And, of course, they had been defeated in years of devastating warfare, which had left their populations thoroughly demoralized, unlikely to resist. And they formally surrendered.

None of this was true of Iraq or Yugoslavia, both of which were highly mixed, interethnic societies with a lot of cultural, religious and ethnic differences. They brought together a number of different communities that really didn't want to live in the same state if they could avoid it; they had been carved out of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires at the end of the First World War. They weren't first-world economies, and they hadn't surrendered. ...

Did you know people in high positions in this administration that you could talk to about this? Had you sent RAND papers or other things you'd written or thought about to them? ...

... I did note to a few people in the Defense Department that I have some experience and I'll be happy to share it, but there was a lot going on. People were busy, and I wasn't pressing. I'd left. I'd had a decade of doing this. If they wanted advice, I was happy to provide it.

The State Department was largely excluded from the planning at this stage. Of course, since I had come from the State Department, most of my contacts were there, although I certainly knew people in the Defense Department. But no, I wasn't pressing my views.

And they were not seeking them?

They certainly weren't seeking me out for advice. I think that's fair enough. On the other hand, the book that I wrote [America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq], or that I participated in writing, was funded by the Department of Defense. We had held a conference in, I think it was probably April or so, shortly after the intervention, with a number of people, and officers from the Department of Defense came. The comptroller of the department, Dov Zakheim, a quite senior person, came and actually gave the keynote address at the conference, and he'd read the book, and he talked about the book. He agreed with some of it, and he didn't agree with others of it. So I wouldn't say it was completely closed.

Actually, the Defense Department structurally is among those agencies of government most open to expert advice. It has a large budget for analysis. The U.S. military have an institutionalized practice of lessons learned; that is, of going over their recent experience, extracting the lessons from it and trying to apply it in the future. ...

What's also worth noting is that [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and his public affairs staff did call in outside experts fairly regularly for meetings with Rumsfeld and with his staff. There were at least a couple of these in the months leading up to the war, and then there were a couple of others in the months immediately after the intervention. While these were largely intended to inform the experts rather than to seek their views, there were opportunities to ask questions, and there were exchanges with Rumsfeld and with his staff. ...

[Why do you think they didn't hear the criticisms?]

I think that the main reason that the administration didn't address the doubts, the potential difficulties, was they short-circuited the interagency process. The way a president and his senior staff gain knowledge and consider all the alternatives is through a process, a structured process of adversarial debate, in which you bring all of the people who have opinions and a stake in the outcome to the table and let them argue through the different alternatives.

The administration chose not to do that. The president made his mind up early, before he had fully heard all of the arguments. Responsibility for preparations for the post-conflict phases were transferred from State and the [U.S.] Agency for International Development [USAID] to the Defense Department. So the National Security Council [NSC] staff did not prepare and then guide a process of adversarial debate between advocates and critics of the policy, between those who thought it would be easy and those who thought it would be hard. They didn't question the assumptions. They didn't look at the underlying assumptions and red-team them, in effect. The failure to do that meant the president and his senior advisers were less informed than they should have been.

Now, one can understand why they chose not to do that. I think they chose not to do that, in part at least, because they felt that a spirited debate within the administration wouldn't stay within the administration; that it would slop over into the international and domestic debate and make it more difficult to secure international and domestic support. That's probably true. It might have made it more difficult. But I think that had there been such a debate, had State and Defense and CIA been asked to critique the plans, to question the assumptions, and had there been a greater scrutiny of particularly the resource implications of the post-conflict phase, if you will, or the post-conventional conflict phase, one would have come to a much more realistic appreciation of what was likely to happen.

[Who's responsible?]

I think responsibility ultimately has to lie with the president. He made two critical decisions as we understand it, both of which tended to short-circuit a more structured, formal and intense debate. One was the basic decision to prepare for a military intervention and set and train the deployments and the diplomacy, which would make an intervention virtually irreversible. ...

The second decision was a decision made somewhat closer to the intervention, I think about three months before it, when the president decided to take ... all of the nonmilitary responsibilities for the reconstruction phase -- that is, a responsibility for holding elections, creating a central bank, rebuilding the economy, creating political parties, building a civil society -- to take all of those responsibilities away from the agencies of government that had been doing them, perhaps never well, but increasingly better for the last 50 years, and give them to the Department of Defense, a department that had no expertise, no experience in these complex and difficult areas. ...

If you give all responsibility to a single Cabinet officer, then you as president only get two kinds of messages back: Message A is "Everything's OK; don't worry, Mr. President," and message B is "I need more money." Those are the only messages you'll ever get. That Cabinet officer is never going to come to you as president and say: "Mr. President, I've got a real problem here. I don't know how to solve it. Could you give me some advice?" He's not going to do that. He's going to solve it ... based on the intellectual resources of his single department. He's not going to go to another agency head and ask him for advice either.

So you've narrowed the circle of people upon whom the decisions rested, and in doing that, you narrowed the amount of expertise and the amount of enlightenment that you are likely to receive as a result. ...

… What was the likelihood of Gen. [Jay] Garner and ORHA's [the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Asssistance] success from what you could tell and given what you know?

Well, again, I think that the effort was underresourced, and the scale of the difficulties were not anticipated. But one of the problems seems to be that Garner and his effort weren't thoroughly integrated within the military planning and were inadequately supported by the military.

Partially there was a mismatch between our objectives and the scale of our commitment. If we had gone into Iraq with a set of objectives that looked more like what we had done in Afghanistan, then a lighter commitment might have been more manageable. We didn't go into Afghanistan saying we were going to make it a model for Central Asia, and that once we democratized Afghanistan we were then going to try to change the form of government of every one of its neighboring states.

That is the basis upon which we went into Iraq. We went into Iraq saying we were going to make this a model for the Middle East and that on the basis of that model, we hope that the form of government of every one of its neighbors would change, democratize. ... This was not a vision which any of those governments was going to buy into. So we went in without the support of the neighboring states.

We went in with a much more ambitious agenda of social engineering. We disbanded the army. We issued a sweeping de-Baathification decree, the full dimensions of which we weren't even conscious of when we actually put it into effect. ...

Basically, the amount of resistance you encounter in one of these nation-building operations is the direct result of the amount of reform and change that you intend to introduce. ... The more you intend to do, the more you have to commit to doing it. In Iraq, we went in with a very ambitious set of objectives and a relatively modest initial commitment.

So that was what Garner was, was an example of the relatively modest commitment?

Yes.

How do you hear that [Ambassador L. Paul "Jerry"] Bremer's being considered to replace Garner?

There were some rumors in the press, and then he was formally announced. I think the day after he was formally announced on the job, he gave me a call and asked me to come over and see him.

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.

Weaknesses?

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. ...

You're a man with great experience in this area, and your colleague and friend Paul Bremer is about to sit in the hot seat. He calls you up. [What do you talk about?]

Well, I went and visited him in a temporary office he'd been given in the Defense Department. He, first of all, asked if I would come and work for him as his deputy, and I said no. I [had] just started less than a year earlier in the job I currently hold with the RAND Corporation. I didn't feel I could leave so quickly. And I'd done five of these; it was someone else's turn, thank you.

But I did bring along a copy of the galley proofs of the book that we had been writing called America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq, which already had a chapter in it on Iraq, anticipating the probability of a nation-building enterprise there. ... We talked at some length about what he was likely to encounter and some of the difficulties. We maintained contact for the next several months, trading e-mails every couple of days until he became thoroughly immersed in what he was doing.

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. I mean, he was a foreign service officer. He was a very successful career diplomat. He'd held high office. He'd left. 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, was, 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 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's good at that?

He makes a good impression. He's somebody in whom presidents and secretaries of state quickly gain confidence. My view at the time, which I now think is wrong, was that on balance, he would do better having his organization in the Defense Department than the State Department, because the State Department was chronically underfunded, underresourced. The Defense Department had substantial resources. It clearly was committed to the operation, and I thought he would be able to command those resources more successfully if he was within the Defense Department. ...

I think on balance, we should have done in Iraq what we had done for the previous 50 years, which is to establish an American diplomatic mission alongside our military presence immediately. I mean, if you look back to Korea, to Vietnam, to the Dominican Republic, to Grenada, to Panama, to Somalia, to Haiti, to Bosnia, to Kosovo and Afghanistan, we either had an American diplomatic mission open and running even before the troops arrived, or we opened one within the first 10 days or so. When I opened the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in December of 2001, there were only 250 American troops in the country. ...

The Defense Department doesn't know how to do that. It's a new task, so everything was improvised. The CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] operation became an exercise in heroic amateurism, in which hundreds of dedicated, courageous Americans went and filled positions for which they had not the slightest preparation. People didn't know where their home office was. They didn't know who the person at the next desk was. They weren't sure exactly what they were supposed to be doing, who they were supposed to be working for. They didn't have an office in Washington they could call and say: "How did we do this last time? Remind me, how do I fill out this form? How do we train a police department? What are the mechanisms that we have for building political parties? What are the options for getting electricity back on?" ... Everything was improvised, and the results were rather chaotic. It's amazing that they accomplished as much as they did.

It was also very difficult to keep the place adequately staffed. Probably never more than half of the positions in the CPA were filled at any one time. The average length of stay was about three months, so a third of the people who were there had just arrived and didn't know what they were doing. A third of the people who were there were just about to leave and were focused on getting home. You only had, in effect, one job in six actually filled with somebody who had been there long enough to know what he was doing and wasn't just about to leave.

It was extremely difficult to get things done in that environment, and I think it's a credit to Bremer and the small team of professionals that he brought with him and surrounded himself with that they were able to get as much done. ...

Ambassador Bremer told me yesterday he took [your RAND study], sent it up to Rumsfeld, talked about it to the president of the United States, [and] never heard back. ...

He wasn't completely unsuccessful. When we met, I noted to him that the Pentagon was at that point withdrawing troops from Iraq; that is, the numbers were coming down with the intention of moving toward a very low level, around 30,000. I think he was successful in reversing that process. ...

He gets there, and he said, as he was driving in, he sees burning everywhere and says, "Oh my God, what is this?" And they say, "It's the looting." He articulates a solution, which is, "Let's shoot the looters." What, in your experience, might he have done?

I don't know whether this was entirely within his authority. Bremer did not oversee American military in the country. He didn't have authority to alter their rules of engagement, to either have them shoot looters or not have them shoot looters. Although he had urged a larger military presence, he didn't control that either.

Probably the most important flaw in our immediate response to the collapse of Saddam's regime and the disintegration of all the indigenous institutions for security was not to quickly grasp that we were responsible for providing public security; that American troops were now responsible for protecting the Iraqi population from muggers, looters, rapists, as well as terrorists and insurgents. We did not grasp that, even though it's a clear legal responsibility. I mean, we occupied Iraq under the laws of armed conflict, the Geneva Convention, which specify that that is indeed the responsibility of the occupying power. ...

Because we didn't protect them, we never gained their loyalty. An occupied people looks to their occupier for one thing, and it's not electricity; it's not air conditioning -- it's security. And if you don't provide them security, it doesn't make any difference what else you're doing for them. They're not going to collaborate, because it's too dangerous.

Why didn't we do it? ...

Over time we did do it, but only grudgingly and reluctantly. This, frankly, had been an ongoing debate throughout the '90s in Somalia and Bosnia -- Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. There had been a continued debate between the State Department, which argued that the military needed to become engaged in public security in the immediate aftermath of an intervention, and the military, who said: "That's a civil function. We're not going to do it. You have to find somebody else to do it."

Now, in the '90s we had compromised, and we did find somebody else to do it. ... In Haiti, we went and found 1,000 policemen from mostly Latin American countries and deployed 1,000 civilian policemen as part of the initial wave of soldiers. They became the interface between the military on the one hand and the local police, who were totally unreliable, on the other, and oversaw the efforts of those police and, to some degree, substituted for them.

So why didn't we do that?

... In Iraq, the assumption was made -- an unwarranted assumption, an assumption which couldn't be validated against recent previous experience -- that the Iraqi law enforcement institutions would remain in place and would remain adequate to the task of providing public security and that we would simply need to oversee them and direct their efforts. This turned out not to be the case. I think it was predictable that it would not be the case, given our experience elsewhere. But it turned out not to be the case, and we did not deploy adequate numbers of military police. We didn't deploy any civilian police at all. We had 5,000 in Kosovo and none, not one, in Iraq. ...

Bremer almost immediately signs CPA Orders 1, 2 and 3. ... De-Baathification was first. I asked him, did you go in with a roadmap or the plan from anybody, or were you supposed to make it up along the way? What do you think the answer is?

Well, I think that their intentions changed, and they were probably influenced by different factors, including some of the advice they were getting from people like [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi and others. Rumsfeld brought a group of us in a few weeks before -- actually, about six or eight weeks before the war started -- to brief us on the plans for the post-conflict occupation phase. His staff conducted a formal briefing of about 20 people from think tanks around town, from the Council on Foreign Relations [CFR], CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies] and RAND, Brookings and those kinds of things, as well as some retired generals.

At that point, the intention was to conduct a minimal effort at de-Baathification. That is, clearly there were people who [were] closely associated with Saddam's regime who would go, but the intent was to be fairly conservative in terms of how many people were going to be fired and [have] their civil rights withdrawn. Similarly, there was an intent to retain the army and reform it; to, again, eliminate the top tier of its leadership, but to keep the bulk of it, and then, over time, demobilize some of it and professionalize the rest of it.

The steps that were taken early on in the CPA phase clearly were a reaction to intervening events, which had somehow changed these intentions.

What happened? Do you know?

Well, on the army's side, what had happened is that the army, instead of surrendering and waiting to be told what to do, had gone home. It had in effect disbanded itself. That presented a different set of choices than the ones that they had initially anticipated. ...

With respect to de-Baathification, I think that there were a couple of things. They were coming under pressure from some of the émigrés who were associated with the intervention, who had gone back and who were putting pressure on the U.S. to engage in a more sweeping effort.

Secondly, they simply weren't adequately informed about the actual consequences of the action that they ultimately took. That is, they didn't know how many people were actually in the category that they were debarring from future public office. ...

Another factor was that there was a feeling that the ORHA period had been a period of drift. There had been an effort to see whether an Iraqi leadership would step forward that was coherent enough to transfer some or a lot of power to. That turned out not to occur.

Garner had avoided making some of these difficult decisions in the hopes that Iraqi leadership would emerge. By the time Bremer got there, it was pretty clear that it wasn't going to be easy or quick to identify an Iraqi leadership that had enough legitimacy and authority in the country. I think that there was therefore a feeling that one needed to make some strong, decisive moves, which would indicate that there was somebody in charge; there was somebody taking responsibility; that the buck did stop somewhere.

... Bremer told us the analogy he used was de-Nazification, falling back on the German model. Fallacious?

Not entirely, but as I said, Germany and Japan certainly offer some valid analogies that could apply to Iraq, but the analogies from the '90s probably have greater relevance. ...

The United States could afford to engage in a very broad effort of social engineering in Germany, because Germany had been devastatingly defeated. It had surrendered, and there were 1.7 million American soldiers in the American sector of Germany, which is only one-quarter of Germany. ... That meant one person in 10 was an American soldier. It was a very obtrusive presence, which pre-empted any thought of resistance. In that kind of circumstance, one could engage in a far more ambitious project of reform than you were likely to do in a society in which you had 25 million people and only 100,000 American troops. …

And when somebody like Garner says, "You just disenfranchised 30,000 people," and criticizes it very strongly?

Well, Bremer himself has acknowledged that it was probably excessive. I think it was partially that they simply didn't realize how many people were in this category, and secondly, they didn't realize that some of the people in this category probably had little or no personal responsibility for Saddam's abuses.

If it was all in all, it was probably a decision that would have been better delayed. But you can see in the situation, which is everything is chaos, you need to begin ordering things. You can only begin ordering things by making decisions, even recognizing that some of those decisions aren't going to be perfect.

Order No. 2, military and police. If security is king, even as you say, more than electricity, more than anything else, how important was Order No. 2? Or had it already, in effect, been made by the Iraqis themselves?

Simply recalling the army ... was probably not a realistic option. First of all, the bulk of the army were conscripts who didn't want to come back, so you would have, in effect, to force some of them to come back. That would have just complicated your problems rather than solve them. Secondly, the army had a grossly overstaffed senior officer corps, and you certainly wouldn't have wanted all of them back.

The major flaw was not to have had a program for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration ... when we went into the country. ... In any nation-building, post-conflict situation, you always have the problem [of] dealing with former combatants. If there's been a civil war or an international war, you've got more soldiers than you need. You always need to demobilize at least a large proportion of them, and you need to retrain and professionalize those that are left. This is absolutely standard.

The way you go about it is that the first thing you do is you register them all. You get their names; you get their addresses; you get a basic curriculum vitae; and you give them a check. You tell them you don't know what you're going to do with them. Come back again in a month, but here's your pay, so your livelihood's not affected. You're eventually going to go into one of three categories: You're going to stay in the army; you're going to go into the police force; or you're going to be retrained to be a truck driver or a computer operator or something. But in all of those cases, you're going to continue to get paid; your family is going to continue to eat. You're going to have a future. You don't have to worry. ..

That way, you keep these people off the street. You keep them out of trouble. You know who they are; you know where they are; you know what they're doing. They show up every month until you decide what you want to do with them.

Now, it's a little expensive, but it does mean that you haven't put thousands or hundreds of thousands of armed, hostile people out there and given them an incentive to undermine your operation. Instead, you've coopted them. ...

That's the kind of program which is now standard in nation-building operations around the world. It requires that you have a plan, that you have people available who can actually undertake registration of these people so that you have funding that you can actually pay them. If you know you're going to have to do this, it's part of the planning and organization that you put in place before you launch the intervention. It was not having a ... plan adequately funded and adequately staffed which meant that we couldn't deal with this situation adequately. ...

The impact of each one of these orders seems to be undercutting the potential for any kind of success in Bremer's year there. Does he know that? ...

I think he quickly understood that he had been thrust into a chaotic environment with very little planning, very little staffing; was having to improvise and make things up as he went along. I don't think that he or anybody immediately appreciated the degree to which Saddam's regime had been a hollow shell, the degree to which bureaucracy had become so hollowed out and so cowed that it was likely to be useless. I don't think he or anyone appreciated the degree to which the initial looting had stripped nearly all of the government agencies of the basic wherewithal to conduct their functions. I mean, there are no desks, no chairs, no pencils, no telephones, no heat, no light. Very hard to run a ministry with that kind of absence of infrastructure.

I don't think he realized -- and I don't think I realized -- at that stage the degree to which the kinds of preparations that had become routine in the '90s were not in place. ...

So the third order issued in that first month or so is this idea of the [political] timetable. There's much unhappiness, certainly among the military, at the idea that this is not Afghanistan, in the sense that we're going to hand to [President Hamid] Karzai and go. ...

Yes. I mean, the administration went back and forth between occupation Douglas MacArthur-style, which they eventually embraced, and transition Karzai-style, which they were quite attracted to and I think would have preferred. There were a couple of advantages we had in Afghanistan that we didn't have in Iraq. ...

First of all, in Afghanistan, we had an indigenous resistance group that had legitimized itself through a decade of conflict with the Taliban, [who] with our assistance, with American air power, had seized most of the country. When we came to forming a government, we could build it on that basis. ... In Iraq, you didn't have this indigenous resistance. You had nothing but immigrants. You had no indigenous figures who had authority, had legitimacy, had gained acceptance in the population and respect in the population through resistance to Saddam. They simply didn't exist.

The second was that in Afghanistan, because of the way we'd explained our intentions, we had the support of all the neighboring governments. ... In Iraq, we went in with a proposition that excluded that kind of cooperation. ... Consequently, we didn't have their support for the emergence of a new Iraqi government. ...

It was going to be more difficult in Iraq for those reasons. For a month or two, they did try to see whether an indigenous leadership could be brought forward that would have enough resonance with the population to be credible. [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq] Zalmay Khalilzad and Jay Garner went over and had a number of consultations, and on the basis of that, they determined that it wasn't going to be possible. ...

Therefore, they decided [on] this longer, more deliberate process of first building civil society, building political parties, building a free press, and only transferring authority after that process and after elections and after the emergence of a new constitution.

That also turned out to be impossible. We simply didn't have enough troops. We weren't making a large enough commitment to ourselves govern this country, rule it for several years before turning power back over to the Iraqi authorities. So after about a year of going down this track, we reverted to the alternative, which was to try to move more quickly to put an Iraqi government in place before we had elections rather than after we had elections. ...

The thing about the president and this particular group of people is ... that the lesson they learned from the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 was, we sent a message to these guys that we've got a glass jaw and all you've got to do is hit us and we'll drop, fold and go home. Same, I think, is what they said about Somalia. ...

That's an appropriate lesson to learn, but the other lesson that they didn't learn from the 1990s is the lesson that [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell learned, and that's the lesson of overwhelming force; that you don't go in and wait to be challenged. You go in with such a large force, nobody even thinks about challenging you, and then you cut it back. We went into Bosnia with 60,000 troops; within two years, we cut them in half. We went into Kosovo with 50,000 troops; within a couple years, we had cut that in half. We went into Haiti with 20,000 troops, and we cut that in half within six months. You go in with five times more than you think you need, and then you can quickly withdraw them once you've made your point.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, we did the exact opposite. That is, we put in the absolute minimum we thought would be adequate, and then when it wasn't adequate, we had to increase them. The problem with doing that is that you embolden the opposition rather than pre-empt, deter and overawe them. ...

It seems to me from what [I] hear and others say, this was a political decision. ... There's a kind of sense that in this new world, yes, we get involved in conflicts, but it won't look like the old way we got involved in conflicts.

Well, there was certainly an effort to do it differently. I think at one point Secretary Rumsfeld actually did an op-ed article which compared Iraq favorably to Bosnia on the argument that by providing such a heavy force presence and substantial amounts of resistance, we had made the Bosnians dependent, and in Iraq, we were behaving in a way which would not create a dependency culture. These were sort of arguments from the '90s that were being carried over in environments where they didn't make much sense.

Now, that said, I don't think you can blame it all on the politicians. The fact is, the military never liked nation-building, peacekeeping-type operations. The military always wanted to limit their involvement. ...

It's [Clinton's Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright saying to Colin Powell, "General, what do we have this army for if we --?"

Yes, [if we're] not going to use it. The idea that the military should have a limited set of responsibilities and shouldn't be responsible for public security was quite consistent with the preferences of the military itself. ...

The difference between the '90s and the early part of the current decade is that in the '90s, the civilians were going against the grain in the military. ... Here you had a different situation in which the prejudices were mutually reinforcing. Military really didn't want to do these things, and the civilians didn't want to do them either. The result was a minimalism rather than a debate, which would have created some kind of a synthesis between those who thought you needed more and those who wanted to do less.

A minimalism that left us vulnerable on both sides -- the diplomatic front, the nation-building front, and the military front. Security is the big loser in this.

Certainly we are badly tied down, unable to deal adequately with a lot of other rather serious challenges.

... From what you've observed, what's the sum and substance of that first year? Were seeds planted that will bear fruit? ...

Well, the story's still playing out, but I don't think there's any guarantee that the story's going to end happily. It's quite possible that it will end unhappily. And if that's the case, then I think our initial months there are going to be looked at quite critically.

I think that the first year is the result of inadequate resources and planning that was based on unrealistically optimistic assumptions. We lost a good deal of ground, ground that we've yet to make up and probably can't make up. The Iraqi people, if not the enthusiastic, liberated populace that some of us had anticipated, were at least open-minded and, on balance, prepared to work with the United States and [were] optimistic about the future.

That has largely been lost, and was largely lost over that first year. It was lost as the result of our failure to adequately protect. The Iraqi people simply didn't feel that they were safer if there were American troops near them. If there were American troops in your neighborhood, they were more likely to get caught in a crossfire; they were more likely to get killed by accident; they were more likely to be killed by insurgents for collaborating. They weren't any less likely to be killed by thieves, muggers, rapists and criminals. ...

Now, I don't think that that was particularly a failure of Bremer and the CPA. I can remember Bremer saying to me on the first day I met him that what these people were clamoring for was security; that that's what they wanted. That was his reaction to the rioting and looting, and it was why he immediately, upon being named, began to lobby within the administration for a heavier troop presence. But he had only a limited success in that regard, and ultimately, it simply wasn't adequate for the tasks that were set out.

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.

You mentioned in the answer before it might not work out. What's the result of failure if the seeds that are planted don't bear fruit? What will it look like? What will have happened?

Well, the real concern in Iraq is increasing sectarian violence rather than the insurgency. The insurgency is largely directed against the United States. The sectarian violence is a conflict among the major Iraqi communities: Shi'a, Kurd, Sunni. If that spins out of control, if this moves from an unconventional civil war, which is what it is now, to a conventional civil war, then the level of violence will escalate dramatically. ...

[Who were the people who worked under Bremer at the CPA?]

There were several categories of people there. The people who were closest to Bremer tended to be people with whom he had worked in the past. They tended, for the most part, to be foreign service officers. ...

A second category of people were professional, seconded from a variety of different agencies, including from the State Department; people who spoke Arabic, who understood the country.

Then the third category were the, effectively, political appointees, people who had been recruited through the White House political appointment process. ...

Once he asked CIA and State and Defense to send people, none of them sent him enough people, and he began calling friends. He called me and said, "Can you send me some people?" So I sent him half a dozen quite, I think, good people. And I'm sure I wasn't the only person he called. The White House ginned up their process by which they fill junior political-level positions in the government, staff aides to Cabinet secretaries, and used that roster of people to see whether they would be willing to [go to] Iraq, and many of them were. These tended to be well-meaning, idealistic, young, to some degree not only idealistic, but possibly ideological, obviously courageous, and willing to go into a difficult environment.

But many of them were wholly unsuited for what they were doing, had no relevant experience. Most of them weren't going to stay there long enough to make a difference. And most of them, since they weren't in the career of bureaucratic structure, had no real discipline. There were no consequences for failure to perform, and there were no particular rewards for performing spectacularly. As a result, it tended to be an environment in which a few people were contributing critically and importantly, and others were kind of floating around the edges, not sure of what they were supposed to be doing and not making much of a contribution. A difficult way to run things. ...

home | introduction | interviews | timeline | analysis | documents
other FRONTLINE reports on iraq | producer's chat | readings & links | teacher's guide | dvds & transcript
site map | press reaction | credits | privacy policy | journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home | wgbh | pbs

posted oct. 17, 2006

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
background photo copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Prison StateApril 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS