Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (2006), is an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post and was its bureau chief in Baghdad from April 2003 until October 2004, covering the postwar period when the Coalition Provisional Authority -- the U.S. occupation government in Iraq -- had charge of the country. In this interview, he talks about the internal politics and key players surrounding the flawed decisions made during that first, critical year, and the resulting lost opportunities to stabilize Iraq's security situation. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted Aug. 9, 2006.
What did it feel like in those days right after the fall of Saddam Hussein and before the ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance] people got there [in mid-April]?
... There was this power vacuum. Nobody quite knew what was the plan. The soldiers thought they were all going home. They were expecting the Iraqis in exile to show up, the Gen. de Gaulle to roll on in and take control of Baghdad. The Iraqis didn't know what to expect.
This vacuum was quickly filled by sort of self-styled actors. I remember there was a guy who descended upon the Palestine Hotel, claimed himself to be the new governor of Baghdad, and hundreds of journalists sort of hung on this guy's every word. ...
I started talking to [another] guy. Turns out he was a limo driver from Portland, Ore., who had just shown up figuring he was going to stake his claim to the new Iraq. ... It later became evident to me it was probably the CIA that was bankrolling these guys along with some other exiles. But of course this was not done in concert with the Pentagon, who had their guys -- [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi and others -- or the State Department, who had a different view.
It was so clear to me that the disorganization in U.S. policy before the war about what to do after was playing out in a proxy war on the ground in Baghdad just days after the fall of Saddam.
Along comes [Lt. Gen.] Jay Garner and his team. When they arrive [on April 20], what do they arrive into?
Let me back you up a second and talk a little bit about Jay Garner in Kuwait, because I spent the three weeks of the war at the same hotel that Garner and his staff inhabited. It was a bunch of well-meaning but totally clueless Americans, people there with no communications, no training. Had very little information about the jobs that they would have. The guy that would be told to be in charge of the Ministry of Industry and Minerals literally had no information about that. He spent his days surfing the Web trying to find things and eventually took to sort of reading poetry and ordering books online.
But this was supposed to be our reconstruction and administration corps. Most of them had never been in that part of the world, didn't speak Arabic. These people were going to go into a war zone with limited services. They didn't have sleeping bags or mosquito nets or anything.
So these guys then show up in Baghdad a couple of weeks later. Garner had been pushing [then-CENTCOM Commander] Gen. Tommy Franks to let them come; Franks didn't want them in that soon. But it was also clear that all these self-styled actors were trying to fill the power void. So Garner and company needed to come in to say, "Hey, look, we're in charge here." They move into the Republican Palace. They don't have power, water. There was no political transition plan. Nobody told Garner: "All right, this is what we're going to do. We're going to either appoint these exiles as a provisional council; we're going to hold a loya jirga; we're going to do this or that." It was left completely undecided.
You tell the story in the book of a guy, Garner's deputy, who is in Washington and finds out there is a "plan."...
Garner's deputy, a guy named Ron Adams, had to come back to the States because he had a lung infection. He spent a couple of days at the Pentagon before shipping back out to Baghdad.
Now, this was at the time that Garner and his senior staff were trying to figure out, "What is the plan?" Adams shows up at the Pentagon in [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug] Feith's offices and discovers that there's a whole planning cell there and that they're working up all sorts of plans for de-Baathification, what to do with the Iraqi army. Adams calls Garner and says: "Jay, you wouldn't believe what I've discovered here. There's a whole damn planning operation." And Garner says: "Great. What can they tell us?" He's eager for some guidance. And Adams says: "Well, they won't let me see it. It's all classified."
My sense of the interagency process, the battle between State and Defense and the way that people were embedded, it all sort of pointed to the sense that there was another train coming down the track. What's your opinion?
That's right. They were just the sort of the initial front men, the guys who were going to go there and deliver bottles of water to thirsty people and boxes of food to the hungry and do the basic humanitarian job. It turned out that that didn't need to be done, and very quickly the issues [surfaced]: Who's going to run this place? Who's going to rebuild this place? Garner wasn't briefed on any of that, because the guys back in Washington didn't want Garner to take charge of all of that.
So Garner starts making it up as he's going along. He thinks that, great, we'll have a big tent meeting, and tells the press, "We can have elections in 90 days, and we can do it this way." And he likes the exiles. He had known [current Iraqi President] Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish leaders, way back from the days after the '91 Gulf War when he was delivering aid to the Kurds up in the north. He got to know guys like Chalabi and [former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi and thought: "Hey, these are the Iraqis I can deal with. They speak English; they seem to be educated. This sounds like a good plan."
When he started to make moves to cede authority to them, to talk about elections, of course this freaked out people in Washington. This wasn't the plan. It certainly wasn't the Pentagon's plan; the State Department didn't want to turn over power to the exiles.
What became also very clear was the White House, the National Security Council [NSC], Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, who should have been coordinating all of this, who should have had a game plan, they had to accelerate the timetable, figure out what to do. That's why Garner gets summarily yanked, and Bremer gets sent over.
Tell me about Rice in this moment. How was it that she wasn't at the epicenter and running the interagency process?
In some ways it's inexplicable, because this is what the White House is supposed to do, right? They're supposed to reconcile the views of various Cabinet agencies and come up with one cogent, cohesive policy. But [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was given a very long leash to run the war as he saw fit.
There was also, I think, a belief in the White House that the war would last longer, and the need for immediate post-conflict humanitarian aid and an immediate stabilization mission would take enough time that they would have time to sort of reconcile all this. What happened was, they didn't have that time.
These are smart people. Many had great careers. But these are people who are being taken out of the mothball closet. I say that not in a pejorative way, because they're friends of mine, but you're not dealing with people who are in their prime, who have a deep knowledge of the Middle East, of post-conflict scenarios.
Guys like [former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa and Haiti] Tim Carney and Jay Garner, sure, they had plenty of post-conflict experience, but none of them had Middle Eastern experience, because the view was, if you brought in people who knew about the Middle East, they would be old-school thinkers, the old Arabists who for years maintained that the Middle East wasn't ripe for democracy. The view among the neoconservatives of the administration is that the Arabists were old-school thinkers who did not believe in the mission of democratizing the Middle East; they were insufficiently committed to this notion.
So that's why the day before they fly off, Rumsfeld says to Garner, "I'm a little worried about some of these guys here."
Most of these weren't guys that Garner picked. They were guys that were foisted upon him by others in Rumsfeld's own administration -- Doug Feith, [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz. It was their people who were putting people on Garner's team. Then Rumsfeld sort of says, "Look, these people seem to be too low-profile and bureaucratic." And Garner says to Rumsfeld: "Fine. But who do you have that could go and do [the Ministry of] Agriculture? Who do you have that could run the Education Ministry?" Rumsfeld doesn't have a good answer for him. He's like, "Well, I'll get back to you on that." Well, they never did get anybody else out there with Garner, but what they did do was, when Bremer came, they brought out a whole new cast of characters.
My favorite example of this was, on Garner's team, there's a guy named Skip Burkle, who's an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID]. Skip is described by his colleagues as one of the foremost experts in post-conflict public health around the world. It was his job to rehabilitate Iraq's health care system. Burkle has a medical degree, four postgraduate degrees. He's got purple hearts. He served in Kosovo and in Somalia, in Haiti.
But a week into it he gets an e-mail from his senior official back in Washington, a friend of his, saying the White House wants a loyalist on the job, and in his place was a guy named Jim Haveman. He was no doctor. He was the director of community health in Michigan. His pal, the Republican governor of Michigan, John Engler, contacted Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services. He contacted Paul Wolfowitz and said, "Hey, this guy Haveman would be really good."
Haveman's international experience really was limited to sort of doing outreach for the Dutch Reform Church. He had worked previously at an adoption agency where they encouraged children not to have abortions. He'd never worked in the Middle East. He never had any experience in post-conflict health care. But he was the guy the administration saw fit to send out there.
He got out there, and he came up with ideas like not devoting much money to fixing Iraq's emergency rooms, even though injuries from car bombings and insurgent attacks were probably the single largest health crisis the country is facing. Instead, he brought in a team of people to go line by line through the list of drugs that the country was importing to try to figure out which ones could be taken off the list. He wanted to develop a new formula. Why did he want to do this? Because in Michigan, he had saved millions of taxpayer dollars doing this.
And when Garner and his team get there, what do they begin to try to do?
It's chewing gum and Scotch tape. They're trying to do whatever it takes to get things working: try to get some of these power plants running again; figure out who works for these various ministries and get people back to work; trying to organize some Iraqis to protect buildings from looting. They have no plan, but these are seasoned, smart people. They're trying to figure out what they have to do to kind of patch things up.
They, like the Iraqis, figure more help is on the way. They are led to believe there's going to be a lot more military and civilian resources coming behind them to do things like turn on the lights. The Iraqis, of course, have this expectation as well, and in their interactions, they're feeding those expectations. They're also just trying to say to the Iraqis, "Hang tight; help is on the way." But they don't really know what help, and when, how, in what form it's going to come. They're just trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Garner hears from Adams that there is a secret plan. Does he get a kind of hint that the secret plan doesn't involve him?
It becomes apparent pretty soon after they get them moved in that the grander plans don't really involve them. But just when those grand plans get put into effect, in what form they take, nobody there really knows. They're disconnected from what's really taking place on the ground. Washington is 8,000 miles away. It's before the days of video teleconferences. The military guys are off at their base in the airports. There's just the civilians in the palace, and in some ways, they're so incredibly isolated.
And Garner decides to get involved in politics, which is what he talked about a little bit before. And that's what sets the alarm bells off at the NSC and over at State and other places.
But nobody's told him that he shouldn't get involved in politics. As best as I can understand, this is why: His keeper, Doug Feith, Paul Wolfowitz above him, they, of course, wanted the Iraqi exiles to take control.
Chalabi and company. Now, if they had gone to an interagency meeting and said, "Chalabi," it would have been a big dustup, and there's no guarantee that the interagency process, the president, would have signed off on Chalabi. CIA and State hated him -- had lots of good reasons why they hated him. The president himself had this view that Iraq needed to be a democracy, a view that would get sharpened and amplified over time. But even in those early days, he felt committed to that notion. Just appointing Chalabi seemed to run counter to all this talk of democratizing.
But what Feith and Wolfowitz, who wanted Chalabi in power, did was not to say anything to Garner, figuring that if Garner was left with no orders, Chalabi would rise to the top, and Chalabi and Garner would strike up a relationship, and that Chalabi and the exiles would be given power.
In fact, that is what was happening. Because of this chaotic situation, Garner was turning to the exiles and was ready to devolve authority to them. It was at that point that others in administration said, "Whoa, what's happening?" I tend to think there was far less concern in certain quarters of the Pentagon. This was sort of playing out the way they had wanted it to play.
[There was a meeting in Baghdad that was convened one night. Can you talk about that?]
It was meant to be kind of a precursor to a loya jirga meeting, where tribal leaders and religious and political leaders and people from all kinds of walks of life were brought together in a room that would later be used by the coalition to hold their press conferences.
Garner and [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq] Zalmay Khalilzad and others from the American side were there, and it was a chance for the Iraqis to talk about what they wanted in a new government, to vent. It was held on Saddam's birthday. When an Iraqi stood up and asked, "Who's in charge here?," Garner replies, "You're in charge." It sent a shockwave through the crowd, gasps. The Iraqis assumed the Americans had a plan. ...
And what nobody in the room knew, I gather, was that the night before, Garner had been told something that he didn't share with anybody else.
The night before, Garner had been told that Jerry Bremer was on his way to Baghdad, and that Bremer had a plan. Bremer was appointed by the president, and ORHA would be changing over to a new entity called the Coalition Provisional Authority. They would be the new sheriffs in town.
Did you ever talk to Garner about it? Who called him?
Garner, I believe, was called by Rumsfeld. Garner wasn't told to pack his bags. They wanted Garner to arrange for a graceful exit and thought that Jerry might continue to do sort of humanitarian relief stuff. There wasn't really much to do in that regard, but he might have some continuing role.
But Garner is a smart man. He knew what the score was. But he was also a loyal soldier, and when your country asks you to serve, you serve. And when you're reassigned to something, you salute crisply, say, "Yes, sir," and you do it. That's Jay Garner. That's what he did.
Garner is no Iraq or Middle East expert, but he's a good, decent man, and he was deprived of the necessary resources and hung out to dry. In those days before he left, he confided in some of his most senior people. Each of the people he talked to said roughly the same thing to him: "You know, Jay, it's not your fault. You were set up to fail."
From where you are over there, 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 had been 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 counterterrorism, but had been largely out of government for 10 years.
He wasn't on anybody's 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 [Vice President Dick] Cheney's chief of staff. It is my understanding that Libby, among others, put Bremer's name forward.
Bremer was 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 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. ...
How does he arrive at de-Baathification as his first and most bold action?
Well, I think he was already thinking about something along the parallels of de-Nazification, but didn't really have a good structure for it, didn't understand a lot about the Baath Party....
He hears about de-Baathification that some of Feith's people had been working on, partially in conjunction with Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, [who] want all of the old Sunni Baathists out; they want their guys in. So Bremer gets briefed on de-Baathification, and it strikes him as just the sort of bold initiative that he wants to implement ....
What's interesting to note here is that the sort of de-Baathification that Feith's office was working on was a lot more expansive than what the president had signed off on at a National Security Council meeting before the war, where it was briefed to him by Frank Miller at the NSC, and then agreed to by the president and other members of the board Cabinet; that what we'd be doing would be de-Baathifying just the top 1 percent. It would be very narrow, very targeted; it would just be getting rid of all the real bad Saddamists.
Well, then the actual implementation fell to Feith's office, and the view among many was what Feith's office did was draw the line a little too low. Folks at the NSC believed that it wasn't even really keeping with the spirit of what the president agreed to, even though there wasn't a real specific order articulated by the president.
So [de-Baathification] goes all the way down the rank, ... which eventually results in 15,000 teachers losing their jobs. ... It winds up affecting a lot more people than intended and turning a lot of people into enemies.
The process that was supposed to deal with appeals was handed over to none other than Ahmad Chalabi -- one of the few mistakes that Bremer has actually acknowledged making.
... Bremer had worked for [Henry] 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, [then-Secretary of State] 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 was the man who made very clear, "I am in charge." 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. Eventually they started holding regular video teleconferences, but the actual written correspondence that comes from U.S. diplomatic outposts just wasn't there.
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. 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 running the CPA Web site, trying to see what decisions Bremer made that day that appeared on the Web site.
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. That was the most effective way to figure out what orders Bremer had issued, because waiting for Bremer to have these things sent through the normal, official channels, it happened days later. The British were another valuable source of information. The White House found itself remarkably cut out of the loop.
[Adviser to Bremer] Dan Senor tells us: "We fed everything to the DoD [Department of Defense]. Everything went to my boss, Don Rumsfeld. If he didn't pass it around, take it up with Rumsfeld. Not my responsibility, right?"
Maybe all of that was sent to the Pentagon, but Bremer also saw himself as working for the president, not Don Rumsfeld. There are a lot of things that they never vetted with Rumsfeld. When Bremer decided he was going to have a seven-step plan to sovereignty that was going to involve the Iraqis having to write a constitution and ratify it before they could hold elections, the first [time] most of these principals saw that was on the pages of The Washington Post written by Bremer that spelled all of this stuff out.
In many ways, he acted as if he was a viceroy in the 19th century, when it would take two weeks for communiqués to be sent back to the home country by ship.
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 having back-channel communications with Colin Powell or [Powell's Deputy Secretary of State] Richard Armitage or somebody else.
Zalmay Khalilzad is a great example. Khalilzad probably knew more about the Iraqi exile groups and politics than anybody else. When Bremer took over, he pushed Khalilzad out because he didn't want somebody else to be involved in the relationship, either with the Iraqi leaders or back with the White House. It deprived him of an incredibly valuable source of information. Khalilzad, who is now the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is recognized for his knowledge and skill, but Bremer saw him as a threat.
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.
... [When Bremer arrives on May 12, 2003], the looting was over, and the insurgency was in its earliest stages?
Right. It was still fairly quiet, so that you could travel around. I remember I'd jump in the car, and you want to drive out to Ramadi, down south to Basra, up to Tikrit, no problem. Didn't need to take armor and didn't need to take a bodyguard. ... When you told them you were an American journalist, it was embraced. People wanted to tell their story. They were happy to be liberated.
De-Baathification. Bremer literally pulls out of his briefcase this de-Baathification idea -- typed up in Washington and brought to Baghdad. We've heard lots of stories about what happens when he shows it to people --
When Garner hears about de-Baathification that Bremer's going to issue, he thinks, "Oh, no, this is a disaster," and he grabs the CIA station chief and brings him with him into Bremer's office. Garner and the station chief both argue for the order not to be issued, the station chief saying: "This is going to drive tens of thousands of Baathists underground by nightfall. Don't do it." Bremer says to them, "It's not open for discussion."
And the impact? Was it what the CIA station chief said would happen?
The immediate impact wasn't that severe. It wasn't like overnight you detected a change. ... But guys who would come to work after the war and tried to make things work, particularly in the Health Ministry or with electricity and public services and the Ministry of Industry, a lot of these people were told, effectively, to go home.
Even more significant than that, what it meant was that people like Ambassador [Robin] Raphel and the other CPA senior advisers now were going to be forced to spend weeks and months vetting all the senior people in the ministry. While they should have been out trying to figure out how to get things running again, they were distracted and diverted into this whole process of background checks. It was just an incredible waste of time.
The process of driving people underground, I think, happened gradually, but it did happen. You had a lot of people who knew that they'd never have a future in that Iraq. Some of them who had money fled the country, and others said, "Look, if this is the way this new government is going to turn out, I'd better oppose it." It turned people into enemies.
What about disbanding the military?
Disbanding the military did have a more immediate impact. It didn't take long for thousands of people [to begin] marching on the streets of Baghdad, demanding that they get severance payments or at least stipends. They wanted their jobs back. They were being told now: "Forget about it. You have no employment." Some of them vowed that they would fight the Americans if they weren't given their jobs back, if they weren't treated with some degree of dignity.
And Bremer, how did he take it when he sees the marchers?
He doesn't see any of that. He's in the palace. In some cases, they sent out one of his aides to talk to the people or to bring a few representatives of the group inside to have a discussion. But he doesn't see any of that stuff.
Life in the Green Zone is thoroughly disconnected from the reality around. Outside, Iraq was in a fair degree of postwar chaos. There wasn't much electricity. There was rampant crime on the streets, traffic jams. Nobody was working. It was just kind of anarchy.
Inside the Green Zone, it was like a different planet inside those 17-foot-high walls. We're in the middle of a Muslim country, right? Muslims don't eat pork. What do they serve at the CPA dining hall for breakfast? Pork bacon. Hotdogs for lunch. They had six or seven bars in the Green Zone where you could get cold beer and wine. There was a disco at the al-Rashid Hotel where girls -- and I kid you not -- would pack hot pants and four-inch heels when they came to Baghdad so they could be out dancing atop an illuminated Baath Party star.
Halliburton brought in dozens of brand-new GMC Suburbans, which people drove around past the 35-mile-an-hour speed limit. Every two weeks, Halliburton would wash your car for you. They have dry-cleaning service. They had their own radio station, 107.7 FM, Freedom Radio. They played classic rock and rah-rah messages.
If you didn't have a car, there was a shuttle bus that would loop around in regular intervals to pick you up from wooden bus shelters. It felt a little like Disneyland when you walked in. You take the little tram in, and all of a sudden, you're in this whole different world.
When you got inside that palace -- unlike any other building in Iraq, it was chilled to a crisp 68 degrees -- you had earnest young Americans who were determined to come fix Iraq. Now mind you, they didn't get out and about that much, but they knew what Iraq needed.
The Iraqis they interfaced with were Iraqis who were either their translators or Iraqis who felt comfortable enough to go through three separate security checks to come into the palace to talk to them. Oftentimes it was Iraqis who wanted to get a contract, who wanted some favorable treatment, who knew that ultimately the Americans were going to devolve some power to the Iraqis, so told their American counterparts what they wanted to hear so they would be seen as trusted partners. And many of the Americans sort of naively said, "This policy must be just fine, because my Iraqis working for me seem to think it's OK."
I would sometimes go into the Green Zone after a particularly rough day outside, because it was a place you could go in and sort of feel happy. You'd come out after an hour or two feeling like: "Wow, this is going to work. These guys have a plan. It's great." It was sort of like taking a happy pill. And then you'd go out, and the real Iraq would confront you.
Problem was, a lot of those people never got out and confronted the real Iraq. They began to come to believe all of their prescriptions for the country were the right medicine.
When you talk about the life in the Green Zone, one of the things that interested me was your phrase, the "brat pack." What did you mean?
It was a bunch of young kids -- had no experience managing finances -- who were given the task of running Iraq's budget. It turned out that this group of kids who had come over together couldn't quite figure out why they'd been chosen. They finally discovered that what had tied them together was that they had all applied for jobs at the Heritage Foundation, this conservative think tank in Washington.
What happened was that the hiring was done by the White House liaison to the Pentagon, an office of the Pentagon political appointee. This office served as the gatekeeper. Instead of casting out widely for people with knowledge of Arabic, knowledge of the Middle East, knowledge of post-conflict reconstruction, they went after the political loyalists and canvassed the offices of Republic congressmen, conservative think tanks and other places where they knew they would find people who would be unfailingly loyal to the president and to the president's mission in Iraq. ...
The hiring process involved questions that would have landed a private-sector employer in jail. They asked people what their views on Roe v. Wade were, whether they believed in capital punishment. A man of Middle Eastern descent was asked whether he was Muslim or Christian. People were asked who they voted for for president. ...
Bremer, after some months in Iraq, realized he needed more people to help, and as a former guy from the private sector, he had a pragmatic streak in him, and he dispatched one of his deputies back to Washington to scour the country and get some of the best people sent over to Baghdad.
This deputy, who was a former Goldman Sachs banker, did what anybody in the private sector might do. He contacted a couple of his friends who work for large executive headhunting firms, and he asked them to come to the Pentagon and help identify promising candidates to go to Baghdad.
When the White House [liaison] office to the Pentagon found out about this, they freaked, and they ordered those guys to pack up and leave that same day. Bremer's deputy interceded and managed to keep the headhunters around, but their jobs were relegated to sort of vetting people's résumés. The actual decisions of who's going to be brought in, that all rested with the White House and the White House's people at the Pentagon, and with people like Paul Wolfowitz and Don Rumsfeld. They were able to tap people.
So you wind up getting people like John Agresto to go run Iraq's higher education system instead of getting somebody who had, let's say, run a very large public university system. He was a former president of a small college in Santa Fe, N.M., with 500 students. But he had connections. He served on the National Endowment for the Humanities with Lynne Cheney; Joyce Rumsfeld sat on his board of directors at St. John's College.
For [Iraq's] primary and secondary education, [they] brought in a guy from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a very conservative think tank, who had written extensively on the need for school vouchers. This is not a guy who has any experience in rebuilding school systems in the Middle East.
We've talked about Jim Haveman, the guy from Michigan who had very little experience in public health, being brought over to rebuild Iraq's health care system. And the list goes on -- a bunch of political appointees with very little practical experience.
And the ratio of girls to boys, men to women?
Overwhelmingly skewed toward men -- something like 10-1 men to women. ... The environment in the Green Zone really did verge, in many cases, on rampant sexual harassment. ...
What about the civil/military working relationship?
Civil/military relationships were a disaster. Iraq was supposed to be the case where they got it right. After the Balkans, after Somalia, after Haiti, they were supposed to sort of work it out in Iraq. It couldn't have been worse than Iraq -- everything from the top on down.
Bremer and [Commander of U.S. forces in Iraq] Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez hated each other. They barely talked. Their interactions were stiff, awkward, and that sort of filtered all the way down.
The civilians at the CPA, including many of these young 20-something Republican loyalists who came, regarded the soldiers as their errand boys -- their drivers, their couriers, their coffee fetchers. We're talking people who were soldiers in their 40s and people who were majors and colonels being forced to work for these young kids and being very disrespected.
And the soldiers -- and I don't mean to cast this as very black and white -- a lot of the folks in the military, they were out and about. They saw what things were like on the ground, and they skewed more toward pragmatic solutions. They didn't believe in the neoconservative pie-in-the-sky approach to things, and as a result, they were branded as defeatists, as unwilling to work on the president's experiment or the president's mission to democratize Iraq. It was just real schism there.
The summer of '03, August. First the Jordanian Embassy goes; then the U.N. mission goes; five mosques in Najaf, the Shiite holy city --
Najaf, Hakim is killed. [Editor's Note: The revered Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim was killed in a car bombing in August 2003 outside the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.] The Red Cross is hit. ... The insurgency kicked off. It was months in the making, but it began. It was very clear to us who lived outside the Green Zone that things were taking a terrible turn for the worse and Iraq was sliding down the slope. Security was getting worse; Iraqis were becoming more fearful. You could tell that the situation would significantly change.
But inside the palace, they were still cut off from reality. They were unwilling in those first few months to acknowledge that there had been a palpable change. These were seen as one-off-type incidents by a handful of bitter enders who were unwilling to use the word "insurgency."
After the attacks in August, the way we hear the story, Rumsfeld's finger is in Sanchez's chest: "I need actionable intelligence. I need information. I need something." And Sanchez begins the big sweeps, the wrap-ups of detainees that take them all to Abu Ghraib.
It winds up turning a lot of Sunnis who were sort of ambivalent about the American presence into mortal enemies. When you wind up having your uncle or brother or brother-in-law summarily dragged off to Abu Ghraib with a hood over his head and his hands bound with plastic zip ties, you wind up turning people into blood enemies.
Is this the moment that it's too late? Is it too late by August?
... Yes, it's too late by that late summer of '03. You have Sanchez on the ground rounding up scores and scores of Iraqis, many of whom had done nothing wrong, in this quest for intelligence, which turns out to be an utter failure.
On the other hand, you have Bremer and his crew putting forth a political plan that effectively calls for the Americans to be there for 18 months to two years. Write your constitution, ratify your constitution, hold your elections before we will deign to give you sovereignty. ... "We're going to run your country for the foreseeable future. You're not really going to have much to say." They both go down incredibly badly with the people. It winds up taking lots of people who are in that ambivalent middle and pushing them toward the "I hate Americans" category.
Blackwill was an old friend of the Bush family. He was in Father Bush's National Security Council, and at the time he had a very talented young Stanford professor working for him named Condoleezza Rice. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he wound up being tapped to be one of Rice's foreign policy advisers. But he's known as a fairly imperious, tough guy to work with.
But in the summer of 2003, Blackwill came back to Washington to be the policy director at the National Security Council, working for Dr. Rice. While Rice was on vacation, he immersed himself in everything he could find about Iraq. One of the things on his agenda was to get a better handle on what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He read whatever cables he could find. He discovered there weren't that many, that Bremer's shop really wasn't sending a whole lot back to Washington. He read CIA reports and other classified briefing documents, and he came pretty quickly to conclude that Bremer's seven-step plan to transfer Iraqi sovereignty was untenable, because it likely would happen after the 2004 president election.
He went and convinced Condi, "Look, Bremer's planning won't work." Condi, who had a lot of respect for Blackwill, came to the same conclusion. Then she checked in with Colin Powell, who had recently been off to Baghdad. Powell was coming to the same view. He thought that Bremer's plan was unworkable. Condi also checked at the Pentagon, and it turned out that Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld were also concerned about Bremer's plan. They didn't want to continue on an occupation for 15 months to two years.
Condi then convinced the president that Bremer would need to be put on a shorter leash, and the White House needed to create its own apparatus to oversee what was happening in Iraq. That led to the creation of an entity called the Iraq Stabilization Group, which is just a fancy name for putting Condi Rice in charge and making Bremer report to her, and giving Bob Blackwill a much greater role in shaping Iraq policy.
To what extent is big-power politics, with a capital "P," in this administration being played out, and Jerry Bremer is the prize?
Well, they are. But what gives Condi the opening is that Don Rumsfeld, who was supposed to be managing Bremer, wasn't really managing Bremer. Bremer was off coming up with his seven-step plan and doing his things, and none of this was getting back to the president or to Rice. So they felt Rumsfeld really was not paying enough attention to Bremer.
Condi argued that Rumsfeld is more focused on the military side of things and less on the actual side of governance and reconstruction in Iraq. She made the argument that "Look, this side of things really needs to be handled by the White House." It was something that Rice should have done months earlier. This was a mission that was so important, so vital, so complex, that it should have been coordinated through the White House from the get-go.
Why wasn't it?
It wasn't, because that's the way this administration works. They push it as far down as it can go, and it was something that Rumsfeld indicated, "Look, I'm taking charge of that." Early on, it was difficult for Rice to sort of stand up to Rumsfeld. It wasn't until Rumsfeld demonstrated an inability to manage Bremer that provided Rice with the opening to go in....
... [So] it becomes very clear to Bremer that Washington has changed its mind about his plan. And it's really amazing. Bremer comes on a trip back to Washington in September, and at that point, he's treated like a hero. He's testifying in Congress for the supplemental appropriations bill for the $18 billion to reconstruct Iraq. Nobody's really questioning him.
His next trip back a few weeks later is not so nice. Rice and Blackwill and others make it very clear to him that they don't think his plan is viable. ...
And the reason that's a bad idea is because something is looming in the fall of '04.
There is an election in the United States. The White House really wants to be out of Iraq by then. They figure, hand over sovereignty, draw down troop numbers. They figure they could be at 50,000 troops by that point or so.
... When it's all made clear to the president, it becomes very clear that this ain't going to work. That's not what his advisers want. They don't want to do the business of still occupying Iraq while going to the polls in November of 2004.
You see Bremer -- I think it was the night of the supplemental appropriations bill being signed; he leans back and says something. What is it?
He leans back, shirtsleeves rolled up, and tells them, "Get ready for a big change." He's talking at that point not about a rapid transfer of sovereignty; he's talking about an infusion of billions of American taxpayer dollars to build new power plants, new roads, new water treatment plants. He's ready to build that shining city on a hill.
He's thinking he's doing what the president wants. ... It was to build a country that has a democratic system of government, a well-functioning capitalist economy. Let's get rid of the ossified socialist system that Saddam had in here; let's get private investment; let's revise Iraq's laws for WTO [World Trade Organization] ascension. This was all part and parcel of the grand vision to really create a very ambitious new Iraq. At that point, Bremer really thought these billions would come in and would make a change.
Tell me a bit about the impact of Ayatollah [Ali al-]Sistani and what happens in October and early November.
You have to go back to June 2003. Sistani issues the fatwa saying that the constitution needs to be written by Iraqis in an elected process....
Bremer's plan calls for an appointed group of Iraqis to write the constitution, perhaps appointed by Bremer's government folks. Well, that contradicts Sistani's fatwa. Bremer thinks that he can just get away with this.
In the early months, Sistani was seen by people inside the palace as just another old man with a turban, and Bremer felt that he'd be able to convince the members of the Governing Council to just disregard Sistani and push ahead with this plan. What becomes clear by the fall of 2003 is that the Governing Council does not want to cross Sistani, particularly the Shiite members. It's like telling a bunch of devout Catholics, "Disregard the pope."
So Bremer can't get his Governing Council onboard to do his bidding. That's where it all comes crashing down. And Sistani shows himself to be far more influential and powerful than Bremer.
And even Rice and others begin to recognize --
"Oh my God, we completely underestimated this man. We thought we didn't need to listen to him. We thought we could work around him." But it becomes very clear that they have to work with Sistani, or at least they have to abide by his views. The whole redrawing of the political transition plan is based on an attempt to deal with Sistani's objections.
And Blackwill around this time, what is he doing? He's just putting Bremer's feet to the fire?
And ensuring that Bremer's ambition and Bremer's end goals match up with the president's, because at that point, Bremer, though he is a loyal Republican and a supporter of the president, Bremer's incentive is to create the best Iraqi policy. The time window is less important. Blackwill, however, brings the Washington [view]: All this has to be done in a certain window.
There is a moment when Blackwill goes to Iraq, and he brings his own communication staff because he is so distrustful of the CPA.
Because it's not just Bremer, but Bremer's aides. They're so intensely loyal to Bremer, they see that Blackwill was kind of coming to usurp some authority, so they're not always so keen to play along with Blackwill. And Blackwill's hectoring them, saying: "I want to see everything you've written. I want these cables, documents." When he returns back in January of 2004 to continue working on the political process, he brings his own secure communications team with him from Washington to transmit messages back directly to Condi Rice.
The president comes at Thanksgiving. What is it about that trip that means anything to you?
It was so dangerous. The president had to come in on a blackened Air Force One, spent a few hours there and left in total secrecy and couldn't go into downtown Baghdad, couldn't come into the Green Zone. It told me just how dangerous it was. If Iraq was the safe place that he was maintaining, why not get out and meet some ordinary Iraqis? Why not at least come to the Green Zone? It's way too dangerous.
Talk about the Nov. 15 agreement and how that was handled.
On Nov. 15, [Bremer] has finally agreed to this early handover of sovereignty by June of 2004. He's got what he thinks is a great deal for the Iraqis, and he delivers this news to the Governing Council and tells them that the new government will be selected by a system of regional caucuses.
But there's some members who have some concerns about that and how those members will be chosen. Instead of working through those concerns, he's insistent that it be announced right away. He pushed it through instead of allowing the Iraqis to discuss this, to come to consensus. He essentially threatens them. He says that "If you don't agree to this, I'm going to go ahead and tell the media that I've offered you sovereignty and you've been unwilling to accept it." They were aghast: Never has Bremer threatened them.
Well, they finally capitulate and agree with some dissenters. Well, one of the dissenters goes right down to Ayatollah Sistani and says, "Look, this is what we've done." And Sistani issues a fatwa shortly thereafter -- yet another -- that torpedoes that process.
After these caucuses that would select this interim government, that's dead as well. They finally have to go on bended knee to the U.N. and get the U.N. to send an envoy to help select the new government. It's gone from having elections to having at least caucuses to now just sort of having to throw up our hands and say, "Bring the U.N. in." It never had to be that way, but Bremer misplayed his hand on Nov. 15.
Then on Nov. 16, he meets with his senior staff and tells them: "Look, now the new imperative is hand over authority to the Iraqis. Let's build sustainability among the Iraqis. Let us transition over control of things as quickly as possible to them." The grand enterprise of fashioning this shining city on a hill, the Health Ministry that will be totally modern and fixing up all of the schools, rewriting all of the laws, all that comes crashing to a halt. Now do whatever you have to to be able to get out in time.
The problem is it's such an abrupt shift, and it comes at a time when billions of dollars are starting to come in from the supplemental appropriations bill. It had become sort of chaotic. There's no real good plan for what gets done and what doesn't. Again, it's a shift in agenda without a real blueprint for what you're going to do.
And the response from the idealists who surround him, the true believers who went to Iraq to help --
They were bitterly disappointed. These were people who thought that they were going to build something special and build something from scratch and create this sort of utopia there. Then they're told: "Look, that's not the plan anymore. It's to patch this up as best as we can and get out of here in seven months." He had a lot of really depressed people.
Bremer kept a very brave face. The core of Bremer's political transition plan, his economic reconstruction plan, all of that was gutted. He pursued the drafting of an interim constitution and other sorts of things that he wanted to see happen, but it was the death of his grand agenda.
Let's go to Fallujah and Sadr City. Tell me about Bremer's role in those two events.
Bremer was very involved in the confrontation with [radical Shiite cleric] Moqtada al-Sadr. It was he who ordered the shutdown of Sadr's newspaper and moved toward a confrontation with Sadr. Bremer wanted Sadr put out of business months earlier. Thought he was a troublemaker, which he is. But Bremer couldn't get the military to agree.
[CENTCOM Commander] Gen. [John] Abizaid, Gen. Sanchez and others, they didn't want to confront Sadr, because they just didn't want to deal with another problem. They had their hands full with the Sunni insurgency. Why spark a rebellion among thousands of disaffected, well-armed, young Shiite then? They didn't want a two-front situation, so they kept fobbing Bremer off.
Finally, by March of 2004, Bremer was seeing the handover of sovereignty not far away. He felt he had to deal with the militia threat if Iraq was going to have any hope of stability. He started to turn the pressure up on Sadr, but he did it without any coordination with the military, without a military plan to deal with Sadr's followers if they chose to rise up.
This was a profound miscalculation and wound up resulting in an all-out Sadr rebellion without the military prepared to deal with it. It resulted in weeks upon weeks of urban combat and ground fighting that was in many ways more treacherous and careless than anything the Americans had encountered in their original march to Baghdad.
Fallujah was an unfortunate incident that then mushroomed into something much worse. Four security contractors are killed, their bodies dismembered and burned and hung from the bridge. That was a case where the White House wanted the Marines to go in and kick some ass. They wanted them to find the killers, but also deal with this town that was a big thorn in the side of the U.S. military and the overall American presence there.
The Marines in Fallujah didn't want to go in. At the time, they felt that they had a plan to deal with the city and an approach that they could take to apprehend the killers, or at least get them handed over to the Americans. And so when the orders came down from Rumsfeld to Sanchez, down to Gen. [James] Conway, the Marine commander, the Marines weren't happy. But when they're told to do something, they do it.
Then, when the Marines got halfway into town and felt that they were a couple of days away from actually taking control of the whole city, the television images of the carnage in Fallujah; all the Iraqis protesting what was happening there; protests coming from members of the Governing Council, particularly Sunni members of the Governing Council; [protests] from [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair and also from Lakhdar Brahimi, who was then the U.N. envoy who was, in some ways, threatening to pull out of the process -- this really alarmed Blackwill and others. They felt, "Fallujah's not worth it; ... the June 30 handover of sovereignty is in jeopardy."
So Washington changes its mind again, ... tells the Marines, "Cease and desist." The Marines were thoroughly angry about this. ...
It was, again, a thorough miscalculation. ... Had they bothered to think about what the political implications of this were from the get-go, they probably shouldn't have gone in, shouldn't have done it the way they did. But it wasn't thought through.
It sounds like the country is literally slipping off the edge by now. It's at that moment that Paul Bremer decides to leave the country. Take me inside the meeting where sovereignty is passed on in sort of five minutes.
There's no grand handover ceremony. There's no band; there's no throng of people in a stadium, no live announcement that's televised across the country. And it's not done on the day it's promised; it's done two days earlier, because they were worried about attacks.
A handful of journalists are ushered into the office of Ayad Allawi, who is the presumptive interim prime minister. Bremer comes in, reads from a document in a leather-bound portfolio, saying, "You are now ready for sovereignty," hands over the document, some handshakes, some smiles, a few brief comments by the Iraqis, and then within an hour or two, Bremer's helicoptering out of the Green Zone. Then he goes to the airport and flies back home.
It was a thoroughly anticlimactic moment, and it was done in secrecy. It wasn't until an hour later that people caught wind of it. It was done with the same kind of haste and kind of slapdashness that we brought to the entire occupation in many ways. It was yet another metaphor for this half-baked effort at rebuilding Iraq and transforming it into a democracy.
Can you talk a bit about Bremer's reluctance regarding holding elections? What was that all about?
It was about bringing democracy Bremer's way. In Bremer's view, you didn't have elections right away because early elections would allow extremists or Baathists to win. His message was, "Yes, you will have a democracy, but you will do it on my agenda."
There were a lot of people, Iraqis and Americans, who thought this was a little crazy. Why not hold elections at a local level? Why not allow Iraqis to elect a city council? In fact, in some parts of the country, local military commanders wanted to do something. In Najaf, the Shiite holy city, a Marine commander was ready to hold elections for a city council and was expressly prohibited from doing so by Bremer's office, because "Elections are good when they happen when we want them to, but we don't want spontaneous elections. We don't want the election of Iraqis who might not support the grand CPA vision for Iraq."
He kind of wanted his cake and wanted to eat it, too, and wanted to have it really both ways -- lots of big talk about elections, but also a very managed process.
Bremer's relationship with Chalabi?
Very frosty. He and Chalabi couldn't abide by each other. It all goes back to Bremer's arrival in Baghdad when Bremer met with the group of exiles, including Chalabi and Ayad Allawi and Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani and others -- the same group that Garner was dealing with. When Bremer came in, these exiles thought: "Hmm, all right. When are we getting the keys to the country? Garner set this process in motion."
Bremer stops them: "You don't represent the country. ... If you want to expand your ranks and bring in women and internals, people who never went into exile, then maybe I'll think about devolving some authority to you." But they were all bickering too much and couldn't get their act together to do it, so he said, "I'm not going to deal with that."
He did eventually bring them all onto the Governing Council, because he knew he had to. Each of them commanded constituencies -- or at least had patrons back in Washington, in the case of Ahmad Chalabi. But he and Chalabi just couldn't stand each other. Chalabi saw Bremer as somebody coming in to seize power that should have been his, and Bremer saw Chalabi as a guy who thought that he had a God-given right to power and really had very little public support.
In a way, Bremer must have been a slightly fearless character, because that could not have gone down well with Doug Feith.
Exactly. And this is where you see Bremer becoming his own man. Yes, he did the de-Baathification order and things that the neocons back in Washington wanted to, but when he separated himself from Chalabi and the exiles, this was Bremer staking out his own ground and saying, "Look, I have my own plan, and my plan does not involve you guys in the same sort of way." It did constitute a break with some people back here in Washington, and for a while, it sort of endeared Bremer to people at the State Department.
What eventually became clear was that Bremer was his own guy. He had his own vision for it. Bremer felt like he was operating with the authority of the president. And I do think that back at that time that the president probably made it very clear to him that: "Look, just handing the keys over to Chalabi isn't going to look very democratic. We need to put in place some democratic institutions here and to have a transition that looks like we are engaging in a broad, consultative process."
So Bremer was operating with the authority and following the desires of the president, but not necessarily what some of the people in the president's own administration wanted.
On Jan. 18, 2004, there is a massive explosion at the gate of the Green Zone. We've had the August bombing; we've had October, the al-Rashid. Now it actually is at the gate of the "Emerald City." Tell me what it means.
You have an explosion there that winds up killing a number of people -- Iraqis who work for the CPA. There are translators, drivers, other support personnel. All of a sudden it puts a very human perspective on the violence. Prior to that, a lot of the Iraqis getting killed were sort of nameless, faceless Iraqis for people inside the Emerald City. Now Iraqis that the Americans knew were dead, and it hit home in a way that the other violence hadn't.
And they already know they are lame ducks. They've got to go. Their grand plan isn't working. Six months and they are gone. This must have been --
It was very demoralizing. You've got a lot of people who showed up there who took great risks. They put their lives on hold for six or nine months. They left their jobs. They came out to Iraq because some of them believed naively in this broader mission to remake Iraq.
Then we get there, and it all comes crashing down around them. Incredibly depressing. We had a lot people that just wound up starting to drink heavily or stopped working the same long hours they had been accustomed to, loitering by the pool and the al-Rashid disco, because it was just too depressing to be at work, and they felt like they weren't really accomplishing anything.
It was sort of a Sisyphean task. They would show up, come up with some policies, promulgate it among the Iraqis and sort of vaporize -- like, "Do we want to go back and do this again?" They just felt like they weren't making much headway. Waves of depression went through the Green Zone. Visits to the Combat Stress Clinic, the shrinks in the Emerald City, increased.
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