By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006
He was called the Douglas MacArthur of Baghdad, the viceroy of Iraq and even a dictator. But all of his friends call him Jerry.
Nobody who's worked with L. Paul Bremer III would ever call him Paul or Lewis (his actual first name). That much was demonstrated by the adoring crowd that turned out last night to celebrate Bremer's just-published memoir, "My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope."
Laughter, handshaking and shouts of "Jerry!" erupted when the author surprised his fans by striding into the downtown book party wearing a dark suit, a shirt with monogrammed cuffs, and the same signature lace-up desert boots he sported while head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
"I gave him permission just for tonight," said his wife, Francie, who dug the stained beige boots out of the closet for the occasion. Confirmed Bremer: "I can only wear them to CPA reunions. That is the rule."
Then he grabbed an Amstel Light, briskly worked the room with the locked-on gaze of a good politician and started signing books for 150 or so veterans of his time in the Green Zone -- including old diplomatic hands, young political appointees and members of his former security detail.
Bremer's book chronicles his sometimes controversial and dangerous tenure trying to bring stability and democratic ideals to a country he'd never been to before he landed there in May 2003. It ends in June 2004 when the CPA transferred sovereignty to the Iraqis.
Why, it seems like only yesterday that Bremer -- still youthful-looking at 64, with that neat anchorman hair -- was helicoptering around Iraq from crisis to crisis, trying to deal with a crumbling infrastructure, boiling resentments and rising insurgency. A former ambassador for counterterrorism, he was dispatched with the "full blessings" of President Bush, who described him as a "can-do" guy.
Bremer did what he could, working 18 to 20 hours a day, fueled by espresso and the devotion of his staff. As is the memoirist's prerogative, Bremer distances himself from some decisions that didn't quite work out -- notably the dissolution of the Iraqi army -- and plays up positive developments, such as the transition toward a representative government.
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his service, Bremer never criticizes the president for his Iraq policies, of course. He does chide the Pentagon -- namely Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- for failing to heed warnings that a half-million troops were initially needed to secure the peace. (The coalition had 160,000 troops when Bremer arrived.)
In PR materials and interviews, Bremer has said his book lays to rest the "myth" that the coalition disbanded the Iraqi army, arguing "there was no army to disband." But his critics point to efforts by Bremer's predecessors to find and pay former military men willing to help quell rampant lawlessness after Saddam Hussein's fall.
("I had been meeting with Iraqi military officers and had about 137,000 of them signed up to join us in the stabilization of Iraq," said retired Army Col. Paul Hughes, who was among those stunned by Bremer's order terminating the Iraqi military and ending pensions. "We lost the window of opportunity, and it became a window of vulnerability." He wasn't at the book party.)
Naturally, anyone willing to be quoted last night had pretty upbeat things to say about Iraq and Bremer's stewardship there.
"What you see here tonight are ordinary people who went to Iraq to do extraordinary things," said Thomas Basile, former senior press adviser to the occupation authority. "We all had a tough job -- we had to sell this very bold policy in a hostile environment to a media that didn't believe it would work."
How will history remember Bremer's role in the great Iraq adventure?
"The legacy of the CPA at the end of the day is that freedom finds its way," said Basile. "It was a very significant, historic effort that has been largely successful."
Iraq remains far from pacified, but U.S. and civilian casualties, and the ethnic and sectarian feuds, seemed very far away last night in the chic modernistic space -- a Herman Miller commercial furniture showroom -- where the reception was held.
"It's bizarre to see all of these people in a civilized environment. We were in a dust pit together, with rockets and bombs going off, always working late nights," said Qubad Jalal Talabany, who worked in the Green Zone as a liaison from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party. Standing in a line about 100 deep, he had six copies of Bremer's book to be autographed.
"My father is going to be interested in reading it," said Talabany, 28. "I'll get him a signed copy." His father, by the way, is the president of Iraq.
As head of the CPA, Bremer held total sway over the country the United States had conquered and occupied -- "empowered with 'all executive, legislative and judicial functions' in Iraq," as he notes in the book. But Francie Bremer said her husband was stung by the "dictator" label some Iraqis gave him.
She recalled telling him: "Jerry, never has a dictator been so eager to give up power as you have." But getting him to give up the boots was another matter: He even wore them to his daughter's wedding.
"It was kind of hard for him to take them off psychologically," she said.