Reviewed by George Packer
Sunday, January 22, 2006
MY YEAR IN IRAQ
The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope
By L. Paul Bremer III with Malcolm McConnell
Simon & Schuster. 417 pp. $27
On the desk of his cavernous and bare office at the Republican Palace in Baghdad, from which he governed Iraq in 2003-04, L. Paul Bremer III kept a carved wooden maxim: "Success Has a Thousand Fathers." It told visitors that the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was a can-do leader who would shun grandiose gestures while demanding relentless results from his Anglo-American staff and the Iraqi politicians who were his negotiating partners and resentful underlings. Bremer is not a man given to sustained reflection or self-scrutiny. His new memoir, apparently drawn from late-night e-mails to his wife, Francie, back in Washington, is a day-to-day account of Bremer's 14 months in Baghdad -- in a job of impossible demands, during a period of nonstop crisis, in which he seldom had the luxury to look more than a few days ahead and never back. But even now, with retrospection and 400 pages at his disposal, Bremer seems uninterested in, and perhaps incapable of, thinking it all over. My Year in Iraq (the title feels like an afterthought) will not survive alongside the diplomatic memoirs of George F. Kennan, Dean Acheson and Richard Holbrooke, as either literature or history. Rushed, self-confident and essentially superficial, the book is of a piece with the war that produced it.
Bremer had barely two weeks to prepare himself to run Iraq. He arrived in Baghdad in May 2003 to find a country nearly destroyed by Saddam Hussein and the looting that followed his fall, and a staff that was already demoralized. To his credit, Bremer immediately and instinctively did what the Bush administration and the U.S. military had failed to do: He assumed responsibility for the place. The best that can be said of Bremer -- and it can't be said of many of this war's leading figures -- is that he took Iraq seriously. At the first meeting, he writes, he urged his staff "to become more decisive, to focus on practical solutions, and not indulge in pessimistic rambling. . . . I might not have won a popularity contest, but as my kids had suggested, my desert boots had encouraged me to start kicking some butt." With everything collapsing around him, Bremer fell back on managerial willfulness, almost as if action alone would carry him and Iraq through the calamity. He hit the ground running and set in motion a whirlwind of policies and plans.
If he ever paused in those early days to ask himself what a retired U.S. official with limited overseas experience, none of it in the relevant region, should learn and know in order to succeed, or on what basis he should even try, his memoir shows no sign of it. The daunting strangeness of what he signed up to do never seemed to weigh on him; it's as if Bremer had just been waiting for a call to go run an occupied and war-torn Muslim country for a year or so. His great strength -- his decisiveness, which was essential in the post-invasion vacuum -- was also his chronic failing. Within days of his arrival, he took three actions that would have the most far-reaching consequences for the American project in Iraq: He barred high-level Baathists from government work, he dissolved the Iraqi army, and he halted the creation of an interim government for the foreseeable future, placing much more authority in his own hands than most Bush administration officials ever anticipated. The first two policies, we learn from this memoir, were formed in conjunction with officials in Washington, mainly civilians at the Pentagon. The third was Bremer's own decision. He suggests that he had the backing of the White House, but the evidence presented for that is rather thin. Vice President Cheney is barely present in Bremer's book, and President Bush seems more a figurehead given to assertions of resolve than a man immersed in the details of his most important undertaking.
Bremer's account of these decisions is largely an exercise in self-justification. He records the praise of Shiite and Kurdish leaders for de-Baathification and the dismantling of the army, but he doesn't even consider the powerful case against these policies, made not just by critics of the war but by some of his own officials: that they helped to fuel the insurgency. Bremer's tenure was fraught with Hobson's choices and terrible dilemmas, all of them revolving around the basic conflict between control and legitimacy. A more reflective writer would have taken a long historical step back and at least asked himself whether the CPA was a necessary entity -- whether it did more harm than good. The creation of a heavy-handed and nearly all-powerful occupation authority, headquartered and isolated in Baghdad's Green Zone, was an understandable response to chaos and the abject failure of a whole society. But Bremer's Authority also made mistake after mistake while presiding over Iraq's descent into unimagined violence.
Should authority have been turned over to Iraqis, mostly exiles, at the start? Could they have done any better? Not judging by Bremer's account of the incessant infighting of the Governing Council established in July 2003. But it's not a question Bremer paused to ask, then or now.
About some things, Bremer was more far-sighted and right than anyone in Washington. He knew early on that the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and his thuggish followers would establish a reign of terror in the Shiite south if they weren't checked by force early on; it was Washington, especially the Pentagon, that kept losing its nerve whenever the moment to act arrived. Bremer understood the importance of the interim constitution known as the Transitional Administrative Law (written during the occupation by American and Iraqi officials) in setting up a political framework for Iraq after CPA rule, and that document was, ironically, his most permanent and hard-won achievement. According to My Year in Iraq , he also worried early on that there were not enough U.S. troops in Iraq and tried several times to get the point through to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the president, without success. Still, it's hard to grant Bremer much credit for this insight: Instead of saying publicly that the troop levels were inadequate, he always parroted an administration line that he knew to be wrong. With American and Iraqi lives at stake, with the whole enterprise in peril, this kind of loyalty was a hollow virtue.
Bremer's brisk, diaristic style passes silently over or puts a gloss of euphemism on some of the chronic problems of his rule. In the memoir, he and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, are in broad, if laconic, agreement about the major issues. In reality, they despised each other and were barely on speaking terms; each felt that the other held authority that rightfully belonged to himself. Bremer resisted almost any encroachment on his decision-making power, whether from the United Nations, military leaders or the president's adviser on Iraq, Robert D. Blackwill. A number of administration officials felt that Bremer's Authority had become a foreign country, unaccountable to anyone in Washington, and there were fitful efforts by headquarters to rein in the field commander. None of these struggles comes in for any analysis or acknowledgment in My Year in Iraq .
Bremer does have two antagonists in this book. One of them, Donald Rumsfeld, grew impatient with the U.S. presence in Iraq as soon as the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad fell, and never wanted to commit his military to see it through; he will be judged by history to have done as much as any individual to doom the effort. The other is more surprising: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the politically omnipotent Shiite cleric. From the start, Bremer failed to see what a formidable figure Sistani was -- that nothing truly important could be done by the CPA without his consent. Instead, Bremer decided early on that an unelected holy man was not going to tell him how to run Iraq; Sistani's stubbornness and hard bargains filled Bremer with impatience and a trace of condescension. In the year-long contest of wills between these two men, Bremer's limitations are on full display. He was a hard-charging executive who simply didn't have the suppleness and skill to understand whom he was up against and how to deal with him. This struggle between two vastly different men would have made for the richest pages of a more inspired, self-critical memoir; in My Year in Iraq , it is an irritant with which the author never really comes to terms.
As I write this in Baghdad, the lights are out across the city, and the Black Hawk helicopters rumble overhead. The sense of possibility in Bremer's subtitle has been largely extinguished, at least for now; a year and a half after his departure, the city smells of fear. Bremer threw himself, with great discipline and devotion, into the project of guiding Iraq out of its collapse. There is a tragedy in his story that someone else will have to write, for Bremer's failings as a man and writer are also America's failure in Iraq. And it remains an orphan. ·
George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is the author of "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq."