The Realities Of Trying to Rebuild Iraq

By Dan Senor
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A recent excerpt from a new book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Post paints a highly distorted portrait of the postwar administration of Iraq. Given that the article has prompted some senators to call for a government investigation into the hiring practices of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), it's important to correct the record.

Chandrasekaran's thesis is that young and inexperienced neoconservative political hacks and Bush loyalists ran and ruined the occupation of Iraq. In pinning the shortcomings of the reconstruction effort on the mishaps of a handful of low-level political appointees, he virtually ignores the fact that the senior tiers of the CPA were populated with a bipartisan and generally nonpolitical corps of experts.

His book makes no mention, for example, of Richard Jones, who was the CPA's chief of policy and Ambassador Paul Bremer's top deputy. A career diplomat, Jones had served as President Bill Clinton's ambassador to Lebanon and Kazakhstan, and he was ambassador to Kuwait when he relocated to Baghdad. He was at the center of practically every decision and every meeting about the Iraqi political process from the moment he arrived. Indeed, during the first major crisis in Fallujah, Jones was the CPA's lead negotiator with the city's Sunni leadership, as was reported widely.

Nor does Chandrasekaran discuss Ryan Crocker, a striking omission since Chandrasekaran once described Crocker as Bremer's "top political aide" [news story, July 13, 2003]. Crocker, the senior State Department official with responsibility for Iraq before the war, led the CPA's political reconstruction team. A fluent Arabic speaker widely regarded as among the State Department's most distinguished Arabists, Crocker had served as ambassador to Syria and Kuwait under Clinton. He is a consummate professional diplomat, neither inexperienced nor an ideologue. And he was extraordinarily influential in the early months of the occupation; along with Bremer and senior British envoy John Sawers (another Middle East expert, who had come to the CPA from his post as ambassador to Egypt), Crocker played the most influential role in selecting the Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003. But reading Chandrasekaran's book, you would be left with the impression that Crocker had nothing to with Iraq -- he does not even get a mention.

Chandrasekaran ignores countless other CPA leaders who also fail to substantiate his one-sided thesis, including Gen. Keith Kellogg, the CPA's chief of operations. Kellogg is a retired lieutenant general whose 32-year Army career included two tours in Vietnam and service as the 82nd Airborne Division's chief of staff during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He was succeeded by Vice Adm. Scott Redd, who served as director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Clinton.

David Oliver, the CPA's budget director, does appear in the book. But Chandrasekaran curiously omits any description of Oliver's background. Oliver, a retired Navy rear admiral, had served as a principal deputy undersecretary of defense for Clinton, and by the time he was sent to Baghdad he had already taken a role as a public and financial supporter of one of the Democratic candidates challenging President Bush in 2004. Other prominent Democrats recruited to work in Iraq included former Clinton senior defense official Walt Slocombe and constitutional experts Noah Feldman and Larry Diamond -- both of whom had publicly opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Most of the CPA's senior officials came from the career ranks of the State Department or the military and had served in Republican and Democratic administrations. And whatever the politics of the non-career staff, the majority -- at all levels of the organization -- were dedicated and hardworking and risked their lives to serve.

That said, there is no question that CPA staffers, both senior and junior aides, made mistakes. And there were certainly some positions that were filled by less than perfect matches, as one would expect when a willingness to relocate to a war zone was a key criterion. But a fairer book would have simply critiqued our policy decisions without getting into personal attacks and lopsided analysis.

Speaking of policy, Chandrasekaran argues that the CPA should have listened more to professional civil servants and State Department Arabists. Yet his book concludes that the formal occupation of Iraq was itself America's biggest mistake. Instead of creating the CPA, he argues, the Bush administration should have moved quickly after Saddam Hussein's fall to empower a fully sovereign Iraqi government.

But that is precisely the policy that was vociferously opposed by the State Department's Middle East experts in the months leading up to the war. As Chandrasekaran himself points out earlier in the book, the State Department had, before the invasion, favored an extended occupation, in which the United States would retain power for a long period while gradually organizing elections and facilitating an Iraqi constitutional convention. Indeed, the approach Chandrasekaran now claims to prefer has much more in common with the rapid political transition plan backed by the very Pentagon neoconservatives he disparages throughout his account.

The truth is that both approaches would have been problematic. So, too, was the compromise solution sought by Bremer. But in a country as complicated as Iraq, there were no simple answers at hand. It's unfortunate that instead of acknowledging the depths and ambiguities of the problem, Chandrasekaran chose to shoehorn carefully selected facts into a thesis that often seems all too pat.

The writer, who was based in Baghdad from April 2003 to June 2004, served as a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority.

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