By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
The last time L. Paul Bremer testified before Congress, he was lauded as an American hero. Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) congratulated Bremer, who was leading the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, for a "tremendous success." Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) commended his "energy and focus." Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) praised his "brilliant analysis."
When Bremer returns to Capitol Hill today to appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he will receive a far less effusive reception than he did in September 2003. The now-ruling Democrats plan to pounce on him for disbanding Iraq's army, firing many members of the Baath Party, hiring GOP loyalists and not fully accounting for the spending of billions of dollars in Iraqi oil revenue.
Fellow Republicans have pointed questions for the first time in public as well.
"Had Bremer made better decisions, we would be in a very different place today," said Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.).
"Some of the key mistakes in Iraq occurred on his watch," said Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.). "I think there will be a tendency among Republicans to look very carefully and say, 'Who is this man . . . who made decisions that we're still paying for today?' "
Two and a half years after he left Baghdad, the steel-haired viceroy who wore combat boots with his navy-blue suits has emerged as an embodiment of reconstruction policy gone awry. The Senate began debate yesterday on a resolution condemning President Bush's troop buildup, and House members will have their sights on Bremer this week as they seek to assign blame for U.S. mistakes in rebuilding Iraq.
While deep divisions remain about Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq, there is near-unanimity among Democrats and Republicans that the United States needs to roll back key political and economic decisions that Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority made.
Bremer has become something of a bipartisan-consensus candidate among those looking for officials to hold responsible for what has occurred in Iraq, eliciting that sort of opprobrium once reserved for Donald H. Rumsfeld, who as defense secretary was a chief architect of the war. For Democrats, Bremer is a particularly juicy target because he, along with retired Gen. Tommy R. Franks and former CIA director George J. Tenet, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bush, who would shower Bremer with praise on his visits to Washington.
For many Republicans, who believe they must acknowledge mistakes if they want to increase public support for continued U.S. military involvement in Iraq, defending Bremer may be too much to ask. Even senior Bush administration officials who were once effusive in their descriptions of Bremer privately point to some of his decisions as key errors.
"With some of the major issues we're dealing with today, the roots of the problem go back to the days when Iraq was under Bremer's control," said Shays.
Some who worked for Bremer in Baghdad contend that he is a scapegoat for Bush administration decisions that were out of his control.
Bremer, they note, raised concerns about the number of troops in Iraq with Bush in the summer of 2003. And, they point out, Bremer wanted to capture Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric and militia leader, in the fall of 2003, when he had far fewer supporters and the backlash would have been much smaller, but U.S. military commanders refused to act on the request.
Indeed, Democrats and Republicans have criticized others who have shaped the U.S. presence in Iraq, chief among them Gen. George W. Casey Jr., whom GOP senators lambasted last week for not trying harder to stem sectarian violence while serving as the overall military commander in Baghdad. Some have questioned whether Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has done enough to push the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to promote reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites. In military and intelligence circles, veteran staffers still seethe over decisions Franks and Tenet made.
But Bremer is unique in this environment of finger-pointing because of his former visibility: For more than a year, he was the symbol of the U.S. occupation. A frequent presence in front of the cameras, Bremer was the only American to have the dictatorial powers of an occupation administrator -- the ability to enact laws with the scribble of his pen, the power to hire and fire Iraqis, the freedom to spend Iraq's oil revenue. The Americans who followed him have all been advisers to a sovereign Iraqi government.
"We spent a lot of money in Iraq with very little to show for it," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "I think it's important to understand, going back to the CPA period, how we got into the position we are in."
Bremer did not respond to repeated requests to comment.
The criticism of Bremer is often indirect, but the implication is clear. When Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the top military commander in Iraq, testified before the Senate last month, he called the occupation authority's "de-Baathification" and dissolution of Iraq's army two of the most "significant mistakes the U.S. has made to date in Iraq." Bremer made both decisions in Baghdad without extensive consultation with the State Department, the National Security Council or other U.S. government agencies.
"Disbanding the Iraqi army . . . without simultaneously announcing a stipend and pension program for those in the Army, the future plan for Iraq's defense forces, and provisions for joining those forces undoubtedly created tens of thousands of former soldiers and officers who were angry, feeling disrespected, and worried about how they would feed their families," Petraeus wrote in a response to questions submitted by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Other less-recognized Bremer policies have also come under scrutiny in recent months, particularly his formation of the Commission on Public Integrity to ferret out government corruption. As with many of the occupation authority's decisions, it targeted a problem of the old Iraq -- the endemic graft and cronyism that existed under Saddam Hussein.
But the result has been far from what the Americans expected: The commission's chairman has mounted so many investigations that Iraqi bureaucrats are afraid to spend government money even on crucial reconstruction projects, according to U.S. government officials. It is one reason the Iraqi government was unable to disburse $10 billion that it had budgeted last year. The Bush administration wants Maliki's government to spend that money on reconstruction this year, but it is still working on ways to mute the unexpected influence of Bremer's commission.
The administration is also pushing Maliki's government to modify Bremer's de-Baathification policy and his decision to transfer authority over the process to a commission headed by a controversial former exile, Ahmed Chalabi. David Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, told the Senate last month that the U.S. government believes changes to the de-Baathification law are "a critical element in any meaningful national reconciliation."
Bremer has acknowledged that handing responsibility for de-Baathification to Chalabi's commission was a mistake. "The error was that I left the implementation of the policy to a political body within the nascent Iraqi government, where it became a tool of politicians who applied it much more broadly than we had intended," he wrote last year. "De-Baathification should have been administered by an independent judicial body."
The chief purpose of today's hearing is to focus on the Coalition Provisional Authority's spending of Iraqi oil revenue in 2003 and 2004. Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, issued an audit stating that the CPA engaged in "less than adequate" managerial and financial control of approximately $8.8 billion given to Iraqi government ministries.
"The CPA management of Iraq's national budget process and oversight of Iraqi funds was burdened by severe inefficiencies and poor management," Bowen wrote.
Bremer fired back with a blistering letter to Bowen. He argued that the audit incorrectly assumed "Western-style budgeting and accounting procedures could be immediately and fully implemented in the midst of a war." The CPA, he wrote, accepted that its payroll system was imperfect because "it would have been dangerous for security -- ours and Iraq's -- to stop paying armed young men."
Although Bowen issued his audit in 2005, the ruling party in Congress opted not to hold a hearing on the findings. "The Republicans chose to ignore it," Waxman said. "We believe examining what occurred during the CPA period is still relevant today."
Bowen, who is scheduled to sit at the same witness table as Bremer, will contend that there were basic steps the CPA could have taken to improve oversight of how the money was spent, according to an official familiar with his plans.
Bremer may get the benefit of the doubt from Republicans with regard to the expenditure of Iraqi oil money. "Mistakes have clearly been made," said David Marin, director of the Oversight Committee's Republican staff. "But every time we talk about money being spent without appropriate internal controls, we also need to remember the importance of getting money out quickly to get Iraq up and running."
But Shays indicated that GOP committee members are inclined to take a dim view of decisions other than the expenditure of oil money, particularly the dissolution of the Iraqi army and de-Baathification.
In those cases, "it's hard to imagine a lot of members coming to his defense," one congressional GOP official said. "He's got to defend himself."