By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Jerry Bremer wore black dress shoes instead of his trademark combat boots yesterday as he testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But except for that concession, the former American viceroy of Iraq had lost none of his swagger.
His widely condemned move to disband the Iraqi military? "I stand by the decision."
Billions of dollars potentially wasted on dubious contracts? "I did not have authority over the awarding of contracts."
Incompetent personnel at the Coalition Provisional Authority? "My role in hiring was very limited."
"On the whole," Bremer told the lawmakers, "I think that we made great progress."
It was to have been the grudge match Democrats waited years for: The ferocious Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), newly installed as chairman of the committee, was to flex his new oversight muscles by summoning Bremer to account for his actions while running Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
But Bremer proved unexpectedly agile at shifting blame: to administration planners ("The planning before the war was inadequate"), his superiors in the Bush administration ("We never had sufficient support"), and the Iraqi people ("The country was in chaos -- socially, politically and economically").
And Democrats, after 12 years in the minority, were out of practice. Instead of going after Bremer's greatest vulnerabilities -- his autocratic management style and his "de-Baathification" of Iraq -- Democrats instead chose a strange focus for the hearing: the failure to account for $8 billion of cash payments three years ago. After nearly five hours of questioning, the lawmakers failed to find a smoking gun: It wasn't U.S. taxpayer money, it was a pittance compared with U.S. spending in Iraq, there was no hard evidence of fraud, and the episode had been investigated two years ago.
Waxman, who began the hearing with a broad smile and played frequently with the gavel while sitting on the edge of the chairman's seat, gradually grew more somber and sank back into his chair. The natty Bremer, sporting a pocket handkerchief and a flag lapel pin, grew more confident. As his deflections thwarted the lawmakers, Bremer's wife, unable to contain her delight, reached out from the first row of the audience to pat her husband on the back.
Republicans could hardly believe their luck. "Nobody took him on," exulted Tom Davis (R-Va.), who surrendered the chairman's gavel to Waxman last month. "We thought they'd be all over him for de-Baathification."
For Waxman, the surprises began with the opening gavel. "The committee's Web site will now have a fraud, waste and abuse tip line to make it easier for our constituents to give us information we need," he announced in his statement. "The Web site is www.oversight.house.gov, and we will pursue all credible allegations that are shared with us."
Davis countered that announcement in his own opening statement. "Beginning today, our Republican committee Web site invites whistleblowers and anyone else with information about waste, abuse, fraud or needed reform to provide information anonymously or to e-mail us up at email@example.com," he said.
"We seem to have rival tip-line Web sites," Waxman observed.
Then the new chairman made a crucial error: At the start of the 10 a.m. hearing, he allowed every member of a committee to make an opening statement. By the time Bremer uttered his first word, it was almost noon.
Democrats sounded menacing in their opening statements. "I'm curious about how it was that Mr. Bremer, a man who'd never been to Iraq, never led reconstruction efforts, could have been put in charge of the most important civil reconstruction program since the Marshall Plan," said Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.).
But Republicans, unexpectedly, were equally dedicated to Bremer's defense. "Our folks that we sent tried to do the best they could," said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.). When Bremer did speak, his 1,800-word opening statement had but a sentence admitting fault, and that was quickly qualified. "I acknowledge that I made mistakes and that, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have made some decisions differently," he allowed. But he quickly listed the mitigating circumstances.
Waxman tried to direct more of the blame toward Bremer. He showed photos of bricks of American dollars bound for Iraq. "Ambassador Bremer, are you concerned about the possibility that some of this money went to ghost employees?" Waxman asked. "It might be showing up in the hands of the insurgents that are fighting U.S. troops."
"If there were evidence of that, I would certainly be concerned," Bremer deflected.
Other Democrats had no better luck. Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.) tried to elicit a mea culpa about Bremer's banning of prominent Baath Party members from government. "The mistake I made was letting the Iraqi politicians implement it," Bremer replied. "So it was the right policy, poorly implemented."
Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) demanded to know "how can we in good conscience say to our constituents, 'Let's send them more money.' "
"I don't represent the administration," Bremer demurred.
Bremer represented only himself, but he did it ably.