Washington at War Food Fight

Agencies Tangle on Efforts to Help Iraq

At a government store in Fallujah, Iraqis pick up basic items such as wheat, rice, sugar and cereal  --  rations that many  of them have depended on for years.
At a government store in Fallujah, Iraqis pick up basic items such as wheat, rice, sugar and cereal -- rations that many of them have depended on for years. (2004 Photo By Mohammed Khodor -- Associated Press)
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

As violence in Iraq crescendoed last year, President Bush summoned his secretaries of agriculture, commerce and energy to Camp David in June to meet with his national security team. During a two-hour afternoon discussion in the main lodge, the president urged the three secretaries to become more involved in the Iraq reconstruction effort.

When Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez got back to his office, he asked his staff members to develop a list of Iraq-related projects for the agency. They did, and two months later, they shared it with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, expecting that diplomats on the ground would welcome a little help from Washington.

Instead, the document, "Secretary Gutierrez's Five Priority Areas for Economic Reform in Iraq," set off a bureaucratic grenade in Baghdad's Green Zone. The second item on the list called for the United States to pressure Iraq's government to cease providing people with monthly food rations, which more than half of Iraq's population relies on for sustenance.

Embassy officials were incensed. Although the embassy's economists favored changes to the ration system, they believed that dismantling it as Commerce was proposing could spark riots that might topple the Iraqi government.

"Commerce was stunningly naive," said a senior State Department official involved in Iraq policy. "They were way out of their lane."

The dispute between Commerce and State illuminates the rivalries that have cropped up within the U.S. government as the White House seeks to involve more parts of the federal bureaucracy in the reconstruction of Iraq. Instead of collaborating, agencies have often found themselves split by the gulf between idealistic officials in Washington, some of whom have never been to Iraq, and embassy staffers whose ambition to promote change has been attenuated by the violence and dysfunction they witness every day.

The disagreements often center on arcane subjects -- such as tariff policy or the rehabilitation of state-owned enterprises -- but the impact can be profound, according to people on both sides of the fights. Embassy staffers said they have wasted countless hours squabbling with Washington instead of focusing on more urgent initiatives to stabilize Iraq. In one incident, as the bickering between Commerce and State intensified, the embassy blocked a team of Commerce officials from entering the country.

Some at Commerce regard embassy staffers and their bosses at the State Department as ungrateful and unwilling to embrace others' ideas -- even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pleads with other federal agencies to send more people to Iraq. "We were willing to help, as the president asked us to do, but the State Department feels that it has control of the situation," said a senior Commerce official involved in the food-ration policy.

Officials at State contend that they do want other federal departments to assist in Iraq, but they said they are less interested in policies that are developed by those agencies in Washington and imposed on Baghdad.

"The problem stems from this view at the White House that the whole Cabinet has to be involved," the senior State Department official said.

The result, an embassy official with direct knowledge of the food-ration debate said, is that "there are too many cooks in the kitchen."

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