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Jonathan Epstein has published 16 articles

Playing the Iraq blame game

Paul Bremer, a key architect of the United States' occupation of Iraq, defends his record
Jonathan Epstein on Sunday 17th February 2013
Photograph: R.D. Ward

What do you say to the man who presided over the dissolution of Iraq into chaos? What questions do you formulate for someone who had a leading role in a conflict which led to the subsequent deaths of what the BBC estimates to be 100,000 civilians? And how will he respond?

Lewis Paul Bremer III served as the effective viceroy of Iraq for the first fourteen months of American occupation. We spoke following his speech to the Oxford Union, an event intended to mark the swiftly approaching 10th anniversary of the March 2003 invasion: an event that few will celebrate.
In his Union address, Bremer presented a defence of his leadership of Iraq as Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority that amounted to shifting responsibility. He claimed that the catalysts of Iraq’s disintegration were out of his control. While highlighting what he characterised as economic and political successes, he blamed the inadequate number of coalition troops in Iraq for a lack of security, and saw the inability of the Iraqis to form a cohesive democracy as the result of a lack of “political scaffolding.”

Before he left for Baghdad in May 2003, Bremer was presented with a study of past American wars concluding that the US would need 480,000 soldiers to secure Iraq after the invasion, yet only 200,000 coalition troops were present during Bremer’s tenure. Asked to whom he brought his concerns over inadequate troop numbers, Bremer responded that he sent a memo to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. “Rumsfeld never said anything to me about it...so I raised it with the President in my first meeting with him.”

President Bush blew Bremer off, explaining that Colin Powell was searching for more countries to send troops. As it turned out none besides Britain would ever send a significant number. “I raised it again quite often with Dr [Condoleezza] Rice, with [Stephen] Hadley, I mentioned it to Rumsfeld again.” Yet Bremer claims never to have received a response to his concerns.

Despite being sent to reconstruct Iraq without adequate military support, Bremer remains loyal to President Bush and does not place the blame at the feet of the Commander-in-Chief. “I have some sympathy for the President in this, because I heard the President in a number of meetings…ask the generals if they had enough troops, and they always said yes. Nobody ever said we need more troops.” According to Bremer this insistence that numbers were adequate was a result of short-sightedness: the generals did not envision fighting an insurgency after toppling Saddam.

In Bremer’s telling, the dearth of troops was the primary catalyst of the sectarian warfare that ensued, “I think this is the key failure: not having provided the security, right from the start, by setting the example when the looting happened, and not stopping the looting — if necessary shooting looters, which is what we did in Haiti. In the nineties, when we went into Haiti, there was rioting on the streets, we sent in the Marines, the Marines shot two people dead: that was the end of the rioting. You begin to show that you’re serious about providing security.” When the US did not provide security within cities like Fallujah, “the impression gained among the Iraqi citizens that they were going to have to protect themselves. So you started seeing the renaissance of [sectarian] militias and of course Al Qaeda concluded that we weren’t prepared to do what needed to be done.” Without an American referee, Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militias competed to fill the power vacuum. “It was the failure of our providing security that led to things like the major sectarian outbursts in 2006,” Bremer concludes.

Bremer found a second defence in the recent struggles of other Arab states to transition to democratic governance from autocracy. Egypt, Libya and Syria, like Iraq before them, “lack a political scaffolding to move to representative government,” which Bremer defines as a lack of free political parties, freedom of expression, free press, internet, a viable constitution, and “no rule of law.” If other Arab states also stumbled when it came to democratisation, surely our expectations of success were too high.

Perhaps incongruously, he later asserts, “Another myth is that we forced democracy down their throats” – pointing to Iraqi voters’ enthusiasm and comparing voter turnout in Iraq’s referendum and four elections to US and British turnout. He cites Iraqi voter turnout higher than “any British general election since 1951, and higher than any US Presidential election since 1876.” Asked about Rousseau’s observation that “if you free slaves they will establish a slave state,” Bremer responds that democracy in Iraq would take generations to properly accomplish.

Bremer has been excoriated for his decision to ban the Ba’ath Party immediately after the invasion. He defends this by pointing out that his order was limited to the top one per cent of Baath party officials, and that it merely mandated that they could no longer work for the government. “I made a mistake, however, in the implementation of the decree,” he admits, in leaving the implementation to “a bunch of [Iraqi] politicians, who then tried to implement the decree much more broadly than was intended. I should have turned it over to a group of Iraqi judges or respected lawyers.” He defends his equally criticised decision to disband the Iraqi Army by asserting that it had already effectively self-disbanded after Saddam’s fall.

In defending his management of Iraq, Bremer argues that “we had substantial success” in the political and economic spheres. He praises the ability of the Iraqis to produce a constitution in ten months, comparing it to the eighteen months it took Egypt to produce a constitution. Additionally, only 31 per cent of Egyptians voted on the constitution, whereas 75 per cent of Iraqis voted for theirs. Economically, Bremer provides a bevy of statistics to prove his success: by the time he left in June 2004, oil production had been at pre-war levels for ten months, electricity production was 50 per cent above pre-war levels, limited foreign investment had been introduced, over 27,000 reconstruction projections had been completed and the Iraqi economy grew by 46 per cent in 2004, although “admittedly from a low level.”

Reflecting on the record of America’s efforts in Iraq, Bremer bluntly states, “Iraq has had some very bad days.” He has also criticised the Obama administration for not leaving a larger presence in Iraq: “I think it was a serious mistake of the present administration to not keep troops there to consolidate the gains that we had already made.”

Bremer has received swathes of criticism in the American media for his handling of Iraq. However, he expects eventual vindication: “I do believe that history will look much more favourably on what we and the British government and the other coalition parties tried to accomplish.”

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