Insider accounts of Iraq's occupation are a dime a dozen; some are useful, but most are forgettable. Losing the Golden Hour by Stephenson, former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Iraq Mission, joins the latter.
Stephenson tells his story with little introspection or self-criticism. He describes receiving the call to deploy to Iraq while in a dentist's chair, his arrival at Baghdad International Airport, and the wardrobe of Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer but never transcends his bureaucratic perspective to address how or why USAID failed its reconstruction mission. Venal bureaucrat shines through; expert analyst is absent. Stephenson complains that Bremer did not appreciate USAID's independence as an agency, and he brags of sending home at the first opportunity "free ions" who helped administer USAID projects but did not belong to the agency. Bremer's myriad faults have been amply documented, but why should he not expect USAID to coordinate its actions with mission goals? Would Stephenson prefer that U.S. agencies in Iraq worked at cross-purposes?
Losing the Golden Hour focuses on inside baseball and bureaucratic machinations but does not explain how USAID might better perform its mission. Stephenson acknowledges that aid and development were not his top priorities; instead his priorities were the security of his palace headquarters in Baghdad's Green Zone and the safety of his regional offices, each already in fortified zones. In Iraq, USAID experts drew six-figure salaries and purchased multimillion-dollar armored vehicles so that they might survey their regions of operation but, nevertheless, refused to leave their compounds even during times of tranquility. While, from this reviewer's personal observation, USAID officials watched videos and ate food flown in from Kuwait, 8-year-olds dug wells just five miles away in villages where residents said they had not seen a single U.S. aid official. Perhaps the USAID cannot function in postwar environments. If not, Stephenson might have thought to discuss whether Congress should have funded USAID's Iraq program or instead transferred responsibility to organizations more able and willing to function in an insecure environment, such as the Army Corps of Engineers.
While Stephenson repeatedly refers in passing to USAID's management of $2 billion, he does not mention the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) model. CERP allows local military officials to allocate money to empower local Iraqis to fix sewers, repair generators, and refurbish schools, many of which remained in disrepair despite USAID reporting to the contrary. Here, Stephenson need not commit bureaucratic suicide. Rather, he might have questioned whether both he and his USAID team could have embedded with military units or adopted a CERP-like model better suited to Baghdad.
There is no doubt that the United States squandered the golden hour in Iraq. Had Stephenson discussed how the coalition might better handle reconstruction or USAID might evolve to handle current problems, Losing the Golden Hour would have been a valuable contribution to the literature. Instead, Stephenson has penned a vanity book—albeit one that every congressman should read, if only to understand how USAID is not the organization to turn to when the stakes for U.S. national interests are high.