L. Paul Bremer, the first administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, and author of My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, spoke to a February 24th Middle East Forum (MEF) Webinar (video) in an interview with Benjamin Baird, the Director of MEF Action, an MEF project. They discussed the early years of the Iraq War and the impact of Bremer's decisions on the country. The following is a summary of Bremer's comments:
Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship left a "shattered country, politically, economically, and morally." Then-President George W. Bush tasked Bremer with two directives: 1) Help the Iraqis recover political and economic control of their country; 2) Put the Iraqis on a path towards representative government. Following an intensive and lengthy search, Saddam Hussein's capture boosted morale for Americans and their Iraqi partners. However, after the early victory of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), an insurgency soon formed that challenged both coalition forces and the legitimacy of the Iraqi government.
In retrospect, many journalists and scholars blame the insurgency's development on two CPA policies: CPA Order 1, de-Ba'athification, and CPA 2, the dissolution of entities, or the dismantling of the Iraqi military. Critics claimed that instead of hollowing out the Iraqi bureaucracy post-Saddam, it would have been more productive to use the Ba'athists' bureaucratic experience in reconstructing Iraq.
Yet, the claim that CPA Order 1 was responsible for the "collapse" of order is "simply nonsense" because the draft of CPA Order 1 was a "narrowly drawn decree" that enabled Bremer, the CPA administrator, to "issue plenary override" that allowed approved Iraqis holding critical positions to remain in service. The order was based on a study of thousands of Iraqis conducted by the State Department. It found there could "be no place in a free Iraq for the Ba'ath Party, given its history," which was modeled on the brutal practices administered by Hitler's Nazi party, such as "summary justice."
U.S. intelligence estimated that 10 percent of Iraqis were Ba'ath Party members, meaning 2.7 million of Iraq's population of 27 million were party members. The CPA decree affected only "1 percent of a tenth of the Iraqi population" – only 27,000 Iraqis. Although the draft specified that "top people" could not remain in government service, "scores of exceptions" permitted administrators to remain in ministries. In the twenty-five ministries Bremer personally visited, the Iraqi civilians in place were "dedicated" to their jobs.
The collapse was due to the inefficiencies the ministries struggled to overcome on a daily basis. There was no national telephone system, which crippled effective communications; automatic fund transfers were nonexistent in the banking system, which relied on driven deliveries of cash; and there were no computers in the ministries, except for the Ministry of Information. The dearth of "modern capability" in the ministries handicapped their abilities. Also, the infrastructure was severely compromised because coalition troops "did not have the orders to suppress the looting that came when Baghdad fell to the army," and many of the ministries were physically destroyed. Admittedly, a significant mistake was handing over the "preliminary implementation" of the Ba'athification decree to the Iraqi politicians. Instead of applying their power to create order, they abused their authority in order to settle scores with political foes in the government, thereby necessitating the resumption of authority by the CPA. Ultimately, "it was absolutely essential to the long-term stability of Iraq that we outlawed the Ba'ath Party."
As for CPA Order 2 (dissolution of the Iraqi military), consider that 300,000 of the 700,000-strong Iraqi army were draftees, not volunteers, and mostly Shia. "The Officer Corps...was predominantly Sunni, both Kurd, and Iraqi, and Arab Sunnis. The army officers abused, brutalized, and dealt very roughly with the enlistees." The nature of the army had been such that it was "Saddam's main instrument of suppression" against the Kurds in northern Iraq in what the UN termed a "genocidal war" that used chemical weapons. Saddam also deployed the army to suppress a Shia uprising in the south following the first Gulf War. After the U.S. military arrived, many mass graves were discovered over the next fourteen months.
With the outcome of the war against Iraq increasingly clear, the Shia deserted and returned to their homes. According to General John Abizaid, "there was not a single unit of Saddam's army standing to arms anywhere in the country." The U.S. then faced the question of how to establish an army, with some military officers considering recalling elements of the former army. Hearing that, the Kurds threatened to "secede from Iraq," which "would lead to an immediate civil war" that could easily morph into a "larger regional war." The Shia, cooperating with the U.S. at the behest of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, reacted similarly because of the "tens of thousands of Shias" killed by Saddam's army after the first Gulf War.
The U.S. determined that the way forward was to build and train a new army by offering pensions to top officers of the old army and one-time severance payments to draftees. Some members of the officer corps joined dissidents who became terrorists, but it "wasn't because they didn't have a choice." An illustration of the distinction between the dangers of deploying an army battalion from the old army versus a new one trained by the U.S. occurred in April 2004 in Fallujah in western Anbar province. The U.S. Marines, without coordinating with the civilian authority, called on a battalion of the former army to subdue the enemy there, but the old army battalion turned and immediately joined the enemy. In contrast, in 2009 the new Iraqi army trained by the U.S. eventually defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In a 2017 interview, Bremer called the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters "the most consistent and capable allies to American interests in Iraq." There was a positive history of negotiating with the Peshmerga on military matters because the capable force had been trained under American supervision between the first and second Iraq wars. The Kurds' twelve years of experience with "semi-autonomy" running the Kurdish region put them in a more advantageous position in running government ministries than those who had worked directly under Saddam Hussein. In addition, in 2003, constructing a functional structure for "democratic life" was foreign to most Iraqis, who "never had an experience living with democracy."
Iran's increased interference in contemporary Iraq has undermined the country's stability, but the current Iraqi government, even with its flaws, remains intact despite its many challenges. The distinction between it and America's precipitous 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, which caused a political, humanitarian, and strategic disaster, is worth examining. The cause of the greatest difference between the two countries, which was "exactly what President Bush foresaw," was Iraq's opportunity to "establish representative government." The Iraqis wrote their own constitution, put it to a referendum, and approved it by 12 million votes. It provides for a "separation of powers [with] a balance of power between parliament and the legislature and the executive." In addition, the CPA worked to establish the "independence of the judiciary." The Iraqis have had six democratic elections since 2005 with six "successive peaceful transfers of power to prime ministers," and they are on the "constitutional road to representative democracy."
Promotion of democracy, also called "democratization," is "central to the American dream." Over the two and a half centuries since America's founding, representative government, in which "people should choose their government," has always been in our national "bloodstream." America's proclamation of individual rights, as established in the Declaration of Independence, has been consistent throughout its history and "is a good thing to have, and from personal experience, it's damn hard to make it happen."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.