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Volume 3,  Number 37              October 19 - 25, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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The Unbuilding of Iraq

By John Barry and Evan Thomas 

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Perfect Storm: Wrongheaded assumptions. Ideological blunders. Weak intelligence, missteps, poor coordination and bad luck. How Team Bush's reconstruction efforts went off the rails from day one

The Iraq war had yet to begin, but some nasty fighting was already going on back in Washington between the Department of Defense and the Department of State.

Last February, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner was trying to put together a team of experts to rebuild Iraq after the war was over, and his list included 20 State Department officials. The day before he was supposed to leave for the region, Garner got a call from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who ordered him to cut 16 of the 20 State officials from his roster. It seems that the State Department people were deemed to be Arabist apologists, or squishy about the United Nations, or in some way politically incorrect to the right-wing ideologues at the White House or the neocons in the office of the Secretary of Defense. The vetting process "got so bad that even doctors sent to restore medical services had to be anti-abortion," recalled one of Garner's team. Finally, Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to stand up for his troops and stop Rumsfeld's meddling. "I can take hostages, too," Powell warned the secretary of Defense. "How hard do you want to play this thing?"

Pretty hard. Powell lost, as he often does in the councils of the Bush war cabinet, and Rumsfeld had his way. Only one of the 16 State officials was restored to Garner's reconstruction team. It was a petty triumph, but emblematic of Rumsfeld's dominating, sometimes overbearing style. Rumsfeld was not a rogue elephant. In much of what he did, Rumsfeld himself was following orders. The hidden hand of the White House (read: Vice President Dick Cheney) was decisive in many of the behind-the-scenes struggles over postwar policymaking in Iraq. But President George W. Bush put the Defense Department in charge of both invading Iraq and rebuilding it after the war. Since 9/11, the secretary of Defense has been a brilliant war leader. Yet when it comes to making peace, he has been guilty of almost willful denial. His deep reluctance to use the American military for "peacekeeping" and "nation-building"--he scorns the very terms--threatens to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq.

Iraq at a Tipping Point?

Rumsfeld (like his boss, President Bush) continues to be unapologetic. Last week, on The Washington Post's op-ed page, he wrote of the "solid progress" being made in Iraq--building a 56,000-man Iraqi defense force, steps toward self-government--and suggested strongly that the critics would be proved wrong. Maybe. But almost six months after their "liberation," the Iraqis are still short of power (both electrical and electoral) and jobs, and the guerrilla war continues to claim an American soldier or two on almost a daily basis. Inside and outside the U.S. government, knowledgeable experts worry that Iraq is nearing a tipping point--that rising terrorism and resentment of America could bring real chaos or civil war.

How did we get in this mess? NEWSWEEK interviews with top government officials involved in the planning and execution of the reconstruction of Iraq point to a "perfect storm" of mistakes and bad luck: wrongheaded assumptions, ideological blinders, weak intelligence and poor coordination by White House national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Much of the damage was done at the outset--in the first days after the war, when political infighting and wishful thinking prevented the United States from taking control of a bad situation that was turning worse.

It's not that the Bush administration failed to plan for the reconstruction of Iraq. In August 2002 Bush decided that Saddam had to go, by force if necessary. Soon after Labor Day, the White House set up an elaborate network of nine teams studying how to cope with potential humanitarian crises during and after the war and how to remake postwar Iraq into a peaceful democracy. There was widespread recognition of the difficulty of the task. By mid-January, President Bush was given a sober, realistic PowerPoint presentation (made available to NEWSWEEK) on postwar reconstruction that included a warning that Iraq's economy could collapse, creating widespread starvation and unrest. Rumsfeld, too, circulated "a parade of horrible" things that could go badly wrong in an invasion and afterward.

Restoring Peace and Security

Ironically, the swiftness of victory spared Iraq the worst of those disasters. There was no WMD attack (if indeed Saddam had any WMD to attack with, an increasingly dubious proposition), no massive torching of Iraq's oilfields, no refugee crisis--all of which the Pentagon had prepared for. Some administration officials say that the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency predicted postwar terror and guerrilla attacks, but other officials scoff that the intelligence services gave only pro forma warnings and are only now trying to cover themselves. What all this postwar planning stressed, however, was that swiftly restoring peace and a measure of security to postwar Iraq was crucial. Without that, nothing could be done. And "security," as those White House Viewgraphs show, was the Pentagon's responsibility.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander charged with invading Iraq and securing it afterward, did warn of "catastrophic success," of winning so quickly and overwhelmingly that the U.S. military would arrive in Baghdad without the forces needed to control the capital. But Franks was preoccupied with fighting the war, not cleaning up the rubble. Organizing for peace was a low priority at CENTCOM: the undermanned planning cell for "Phase Four" (post conflict ops) kept losing officers to other, more urgent war-fighting missions. Rumsfeld and his top aides, meanwhile, saw the issue of postwar security essentially as a trade-off. Send in enough troops to control Iraq, and the United States would risk losing the elements of surprise and speed Franks achieved by going in with a bare-bones invasion force. Besides, military and civilians both agreed that peacekeeping and nation-building were no job for the U.S. military. (National-security adviser Rice hoped that other countries would provide an international constabulary force.) Franks passed down the word at a postinvasion briefing for his field commanders. The first slide began: TAKE AS MUCH RISK COMING OUT AS YOU TOOK GOING IN.

The White House wanted to believe that it could get away with a relatively quick in-and-out operation because American soldiers, Vice President Cheney predicted, "will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." The bad guys--the worst of Saddam's Baathist Party--would flee or surrender, but a large middle-class "Mesopotamian bureaucracy" would remain in place to run the country. This notion was pushed by a band of Iraqi exiles, most notably Ahmad Chalabi, who have close ties to the Pentagon neocons--and who stood ready to step in and fill the leadership void. Within a few months, it was hoped, American forces could be drawn down to no more than 50,000 troops.

A Vanishing Army and Missing Ministries

It was a convenient scenario but, as it turned out, highly unrealistic. The Iraqi Army did not surrender, so it could not be stripped of its officers and reconstituted as "labor battalions" to repair damaged facilities and guard power plants and oil fields. The Army simply vanished. The Iraqi police force turned out to be hapless and corrupt, and it disappeared, too. The Pentagon hadn't counted on criminal gangs' systematically tearing apart Iraq's crumbling infrastructure and smuggling it out to sell abroad. (Saddam had helpfully emptied his jails before the invasion.) U.S. intelligence about Iraq was a little shaky. American officials were even unable to locate some Baghdad ministries. They had the wrong addresses.

There was considerable confusion over who was supposed to be in charge of post-Saddam Iraq. "What do we mean by 'regime change' anyway?" General Franks queried Secretary Rumsfeld in the middle of the war. Many CIA and State Department officials were skeptical about Chalabi and the Iraq exiles, insisting (correctly) that they had no popular base of support. The infighting over Chalabi created paralysis, with the White House unwilling to play referee. At the State Department, Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, Powell's number two, fought bitterly with the Defense Department neocons, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's third-ranking civilian. Armitage was convinced that the Defense neocons had spies at the State Department. "Bats, we call them. Bats," said Armitage, in a colorful private harangue reported to NEWSWEEK. "Because they hang upside down all day, with their wings over their eyes, pretending they don't see anything. But at night they spread their wings and fly off to whisper, whisper, whisper."

The ideological intrigue reached into the upper levels of the Bush administration. Rumsfeld ordered General Garner to drop a State Department official named Thomas Warrick from his reconstruction team. Garner protested, his aides recall; he needed Warrick, who had been the author of a $5 million, yearlong study called "The Future of Iraq." Rumsfeld's reply, as relayed by Garner to his aides, was: "I'm sorry, but I just got off a phone call from a level that is sufficiently high that I can't argue with him." Sources tell NEWSWEEK that Rumsfeld was taking his orders from Vice President Cheney. Administration officials say that Warrick was vetoed because he did not get on with Iraqi exile leaders.

Garner was a relatively small fry caught between clashing giants. The retired general, who had been chosen because he had ably handled a refugee crisis in the Kurdish north of Iraq after the 1991 gulf war, understood the importance of moving fast after Saddam collapsed. But when he queried Franks on a timetable for putting his team in place, he was told 60 to 90 days. Too slow, Garner argued, but as it was, his team did not reach Baghdad until 12 days after Saddam fled. Lacking phones and cars, they were isolated and largely helpless.

What Should Have Been Done

In hindsight, General Franks should have immediately declared martial law. But after combat, his men were loath to open fire on civilians running down the street carrying TV sets. And reinforcements of infantry should have been flown in fast. As Franks had foreseen, his troops were largely the wrong kind for occupation duty: armored battalions driving tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, not light infantry patrolling on foot. But only six companies of military police (less than 2,000 GIs) were provided, and they were slow in arriving. Iraqis were indignant that the Americans could not control what one senior defense official described as "industrial-strength looting."

Back in Washington, administration officials watched the chaotic images on TV and blamed General Garner. White House officials muttered about "Occupation Lite" and decided that Garner, who was seen strolling about in shirt sleeves and genially chatting with the locals, was a little too chummy with the vanquished. A stronger, tougher proconsul was called for, one who could assert control by purging the government of Saddam's henchmen. The administration's man for the job was Paul Bremer, a former aide to Henry Kissinger and a counter terror expert admired by Rumsfeld and other Bushies.

On May 16, five days after he arrived in Baghdad, Bremer assembled the top American officials in Baghdad and announced that all ministries would be "de-Baath-ized" by removing roughly the top six layers of bureaucracy. The CIA's Baghdad station chief demurred. "We'll, that's 30,000 to 50,000 pissed-off Baathists you're driving underground," said the senior spook. Bremer went on: the Army would be formally disbanded and not paid. "That's another 350,000 Iraqis you're pissing off, and they've got guns," said the CIA man. Said Bremer: "Those are my instructions."

In an interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Bremer maintained that "the de-Baathification decree is the single most popular thing I've done since I've been in Iraq." But it was widely recognized, even by Bremer, that not paying the soldiers was a mistake. Bremer quickly changed course and began cash handouts while trying to reconstitute the Iraqi Army and police. But the damage was done. Particularly in old Baathist strongholds around Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, guerrillas have been killing American soldiers in ambushes with rocket-propelled grenades and crude but effective homemade explosives.

In time, the Americans will probably crush or at least contain the last of the Baathist holdouts. Using cash incentives, American Special Forces have located and flushed out many of the Baathist hide-holes and safe houses. Religious terrorists are another matter. Intelligence officials believe that Islamic jihadists are gaining strength in Iraq, operating out of mosques and communicating in ways that cannot be traced by electronic eavesdropping devices.

Bush is justifiably popular for his show of resolve since 9/11. But he could stand to show more steel dealing with his warring subordinates. Too often, State and Defense officials refuse to even talk to each other. Rumsfeld has expressed surprise at the poor condition of the Iraqi power grid. It was hardly news, however, to State Department bureaucrats, who had been listening to their counterparts in the United Nations. For years, U.N. officials have been running the Oil-for-Food Program inside Iraq and knew that Iraq's infrastructure had crumbled badly under Saddam. But because of ideological rivalries between State and Defense and the scorn of the neocons and hard-line conservatives for the United Nations, this information was not shared in the right places. As a result, the Bush administration grossly underestimated the cost of rebuilding Iraq and overestimated the ability of the Iraqis to foot some of the bill through oil revenues.

Who is to blame for the missed signals and too-rosy scenarios? The person charged with coordinating U.S. foreign policy is the president's national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. She likes to say that her national-security staff is not "operational," meaning that it advises on policy and leaves the implementation to government agencies. White House staffers are now surprisingly willing to dump on the Defense Department for bungling postwar security in Iraq. But for too long, White House staffers kept any qualms private. It is also true that the White House, including the president, signed off on the basic war plan and reconstruction effort.

On the ground, the Coalition Provisional Authority, charged with actually running Iraq until the Iraqis can take over, is the source of increasing ridicule. "CPA stands for the Condescending and Patronizing Americans," a Baghdad diplomat told a NEWSWEEK reporter. "So there they are, sitting in their palace: 800 people, 17 of whom speak Arabic, one is an expert on Iraq. Living in this cocoon. Writing papers. It's absurd," says one dissident Pentagon official. He exaggerates, but not by much. Most of the senior civilian staff are not technical experts but diplomats, Republican appointees, White House staffers and the like.

Some astute foreign observers think that time is running out. "We are losing the consent of the Iraqi people," warned John Sawers, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's emissary in Baghdad. "We have until Ramadan [Oct. 27-Nov. 25] to turn it around," Sawers told American officials in Washington two weeks ago. "After that it will be too late." At least one old Middle East hand is a pessimist. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak recently passed a message to Rumsfeld. It ran roughly: "There's a 5 percent chance you get Saddam tomorrow, the energy goes out of the resistance and things get dramatically better. There's a 5 percent chance a car bomb takes out the entire Governing Council, and things go to hell. In between those, it will get better over time, or worse over time. Right now, I say it's twice as likely that it gets worse." It's not known how Rumsfeld responded.

October 1, 2003



Rumsfeld's Myopia

By Fareed Zakaria 
Washington Post

When it comes to Iraq, the Bush administration's attitude toward the world seems strangely self-defeating.

Even though America's armed forces are strained beyond their limits, the bill for reconstruction is astronomical and a naked occupation is likely to produce anti-American feelings, Washington still is not much interested in genuine internationalization. Now Donald Rumsfeld, with his characteristic frankness, has explained why. In an op-ed published last week in The Post ["Beyond 'Nation-Building,' " Sept. 25], Rumsfeld vigorously denounces the kind of nation-building that the United Nations has engaged in. Were others involved in the Iraq occupation (the United Nations, the State Department), they would mess things up.

You might expect the secretary of defense to engage this crucial subject seriously. There have been several careful studies on nation-building efforts, most recently an excellent one by the Rand Corp. But Rumsfeld refers to none of them, basing his views on a handful of misleading factoids and anecdotes.

The heart of the article is a rehash of a speech Rumsfeld gave in February in which he argued that the United Nations has encouraged places such as East Timor and Kosovo to become politically and economically dependent on it.

As proof of this, Rumsfeld points out that "four years after the war, the United Nations still runs Kosovo by executive fiat, issues postage stamps, passports and driver's licenses." This is shockingly ill informed. Rumsfeld must know that the United Nations still issues postage stamps and passports in Kosovo because the United States and Europe have not yet decided whether the place is a province of Yugoslavia or an independent country. If local authorities were to issue passports, that would settle things on the ground. It is not U.N. bureaucracy that has kept Kosovo in limbo but a political dilemma that Washington has not resolved.

Rumsfeld's other criticism is that these international administrations have produced distortions in the economy. In East Timor, he notes, international workers are paid 200 times the average local wage. In Kosovo, a driver for aid officials makes 10 times the salary of a university professor and the United Nations pays its local staff between four and 10 times the salary of doctors and nurses.

Rumsfeld should get out more. Were he to travel most anywhere in Asia or Africa, he would notice that people who work for Western corporations or nonprofits make vastly more money than locals. This is because of the enormous difference in wages between the West and the developing world, and because Western firms pay their employees abroad on a Western scale.

Rumsfeld's problem, it would seem, is not with international organizations but with global capitalism.

One can see this phenomenon vividly in one country these days -- Iraq. A senior international administrator -- that is, a high-ranking civilian in the Coalition Provisional Authority or a one-star American general -- makes around $10,000 a month, including housing allowances. The Pentagon estimates that doctors in Iraq made $20 a month last year. To be fair, local wages have risen now, but a university professor in Baghdad today makes at most $200 to $300 a month. In other words, a coalition official is probably earning 50 times the salary of a local professor. Iraq makes Kosovo and East Timor look like Swedish-style egalitarian societies.

Rumsfeld is right to warn of the danger of a heavy hand creating dependency.

But there is actually much greater danger of a light hand. Turning weak institutions over too quickly to locals would return the country to traditional structures of authority that are often feudal and corrupt. In Afghanistan, for example, Rumsfeld's light touch has resulted in the return of warlord rule, a dangerously weak central government and the resurgence of the Taliban. By Rumsfeld's logic, America's light rule and quick exit from Haiti in the 1990s should have created a vibrant democracy, while its almost decade-long, heavy-handed occupations of Germany and Japan should have produced deformed societies. In fact, the opposite happened.

The United States might well succeed in Iraq but only because it is not following Rumsfeld's rhetoric. If it were worried about creating a dependent society, it would not be pouring $20 billion into the country in one year -- which equals half the Iraqi GDP. This is almost twice the total spending on Kosovo over four years.

Nor is Paul Bremer giving Iraqis the authority to spend that money without tight supervision. Were the United States to empower local Iraqis in the next few months, the result would be a sham democracy and a petro-state.

If the coalition can stay the course and lay the groundwork for a slow and orderly transition, Iraq will be a better place for it. But I will make a bet with Rumsfeld. When America does leave Iraq, and the administration proclaims it a case study in effective nation-building, American officials posted there will still be earning much more than local professors.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and a columnist for Newsweek. September 30, 2003

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