Our man in Baghdad

My Year In Iraq: the struggle to build a future of hope

L Paul Bremer III <em>Simon & Schuster, 41

A couple of years ago, in talking to Sir Jeremy Greenstock, then Tony Blair's envoy to Iraq, I casually referred to him as Britain's senior representative to occupied Iraq. "No," replied Greenstock. "Paul Bremer is Britain's man." The invasion and occupation, he explained, was legally a joint endeavour by America and Britain and other allies. So it was Bremer, as proconsul to the occupation and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), who was really "our man".

In describing his time in Iraq, from 12 May 2003 to the handover of "sovereignty" on 28 June 2004, Bremer makes almost no mention of British influence, nor indeed of Greenstock. He is keener to stress his frequent phone calls and chats with President Bush and their cosy prayer sessions together. It's a shame that Bremer did not seek out Britain's advice - our past experience of imperial exercises might have proved invaluable.

As Bremer makes clear, there was plenty of idealism in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, just precious little wisdom or experience. A former ambassador to the Netherlands, Bremer became proconsul at a time when most of the main early assumptions about the Iraq war had proved wrong. With weapons of mass destruction proving elusive, the war needed a justification, and that justification was to be the creation of a democracy. Bremer's task was to make it happen.

In a readable account ghost-written by Malcolm McConnell, Bremer describes living a year of 20-hour days without air-conditioning in the grim confines of a half-bombed-out presidential palace in central Baghdad. At his side were legions of "volunteers" who worked just as hard, sustained by airlifted Italian coffee and missionary zeal. Bremer fails to mention that many of these "volunteers" were Republican Party staffers who had abandoned low-ranking jobs in Washington to control vast ministries in Baghdad. They travelled light but took their neoconservative baggage with them. Before liberating Iraq, they wanted a free-market Iraq.

Also missing from the book is any mention of the financial chaos over which Bremer presided. He admits that the books didn't balance, and says he persuaded the UN to release billions of dollars from the oil-for-food programme. Yet the truth is to be found in the now voluminous audit reports. Billions of dollars were literally looted from Iraq's banks and ministries, and much of the money was lost. As Ed Harriman reported recently in the London Review of Books, by June 2004, when Bremer left Baghdad, "his CPA had spent up to $20bn of Iraqi money, compared to $300m of US funds".

Faced with the unsightly mess that is present-day Iraq, Bremer constantly covers his back. The key thing that he wants you to know is that all the key players agreed with him. Everyone thought he was doing a great job: Donald Rumsfeld, George W Bush, Condoleezza Rice, even Colin Powell, who "flat-out whooped with joy" when Bremer's appointment was announced. In a low move, he also recruits his "friend" Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN representative killed by a car bomb in August 2003, as one of his supporters.

Above all, Bremer is desperate to dispel the myth that, by disbanding Iraq's army and police, it was he who let the country descend into chaos. Yet he was undeni-ably responsible. CPA Order No 2, signed by Bremer on 23 May 2003, was the "Dissolution of Entities": the termination of service of all members of the former military. Admittedly, as Bremer points out, Iraq's army melted away, rather than surrendered, when the coalition forces invaded. Of 715,000 soldiers, including 400,000 Shia conscripts, none remained as formed units. He is right, too, that keep-ing the Ba'athist officer corps would have angered many in Iraq's Shia leadership.

Yet the absence of effective Iraqi armed forces has been the main cause of three years of failure in Iraq. Many elements of the armed forces commanded widespread support, despite Saddam's efforts. With the promise of a salary, they would have returned to barracks. America's mistake was its failure to reconstitute those forces that had melted away.

Whatever the merits of the invasion, Iraq did make progress under Bremer: faltering steps were taken towards democracy, and these were underpinned by a strong constitution that protects minority rights and those of women. Yet his year in Iraq was also dominated by an ever-increasing threat of insurgency, which continued even after Saddam's arrest. Bremer's book captures some of America's exasperation, but also shows its blind spots. He blames the insurgency on Ba'athist remnants and then on Sunni jihadis from abroad. Nowhere, however, does he show any understanding of the most basic reason for resistance: the desire of a proud people to resist and eject foreign occupation troops.

As Britain's colonial experience shows, the creation of democracy by diktat is a tough job, even if its architects are among the most benevolent, idealistic and experienced hands around. Bremer's hands were big on ambition but short on other qualities, and above all on wisdom. They had come not to America, nor to the Netherlands, but to a very foreign place, about which they knew little.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shamed