The Magazine

New Sheriff in Town

Paul Bremer is quick on the draw.

May 26, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 36 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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PAUL BREMER, the new civilian administrator of Iraq, arrived in the Middle East on Sunday, May 11. The same day, the front page of the Washington Post announced that Barbara Bodine, an American diplomat in charge of postwar Baghdad, would be leaving. On May 13, the controversial interim health minister, a man with deep ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath party, quit his post under pressure after just 10 days. The next day, the Pentagon announced that 15,000 more U.S. troops would head to Iraq to restore order. By Thursday, Iraqis were told that possessing or selling guns was grounds for arrest, and a long-overdue de-Baathification policy had been put in place. And on Friday, Bremer announced that between 15,000 and 30,000 Saddam sympathizers would be ineligible for any role in the new Iraqi government.

In the weeks since the fall of Baghdad, as prominent Shia clerics won the attention of news cameras and reporters by holding rallies and calling for American troops to leave Iraq, many of their countrymen, including those cooperating with coalition reconstruction efforts, have been quietly urging a stronger American presence. In Bremer, they got it.

Bremer is a career State Department official who has served six secretaries of state over 23 years. In 1989, he headed a task force on counterterrorism for President Reagan. Following his service in government, Bremer worked for Henry Kissinger's consulting firm.

To say that Bremer comes as a no-nonsense administrator doesn't begin to capture his single-minded determination to effect a smooth and relatively quick transition from U.S. occupation to Iraqi self-rule. He has already shown a willingness to dispense with the ego-massaging and faction-appeasing that can prove lethal to such a huge project--and that's just inside the Bush administration. Those who have worked with Bremer in the brief time since he was named say he has a blunt, sometimes brusque manner, with an emphasis on results over discussion. "He's not at all afraid to piss people off," says one Defense official.

The Pentagon had plans to bring in a civilian administrator well before the war began. Retired general Jay Garner was chosen to lead the immediate U.S. postwar effort because of his successful stewardship of Operation Provide Comfort in northern Iraq following the first Gulf War. But his role was primarily a practical one. "Garner was always the trains-run-on-time guy," says a Pentagon official.

Some on the Bush administration's national security team had hoped that Garner would "rise to the occasion" and handle some political aspects of reconstruction. But he repeatedly made clear his strong preference for leaving that work to others, chiefly presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Khalilzad is credited with a successful political transition following the war in Afghanistan. But Iraq is not Afghanistan, and several administration sources say that the Afghan model Khalilzad tried to apply, with its heavy reliance on tribal leaders, was ill-suited to the political realities of Iraq.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, these sources say, U.S. planners were intent on listening to Iraqis' ideas about democracy. A certain amount of consultation, of course, is important. The Iraqis, after all, know their country. But too much listening can be paralyzing. When Iraqi leaders gathered on April 28 in Baghdad for the second governance conference, they demanded a plan. Khalilzad failed to share one, and, despite assurances offered by other Americans in attendance, some of the Iraqis left the gathering deeply concerned.

To make matters worse, Barbara Bodine and others in the postwar operation seemed to have a soft spot for former Baath party members. When U.S. administrators named Ali Shnan al-Janabi as the interim head of the Ministry of Health, Iraqi doctors took to the streets in protest. Although he had been the third-ranking official in that ministry under Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials noted that some regarded him as a "respected and courageous doctor and administrator." That was not the message long-suffering Iraqis wanted to hear.

Such American missteps, coming after U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during his war against Iran in the 1980s and the U.S. refusal to remove Saddam in 1991 after the Gulf War, only confirm conspiracy theories about American sympathy for the Baath party. The inclusion of high-ranking Baathists in postwar administration has fueled those concerns.

Bremer sought to ease those anxieties at a press conference in Baghdad on Thursday. Inaugurating the era of the stern father, after Bodine and Khalilzad's permissive-mother regime, Bremer said, "We are determined that Baathists and Saddamism will not come back to Iraq."