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by William H. Benson

June 26, 2008

     In the May 5th edition of Time magazine, former Congressman Newt Gingrich was asked the question: “Do you see a clear path for a resolution to the Iraqi occupation?” Gingrich had answered: “Well, I said in December 2003, ‘We’ve gone off a cliff.’ I think [special envoy to Iraq L. Paul] Bremer’s decisions in June of 2003 were an absolute, total strategic fiasco. When political leaders decide they can violate all the rules of war, they get beat.”

     I would have liked Gingrich to elaborate and explain what he meant. Specifically, what were Bremer’s catastrophic decisions, and why did they violate the rules of war?

  1. Paul Bremer III arrived in Iraq on May 11, 2003, a month after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Appointed by President Bush and reporting to Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, Bremer served as head of Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority.

     As head of CPA, Bremer resided in Iraq for thirteen months, until June 28, 2004, the day when he signed sovereignty over to Iraq’s interim government, and the same day he left the country. While in Iraq, Bremer signed nearly 100 Orders.

     Order Number 1 was to remove former members of the Ba’ath Party, Saddam Hussein’s ruling party, from their positions of authority. Many were skilled and a-political, including thousands of competent government workers and schoolteachers, and suddenly they had lost their jobs because of their former party affiliation. Bremer’s policy of de-Ba’athification fostered bitter divisions in the country, fueled the violence that subsequently tore Iraq apart, and was not reversed until January of 2008, five years later.

     Order Number 2, issued on May 23, 2003 disbanded the Iraqi army, putting 400,000 former Iraqi soldiers out of work. This was truly disastrous because it created a pool of armed and angry youths from which the insurgency could then pull recruits.

     Jay Garner, the first head of CPA, tried to dissuade Bremer from such a rash decision, but Bremer replied, “The plans have changed. The thought is we don’t want the residuals of the old army. We want a new and fresh army.” To this, Garner replied, “You can get rid of an army in a day, but it takes years to build one.” 

     Bremer, to this day, still defends his decision, claiming that the army had already disbanded when Baghdad fell, a claim not altogether supported by the evidence.

     Order Number 12, issued on June 7, suspended all tariffs, customs duties, and import taxes. Order Number 17 granted foreign contractors, including private security firms, full immunity from any of Iraq’s laws. Order Number 39 privatized Iraq’s 200 state-owned businesses, and allowed foreign companies to purchase up to 100% of each of them.

     Order Number 40 created a market-driven banking system. Order Number 49 lowered the individual and corporate tax rates to a flat 15%. Order Number 57 allowed Bremer to appoint Inspectors General, who would root out corruption, and were equipped with sweeping powers to investigate, even after Iraq would have created its own government.

     Critics argued that this series of Orders not only served American interests first, but that they were illegal. They violated the Hague regulations of 1907, the 1949 Geneva Convention rules, and the U.S. Army’s Law of Land Warfare, because a conquering power, according to those laws, is forbidden to rewrite the laws of the occupied country.

     Under Bremer’s leadership, billions of U.S. dollars were spent haphazardly, supposedly to “kickstart the Iraqi economy,” but without adequate financial controls, without month-end cash reconciliations, and without his cooperation with the qualified internal auditors. As a result and predictably, as much as $9 billion dollars evaporated. “Many of the funds appear to have been lost [due] to corruption and waste. . . . Some of the funds could have enriched both criminals and insurgents.”

     On March 24, 2004, Bremer shut down a newspaper, al-Hawza, because within its pages the Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had encouraged resistance against the Americans. This was widely criticized as flagrantly undemocratic. And then there were rumors that Bremer had initiated during his tenure in Iraq a love interest with a young Iraqi translator.

     “[An] absolute, total strategic fiasco,” is how Newt Gingrich had described Bremer’s policies in Iraq, and I would agree.