Where did ISIS come from? The story starts here.
It took us five years to talk honestly about Vietnam. It’s time to do that with Iraq, and Paul Bremer’s tenure is the place to begin.
AS SOON AS I ARRIVE AT HIS HOME, a well-kept but slightly dated fieldstone Colonial in Chevy Chase, Maryland, he ushers me down a staircase into the basement, past one bookcase packed with white binders and another stacked with board games. We end up in a dimly lit corner where a desk, a couch, and a treadmill all jockey for space. “This is basically my office,” L. Paul Bremer tells me, adding almost apologetically, “and our exercise area.”
For a man who once commanded the world’s attention, working out of a palace and wielding expansive powers over 25 million people while serving as America’s viceroy in postwar Iraq, these quarters seem modest. But the reminders of a more influential time are all around. Each of those white binders is labeled “CPA Archives,” as in the Coalition Provisional Authority that President George W. Bush appointed Bremer to run one month after US troops had cruised into Baghdad. (At one point during his reign, Bremer is said to have waved off a British general’s concerns about the legality of a certain security measure with the quip “I am the law.”) Along the white-paneled walls hang framed photos of Bremer with the biggest stars in the firmament of Republican administrations over the last half century: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bushes 41 and 43, as well as Kissinger, Haig, Rumsfeld, and Cheney.
When George W. appointed Bremer in May 2003, after the exhilaration around the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue had been quickly followed by a descent into looting and lawlessness, most people were caught off guard. That included the Bush administration’s first postwar point man in Iraq, retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, who had just arrived in Baghdad when he learned he was about to be replaced. Although Bremer was a former ambassador, he spoke no Arabic, had no experience with postwar reconstruction or with running a large organization, had never served in the military or the Arab world, and had never even visited Iraq. Those shortcomings did not hinder his candidacy. Perversely, as I would learn from Bremer, they enhanced it.
Bremer’s Iraq tour turned out to be relatively brief, just 14 months, yet it continues to resonate to this day. That’s particularly true around a couple of enormously consequential decisions that he announced during just his first two weeks in Baghdad. In those decisions, critics argue, one can find the roots of the lethal insurgency that upended Iraq, as well as the scourge of ISIS that followed and now threatens to draw American troops back onto Iraqi soil for the third time in as many decades. In the end, though, how much should Bremer be held responsible for the continuing mess of the Middle East?
It’s been more than five years since US combat troops left Iraq. It took about that long after Vietnam for the nation to begin wrestling honestly with the forces that had led us into that mistaken war. It’s time we start doing the same with Iraq. And the case of L. Paul Bremer — at once well intentioned, infuriating, and tragic — is the ideal place to anchor this kind of reexamination.
He and I both knew we would be getting to those tough questions soon enough. I decided to start with the lighter stuff. In recent years, Bremer, who is now 74, has turned his focus to painting, following in the steps of his former boss. “Bush is a better artist than I am,” he tells me.
Bremer’s biggest source of inspiration for his oil-on-canvas creations are the landscapes of Vermont, where he and his wife, Francie, bought a country house shortly before he was asked to decamp for Baghdad. He tells me that planning the kitchen remodel for that rambling house — a former bed-and-breakfast in Chester — provided his favorite form of escape during his bleakest hours in Iraq. He and Francie, who both grew up in Connecticut, usually spend chunks of the winter and summer in Vermont, although his wife’s health has kept them at home in Maryland this year. A longtime sufferer of fibromyalgia, Francie is now undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. They’re upbeat about her prognosis but acknowledge that the treatments have been extremely taxing.
Bremer paints from both houses. Sitting in the basement in Chevy Chase, I ask if we can move to his attic studio to see his artwork. “Do you mind if we do that later?” he replies. Francie is sleeping in their second-floor bedroom, and he doesn’t want to wake her en route.
So much for starting with the lighter stuff.
AT A MEETING IN THE PENTAGON shortly before Bremer’s appointment in 2003, influential Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz turned to him and asked, “You do believe in democracy, don’t you?”
A startled Bremer replied, “Of course I believe in democracy.”
Recounting this exchange now as we sit in his basement, Bremer tells me: “I thought it was a bizarre thing to say. I didn’t unlock it then, though I subsequently did.”
Why had Bremer’s lack of expertise in the Middle East made him more attractive to the neoconservatives in the Bush administration?
Wolfowitz, a former academic dean, believed too many of the “Arabist” regional specialists in the State Department had concluded that democracy wasn’t possible in the Middle East. Bremer says Wolfowitz had wanted to make sure he hadn’t been “infected” by that kind of defeatist thinking.
On Bremer’s office wall, my eye catches a framed photograph that contains more clues to explain his improbable path to power in Iraq. The black-and-white photo was taken aboard Air Force One in 1975. President Gerald Ford is standing at the center, talking to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Seated at Kissinger’s side is Bremer, who, as a young foreign service officer not long out of Yale and Harvard Business School, had climbed the ranks in the last-man-standing climate of the post-Watergate presidency to become Kissinger’s chief aide.
The most pivotal figure is seated at the back, partially obscured by the president. It is Dick Cheney, a Yale dropout with a drunken-driving record who somehow became the youngest White House chief of staff in history. Cheney owed his remarkable rise almost entirely to one man, Donald Rumsfeld. He had tapped Cheney to be his replacement when Rumsfeld departed the position to become Ford’s secretary of defense.
The Ford years marked the low point of influence for both the presidency and the military in 20th-century America. Congress walked all over the accidental commander in chief, and the Pentagon brass licked their wounds after having presided over the nation’s first lost war. It was also during this period that Cheney and Rumsfeld forged their bedrock views about how power and force should best be exercised.
Nearly three decades later, when they were back at the controls, Cheney as the most powerful vice president in US history and Rumsfeld as the most assertive defense secretary in memory, they put those beliefs into action.
Shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they began orchestrating a new kind of war for the 21st century, one that would be lean on troops, heavy on technology, and preemptive rather than provoked. Beginning in March 2003, it took a slim US force of 150,000 troops just three weeks to roll over the enemy in the sands of the Middle East with “shock and awe.”
However, Iraq after the fall of Baghdad was not awash in appreciation for this liberation, as Cheney and Rumsfeld had predicted, but rather slipping into chaos. The shock was over a superpower’s impotence to stop the ransacking of a nation by desperate civilians and brazen thugs. The awe sprang from how derelict the planning for the postwar period must have been to have let this happen. Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush needed a take-charge guy who could rapidly get things under control.
Bremer received an exploratory call from his old friend Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was serving as Cheney’s chief of staff. The two shared a given name that neither used. Lewis Paul Bremer III had been known since birth as “Jerry,” a nickname to differentiate him from his father and grandfather and selected because he had been born on the feast day of St. Jerome.
Drawing a nickname from a patron saint might suggest Bremer was born into a Catholic family, but in fact he came from Connecticut Episcopalian stock. He had followed a well-trod WASP path from New Canaan Country School to Phillips Academy, Andover, to Yale. (He and his wife would convert to Roman Catholicism much later in life, motivated by Pope John Paul II’s stance against communism and abortion.)
Despite a very different background, Bremer exuded a Bobby Kennedy vibe — a slight marathoner of a man, forever projecting youth and restless energy. When he got the Iraq call, he was 62 but looked a decade younger, with a helmet of thick brown hair and a toothy grin. He even had a vaguely Kennedy-esque accent, rendering the word “against” as “ah-GAIN-st.”
Bremer’s strong support for invading Iraq suggested loyalty to the neocon cause, while his decades in the foreign service (including as President Reagan’s ambassador to the Netherlands and for counterterrorism) promised to improve toxic relations between the State and Defense departments. More recently, he had served as managing director of Kissinger’s private consulting firm. Kissinger called him a control freak, and meant it as a compliment.
Thin in foreign policy, Bush had decided to make Iraq the battleground for confronting terrorism after his advisers’ different rationales for toppling Saddam coalesced. Even if you take Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz at their word — that they genuinely believed there were real connections between Saddam and Al Qaeda and that Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction, or WMD — it’s clear the war could also serve as a demonstration project for their own animating philosophies.
For Cheney, it was the importance of untrammeled executive authority. He had run the White House under a hamstrung President Ford and saw a powerful wartime presidency as the best weapon for confronting the existential threat of terrorism after 9/11. And a big win over a notorious regime in Iraq promised more clarity and strategic importance than did Afghanistan.
For Rumsfeld, Iraq would give him the chance to make the Pentagon’s generals, whom he saw as trapped in outdated Cold War thinking, see the wisdom of his plan to modernize the military with a smaller, faster, more technologically advanced fighting force. When, during the run-up to the war, the Army’s chief of staff testified that securing postwar Iraq would require at least several hundred thousand troops, Rumsfeld dismissed that warning and marginalized the general who had delivered it.
For Wolfowitz, it was the belief that only a bold, military-initiated experiment in democracy could free the Middle East from its decades-long paralysis of despotism and anti-Semitism. Toppling Saddam, the brutal dictator who had gassed his own people, would allow a new democratic Iraq to emerge, one that would be gratefully pro-American, would dutifully make peace with Israel, and would promptly unleash the spread of democracy across the Middle East.
Although there had been sufficient overlap in these rationales to back the invasion, it didn’t take long for the fissures to show. Rumsfeld’s lean and fast military operation was geared for a short war and quick handoff to Iraqis. And while Wolfowitz had also voiced support for a speedy handoff, the promise of a stable, democratic Iraq was predicated on having a credible, reliable Iraqi contingent to take the baton.
The lawlessness that led to Bremer’s appointment exposed the Bush administration’s astonishing lack of planning. The Pentagon had wrested control of postwar planning, icing out the State Department and its ambitious initiative, but then failed to take the responsibility seriously. During World War II, planning for postwar Germany had begun more than two years before the end of fighting. For the Iraq War, the administration launched General Garner’s postwar planning operation slightly more than two months before the end of combat. For Bremer, the time between his appointment to replace Garner and his arrival in Baghdad had been just two weeks.
NOT LONG AFTER US TROOPS ROLLED INTO Baghdad in 2003, I wrote an article for the Globe exploring the unintended consequences of military occupations and the surprisingly small events on which they often pivot. The panicked reaction of a few Israeli soldiers during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 1983 had birthed a ferocious Shia resistance. The presence of US troops on sacred Muslim soil in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War had radicalized Osama bin Laden against the United States, the Saudi royal family, and his own family, which had won contracts to build those bases. My piece concluded with this quote from Middle East specialist As’ad AbuKhalil: “The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gave us the Taliban. The American occupation of Saudi Arabia gave us bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The Israeli occupation of Lebanon gave us Hezbollah. Let us see what the American occupation of Iraq is going to give us.”
The suspense is over. We now know that the American occupation of Iraq gave us ISIS. (More on that later.) However, pinpointing when it became a doomed occupation is harder to determine.
AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, argues all occupations are fated to fail in the modern era. But he suggests the tipping point for this one came with the selection of Bremer. “They chose the best man to do the worst job,” he says. “They chose a very arrogant person with a very colonial attitude.”
Bremer’s willingness to throw himself into the job was admirable and his 20-hour-a-day work ethic unimpeachable. But his I-am-the-law attitude may well have set the wrong tone for Iraqis looking for signs that their lives would improve and their dignity be preserved. Even Bremer’s choice of daily uniform — navy blazer, tie, and pocket square, paired with the tan Timberland boots his son had given him (with the note “Go kick some butt, Dad!”) — seems unfortunate in hindsight. It made him look like an English nobleman headed to his country house for some upland hunting of quail, a reminder of Iraq’s belittling experience under British rule after World War I.
Others argue that the American occupation of Iraq had already been lost before Bremer stepped foot in Baghdad. In the documentary No End in Sight, diplomat Barbara Bodine, who had been part of Garner’s initial postwar team sent to Baghdad, dates the tipping point as April 11, 2003, about a month before Bremer’s arrival. After a couple of days of the too-small contingent of US troops in Baghdad idly watching as Iraqi marauders ransacked every ministry building and museum, destroying priceless Mesopotamian artifacts up to 7,000 years old, Donald Rumsfeld held a news conference. He jokily dismissed criticisms about the Pentagon’s planning failures as “henny penny” overreactions and concluded, “Stuff happens.” To proud Iraqis looking for clues about whether the American leaders respected their cradle-of-civilization past and were invested in their future, Rumsfeld’s snickering spoke volumes.
Even as odious as occupations are, this one might have remained salvageable had Bremer handled two momentous decisions differently during his first two weeks in power.
On his fifth day in Baghdad, Bremer issued CPA Order No. 1, “De-Baathification of Iraqi Society,” banning many members of Saddam’s Baath Party from public sector employment. One week after that, he announced CPA Order No. 2, disbanding the entire Iraqi military.
BREMER TAKES A SMALL FRAME DOWN from the shelf above his computer. Behind the glass is a copy of the handwritten note national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had sent President Bush during a NATO meeting on June 28, 2004.
Bremer reads it aloud. “Mr. President, Iraq is sovereign. Letter was passed from Bremer at 10:26 a.m. Iraq time. Condi.” Bush had promptly added his own comment in black marker before passing the information on to British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “Let Freedom Reign!”
Handing off sovereignty to an Iraqi government had been Bremer’s final act before leaving the country. That he had conducted the handoff two days earlier than planned, then posed for the press in a decoy C-130 to mask his true flight out of Iraq, testified to the shaky state of sovereignty. He had already survived an assassination attempt. His security team was determined to avoid one more.
While most critics fault Bremer for his orders de-Baathifying the government and disbanding the army, the Pentagon’s war architects blame him for handing over sovereignty near the end of his tenure rather than closer to the start. Just hours after arriving in Baghdad on May 12, 2003, he scuttled the plan Jay Garner had announced for a quick appointment of a temporary Iraqi government. (Bush officials had moved to replace the personable Garner after some concluded that he was in over his head.)
Doug Feith, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy and Paul Wolfowitz’s chief deputy, argues in his memoir that a quick handoff would have prevented the Iraqi insurgency from taking root.
Bremer remains reluctant to criticize the neocons head-on, despite the blame they toss his way. “Look,” he says, “I still see Feith and Wolfowitz from time to time. I still consider them friends.” But he argues persuasively that the damage to civil society under Saddam was so profound that there was simply no credible, representative group of Iraqis capable of handling government in the immediate postwar period.
Bremer says that the darling of the neocons, the brilliant but slippery businessman and Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, was clearly not the right man for the job. This wasn’t just because he had provided intelligence on Saddam’s alleged WMD program that turned out to be dead wrong. Chalabi hadn’t lived in Iraq for decades and had no domestic base of support. Handing him the keys right away would have been a disaster, Bremer says. The United States needed time to put in place the necessary building blocks for the democracy project to succeed.
As it happened, Chalabi did play a decisive role in Bremer’s controversial deBaathification order. Although Bremer has come to be regarded as the sole author of this decree to root out Saddam loyalists from the Iraqi government, that is simply not true. Drafts of the order had been circulating around the Pentagon long before Bremer’s appointment. Bremer miscalculated in suggesting to Feith that he be the one to announce it when he arrived in Baghdad, to make it clear to Iraqis that Saddam would not be coming back.
No one disputes that some level of deBaathification was necessary. Critics say Bremer’s big mistake was in rushing through a policy that went far too deep. It ensnared many Iraqis who had joined the Baath Party not because they were true believers but simply to see their pay goosed or avoid running afoul of Saddam’s goons.
When he announced the decision, Bremer estimated that it would affect about 20,000 people.
Garner tells me he and the CIA’s Baghdad station chief rushed into Bremer’s office after reading the draft order and pleaded with him to let them narrow its focus. Otherwise, the station chief warned, “You’re going to drive 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground by the time the sun rises in Baghdad.” Bremer was unmoved.
In the end, the deBaathification order is believed to have hoovered up 85,000 to 100,000 Iraqis, including thousands of teachers and mid-level technocrats who were summarily shut out of Iraq’s public sector future.
Although Bremer stands by the policy, he concedes he erred by letting its implementation fall to Chalabi. The wily exile engineered a witch hunt that unfairly punished thousands of innocent Iraqis. “It was a mistake,” Bremer says.
As for defending his decision to dissolve the Iraqi military, considered his costliest mistake, Bremer argues that the military had already self-disbanded. His only regret with the policy? “I used the wrong verb.”
In reality, the miscalculation ran a lot deeper than his choice of the word “dissolve.” War correspondent Dexter Filkins, now with The New Yorker, calls the order “probably the single most catastrophic decision of the American venture in Iraq. In a stroke, the Administration helped enable the creation of the Iraqi insurgency.”
Yes, most members of the Iraqi military had fled by the time US forces rolled in. But they had been following American instructions. The CIA had been dropping leaflets urging Iraqis to refrain from fighting and wait for information on how to become part of the new Iraq.
As he had with deBaathification, Bremer presented the army-disbanding decree as his own. In fact, he had been handed a draft of it during a meeting in the Pentagon with the war architects before he had left for Baghdad. The author of this one had been a tax attorney by the name of Walt Slocombe, who had held Feith’s job during the Clinton administration. Rumsfeld had appointed him as an adviser on matters involving the Iraqi military, an institution that Slocombe concluded should be dismantled even before he had stepped foot in the country.
This was a dramatic departure from Jay Garner’s plans to keep the bulk of the Iraqi military intact, putting it to work on reconstruction efforts around the country.
Sitting in his basement, Bremer argues that Iraqi Shiites so loathed the Sunni-dominated leadership of the military that they wouldn’t have stood for its reconstitution. The Kurds, he says, would have seceded.
I run Bremer’s argument by Garner, who had been brought on board largely on the strength of his successful work with the Kurds following the first Iraq war in 1991. He scoffs at it, saying Bremer issued that order practically “before he’d met his first Kurd.” Although Garner is sympathetic to the challenges Bremer faced, he says that with the one-two punch of deBaathification and disbanding the military, “we created half a million angry, armed, unemployed Iraqis in 48 hours. That’s dumb.”
The time frame may have been closer to one week, but the effect was the same. Bremer argues it would have been impossible to put the Iraqi army back together, but when I press him for specifics, he says, “You’ll have to ask Slocombe.”
Slocombe tells me that although he drafted the policy, “it was made not only by Bremer but also by Wolfowitz and Feith and other people in the department, including, I assume, Rumsfeld.”
Even though the units had self-disbanded, he says, “there were a lot of demands by the Iraqi officers to be paid, in what I regard as an extraordinary piece of chutzpah.”
However, Garner’s deputy for national security, US Army Colonel Paul Hughes, says Slocombe misinterpreted this issue of payments and motivation. He says he had been working with a group of former Iraqi officers who were signing up members of their units to be put to work by the Americans so they could provide for their families. Some 137,000 members of the military registered. Hughes says he passed this all along, but Slocombe ignored it.
Slocombe counters that, in a war-ravaged country with barely functioning communications, he doubted that these registrations were legitimate. And he didn’t believe the Shiite conscripts would have heeded calls to return to service by Sunni officers.
Hughes and Slocombe have been battling this point for years. To try to get clarity, I track down Mirjan Dhiya, the former Iraqi colonel with whom Hughes had been working closely during that 2003 registration drive. When I reach him, he is traveling from Jordan to Iraq.
He confirms that he and others had managed to sign up those 137,000 army members, building a database with names, addresses, and descriptions of their weapons. “We advised the US Army to open an area to collect these weapons,” he says, “but they refused.” As to the charge Slocombe made about Shiite conscripts not listening to Sunni officers, he says that’s nonsense. The list contained representatives of all sects. Further casting doubt on Slocombe’s assumptions, Dhiya was an army officer (with a doctorate) who also happened to be Shiite.
Disbanding the army and enraging — rather than enlisting — all those unemployed Iraqis who were willing to help, Dhiya says, “was a stupid decision.”
As Hughes reflects on these what-ifs so many years after the occupation turned ugly, his voice cracks. “It flames me when I start to think about this,” he says. “All the dead Americans. Didn’t have to happen.”
ON MAY 26, 2003, THREE DAYS AFTER BREMER DISBANDED the Iraqi military, and three weeks after President Bush delivered his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, a US Army convoy traveled west along the highway to the Baghdad airport. Sitting in the gunner position in the lead Humvee was a 25-year-old private by the name of Jeremiah Smith.
As the Humvee traveled over a canvas bag on the road, there was a massive blast. Two soldiers emerged from the vehicle bloodied and dazed. Smith, the father of two preschool girls back home in Odessa, Missouri, never made it out alive. He is believed to have been the war’s first casualty of an improvised explosive device, or IED, the acronym that would become the signature of the Iraqi insurgency.
Bremer and Walt Slocombe both stress to me that attacks on US forces started to slow down by late July, when former members of the military finally began receiving payments. (Slocombe eventually agreed to the earlier suggestion by Hughes and others that these payments be allowed through.) “Because the payment program was so successful when it got going,” Slocombe says, “it would obviously have been better to get it going faster.”
But by the time of those payments in July, the insurgency was fully ascendant, even if it took months more for US officials to acknowledge that. “The decision to disband the Army was absolutely critical to fueling the low-level violence and transforming it into full-fledged insurgency,” says Ahmed Hashim, an academic specialist on the subject and author of the forthcoming book The Caliphate at War.
The rise in IED attacks forced US troops to become more aggressively suspicious of the Iraqi population. That, combined with food shortages and the Coalition Provisional Authority’s inability to provide power and other basic services, began to push fence-sitting Iraqis into the camp opposing the US occupation.
The massive attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, that killed special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, followed 10 days later by the assassination of a Shiite cleric who had been cooperating with the Americans, hardened positions even more. In the beginning, the insurgency comprised dozens of disparate resistance forces. In time, it took on a clearer identity.
Meanwhile, Bremer worked tirelessly to lay the groundwork for a sustainable Iraqi democracy. “I’m out there beavering away,” Bremer says, recalling he told the president the effort would likely take a couple of years.
In September, he published an op-ed in The Washington Post outlining a multi-phase plan. That caused alarm in the nation’s capital, where Bush would soon begin his reelection campaign.
Before long, Bremer saw his multi-phase plan get kneecapped and his deadline for the handover moved up to the spring of 2004. Against the odds, he managed to persuade various Iraqi factions to agree to an ambitious document that paved the way for a new constitution and elections. It was by far his biggest achievement. But by June 28, 2004, Bremer was gone. Sovereignty was in Iraqi hands. Let freedom reign.
The tragedy of Iraq is that, despite the insistent claims of the war’s proponents, there turned out to have been no real connections between the Saddam regime and Al Qaeda prior to the war. But the US invasion and occupation made those fallacious links real.
In the fall of 2004, ruthless jihadi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi publicly swore his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and rebranded his operation as Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Although the situation in Iraq continued to worsen for years, it finally began to improve in 2007. The Iraqi-led “Awakening,” when Sunni tribal leaders joined the American effort (and payroll) to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq, combined with the surge of US forces, created more stability than Iraq had seen in some time.
It didn’t last long. And here the sins of the Bush administration bled into the sins of the Obama administration.
In the parliamentary election of 2010, incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik’s party finished in second place. A Shiite with close ties to Iran, Maliki had shown signs during his first term of being less of a leader for Iraq than for Iraqi Shia. Yet US officials crucially failed to intervene as this divisive leader maneuvered to hang on to his job. After the last American troops left Iraq in 2011, Maliki wasted no time in going on a score-settling sectarian rampage, rooting out Sunnis from the Iraqi government and military.
Suddenly, the Sunni tribal leaders who had fought to neutralize Al Qaeda in Iraq realized that they had unwittingly strengthened the hand of a Shiite prime minister who was determined to freeze them out of power. So when the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, attempted to take back territory in Sunni areas, it faced little resistance.
The new leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, actively recruited former Baathist military officers for his operation, regardless of their jihadi bona fides. These officers had valuable experience with advanced military equipment, with torture, and with smuggling oil and other commodities on the black market.
When the civil war broke out in Syria, Baghdadi exploited the chaos to expand the scope of his operation to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Hashim and other analysts estimate that up to 60 percent of top leadership roles in ISIS are held by ex-Baathists.
So now the push is on to fight ISIS, with the prospect of US combat troops returning to Iraqi soil. Already, the United States has jacked up its military support for the Iraqi government. But thanks to Maliki’s destructive behavior, the Iraqi government has devolved into a fundamentally sectarian organization, intertwined with brutal, Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Even though there is now a new prime minister, the damage has been done.
LEADING ME INTO THE SMALL second-floor bathroom, Bremer pulls down the ladder from the ceiling to access the attic. I follow him on the rickety ascent into his studio.
It’s a tight space up here, but nice and bright, with late-afternoon sun streaming in through the skylights and bouncing off the white walls. His paintings line the perimeter: bright-red barns and deep-green fields, powder-blue clouds and burnt-orange sunsets.
“I like pretty pictures,” he says, “bright colors.”
I scan the room for any hint of the darkness he witnessed in war-ravaged Iraq. After all, he had arrived amid looting and fiery chaos — the first sentence in his memoir: “Baghdad was burning” — and then was chased out by a vicious insurgency. But the artwork is resolutely cheery.
Up here, the only hint of his time in the Middle East comes from the Arabic lettering on the spines of a shelf full of translated copies of his book, My Year in Iraq.
Bremer, who is finally going gray and starting to look his age, began painting not long after he returned from Iraq. He continues to spend three or four days a week at the easel. Now mostly retired, he has more time for his family, which includes five grandchildren as well as his son and daughter. He has no paying job, other than serving as Henry Kissinger’s literary executor.
For him, the appeal of painting is pretty clear, and it explains his focus on the Green Mountains and not Iraq’s Green Zone. “It’s stress management,” he says, “the same reason Bush is now painting.” He has only kind words for the former president’s brush strokes, and, more or less, for his presidency as well. Five months after Bremer’s unceremonious exit from Baghdad, George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, Bremer keeps it at his happy place in Vermont.
In his memoir, Bremer was fairly muted in his criticism of his colleagues from the Bush administration. Then again, his was the first one to hit the shelves, published in 2006, midway through Bush’s second term. In the sharp-knife climate of post-presidency memoirs, Bremer has found himself having to nurse more than a few wounds. Doug Feith, in his score-settling tome, effectively threw Bremer under the bus. Dick Cheney and even Bush admitted that the decision to disband the Iraqi army had been a mistake.
Bremer has tried to correct the record and protect his reputation while concealing any indignation he might feel against the people he calls “my friends.” The only person he has criticized with a bit less restraint has been Donald Rumsfeld. I ask him about the former defense secretary. “The starting point for understanding Rumsfeld is that he was a wrestler at Princeton,” he says with a smirk. “Everything else is detail.”
“What’s the starting point for understanding you?”
“That’s a good question.”
I decide to take a stab at answering it. A few hours earlier, he had described how much he loathed his high school years at Andover. He had arrived in the 10th grade, a year later than most of the other boys. Sports weren’t an option for penetrating the cliques because he was so small. (“I was 96 pounds and probably 4-foot-11.”) So I ask him if that experience of being an undersized outcast in high school could be the Rosetta stone for fathoming Jerry Bremer.
“That was important,” he says. “It made me a fighter.”
I ask him if his fighting instincts flare when he hears the architects of the war blaming him for his infamous decisions while trying to absolve themselves of their own colossal mistakes.
He relates an anecdote: Back in the fall of 2003, when Iraq was beginning to come unhinged thanks to the insurgency, he had traveled to Washington for meetings. Bremer made up for his lack of athleticism in high school by becoming a competitive marathoner and adventure sports enthusiast in adulthood, and during this visit to the White House, he had worked out with the president in his private quarters. At one point, he recalls, White House chief of staff Andy Card took him aside and warned him about maneuvering at the Pentagon: “They’re gaming you. They’re trying to blame you for this whole thing.”
He didn’t dwell on this warning back then. But now he admits how much of a line of demarcation that period would become in his relationship with the architects of the war.
By then, the insurgency had terrorized the United States with a series of deadly bombings, including the UN attack. “It was beginning to look pretty rough,” Bremer says. “And I think that, rather than admit that they had underestimated the difficulty, they decided to blame me.”
Finally, he breaks with his longstanding practice of not criticizing the president he served. “We screwed up,” he says. “The biggest screw-up was Bush took too long to fire Rumsfeld and change the strategy.” Only after the post-Rumsfeld surge in troop strength did things begin to improve. But when I ask him if the war was a mistake, he vigorously shakes his head no.
“I am absolutely clear,” he says. “I have no hesitation.”
“The world would be a much, much more dangerous place if Saddam were still in power. We would have a nuclear Iraq under Saddam.”
For some reason, this intransigence surprises me. Even Walt Slocombe had conceded to me that “in retrospect, it was a mistake. It’s a horrible thing to say: The war was fought on a mistaken premise.”
Yet in the face of all the evidence to the contrary as well as the abandonment by his Bush administration friends, Bremer stands firm. To vanquish a tyrant who turned out to be a paper tiger with not a single weapon of mass destruction in his arsenal, the American government had squandered nearly $1 trillion (despite Paul Wolfowitz’s prewar claim that Iraqi oil revenues would cover the entire cost of the war). It also sullied its international reputation and sacrificed the lives of 4,500 of its own, not to mention the thousands more Iraqi civilians. Meanwhile, implacable US foe Iran emerged more dominant than ever in the region.
“As a student of history,” Bremer tells me, “I would say wars are always easier to start than they are to end.”
It’s time to leave his attic studio. At the top of the rickety ladder, he offers me instructions. “You have to go down this backwards. Otherwise, it may be the last thing you do.” I trust this advice from a man who knows how hard exits can be.