After the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, the opportunity to participate in the U.S.-led effort to reconstruct Iraq...
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003, the opportunity to participate in the U.S.-led effort to reconstruct Iraq attracted professionals, Arabic-speaking academics, development specialists and war-zone adventurers. But they had to get past Jim O’Beirne’s Pentagon office before going to Baghdad.
To pass muster with O’Beirne, a political appointee, applicants didn’t need to be experts in the Middle East or in postconflict reconstruction. They did need, however, to be a member of the Republican Party.
O’Beirne’s staff posed blunt questions about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade.
Many of those chosen to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which ran Iraq’s government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who never had worked in finance was sent to reopen Baghdad’s stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq’s $13 billion budget, even though the former had no accounting background and the latter lacked experience managing finances of a large organization..
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The decision to send the loyal and the willing instead of the best and the brightest now is regarded by many people involved in the 3 ½-year effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as one of the Bush administration’s gravest errors. Many selected because of their political fidelity spent their time trying to impose a conservative agenda on the postwar occupation that sidetracked more important efforts and squandered good will among Iraqis.
About the report
This account was adapted from the book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside the Green Zone,” by former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief and now assistant managing editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
The CPA had the power to enact laws, print currency, collect taxes, deploy police and spend Iraq’s oil revenue. It had more than 1,500 employees in Baghdad at its height, working under America’s viceroy in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, but never released a public roster.
Interviews with scores of former CPA personnel over the past two years depict an organization dominated — and ultimately hobbled — by administration ideologues.
“We didn’t tap — and it should have started from the White House on down — just didn’t tap the right people to do this job,” said Frederick Smith, who served as deputy director of the CPA’s Washington office. “It was a tough, tough job. Instead we got people who went out there because of their political leanings.”
Endowed with $18 billion in U.S. reconstruction money and a comparatively quiescent environment, the CPA was the U.S. government’s first and best hope to establish order, promote rebuilding and assemble a viable government, all of which, experts believe, would have constricted the insurgency and mitigated chances of civil war. Many basic tasks Americans struggle to accomplish today — training the army, vetting the police, increasing electricity generation — could have been performed far more effectively in 2003.
But many Coalition Provisional Authority staff members were more interested in other things: in instituting a flat tax, in selling off government assets, in ending food rations and otherwise fashioning a new nation that looked a lot like the U.S. Many were cloistered in the Green Zone, a walled-off enclave in central Baghdad with towering palms, posh villas, well-stocked bars and swimming pools.
By the time Bremer departed, Iraq was in a precarious state. Its army, dissolved and reconstituted by the CPA, was one-third the size he had pledged. Seventy percent of police officers had not been screened or trained. Electricity generation was far less than what Bremer had promised. And Iraq’s interim government had been selected not by elections but by Americans.
To recruit the people he wanted, O’Beirne sought résumés from the offices of Republican congressmen, conservative think tanks and GOP activists. He discarded applications from those his staff deemed ideologically suspect, even if the applicants possessed Arabic language skills or postwar rebuilding experience.
Smith said O’Beirne once pointed to a young man’s résumé and pronounced him “an ideal candidate.” His chief qualification was that he had worked for the Republican Party in Florida during the presidential election recount in 2000.
O’Beirne, a former Army officer who is married to prominent conservative commentator Kate O’Beirne, did not respond to requests for comment.
One former CPA employee who had an office near O’Beirne’s wrote an e-mail to a friend describing the recruitment process: “I watched résumés of immensely talented individuals who had sought out CPA to help the country thrown in the trash because their adherence to ‘the President’s vision for Iraq’ [a frequently heard phrase at CPA] was ‘uncertain.’ I saw senior civil servants from agencies like Treasury, Energy … and Commerce denied advisory positions in Baghdad that were instead handed to prominent RNC [Republican National Committee] contributors.”
As more of O’Beirne’s hires arrived in the Green Zone, the CPA’s headquarters in Saddam’s marble-walled former Republican Palace felt like a campaign war room. Bumper stickers and mouse pads praising President Bush were standard desk decorations.
“I’m not here for the Iraqis,” one worker noted over lunch. “I’m here for George Bush.”
When Gordon Robison, who worked in the Strategic Communications office, opened a care package from his mother to find a book by Paul Krugman, a liberal New York Times columnist, people around him stared. “It was like I had just unwrapped a radioactive brick,” he recalled.
Jay Hallen, 24, had graduated from Yale two years earlier, and he didn’t much like his real-estate job. His passion was the Middle East, and he was intrigued enough to take Arabic classes and read histories.
He had mixed feelings about the war, but he viewed the occupation as a ripe opportunity. In the summer of 2003, he sent an e-mail to Reuben Jeffrey III, an adviser to Bremer: Might there be openings in Baghdad?
Jeffrey forwarded Hallen’s résumé to O’Beirne’s office. Hallen received a call three weeks later. The CPA wanted him in Baghdad. Pronto.
The day he arrived, he met with Thomas Foley, the CPA official in charge of privatizing state-owned enterprises. (Foley, a major Republican Party donor, went to Harvard Business School with Bush.) Foley wanted Hallen to take charge of reopening the stock exchange.
“Are you sure?” Hallen said to Foley. “I don’t have a finance background.”
It’s fine, Foley replied. Hallen would rely on other people to get things done.
Before the war, Baghdad’s stock exchange had no computers, electronic displays or men in colorful coats on the trading floor. Trades were scrawled on paper and noted on large boards. There was no air conditioning. It was loud and boisterous. But it worked.
Hallen decided he wanted to make the exchange the best in the Arab world. He wanted to promulgate a new securities law that would make the exchange independent of the Finance Ministry. He wanted to set up a commission to oversee the market. He wanted brokers to be licensed and listed companies to provide financial disclosures. He wanted to install a computerized trading and settlement system.
Broker Talib Tabatabai, who held a doctorate in political science from Florida State University, thought the plan was unrealistic. “It was something so fancy, so great, that it couldn’t be accomplished,” he said.
But Hallen insisted major changes were needed.
He recruited a team of U.S. volunteers. In the spring of 2004, Bremer approved the new law and simultaneously appointed the nine Iraqis selected by Hallen to become the exchange’s board of governors.
The exchange’s board selected Tabatabai as its chairman. The new securities law gave the board control over the exchange’s operations, but it didn’t say a thing about the role of the CPA adviser.
Tabatabai and the other governors decided to open the market as soon as possible. They ordered dry-erase boards. They used large boards to keep track of buying and selling prices before the war; that’s how they’d do it again.
Asked what would have happened if Hallen hadn’t been assigned to reopen the exchange, Tabatabai smiled. “We would have opened months earlier. He had grand ideas, but those ideas did not materialize,” Tabatabai said. “Those CPA people reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia.”
The hiring of Bremer’s most senior advisers was settled upon at the highest levels of the White House and the Pentagon. Some, like Foley, were personally recruited by Bush.
Others received jobs because an influential Republican made a call.
That’s what happened with social worker James Haveman Jr., selected to oversee the rehabilitation of Iraq’s health-care system.
Haveman, 60, largely was unknown among international health experts, but he had connections. He had been community health director for the former Republican governor of Michigan, John Engler, who recommended him to Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense.
Haveman was well-traveled, but most of his trips were in his capacity as a director of International Aid, a faith-based relief organization that provided health care while promoting Christianity in the developing world. Haveman earlier ran a large Christian adoption agency in Michigan that urged pregnant women not to have abortions.
Haveman replaced Frederick Burkle Jr., a physician with a master’s degree in public health and postgraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and the University of California, Berkeley. Burkle was a deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, which sent him to Baghdad immediately after the war.
He had worked in Kosovo and Somalia and in northern Iraq after the Persian Gulf War. A USAID colleague called him the “single most talented and experienced postconflict health specialist working for the United States government.”
But a week after Baghdad’s liberation, Burkle was told he was being replaced. A senior official at USAID told Burkle the White House wanted a “loyalist.” Burkle had a wall of degrees, but he didn’t have a picture with the president.
Haveman arrived in Iraq with priorities. He approached problems the way a health-care administrator in America would: He focused on preventive measures to reduce the need for hospital treatment.
He urged the Health Ministry to mount an anti-smoking campaign, and he assigned an American — a closet smoker — to lead the public-education effort. Several staff members noted wryly that Iraqis faced far greater dangers than tobacco. The CPA’s limited resources, they argued, would be better used raising awareness about how to prevent childhood diarrhea and other fatal maladies.
Haveman didn’t like the idea that medical care in Iraq was free. He figured Iraqis should pay a small fee when they saw a doctor. He also decided to allocate almost all of the Health Ministry’s $793 million share of U.S. reconstruction money to renovating maternity hospitals and building new community medical clinics. His intention, he said, was “to shift the mind-set of the Iraqis that you don’t get health care unless you go to a hospital.”
But his decision meant there was no money to rehabilitate emergency rooms and operating theaters at Iraqi hospitals, even though injuries from insurgent attacks had become the major public-health challenge.
Haveman also wanted to apply American medicine to other parts of the Health Ministry. Instead of trying to restructure the dysfunctional state-owned firm that imported and distributed drugs and medical supplies to hospitals, he decided to sell it to a private company.
To prepare it for a sale, he wanted to attempt something he had done in Michigan. As the state’s director of community health, he had sought to slash the huge sums Michigan spent on prescription drugs for the poor by limiting medications doctors could prescribe for Medicaid patients. Unless they received an exemption, physicians could only prescribe drugs from an approved list, known as a formulary.
Haveman figured the same strategy could bring down the cost of medicine in Iraq. The country had 4,500 items on its drug formulary. If private firms were going to bid for the job of supplying drugs to government hospitals, they needed a smaller, more manageable list. A new formulary also would outline new requirements about where approved drugs could be manufactured, forcing Iraq to stop buying medicines from Syria, Iran and Russia, and start buying from the U.S.
Haveman asked people who had drawn up the formulary in Michigan whether they wanted to come to Baghdad. They declined. So he beseeched the Pentagon for help. Three formulary experts were on their way a few weeks later.
The group was led by Theodore Briski, a pharmacist who held the rank of lieutenant commander in the Navy. Haveman’s order, as Briski remembered it, was: “Build us a formulary in two weeks and then go home.” By his second day in Iraq, Briski came to three conclusions. First, the existing formulary “really wasn’t that bad.” Second, his mission was really about “redesigning the entire Iraqi pharmaceutical procurement and delivery system, and that was a complete change of scope — on a grand scale.” Third, Haveman and his advisers “really didn’t know what they were doing.”
Haveman’s critics, including more than a dozen people who worked for him in Baghdad, contend that rewriting the formulary was a distraction. Instead, they said, the CPA should have focused on restructuring, but not privatizing, the drug-delivery system and on ordering more emergency shipments of medicine to address shortages of essential medicines. The first emergency procurement did not occur until early 2004, after the Americans had been in Iraq for more than eight months.
Haveman insisted that revising the formulary was a crucial first step in improving the distribution of medicines. “It was unwieldy to order 4,500 different drugs, and to test and distribute them,” he said.
When Haveman left Iraq, Baghdad’s hospitals were as decrepit as the day the Americans arrived. Nationwide, the Health Ministry reported that 40 percent of the 900 drugs it deemed essential were out of stock in hospitals. Of 32 medicines used in public clinics for the management of chronic diseases, 26 were unavailable.
In May 2003, a team of law-enforcement experts from the Justice Department concluded that more than 6,600 foreign advisers were needed to help rehabilitate Iraq’s police forces.
The White House dispatched one: Bernard Kerik.
Kerik had more star power than Bremer and everyone else in the CPA combined. Soldiers stopped him to ask for his autograph or a picture. Reporters were more interested in interviewing him than they were the viceroy.
Kerik had been New York’s police commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001. His courage, stamina and charisma turned him into a national hero. When White House officials were casting about for a prominent individual to take charge of Iraq’s Interior Ministry and assume the challenge of rebuilding the Iraqi police, Kerik’s name came up. Bush pronounced it an excellent idea.
Kerik had worked in the Middle East before, as the security director for a government hospital in Saudi Arabia, but he was expelled from the country amid a government investigation into his surveillance of the medical staff. He lacked postwar policing experience, but the White House viewed that as an asset. Veteran Middle East hands were regarded as insufficiently committed to the goal of democratizing the region.
Robert Gifford, a State Department expert in international law enforcement, was one of the first CPA staff members to meet Kerik in Baghdad. Gifford was senior adviser to the Interior Ministry, which oversaw the police. Kerik was to take Gifford’s job.
As they entered the Interior Ministry office in the palace, Gifford offered to brief Kerik. “It was during that period I realized he wasn’t with me,” Gifford recalled. “He didn’t listen to anything. He hadn’t read anything except his e-mails. I don’t think he read a single one of our proposals.”
Kerik was content to let Gifford figure out how to train Iraqi officers to work in a democratic society. Kerik would take care of briefing the viceroy and the media. And he’d be going out for a few missions himself.
Kerik’s first order of business was to give a slew of interviews saying the situation was improving. He told The Associated Press that security in Baghdad “is not as bad as I thought. Are bad things going on? Yes. But is it out of control? No. Is it getting better? Yes.” He went on NBC’s “Today” show to pronounce the situation “better than I expected.” To Time magazine, he said “people are starting to feel more confident. They’re coming back out. Markets and shops that I saw closed one week ago have opened.”
When it came to his safety, Kerik took no chances. He hired a team of South African bodyguards, and he packed a 9-mm handgun.
The first months after liberation were a critical period for Iraq’s police. Officers needed to be screened for Baath party connections. They’d have to learn about due process, how to interrogate without torture, how to walk the beat. They required new weapons. New chiefs had to be selected. Tens of thousands more officers would have to be hired to put the genie of anarchy back in the bottle.
Kerik held two staff meetings while in Iraq, one when he arrived and the other when he was being shadowed by a New York Times reporter, according to Gerald Burke, a former Massachusetts State Police commander who participated in the initial Justice Department assessment mission. Despite his White House connections, Kerik did not secure funding for the desperately needed police advisers. With no help on the way, the task of organizing and training Iraqi officers fell to U.S. military police soldiers, many of whom had no experience in civilian law enforcement.
Kerik authorized formation of a 100-man Iraqi police paramilitary unit to pursue criminal syndicates that had formed since the war, and he often joined the group on nighttime raids, departing the Green Zone at midnight and returning at dawn, in time to attend Bremer’s senior staff meeting, where he would crack a few jokes, describe the night’s adventures and read off the latest crime statistics prepared by an aide. The unit did bust a few kidnapping gangs and car-theft rings, generating a stream of positive news stories that Kerik basked in and Bremer applauded. But the all-nighters meant Kerik wasn’t around to supervise the Interior Ministry during the day. He was sleeping.
Several members of the CPA’s Interior Ministry team wanted to blow the whistle on Kerik, but concluded complaints would be brushed off.
Kerik contended he did his best in what was, ultimately, an untenable situation. He said he wasn’t given sufficient money to hire foreign police advisers or establish large-scale training programs for police.
Three months after he arrived, Kerik attended a meeting of local police chiefs in Baghdad’s Convention Center. When it was his turn to address the group, he stood and bid everyone farewell. Although he had informed Bremer of his decision a few days earlier, Kerik hadn’t told most of his staff. He flew out of Iraq hours later.
“I was in my own world,” he said later. “I did my own thing.”