Paul Bremer, head man in Iraq.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 22 2003 6:09 PM

Paul Bremer

Can he bring peace to Iraq—and the Bush administration?

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By now, Paul Bremer must have come to grips with the enormity of the task facing him. As President Bush's special envoy and the chief U.S. civilian in Iraq, he must mediate among fierce tribal factions riven by ancient hatreds. And that's just in the Bush administration.

Bureaucratic infighting between the State Department and the Defense Department helped topple Bremer's predecessor, Jay Garner, who presided over an embarrassing debacle in Baghdad that the New Republic has compared to an "an Arab version of the Watts riots." Turf wars between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon predate the Bush administration, of course, but Bremer may be able to bridge the long-running divide. After all, his short tenure in Iraq has managed so far to combine the best elements from both departments: With the neoconservatives at the Pentagon, Bremer shares a loathing for militant Islamic radicalism and a desire for a free Iraq. But like the realists in Foggy Bottom, he understands the need—at least in the short run—for stability over democracy.

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Perhaps the best evidence for Bremer as The One comes from the early debate over whether he was Colin Powell's or Donald Rumsfeld's man. On May 2, reports in both the New York Times and the Washington Post on Bremer's appointment declared it a Foggy Bottom victory. Presumably, the crowing in the State Department came from Bremer's résumé as a career diplomat: 23 years under six secretaries of state. There was even some griping on the right about his selection. "Bremer doesn't know anything about Iraq," an anonymous "conservative Mideast specialist" complained to the Los Angeles Times. "I wonder if it's not one more episode in [the State Department's] attempt to wrest this from" the Defense Department.

Soon, however, the neoconservatives were mollified. Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, hardly State allies, handpicked Bremer, with Colin Powell, George Tenet, and Condoleezza Rice reportedly concurring, and Bremer works directly for Rumsfeld. Furthermore, for more than a decade, Bremer has been pushing an offensive approach to the war on terrorism. He headed the National Commission on Terrorism, which in 2000 recommended several aggressive steps that the Bush administration adopted after Sept. 11, including the repeal of rules that limited who could be recruited to infiltrate terrorist organizations and a recommendation that, in "extraordinary circumstances," the Defense Department should become one of the lead agencies in the war against terrorism.

Granted, Bremer hasn't hewed perfectly to the neocon line over the past couple of years. In a Dec. 16, 2001, Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Iraq Shouldn't Be the Next Stop in War on Terror," he advocated a Bob Graham-style campaign against terror, urging that Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria be told: Dismantle your terrorist training camps, or face unilateral military attack. But Bremer conceded that the United States faced an "inevitable confrontation" with Iraq, and by January of this year, he had endorsed war against Saddam sooner rather than later.

Another thing that delights the Wolfowitz crowd is that, despite a career in the State Department, Bremer has disparaged the multilateral approach to fighting terrorism. During the Clinton administration, he wrote in the Washington Post that, when confronting Osama Bin Laden, the government should "ignore the fruitless discussions in the U.N.—an endless litany of resolutions and solemn declarations don't impress terrorists." And immediately after 9/11, Bremer cautioned against "a mindless search for international 'consensus' for our actions."

In Iraq, Bremer has implemented this unilateral approach on a smaller scale by wisely dumping the "listening tour" approach employed by Garner and introducing a series of long-overdue actions. The trash is getting picked up, for one. The Associated Press on Tuesday reported that 360 tons of garbage had been removed from a single Baghdad neighborhood. (More striking, the AP said that was "about one-fourth of the amount of garbage on the streets.") Under Bremer, Baath Party members are being tossed from public positions, the Iraqi populace is being partially disarmed, an Iraqi provisional government has been postponed, and looters are being jailed. These actions encompass elements from what both the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom have recommended: State's tolerance for Baathists in the name of stability enrages neocons while the Defense Department's preference for anarchy in the name of democracy worries those who believe that stability is the best way to promote self-rule in the long run.

Bremer and his team have made a couple of missteps—the leak in the New York Times that soldiers were "going to start shooting a few looters so that the word gets around" got things off on the wrong foot, and Bremer's "This is not a country in anarchy" declaration from Baghdad had a whiff of wishful thinking. The Independent's Phil Reeves poked fun  at the "peculiar endorsement of Saddam's judicial system" when Bremer said that some of the prisoners released by Saddam need to be re-jailed, but Bremer's tough actions are exactly the kind of necessary ruthlessness  that Slate's David Plotz reported would be necessary to restore order in Iraq. Baghdad needed an Al Haig, someone who would step up and proclaim that they were in charge, and Bremer has performed that role ably. A little rebellion may be a good thing, but for the past month, Iraq has had too much of a good thing.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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