Bremer Looks Back in New Memoir

Steve Inskeep talks with Ambassador L. Paul Bremer about his new book, My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope. Bremer talks about the complexity of creating a new Iraqi civilian government from scratch.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And on this day, we're going to meet an American who made some of the most critical decisions in the past three years of war; decisions that led up to this moment. Paul Bremer took over the U.S. Occupation Authority shortly after the fall of Baghdad. In a memoir called My Year in Iraq, Bremer recalls how his decisions were made. He's already made news by writing that he appealed for more American troops in Iraq, a request that was not acted on. Bremer defends other controversial decisions, like disbanding the Iraqi army. He says other decisions were mistaken, like endorsing huge projects to reshape the entire Iraqi economy.

Mr. PAUL BREMER (Former U.S. Occupation Authority): There were very high expectations on the part of the Iraqis. We had thrown out this hated regime that they'd been fighting for three decades. We threw them out in three weeks. And so Iraqis said to themselves, well look, if you can throw out this fifth largest army in the world in three weeks, you ought to be able to fix, and then, you know, fill in the blank. The power projects, the sewage, whatever, without them realizing how totally run down all of these basic structures were.

INSKEEP: Your statements about that remind me of an article by William Langewiesche, journalist for the Atlantic Monthly. He wrote an article that was not at all flattering of the U.S. Occupation Authority. And if I may summarize his conclusions, the CPA was filled with a number of idealists, free market idealists who sincerely wanted to completely remake the country, but ended up completely disconnected from what was actually going on. They aimed far too high and accomplished far too little.

Mr. BREMER: Well, we certainly aimed high. I had on my staff very seasoned diplomats from the American State Department, from the British Foreign Office, from the Australians. I mean, I'll give you some examples, just to disprove this thesis that he's got. The guy in charge of helping me, advising me on the electric power was from the electric power industry. The guy who helped me with the oil industry was a retired very senior Shell guy. The guy who helped me with health was a health expert.

We wanted to help them get on the road to a modern economy. They had suffered under a very corrupt regime for almost four decades. The infrastructure was remarkably run down. The refineries and plants, just astonishing to see that nothing had been changed, fixed for 40 years in some cases. And yeah, we aimed high; that's where you should aim when you're a leader. You should always try to challenge people to move ahead. Some of the stuff we could do...

INSKEEP: Well, but there's aiming high and then there's fantasy land, which is what Langewiesche seemed to be doing.

Mr. BREMER: Well, I, he doesn't know what he's talking about when he says fantasy land. If you look at...

INSKEEP: That's my word, by the way, I'm sorry...

Mr. BREMER: Yeah I understand. If you look at what we accomplished in the economic area, it was really quite astonishing. And look at what's happened: In the last two years, per capita income has doubled in Iraq. The IMF predicts that the economy this year will grow 17 percent. The stock market is open. We replaced the entire currency in the country in a war and the currency has traded against all currencies, freely floating against all currencies for two years.

It has been absolutely stable, which is a remarkable vote of confidence for the economy. Yeah, we didn't get some things done. Unemployment is now 28 percent. When we arrived it was somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. We accomplished a great deal. We did not cut subsidies. We were unable to address the whole problem of state-owned enterprises, which dominated the economy before the war. Again, they employed...

INSKEEP: You wanted to set them free and have them (unintelligible) the market.

Mr. BREMER: We wanted them to face the market. They employed about a half a million people and in the end, we decided, you know, discretion was the better part of valor here. We were not going to be able to do those things. So, yeah we set high standards. We set out a goal that we wanted to reach. We didn't meet it but anybody who thinks we didn't accomplish a lot simply is not studying the record.

INSKEEP: Why was it so difficult to get the power on, which is something that every Iraqi seemed to complain about again and again?

BREMER: Yeah, the electricity was a constant frustration. Facts are that before the war, Iraq was producing only about 60 percent of the power they needed. This was masked in Baghdad because Saddam basically stole power from the provinces to give Baghdad more electricity. One of the difficult decisions I had to make was to put into effect a power sharing policy which allowed power to be shared more evenly in the provinces, which, of course, meant there was going to be less for Baghdad.

When I arrived, we were generating 300 megawatts of power, which is about enough to supply a town of 7,000 people. This is in a country of 27 million. So the first job was to try to get back to pre-war levels of power generation by repairing the damage that had been done by looting and by lack of maintenance.

We actually met our target. We actually produced more power than before the war by October 1st which had been our target. And by the time I left we were producing about six percent more than before the war. That's a very disappointing number considering that in the meanwhile, because we'd opened up the economy and white goods had come in and air conditioners and satellite television and dishwashers, power demand had, literally, I would think, probably doubled. It'd probably gone from 6000 megawatts to somewhere around 10,000 megawatts. And putting together what they had could get us back to about 4000 megawatts, pre-war. But to produce another 6000 megawatts means building power plants, and that takes years as anybody knows in this country who lives near a power plant. It takes a couple years. We imported generators. A lot of people brought in generators, but that, in turn, meant you needed to have more diesel to run the generators, and there were problems with the refineries. Everything was connected, and there were no easy answers.

INSKEEP: Given the security problems, how did you manage to feel that you were in touch with what was really happening in Iraq?

Mr. BREMER: I traveled around a lot. I visited all the provinces. I visited all the major cities. I traveled as much as I could in Baghdad. Obviously, given my security protection, it was difficult for me to have normal interaction with the guy in the street. ..TEXT: On the other hand, we had offices in all of the provincial capitals. We had diplomats out in Ramadhi, in Fallujah, in Baquba, in Ticrete, in all of these provincial capitals, professional diplomats, Arabic-speaking, most of them American, some British, a few other nationalities, who were giving us regular reports on what was going on in their areas, which helped us get a sense of what was happening. We took opinion polls. One has to be somewhat modest about the expectation of opinion polls in a situation like this, but you can pick up trends.

INSKEEP: The journalist, George Packer, accompanied you on a trip that seemed to be well-intentioned. You went to a hospital in Diwanea, a city in Iraq, and spoke to people there and met with the doctors. And Packer went along and reports that, when he was away from you, a doctor said, the only reason the electricity is on today is because Bremer's here. And people are dying because we don't have regular electricity.

Mr. BREMER: Yeah, look, I don't hide the fact we had trouble with electricity. But I'll tell you another story about electricity. I visited the Children's Hospital in Baghdad the first week I was there. And they were having a lot of trouble with their power generators, and, 'cause they couldn't get them going 'cause they hadn't been maintained. I went back and asked my guys, what can we do about it?

We sent teams of, Army Corps of Engineers teams to all of the hospitals in Baghdad to check out the generators. We fixed their generators where we could, and we bought new generators for hospitals that didn't have them. So for every story that you can have about a problem, you can also say, we did some other good things.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess the point of the story, to me, the most interesting thing was the difficulty for you of finding out what was really going on.

Mr. BREMER: It was hard. When you are in a situation where you're surrounded by a lot of heavily armed people, and you travel by Blackhawk with Apache's flying cover, you don't do any surprise visits to places, and it's hard as a professional diplomat, I spent my life as a diplomat walking around streets and getting to know people, it's hard. Fortunately, we had a good staff who could do that.

INSKEEP: Mister Bremer, thanks very much.

Mr. BREMER: Nice to be with you.

INSKEEP: Paul Bremer led the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004. He is author of My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, and you can read excerpts from that book at our website, npr.org.

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Bremer's Tale: The Top American in Iraq

L. Paul Bremer

A career diplomat, L. Paul Bremer speaks French, Dutch, and Norwegian. Simon and Schuster hide caption

itoggle caption Simon and Schuster

Two surprises awaited Paul Bremer when he arrived in Iraq: that the country's chaos made it ripe for insurgency; and that the U.S. government would withhold additional troops.

Those revelations are in Bremer's new memoir, My Year in Iraq. As the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Bremer was the highest authority figure in the country.

But in dealing with the United States, Bremer said he had difficulty in getting answers from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Bremer became the top U.S. official in Iraq on May 6, 2003; he handed over his powers and returned to the United States on June 28, 2004.

A graduate of Yale and Harvard universities, Bremer worked in the State Department for 23 years. He also served as President Reagan’s ambassador at large for counter-terrorism.

Read an Excerpt from My Year in Iraq:

Tour of Baghdad Children's Hospital

I had braced myself to see sick children, but nothing could have prepared me for the rows of cribs and battered incubators. Because the hospital generator ran only at night, and then only periodically to save fuel, the air-conditioning plant was not working. The air was oppressive and stale. Flies swarmed through the open windows and clumped on the chipped metal bars of the cribs. Distressed mothers, half-shrouded in black abaya robes, waved cloths or squares of cardboard to keep the flies from their children's faces.

In the neonatal ward, I bent to read the stainless-steel model tag on an incubator. It had been built in "West Germany" in 1962, forty years before. The tiny baby inside wore a ragged cloth diaper. I touched the chipped glass. Fierce sunlight from the open windows provided the only warmth. The nurses shifted the powerless incubators from sunlight to shade, improvising to maintain an even temperature.

In the next ward, we stopped at the crib of a shriveled infant, so small I was sure she was a preemie. No shrouded woman fanned the air at her bed.

"Why don't you put her in an incubator?" I asked the attending pediatrician, a tall young man with stooped shoulders and a two-day growth of beard.

"Because she is not one of the premature," the doctor said. He glanced at the child's chart. "Little Khadija is actually . . . seven months old. She is just badly undernourished."

I studied the feeding tube in her crusted nostril. The child stared back at me with unblinking liquid eyes. I had to look away. Was she a war orphan or a victim of Baathist repression and mismanagement? It didn't matter. Like millions of other Iraqis, she needed help. Seeing this suffering baby, it hit me like a thunderclap: I was responsible for her, and for thousands like her. Having authority as administrator meant nothing if I couldn't bring some improvement in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Before it was too late.

The Terrorists Reveal Their Plans — and Concerns About Democracy

[In mid January]… we captured a Pakistani Al-Qaeda courier carrying a computer disc with a manifesto–cum–operational report. …The message was addressed to "the hawks of glory," code for Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. It was a rambling screed against Americans, Jews and Israelis, and the Iraqi Shia.

Zarqawi's report acknowledged the increasingly difficult operational situation for the Islamist insurgents. As Iraqi security forces replaced Coalition troops, the insurgents had to fight this new enemy, "the real danger that we face, for it is made up of our fellow countrymen, who know us inside and out."

Another danger was the "masses" of Sunni Arabs who looked forward to a "sunny tomorrow, a prosperous future." It was up to the insurgent mujahidin to radicalize the Sunni and to galvanize resistance by increasing "martyrdom operations," of which Zarqawi claimed responsibility for twenty-five," including among the Shia and their symbolic figures."

Zarqawi admitted the Kurds were a "thorn" in the side of the insurgency. He identified the Iraqi security forces as another major target of the terrorists.

The insurgents' ultimate goal was to use suicide attacks to provoke the Shia into an open civil war with the Sunni masses. But Zarqawi was worried: "Democracy is coming, and there will be no excuse [for the insurgency] thereafter."

"Double Date" with the Bushes

There was one pleasant interlude during that stressful week: On Wednesday, September 24, President and Laura Bush invited Francie and me to join them for a private dinner at the White House. Once again, the president took care to ensure that the dinner was known in Washington circles. The Washington Post referred to this as our "double date."

Francie and I went up the elevator in the East Wing to the family's private quarters, and when the elevator door slid open, the Bushes were there with hands extended.

The president was informally dressed in slacks and a dark blue sport shirt; Mrs. Bush was a little more formal in a suit and high heels. They were relaxed and soon so were we. One immediate bond was the Bushes' pets, Spot the Brittany spaniel; Barney, the black Scottie; and the even blacker cat, India. The pets milled underfoot with charming ill discipline, which gave the residence the feel of a well-loved family home.

The president drew me over to a yellow couch at the end of the room and we talked intently about Iraq as Francie and Mrs. Bush discussed books. At least I supposed that's what they were talking about because both are passionate readers, and, it turns out, both read in bed. I learned that the president and I end our days with almost identical words: "Please! Put your book down and turn out the damn light."

Excerpted from My Year in Iraq by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III with Malcolm McConnell. Copyright © 2005 by L. Paul Bremer. Excerpted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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