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Rumsfeld vs. Bremer

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This week in a Washington Post column, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez write in defense of the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and against his depiction in the bestselling memoir of former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown. An excerpt:

According to Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, U.S. difficulties stemmed not from the Pentagon's failure to plan for the war's aftermath - or Rumsfeld's unwillingness as defense secretary to provide enough troops to secure Iraqis after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Rumsfeld pins most of the blame on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for its alleged mishandling of Iraq's political transition in 2003-04, which "stoked nationalist resentments" and "fanned the embers of what would become the Iraqi insurgency."

In making their case, Senor and Martinez - who both worked for the DOD and CPA under Bremer - rely primarily on a document Rumsfeld references in his book, "Principles for Iraq - Policy Guidelines".

[Note: Rumsfeld's office has done the impressive due diligence of posting nearly every document he references in his book, a daunting task of memo and report scanning, on his website, Rumsfeld.com. I encourage you to dig through them, as there are some fascinating pieces hidden within - my personal favorite is this memo to Doug Feith on September 14, 2001.]

In referencing this memo, Senor and Martinez write:

Rumsfeld's basic theme is that the CPA erred by failing to grant Iraqis "the right to govern themselves" early in the U.S.-led occupation. Rumsfeld claims that he favored a "swift transition" of power to an "Iraqi transitional government" and that the Bush administration formally endorsed this strategy when it approved the Pentagon's plan for an Iraqi Interim Authority in March 2003. He writes that the head of the CPA, L. Paul Bremer, unilaterally decided not to implement this plan.

Not true, Senor and Martinez claim. They write:

Rumsfeld's instructions endorsed the top-down approach his book condemns. The CPA should "assert authority over the country," he wrote, and should "not accept or tolerate self-appointed [Iraqi] 'leaders.' "

There should be "clarity that the Coalition is in charge, with no conflicting signals to the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld wrote. He directed Bremer to take a "hands-on" approach to Iraq's "political reconstruction," noting that "the Coalition will consistently steer the process to achieve the stated objectives" and should "not 'let a thousand flowers bloom.' " The "transition from despotism to a democracy will not happen easily or fast," he concluded, noting that "[r]ushing elections could lead to tyranny of the majority."

If Rumsfeld's goal was to quickly empower an Iraqi government, this was a strange way to communicate that objective.

If that middle paragraph seems to be jamming a lot of partial sentences in to advance their argument, it is. Upon further examination, the quotations Senor and Martinez cite seem to be awfully careful in their cherry picking. Properly understood in context, the emphasis in that sentence ought to be on the "self-appointed" portion. The actual memo includes extensive advice on this front:

8. Improve conditions; involve Iraqis. The Coalition will work energetically to improve the circumstances of the Iraqi people. It will work to achieve rapid and visible accomplishments in vital public services for the Iraqi people, and create an environment that encourages the involvement of the Iraqi people, for it is their responsibility to build the future of their country.

9. Promote Iraqis who share coalition's goals. In staffing ministries and positioning Iraqis in ways that will increase their influence, the Coalition will work to have acceptable Iraqis involved as early as possible, so Iraqi voices can explain the goals and direction to the Iraqi people. Only if Iraqis are seen as being engaged in, responsible for, and explaining and leading their fellow citizens will broad public support develop that is essential for security.

In subsequent memos, Rumsfeld clearly was pressing on the issue of forming an Iraqi Interim Authority. See this memo from June 9, 2003, where he recognized:

Their dream is a guerrilla insurgency. But guerrilla insurgencies depend on popular support. Progress toward an IIA will help neutralize if not dry up that popular support.

Rumsfeld pushed hard for Bremer to move forward in creating an IIA, which at that time had to be interpreted for the vision Bremer had laid out in a June 2, 2003 memo, where he claimed that in a meeting with Iraqi political leaders, he had "laid out our vision for establishing an interim administration (IA) in the next five to six weeks."

But Bremer never actually did this. The next month, he announced that a true power-sharing arrangement would not work. Indeed, on looking back at the record, it's Bremer's own words that are most distrustful of the people on the ground - in reference to the figurehead Iraqi governing council that Bremer indicated could become the IIA, but never, of course, did - Bremer famously claimed in his own book that "those people couldn't organize a parade let alone run the country."

This is only one of a number of lines in Bremer's book which reflect badly on him, and many of these same lines are used again by Rumsfeld in making his case. (For what it's worth, Feith had an interesting section in his book on this process as well.) But if there's an inconsistency here on Rumsfeld's part, I'm not seeing it.

As the debates hash out in the future for historians to judge what went wrong, it's important to understand what was actually said at the time, and not judge it unfairly through 20/20 hindsight. But no one's helped in gaining an accurate perception of what went wrong by cherry-picking lines from memos which, in context, clearly reflect a different view.

(AP Photo)