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April 06, 2006

My Year in Iraq, a book review.

"BAGHDAD WAS BURNING." Nice attention getter and scene setter for former Ambassador L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer's memoir of his fourteen months as America's top target leader in Iraq.

This book is my first read from a senior insider's perspective on the period following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. I've read Frank's book - but this is the first one that focuses on the time in question. In a very readable fashion, Bremer and McConnell detail the infighting in the administration, within the Coalition Provisional Authority, the Iraqis, and heck, seemingly just about anybody who had a stake in the outcome.

Bremer provides an interesting window into the passive resistance from the people that arrived in Iraq with Jay Garner and who stayed behind after Bremer arrived. The very different views from different constituencies within the Administration, between State, CIA, the Pentagon - organizational and personality-driven.

The flames Bremer mentions that open the book are from the fires started by looters just prior to his arrival - a metaphor for the problems he faced getting started. He lays out his efforts to get additional forces to help restore order, and how for most of the next year as the insurgency spread, Bremer resisted efforts by "senior Defense Department civilians" to reduce American troop strength by replacing our forces with poorly-led and inadequately trained Iraqi police and military personnel. His description of what happened to the Iraqi Army (it simply melted away) contradicts the conventional wisdom that it was formally disbanded - and he offers an explanation of why holding on to it probably wouldn't have been a good idea anyway, given both the quality of the force and the internal Shia (conscripts) and Sunni (officers) divide. Bremer also describes his frustration with the obsession to find the WMD vice tracking the insurgency.

Bremer throws some light onto the plans of those who pushed for what Bremer would come to call a "cut-and-run policy" that would quickly deliver governance of Iraq to a handful of unrepresentative anti-Saddam exiles lead by Chalabi. Bremer strongly resisted this approach and opens a window to the long, frustrating negotiations as he and his team pushed Iraq's new leaders to write an interim constitution and get a governmental structure outlined. And he has some harsh words for those players who kept running around the margins, trying to play one side off against the other (something which he was doing himself inside the US government).

You have to read it with an eye to the fact that it's Bremer's attempt to shape the perception of his time in Iraq, which frankly produced mixed results. It is obviously written from a point of view generally favorable to himself - but that's true of any autobiography, and isn't a condemnation of Bremer's view. This is just the opening salvo in what will be a spirited Battle of the Books, I'm sure.

If you'd like to start getting an insider view of the post-"Major Combat Operations" era of OIF, this book is a good read - quick and understandable, with enough detail to be useful and enough narrative to pull you along. There are several other books out there on my reading list which will provide more windows into this period of time - and it's critical that we analyze these events, to see what went right and what went wrong. If this is truly going to be the likely template for conflict in the next 30 years or so, we've got to understand how to do this.

We already know how to destroy armies foolish enough to present themselves for destruction. We now need to figure out how to handle the aftermath, especially since we aren't going to be allowed to smash our enemies as thoroughly as we did in WWII. Which isn't a complaint about restraint - it would be good to find a way to handle the aftermath and achieve your objectives without inflicting Nanking, Rotterdam, Warsaw, Stalingrad, Dresden, Hamburg, Nagasaki and Hiroshima on the civil populations and infrastructure. The Rumsfeld Defense Department specifically rejected the recommendations of the Garner task force (formed prior to OIF to study the issue and develop the plans) to follow a "Constabulary" style (and numbers of troops) post-conflict occupation in favor of Rumsfeld's penchant for go in lean and get out quick.

Rumsfeld's paradigm *may* be good for combat ops on a shoestring - but apparently don't work well for dealing with the aftermath. And we have to learn from that, regardless of what you think about Rumsfeld and his theories. Bremer's book is a contributor to that analysis.

Next up - what I expect will be the flip side to Bremer (though I could be wrong): Squandered Victory : The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq by Larry Diamond