Ex-Bush Man at Odds with Administration

Originally posted: October 8, 2004

The first question in Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate was about mistakes made in Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney was utterly unrepentant. Three times he said, with added emphasis, we did everything in Iraq exactly right. Everything. Exactly right.

The reason Cheney got that question is that L. Paul Bremer, America’s former administrator in Iraq, is now traveling around the country making speeches and promoting an upcoming book. What Bremer has been saying about the administration’s poor planning before the invasion landed him on the front page of newspapers on the day of the debate.

The first of Bremer’s speeches was at DePauw University in mid-September in Greencastle. Another was in West Virginia to an audience of insurance executives. At both, Bremer said the U.S. did not have enough troops in Iraq, that he repeatedly asked President Bush for more and was turned down.

Before DePauw students and faculty, Bremer was asked if he could look back and see mistakes during his time in Baghdad. He cited two. First, he said, we never had enough troops on the ground, and noted that he should have been more insistent in his requests for more.

That contributed to the second mistake, that we could not control the looting, which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “untidy signs of newfound freedom.” Bremer called the looting “horrid” and said it contributed hugely to the atmosphere of lawlessness and instability.

We remember Bremer, as coalition administrator, dressed in blazer and combat boots, flanked by bodyguards with automatic weapons. At the peaceful DePauw campus, he still was accompanied by a cadre of Secret Service agents.

In most of his remarks at two public sessions, he expressed support for what the administration did in Iraq. There was no evidence that Saddam had anything to do with 9/11, says Bremer, but regime change was necessary: “The intelligence community was very clear. It happens they were wrong, but they did report WMDs.”

Because he caused so much trouble with the few remarks already published, it might be useful to report some of the other things Bremer said at DePauw.

With insufficient troops on the ground, we failed to close the borders, even failed to guard weapons stockpiles. We still have inadequate security in Iraq, he said, and the coalition transferred authority to the incoming Iraqi government early because we believed the insurgents would use the announced date to trigger violence.

Though Bremer did not say so, we now know that another catastrophic mistake was the decision to disband the Iraqi army. That decision was made in Washington and forced on Bremer. Overnight it produced the trained, armed insurgency we now see every day.

Asked how long America will have to keep military forces in Iraq, Bremer replied that it is impossible to tell. But he referenced Japan, Germany and the Philippines where we still have deployments 50 years after World War II. “If Iraq descends into a civil war, it will become a regional war quickly,” he predicted. “Your generation is challenged for a long term and difficult struggle,” he told the students.

As for the upcoming elections, “They are likely to be pretty messy. There are now 400 political parties in Iraq, and early elections tend to favor the extremists.” We must go ahead with the elections, Bremer said, because the Iraqi people want them. But there are no established boundaries for districts and no voter rolls. We need U.N. help to run the polling process, and even then it may take three or four elections before we see real progress toward democracy.

In his speech to the insurance executives, Bremer went further on the subject of inadequate preparations for war. The administration planned for a situation that didn’t exist, he said in remarks reported in the Washington Post. “We prepared for humanitarian relief and refugee problems, not for the bloody insurgence now being waged.”

Before the war Gen. Eric Shinseki was cashiered for suggesting we had inadequate plans for troop deployment. Now Bremer is being trashed by the administration for admitting mistakes that are obvious to everyone. Everyone except Cheney. In Cheney’s Through-the-Looking-Glass world, everything we’ve done in Iraq was right. Exactly right.

In tonight’s debate we will hear President Bush berate John Kerry for saying, “Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.” More and more, every day, Kerry’s assessment sounds exactly right to me.

Ken Bode, a veteran journalist, is Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University. Originally published in the Indianapolis Star.

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