Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

A selective account of de-Baathification in Iraq

Posted by David Kassel on April 28, 2008

I’ve just read My Year in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer’s account of his management of the first year of the American occupation.  And what stood out about the book for me, other than the deadliness of the accounts of the endless inconclusive meetings, were the omissions and often erroneous details provided about what may have been Bremer’s most momentous and controversial decision: his de-Baathification orders.

Much has already been written about Bremer’s first two orders as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.  CPA Order No. 1 led to a wholesale purge of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party members from Iraq’s government ministries and industries.  Order No. 2 dissolved the Iraqi military.  Many comentators have rightly pointed to these orders as critical mistakes in the U.S. occupation because they helped start the insurgency, which has caused so much havoc and death and destruction to American troops and Iraqis alike.

Little appears to have been said, though, about the contradictions and apparent mistatements in Bremer’s attempt to defend his de-Baathification policies in his book.

First of all, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran points out in Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, his book about how we screwed up the post-war reconstruction effort in Iraq:

While the [Baath] party did have plenty of thugs, many of Iraq’s most capable scientists, engineers, and other professionals also belonged. To gain admission to the best colleges and graduate schools, to get a coveted government job, to get a promotion, you had to be a member. If you excelled at your job, you might be promoted into the party’s upper ranks, even if that was not something you sought. Turning down a promotion could get you fired or sent to jail.

In his book, Bremer seems to aknowledge this reality, saying that the CPA “had no gripe with” people who had joined the Baath Party to get a job or because they had been coerced into doing so.  He notes:

Our concern was only the top four levels of the party membership, which the [de-Baathification] order officially excluded from public life. These were the Baathist loyalists who, by virtue of their positions of power in the regime, had been active instruments of Saddam’s repression.

What Bremer never explains is why CPA Order No. 1 actually went beyond those four levels of party membership to prohibit rank and file Baath Party members from holding positions in the top three layers of management in every national government ministry, affiliated corporations and other government institutions.

Bremer, by the way, doesn’t even discuss in his book the history of the dispute between the State and Defense departments over how deep the purge should go or the more lenient NSC-brokered compromise that President Bush reportedly agreed to.

Bremer says he explained to his staff that the White House, DOD, and State had all signed off on CPA Order No. 1.  But Chandrasekaran’s book says that neither Rice nor Powell were ever shown a copy of the order. Moreover, Bremer doesn’t mention that both Jay Garner, whom Bremer succeeded in managing the occupation, and Stephen Browning, an engineer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who was tapped to head four ministries, had come to him to personally object to the order as too harsh.

Chandrasekaran describes Garner as as saying to Bremer: “You’re going to drive 50,000 Baathists underground before nightfall.  Don’t do this.”  Browining objected that Baathists were “the brains of the government…,” without whom the CPA would have “a major problem” running most ministries.  According to Chandrasekaran’s book, Bremer responded tersely that the subject was not open for discussion.  Apparently, none of this was open for discussion in Bremer’s book either.

Bremer further doesn’t note that the CPA began to receive reports that 10,000 to 15,000 teachers had been fired as a result of Order No. 1. They were level-four party members who had joined because they were told to do so by the Ministry of Education, according to Chandrasekaran.  Entire schools were left with just one or two teachers in some Sunni-dominated areas.

Bremer later lays the blame in his book for the teacher firings on the Iraq Governing Council’s implementation of his policy. “This went well beyond the intent of our initial policy. Iraqi children were paying the price…,” he writes.  Maybe, but the order certainly set a tone for the Council.

Finally, Bremer appears to completely misjudge the impact of his de-Baathification decrees, saying of Order No. 1:

On the plus side, the reaction of the Iraqi people to the de-Baathification decree was overwhelmingly favorable. Literally hundreds of times over the next fourteen months I would hear that Order No. 1 was the single most important step I had taken as administrator…”

Somehow Bremer doesn’t appear to realize that “with the scrawl of his signature,” as Chandrasekarn put it specifically in describing Order No. 2, “he (Bremer) created legions of new enemies.”

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