How not to run an empire

16 September 2006, 2039 EDT

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s report on how the Bush administration staffed the CPA raises an interesting counterfactual: What if the Bush administration had, in fact, bothered to develop a post-war plan for Iraq? Would it have made any difference given whom they chose to run the show?

O’Beirne’s staff posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade .

Many of those chosen by O’Beirne’s office to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq’s government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance — but had applied for a White House job — was sent to reopen Baghdad’s stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq’s $13 billion budget, even though they didn’t have a background in accounting.

The decision to send the loyal and the willing instead of the best and the brightest is now regarded by many people involved in the 3 1/2 -year effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as one of the Bush administration’s gravest errors. Many of those selected because of their political fidelity spent their time trying to impose a conservative agenda on the postwar occupation that sidetracked more important reconstruction efforts and squandered goodwill among the Iraqi people, according to many people who participated in the reconstruction effort.

I’ve raised the question before of whether people driven by anti-statist ideologies can be trusted to run occupations.

Interviews with scores of former CPA personnel over the past two years depict an organization that was dominated — and ultimately hobbled — by administration ideologues.

“We didn’t tap — and it should have started from the White House on down — just didn’t tap the right people to do this job,” said Frederick Smith, who served as the deputy director of the CPA’s Washington office. “It was a tough, tough job. Instead we got people who went out there because of their political leanings.”

Endowed with $18 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds and a comparatively quiescent environment in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion, the CPA was the U.S. government’s first and best hope to resuscitate Iraq — to establish order, promote rebuilding and assemble a viable government, all of which, experts believe, would have constricted the insurgency and mitigated the chances of civil war. Many of the basic tasks Americans struggle to accomplish today in Iraq — training the army, vetting the police, increasing electricity generation — could have been performed far more effectively in 2003 by the CPA.

But many CPA staff members were more interested in other things: in instituting a flat tax, in selling off government assets, in ending food rations and otherwise fashioning a new nation that looked a lot like the United States. Many of them spent their days cloistered in the Green Zone, a walled-off enclave in central Baghdad with towering palms, posh villas, well-stocked bars and resort-size swimming pools.

I’ll try to reflect on what this all means in terms of the “American empire” question at some point down the road. Chandrasekaran’s view is pretty easy to parse. He calls Bremmer a “viceroy” and his book, from which the article derives, is entitled Imperial Life in the Emerald City. But it is pretty clear that when a country is makings laws, setting up stock exchanges, and generally ruling another country that the relationship is an imperial one. The fact that the US has now transitioned to an informal — and weaker — imperial relationship with Iraq doesn’t change the nature of the relationship during the CPA-regime.

But for now I’d like someone to either make, or point me towards, a defense of the Administration — and of new-style conservative governance more generally — in the light of the accumulating evidence of the criminal malfeasance surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

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