Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Turn Out The Lights, The Party's Over? - Part II

A Tale Of Two Viceroys

One aspect of the reconstruction follies that caught my eye was this passage in The Hindu article that I cited in Part I of this series:

Iraqi government ministries, which will be taking over responsibility for the reconstruction effort, tend to issue much smaller contracts that do not interest large US companies.
The tendency to focus on large bore projects was, in the end, an impediment to the overall reconstruction effort in Iraq. In overly simplistic terms, these projects tended to rely on American firms, employed primarily American and non-Iraqi employees/subcontractors (not exclusively, and this tended to get better as time went on), excluded - to their own detriment - Iraqis with expertise and indigenous know-how (again, with signs of improvement), they have taken too long for benefits to be realized by the Iraqi population and, due to their size, have been overly susceptible to sabotage.

But this tendency was symptomatic of the larger issues plaguing the Iraqi reconstruction effort: insufficient planning, the Pentagon's control of the process, ideological orthodoxy placed above competence for those enlisted, etc., while at the same time the entire project was operating under a disjointed strategy - the product of the interplay of the conflicting visions of those in charge. To understand the cause of these meta-maladies, one has to grasp that the post-invasion efforts in Iraq were simultaneously (or in near temporal proximity) too minimalistic and too grandiose. In the spirit of Richard Haass: Almost everything said and written about the Iraq reconstruction is true.

One way to reconcile this apparent paradox is to look at the situation in terms of the men in charge of the effort. The first man in, Jay Garner, was hand-picked by Donald Rumsfeld and was known for his plan-on-the-fly/no blueprint needed style of management. Garner did not go into Iraq with a fleshed out Phase IV plan for reconstruction, and there is ample evidence that this was not a bug but a feature. By this time, Rumsfeld's Pentagon had managed to cut Colin Powell's State Department out of the loop, and so the Iraq reconstruction was going to be nation building Rumsfeld style.

The problem was, as we have all grown aware, Rumsfeld had no desire to undertake the tedious, time consuming, resource intensive and monumentally difficult tasks associated with nation building. The keys to the Rolls Royce were given over to someone who, at a fundamental level, didn't like to drive - he wasn't even convinced as to the wisdom of the automobile as a concept. The operating theory for the Rumsfeld-approach was deliberately light on the details: decapitate the regime, allow Iraqi ex-pats to assume control and security while they remain dependent on, and accountable to, US patrons, democracy flourishes, 90% of our troops home by August 2003 (leaving the lean, mean transformitive military intact and capable of subsequent missions - some already in the offing) and then everyone lives happily ever after.

In real world terms, the military didn't even have rules of engagement necessary for preventing the widespread looting and lawlessness in the aftermath of the invasion that tainted the occupation from day one. Why should they though? Under Rumsfeld's theory, the US military would not be the police force for the Iraqi people. That was someone else's job. Rumsfeld's glib responses to questions about looting were indicative of the underlying attitudes. "Freedom is messy," mused Rumsfeld. So is nation building. And Rummy had no desire to get dirty.

Rumsfeld's best-laid fantasies plans underwent a rude encounter with reality, however. As the situation in Iraq worsened in ways inconsistent with predictions, Iraqi ex-pats were revealed as ineffectual and incapable of mustering popular support, and news of the simmering crisis filtered back to Washington, a change of course was deemed necessary. So, in came Paul Bremer, and (unceremoniously) out went Garner. This was a contrast in styles. Bremer was much more a hands on management type, and he quickly began to exert control over, and provide direction for, an otherwise wayward occupying entity.

Whereas Garner was hopelessly underprepared to tackle the problems in Iraq, Bremer was overly ambitious and failed to appreciate the necessary timeline of developments. Bremer's most famous mistakes were the decisions to disband the Iraqi armed forces and allow for the widespread de-Baathification of entire layers of Iraqi society - down to the level of school teachers (although in Bremer's defense, there weren't many obvious choices in this regard either). But the scope of Bremer's vision went beyond these initial moves. Iraq would be like clay to mold into the shape intended by the sculptor - according to the ideological whimsy and prerogatives of the Viceroy.

In deciding on a wholesale recalibration of Iraqi society, Bremer spread resources too thin, scattered talent and focus, pursued far too many fanciful and unimportant pet projects, and, in the end, ended up overseeing a CPA that was left trying to juggle so many tasks that it had little choice but to just let them fall, unfinished, one by one. Again, in Bremer's defense, his plans were also sabotaged by the pace of political handover demanded by Sistani and other Iraqi Shiite leaders. But maybe this miscalculation is also one of his larger sins.

George Packer's account of his conversations with Brad Swanson in The Assassin's Gate is illustrative. Swanson was an investment banker with experience as a Foreign Service Officer who joined the CPA at the behest of his longtime friend Michael Fleischer. For those wondering why the "Fleischer" name might ring a bell, here's an explanation with a humorous twist.

The privatizing of Iraq's economy was handled at first by Thomas Foley, a top Bush fund-raiser, and then by Michael Fleischer, brother of President Bush's first press secretary. After explaining that he had got the job in Iraq through his brother Ari, he told the Chicago Tribune - without any apparent sense of irony - that the Americans were going to teach the Iraqis a new way of doing business. "The only paradigm they know is cronyism. We are teaching them that there is an alternative system with built-in checks and built-in review." [emphasis added]
According to Swanson (as quoted by Packer - pgs 319-320):

The word Swanson used to describe the mental atmosphere at the CPA was "groupthink": the uniform mind-set that takes hold of any hermetic, hierarchical institution with strong leaders and a sense of common mission, where bad news is unwelcome and no one wants to be the one to ask the truly unsettling questions.[...]

The determination to get the job done overrode everything else, and so no one asked whether the CPA had any business writing codes for Iraq that created a 15 percent flat tax, transparent accounting procedures and new banking and commercial laws. "The quality of the fairyland that was created was very lovely. All these things were great laws, but they just had no application in the real world."[...]

"CPA was set up to do a root and branch transformation of the country, and that wasn't what was required," Swanson said. "What was required was to get two basic things right: security and economy. CPA was created to be a long-term institution, a MacArthur-type restructuring of society. And then, when there was the abrupt decision in November [2003] to hand over [limited sovereignty] in June [2004], there wasn't the follow-through to pare down the CPA's activities and focus on one or two key things. Instead, this machine kept grinding on, creating structures as if it were going to be there for years to implement them. But then it just stopped, and the structures collapsed of their own weight with no enforcement, no real foundation."
The structural shortcomings left Swanson with little to show for his efforts. He came to Iraq in March 2004. He left in July 2004. It wasn't until October 2004 (three months after his departure) that Swanson's first authorized loan, to "the owner of a factory that made plastic water bottles" finally made it to the intended parties. More than a year after the occupation had begun, the process of getting money out of the CPA and either into Iraqi hands, or into the hands of American contractors working on Iraq's behalf, was still slow, halting and inefficient.

The story doesn't end there, however. Consistent with the rigid discipline of the Bush administration, and the tendency to punish all dissenters, Swanson's name was soon added to the long list of those who have learned these harsh lessons first hand.

Back in Virginia, Swanson set his thoughts down in an op-ed piece. When it was published, he sent a copy to Michael Fleischer. He heard nothing back, and several attempts to get in touch went unanswered. Finally, Swanson received a very brief e-mail from his old friend. "If we speak again," Fleischer wrote, "it will be sometime in the future."
Hey, what's a few decades' worth of friendship worth when one dares to deviate from the accepted narrative?

But while Michael Fleischer was fretting about the excommunication of a heretical friend, Iraq's reconstruction efforts continued to sputter on - in scattered and disorganized fits and spurts. The dysfunctional CPA, with its out of synch leadership in Washington, has left Iraq with little to show for three years of occupation and billions of dollars spent. In fact, in certain areas, conditions are worse than before the invasion. Astonishing.

"In two of the most crucial areas, electricity and oil production, relentless sabotage has kept output at or below prewar levels despite the expenditure of hundreds of millions of American dollars and countless man-hours. Oil production stands at roughly 2 million barrels a day, compared with 2.6 million before U.S. troops entered Iraq in March 2003, according to U.S. government statistics.

The national electrical grid has an average daily output of 4,000 megawatts, about 400 megawatts less than its prewar level. Iraqis nationwide receive on average less than 12 hours of power a day. For residents of Baghdad, it was six hours a day last month, according to a U.S. count, though many residents say that figure is high.

The Americans, said Zaid Saleem, 26, who works at a market in Baghdad, "are the best in destroying things but they are the worst in rebuilding.""
Chris Allbritton adds (via Swopa):

Electricity is down to about two hours a day in Baghdad, doled out in fits and spurts of 15 mins or so at a time. Sometimes, gloriously, we get a solid hour, but it's rare. Generators pick up the slack, and since you have rising fuel costs, you start to see the double squeeze that poor Iraqis are feeling.
Today's Washington Post chimes in:

Iraq's water supply, electrical capacity and oil production -- three primary targets of reconstruction -- are functioning below prewar standards, said Stuart W. Bowen, Jr., the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, in a quarterly report to Congress published Monday.
The Iraq Index has more - of less. I suppose it's only fitting, then, that with so much left undone, the US companies have begun to withdraw from Iraq with the money flow for the big projects slowly petering out. In theory, the Iraqis might be able to do a better job than their American counterparts due to the former's home field advantage, insider knowledge and focus on small bore necessities ahead of ideologically-driven abstractions. The tragedy is that they will likely be proceeding with less than a fraction of the money that was so poorly managed by the CPA.

The mandate, as it appears from all accounts, is for US companies to finish out their current contracts and then head home. But don't confuse the concept of "finish" with the notion of actual accomplishment - because there isn't much of the latter to point to. This lack of tangible gain is the legacy of the lethal blend of hubristic groupthink, ignorance, lack of preparation and mismanagement that will stand as a testament to the Bush administration's inability to rise to the challenges presented by this most ambitious effort. As we head for the lifeboats on the decks of the USS OIF, I can't help feeling that the Iraqi people deserve better than what we are leaving behind.

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