L Paul Bremer III

At first sight, there’s nothing very remarkable about the US Viceroy in Iraq, sometimes called Bremer Pasha by sympathetic Iraqi exiles. His élite credentials are impeccable: Yale, Harvard Business School, the Institut D’Etudes Politiques of the University of Paris and 23 years as a career diplomat, including a stint as US Ambassador to the Netherlands between 1983 and 1986. His strangely youthful appearance (he is 62) is reminiscent of ex-President Ronald Reagan, for whom he served as Ambassador-at-Large for Counter-Terrorism between 1986 and 1989.

And this is when those credentials get a little soiled. Bremer is known to have sat on at least one committee with Colonel Oliver North, the most prominent member of a semi-official conspiracy in the US to fund the Contra paramilitaries in Nicaragua with money laundered from illegal arms sales to Iran.

Bremer was at the helm of counter-terrorism in 1988 when Pam Am flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people. ‘Mr Bremer is at the top of the list of administrators, officials and executives who should be in jail by now,’ says Marina de Larracoechea, whose daughter was killed in the disaster. ‘Lockerbie was an expected and preventable massacre. Appointing him [in Iraq] is a guaranteed formula for ineptitude, ignorance and disaster.’

Bremer’s ‘can-do’ reputation took a boost, nonetheless, when he followed Henry Kissinger – his boss at the State Department – to become chief operating officer at Kissinger & Associates in 1989. Here he pursued his interest in terrorism and other ‘risks’ to corporate America, including trade unions. ‘If President Clinton means to get serious about the fight against terrorism,’ he wrote in the Wall Street Journal on 5 August 1996, ‘he should leave the White House Press Room and head downstairs to the basement Situation Room.’ The ‘Situation Room’ is where Presidents fight their real wars.

Increasingly revered as some sort of seer, Bremer became chair of the National Commission on Terrorism which reported to Congress on 8 June 2000. The Commission recommended, among other things, the reversal of the CIA’s policy of not employing known human-rights abusers as agents. ‘The threat of terrorism is changing dramatically,’ he warned. ‘It is becoming more deadly and it is striking us here at home.’

On 11 September 2001 a casual observer might have drawn two quite opposite conclusions about Bremer: either that he had admirable foresight, or that he can’t have been much good at his job. The former view of him prevailed in Washington – and proved very profitable for Bremer himself. He became Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Marsh Crisis Consulting, a subsidiary of the giant Marsh & McLennan conglomerate, hiring out his reputation to jittery corporations.

Despite his close association with Henry Kissinger – who was forced to withdraw from leading the inquiry into ‘9/11’ because of ‘conflicts of interest’ – Bremer co-chaired the right-wing Heritage Foundation’s ‘Homeland Security Task Force’. The Task Force is credited with having inspired the creation of the US Office of Homeland Security and the curtailment of rights in the US that has come with it.

‘Historians will look back on the year 2002 as the start of a long war on terrorism,’ Bremer forecast. ‘To be blunt, we have to kill the terrorists before they kill us.’

Quite how this qualified ‘The One’ (as he is also sometimes styled) to ‘reconstruct’ Iraq is not immediately apparent. Unless the point of his job is not to reconstruct Iraq at all, but to pursue the ‘War on Terror’ – particularly with Iran, on which topic Bremer has waxed long and hawkish for many years.

In one respect things started moving much faster with Bremer’s appointment to Iraq. On 16 May 2003, shortly after his arrival, he banned 30,000 senior Baath Party officials from government jobs. ‘De-Baathification’ became a full-scale assault on the Iraqi state itself, priming hospitals, schools, oil and even the army, for privatization. By 26 May Bremer felt ready to declare Iraq ‘open for business’.

However, in most other respects the Iraqi people were left to languish in the war’s fearful aftermath. Bremer’s diktats – dismissing 400,000 members of the Iraqi army and stalling the formation of a provisional government – were widely bemoaned as inept. Aid agencies found it difficult, if not impossible, to operate independent of the occupying forces. Nothing got fixed. A brief flowering of the free press was crushed. Hundreds of Iraqis have been arrested and ‘disappeared’, possibly to Guantánamo Bay.

As conditions for the Iraqi people deteriorated, and as the number of US soldiers killed since the official end of hostilities exceeded those killed during it, the US began to look more like an occupying army under siege by a hostile population.

Marina de Larracoechea’s view of Bremer’s capabilities may turn out to be a good deal more prescient than Bremer is himself.

New Internationalist issue 360 magazine cover This article is from the September 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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