Thursday, February 28, 2013

How The United States Abandoned The Idea Of An Interim Government For Iraq After The 2003 Invasion

The United States suffered from poor planning when it came to preparing for post-war Iraq. There were always a number of different groups tasked with the job, but they were not coordinated. One of the few things that was agreed upon was the creation of an interim Iraqi government shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. President Bush signed off on this idea just before the 2003 invasion. Iraqi exiles were consulted, and several meetings held, but then suddenly Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), scrapped the plan. Bremer reversed course from the U.S. wanting to quickly leave Iraq to launching a long-term occupation of the country.

There were two competing ideas about what the U.S. should do in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. One would be to quickly set up an interim government. Supporters of this idea said that the new authority should be made up of both Iraqi exiles and those who had stayed in the country. The other would be for the United States to run the country. President Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, members of his staff, U.S. representative to Iraqi exiles Zalmay Khalilzad, and deputy head of the Central Command (CENTCOM) General John Abizaid all supported the first plan. Before the war, Bush told a meeting, “We need to give this to the Iraqis as quickly as possible to form a government.” This was in line with Bush’s statements when he ran for president when he stated that he was opposed to nation building. Bush campaigned on the fact that he would not be like President Clinton who got the United States involved in a series of humanitarian and failed state situations such as Haiti and the former Yugoslavia. Other members of his cabinet such as Rumsfeld were equally opposed to long-term overseas engagements. These ideas largely shaped the strategy in Afghanistan when the United States overthrew the Taliban, held a meeting of Afghans, and quickly set up a government, which allowed the Americans to draw down their forces. It seemed initially that Iraq would follow that exact same path.

Right before the invasion, National Security Advisor Rice tried to make an interim government official policy. Rice set up a postwar planning group within the National Security Council (NSC) under Frank Miller. On March 10 and 12, 2003, Miller briefed the NSC on postwar plans, which included putting Iraqis quickly in charge of their country after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The president signed off on the idea. The problem was that this had no actual affect. The administration was dysfunctional when it came to strategizing for post-war Iraq. It always had several organizations planning for the situation, but none of them were coordinated, and hardly anything was every operationalized. Miller’s group was just one of many.

The U.S. military actually did try to act upon this plan, but it fell apart. Deputy CENTCOM commander General Abizaid told Zalmay Khalilzad that he needed to meet with Iraqi exiles to prepare them for an interim government so that an Iraqi face could be placed upon the war. Khalilzad wanted internal Iraqis included in any new authority, but he didn’t know any. Abizaid was not concerned, and wanted exiles quickly brought to Um Qasr in Basra right behind the invasion force to announce that they were the new rulers of Iraq. As the war began, and the Coalition quickly moved towards Baghdad, the interim government idea was dropped. Some in the U.S. armed forces were concerned that the invasion could turn out to be a drawn out affair, and not proceed as quickly as Rumsfeld had envisioned. That was what led people like General Abizaid to push for an interim government being established even before the war was over. When the Iraqi forces began disintegrating before the U.S. and British armies however, it wasn’t deemed necessary to involve Iraqi exiles, because the conflict was going to come to an end quickly.

In April 2003 Khalilzad met with Iraqis in Nasiriyah and told them that the U.S. had “absolutely no interest in ruling Iraq.” (BBC)

After Saddam was deposed Jay Garner and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA) was placed in charge of Iraq. Garner envisioned turning over the country to an interim government in just a few weeks as well. On March 12, 2003, President Bush approved his plan at an NSC meeting. Garner later told two Senate staffers as he was waiting in Kuwait to enter Iraq that a new government would be created by August. Khalilzad assisted in this process by holding a meeting with both internal and external Iraqis in Nasiriyah just after Baghdad was taken. On April 22, Garner went to Kurdistan to meet with Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani, and exile leaders to continue the discussion. Many opposition groups had been trying to come up with a government in waiting since late-2002, but to no avail. Now it seemed within their grasp. The only problem was that Garner wanted to include some internal Iraqis. Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq objected, because they believed that would dilute their power in any new ruling coalition. With fewer parties involved, the more influence each would hold. Still, Chalabi told the press that an interim government would be in place by July. Garner always thought that his job would be a short one in Iraq. He originally thought that the war would lead to a humanitarian crisis with refugees and food shortages, but that the government would be up and running, and it would only be a few months before everything would return to normal. It would be his job then to just provide assistance, and then give Iraqis the reigns, and leave.

Officials from the Pentagon were pushing in the same direction. Rumsfeld’s spokesman Larry Di Rita was sent to Kuwait to watch over the ORHA before the war started. There he told a meeting of the organization that the State Department under Clinton had failed in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the Defense Department would not make the same mistakes this time. Di Rita stated, “We’re going to stand up an interim Iraqi government, hand power over to them, and get out of there in three to four months.” Harold Rhode of the Office of Special Plans in Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith’s office was in Kuwait at the same time, and pushed for Chalabi to be the new leader of Iraq. Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress were favorites of the neoconservatives in the United States, many of which held prominent positions within the Pentagon. Rhode expressed their belief that Chalabi was a Westernized Iraqi who could create a democracy in the country. Di Rita had the same view as his boss Rumsfeld, who did not want to get bogged down in any post-war situation. They both wanted to withdraw as quickly as possible after Saddam had been kicked out of office.

All of these ideas were thrown out the window when Paul Bremer assumed control of Iraq. On May 12, Bremer flew into Baghdad, and took over from Garner. At first, it was expected that he would follow in Garner’s footsteps, and continue with forming an interim government. That was not to be. Khalilzad thought that he was going to go with Bremer to Baghdad, so that he could introduce him to the Iraqis that he’d been talking to. He even set up a date for that event on May 15. Instead, Bremer dismissed Khalilzad’s plan. He was told right before the White House announced that Bremer was taking over Iraq that an interim government was no longer in the plans. When Secretary of State Colin Powell heard about that he called Rice warning that Khalilzad’s work should not be discarded. Rice said that one of Bremer’s prerequisites for taking the job was that he could run things the way he wanted. On May 16, Bremer announced his plan for Iraq. That did not include an interim government. Instead there would be a seven-step process to write a new constitution, get it ratified, and then form a government, which would take over a year. Iraqis immediately began complaining about the change. Followers of Moqtada al-Sadr held a demonstration in Baghdad on May 19 against the U.S. occupation. The next day, Iraqis met with the British representative to Iraq Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock demanding that sovereignty be returned to the country. Then on May 22, the United Nations passed Resolution 1483 that recognized the United States and the British as the occupying powers in Iraq. Bremer would use that document as another reason why he should be in charge, and that people should follow his strategy. Before Bremer departed for Iraq he met with President Bush who said that he had as much time as he needed to transform Iraq. Bremer took that promise literally, and completely changed America’s stance. No longer was Iraq to be like Afghanistan where the U.S. would quickly withdraw. Instead they were there for the long-term.

The decision to abandon an interim government was symbolic of America’s handling of post-war Iraq. The United States went to war with no real strategy for what should be done afterward. There had been planning for returning sovereignty to Iraqis as quickly as possible, and Bush signed off on the idea, but nothing substantive had really been done about it besides a few meetings with Iraqi exiles. When Jay Garner entered Iraq he thought he would have a straight forward humanitarian mission, but he never had the time to fulfill his vision. The White House didn’t like the way things were going in Iraq with the post-war chaos, and violence, and decided to replace him with Paul Bremer. Bremer wanted to be the viceroy of Iraq, and personally guide the country towards democracy. That could only be accomplished if the United States became the occupying power. Bush gave him his support even though it was the exact opposite of what had been discussed before the war. Since so many plans had come and gone with none of them ever coordinated this was just another example. There’s no telling how Iraq would have turned out if nationals were put in charge right after the invasion. Afghanistan for instance, is not close to stability, is considered even more corrupt than Iraq, and still has Coalition forces there, and it went down the path of early sovereignty. The difference is that Iraqis would have been in charge, bringing Iraqi sensibilities to things rather than trying to impose American norms as the Coalition Provisional Authority attempted with few successes.


BBC, “US begins shaping Iraq’s future,” 4/16/03

Chandrasekaran, Rajiv, “U.S. drops assembly idea for interim political council,” San Francisco Chronicle, 6/2/03

Diamond, Larry, Squandered Victory, The American Occupation And The Bungled Effort To Bring Democracy To Iraq, New York: Times Books, 2005

Gordon, Michael and Trainor, General Bernard, The Endgame, The Inside Story Of The Struggle For Iraq, From George W. Bush To Barack Obama, New York, Pantheon, 2012

Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate: America In Iraq, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09

Walt, Vivienne, “Iraqis to take charge of country by July,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11/16/03


Swopa said...

There's a missing element here -- the role of Sistani and the rest of the Shiite religious establishment in vetoing U.S. plans.

The overriding story of 2003-04 was how Sistani et al. wrested control of Iraq's political course away from the Bush administration, forcing elections in January 2005.

The original intention of the Bushites was almost certainly to hand over control to a handpicked Iraqi government as soon as possible, but that is what Sistani et al. were completely determined to avoid. By June 2003 Sistani issued a public fatwa against any unelected parties drafting a new constitution; undoubtedly messages of this sort had been sent previously in private.

The improvised shift to Bremer's viceroy model was likely part of the Bushites trying to buy time until they could devise a way around this unexpected obstacle.

Joel Wing said...


Yes, very much true that Sistani objected to Bremer's drawn out process for creating a new constitution and government. However, for most of the time he was in Iraq, Bremer tried to ignore or blow off Sistani's demands. It wasn't until the White House came down on him that he was willing to compromise. The decision to junk the interim government seems completely Bremer's and made even before he arrived in Iraq.

Swopa said...

I think you're confusing cause and effect.

I agree that the decision was made before Bremer arrived in Iraq; the logical inference, though, is that Bremer was appointed specifically to implement that decision. (See Dobbins et al., "Occupying Iraq: A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority," p. xx)

Joel Wing said...


Yes I have that book and read that passage you pointed out, but I completely disagree with it. Dobbins claims that Bremer was implementing Rumsfeld's vision. Nothing I've read said that a) Rumsfeld cared about post-war Iraq or b) wanted anything to do with a long occupation. Everything I've read says that Rumsfeld wanted out of Iraq as quickly as possible until the day he was removed.

My sources say that Bremer came up with the idea of a long occupation himself.

Joel Wing said...

P.S. - According to Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor's new book Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld lobbied Bremer to bring back the interim government idea and he rejected it.

Swopa said...

I don't mean any disrespect for you or your sources, but that doesn't make any sense.

1. If the plan for a quick handover was still intact, why bother replacing Garner at all?

2. Bremer was essentially a nobody -- do you really believe that the Bush administration let him *unilaterally* make a decision that would dramatically affect hundreds of thousands of troops (and, perhaps more importantly for the administration, Bush's reelection campaign) before he'd even set foot in the country?

3. If Bremer's decision wasn't fully backed by the top of the administration (i.e., Cheney/Bush), he could've been yanked as quickly and unceremoniously as Garner was.

I accept that Rumsfeld still wanted a quick handover well after the plan had been dropped, but I think it's clear he was overruled by Cheney/Bush (not Bremer).

Joel Wing said...

1) People in Washington thought Garner had lost control of the situation with the looting, the collapse of the government, the wave of violence that hit after the fall of the regime.

2) Again, according to Gordon's new book The Endgame Bremer said he would only agree to the job if he was given carte blanch control of Iraq. When he met the president Bush told Bremer that he had as much time has he needed to transform Iraq into a democracy.

3) Lots of people did disagree with is decisions in Iraq, but he had the backing of Bush, which trumped everything else.

4) Rumsfeld was never able to follow through with his withdrawal plan, which was supported by the military as well, because of the deteriorating security situation. Every year there was a drawdown plan, but something would happen and no soldiers could be withdrawn

Joel Wing said...

Forgot to mention. Bush never seemed like a details oriented guy. He thought of the big picture and was completely invested in transforming Iraq into a democracy. He supported the quick transition to an interim government at first. Then Garner didn't seem to work. The administration found Bremer. The president asked Bremer if he believed in Iraq democracy, he said yes, so Bush now backed him even though it was a complete reversal of previous strategy, because the goal remained the same, changing Iraq.

Unknown said...

I wonder if Chalabi was part cause of the decision to drop the interim govt idea? Maybe he was too unpopular in Washington to be accepted as part of it.

Swopa said...

Unknown -- yes, Chalabi had something to do with it, but it was his unpopularity in Iraq, not Washington, that had an impact.

Within weeks of Saddam's fall, it was enormously clear that Chalabi & his fellow exiles were scheming incompetents, and giving them power would have been as successful as letting a toddler fly an airplane.

Even more importantly, as I note above, the most important power structure in Iraq -- the Shiite religious establishment -- wouldn't have stood for it.

Viewing decisions about the U.S occupation as being made solely by Americans, as if they had the power to impose whatever choice they wanted, has a touch of "white man's burden" thinking to it.

More to the point, though, ignoring the Iraqi political influences (especially the role of Sistani et al.) is just poor analysis... sort of like discussing how the Miami Heat won the NBA title without mentioning LeBron James.

Joel Wing said...

Chalabi was always a divisive figure in Washington. What the supporters and critics often miss while they're blaming each other is that Bush did not like him therefore the U.S. was never going to appoint him the next leader of Iraq.