Paper Trails in Iraq

Times blows the Bremer-Bush dustup story. Rumsfeld, Cheney roles ignored in 2003 blunder.

The New York Times pulled out of Iraq coverage even before the war started when it sent in Judy Miller to beat the WMD war drums.

But five years later, it still hasn't re-entered the battle, judging by its inept handling of the Bush-Bremer dustup over who was responsible for disbanding the Iraq Army back in 2003.

Ignoring explosive material published a year ago in the British press and played up practically everywhere in the world but in the major American papers, the Times downplayed SecDef Donald Rumsfeld's role in the tragic blunder of dismantling the army and police, and the paper didn't even mention Dick Cheney.

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Over the weekend, Robert Draper, peddling his book Dead Certain, said Bush had been taken aback by the tragic decision announced by Bush regime czar Jerry Bremer to disband Iraq's army in the spring of 2003.

That was in a September 2 Times story by Jim Rutenberg, who apparently hadn't talked to Bremer about Bush's comments. (Rutenberg's story was just a hack job titled "In Book, Bush Peeks Ahead to His Legacy.") Bremer rushed over to the Times and dropped off a bundle of letters that, he claims, show that Bush knew of the plan and liked what Bremer was doing.

Here's how Times reporter Edmund L. Andrews handled the gift from Bremer in the September 4 story:

A previously undisclosed exchange of letters shows that President Bush was told in advance by his top Iraq envoy in May 2003 of a plan to "dissolve Saddam's military and intelligence structures," a plan that the envoy, L. Paul Bremer, said referred to dismantling the Iraqi Army.

Mr. Bremer provided the letters to The New York Times on Monday after reading that Mr. Bush was quoted in a new book as saying that American policy had been "to keep the army intact" but that it "didn't happen."

The dismantling of the Iraqi Army in the aftermath of the American invasion is now widely regarded as a mistake that stoked rebellion among hundreds of thousands of former Iraqi soldiers and made it more difficult to reduce sectarian bloodshed and attacks by insurgents. In releasing the letters, Mr. Bremer said he wanted to refute the suggestion in Mr. Bush's comment that Mr. Bremer had acted to disband the army without the knowledge and concurrence of the White House.

The Andrews story makes it sound as if Bremer was briefing Rumsfeld about this plan, that the plan was something that Bush and Bremer were hammering out. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In October 2006, David Blunkett, Britain's Home Secretary during the crucial pre-invasion and immediate post-invasion period, told all in an interview with the Guardian (U.K.) and the serialization of his diaries from that time. Unlike Bremer's book published earlier this year, Blunkett was candid about his screw-ups and about what he did — and didn't do. More importantly, he reveals just who was making the big decisions for the U.S. Here's a hint: It wasn't Bremer and it wasn't Bush. From the Guardian story by Patrick Wintour and Julian Glover:

A member of the war cabinet, [Blunkett] reveals that Britain battled with the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, and defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, not to press ahead with dismantling "the whole of the security, policing, administrative and local government system on the basis of the de-Ba'athification of Iraq.

"The issue was: 'What the hell do you do about it?' All we could do as a nation of 60 million off the coast of mainland Europe was to seek to influence the most powerful nation in the world. We did seek to influence them, but we were not in charge, so you cannot say that if only the government recognised what needed to be done, it would all have been different. The government did recognise the problem."

He admits: "We dismantled the structure of a functioning state," adding that the British view was: "Change them by all means, decapitate them even, but very quickly get the arms and legs moving."

This 2006 story wasn't totally ignored in the U.S. press. The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum summed it up well on October 8, 2006:

DE-BAATHIFICATION....Former British Home Secretary David Blunkett, whose diary will begin serialization in the Guardian on Monday, says that it wasn't Paul Bremer who favored dismantling the Iraqi military after the invasion. …

I don't suppose this is really surprising news or anything — did we ever really think Bremer made this decision on his own? — but it's nice to see confirmation. Yet another disastrous miscalculation from the dynamic duo of Cheney and Rumsfeld. Have these guys ever gotten anything right?

Drum's right. It wasn't surprising in 2003 that the decision was being made by Rumsfeld and Cheney, not Bremer, and it certainly wasn't surprising in 2006. So why was the Times story so clueless?

This isn't the first time Times reporter Andrews has mishandled a big story. Back in 2004, Andrews blew a vital news angle about corporate tax breaks. Read my October 12, 2004, post, in which I wrote:

Regarding the corporate tax bill, the Times's Andrews naively writes that George W. Bush "has indicated he will sign the measure despite White House concerns that it is overloaded with special-interest provisions." That's malarkey about White House "concerns." The Bush regime, which includes leaders of the GOP-controlled Congress, knew that senators of both parties would waddle over to the trough and slurp up the bill's "surplus" so they could excrete it as a steaming pile of pork-barrel projects. The structure of this session's two major tax bills is all part of the White House's shrewd strategy to reward corporations at our expense.

If you want something beyond my immature screed, read this October 2004 measured analysis of the corporate tax cuts, courtesy of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' Joel Friedman.

Regarding the Bremer-Bush dustup and the blunder of dismantling the Iraq Army, the New Yorker's George Packer parses it and takes the long view. Packer also shrewdly notes that it's not wise to give the Bush regime too much credit for being orderly enough to make decisions. Bush's White House and Pentagon were, and are, a dysfunctional family. Writing about the blunder of dismantling the Iraq Army, Packer notes:

No one has ever been able to explain the history of that crucial decision, which countless Iraqis have told me was the biggest mistake of the American occupation and a huge factor in the growth of the insurgency. When I was researching The Assassins' Gate I learned that, just before Bremer went to Iraq, in early May, 2003, he had discussed the issue at the Pentagon with Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Walt Slocombe (who became Bremer's adviser on Iraqi security forces in Baghdad), and then he cleared the decision with Donald Rumsfeld. This account was later borne out in Bremer's book. Did Condi Rice know? Dick Cheney? Bush himself? It's been impossible to be sure, and a former Administration official once told me that this fact alone shows what a dysfunctional policymaking process it was.

A history-changing decision, upending a previous policy, was made on the fly by a handful of officials at the Pentagon who consulted with no one else in Washington, let alone in Iraq. (In The Assassins' Gate, I describe the disbelief of a U.S. Army colonel, Paul Hughes, who at the time was knee-deep in the effort to organize and pay soldiers of the defeated Iraqi army; his outrage is the high point of the powerful new film No End in Sight.) Bremer's letter to Bush proves that the President was told at the last minute and gave the O.K. — but that's it. He had nothing to do with the decision either way and seemed barely aware of it.

Meanwhile, the exchange between the two of them — which took place when Iraq was already slipping away — reminds me of Lear talking to his fawning daughters at the opening of the play. "As I have moved around, there has been an almost universal expression of thanks to the US and to you in particular for freeing Iraq from Saddam's tyranny," Bremer assures his boss. "The dissolution of his chosen instrument of political domination, the Baath Party, has been very well received." The President answers in kind: "Your leadership is apparent. You have quickly made a positive and significant impact. You have my full support and confidence."

Unless hard drives are destroyed and archives sealed, one day we'll be able to read thousands more such documents of the war. The details will be damning.

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