Reassessing Paul Bremer's Stewardship of Iraq

In the seven years that have passed since the Iraq invasion, no one has seen his reputation tumble lower than L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer III. Retired to his suburban Maryland home, the onetime civilian administrator of Iraq had to watch impotently while the conventional wisdom about his tenure hardened against him year after year. Bremer was considered an unmitigated disaster by the chattering classes, and there have been few dissenters from that view. As invasion turned into occupation, and occupation into an out-of-control insurgency and sectarian bloodshed in the mid- to late 2000s, much of the blame was allotted to Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority. Starting with a pair of initial catastrophic decisions—first ordering a blanket de-Baathification of the country, then disbanding the Sunni-led Iraqi Army—Bremer fomented the Sunni uprising and never understood the country he was supposed to be running, the critics said.

A lot of that criticism still rings true today. But on the seventh anniversary of the U.S. invasion, as the current Iraqi election plays out relatively peacefully, if erratically, it is time for another look at the Bremer legacy. The insta-histories of his one-year administration tend to ignore what Bremer always considered his main job: leaving behind a constitution and a democratic political system. And whatever his portion of the blame then, it's undeniable that much of what is now working well in Iraq is also largely Bremer's legacy.

When the insurgency flared in the fall of 2003 and the Pentagon wanted to pull out of the country sooner rather than later, it was Bremer who argued against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, winning George W. Bush and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice over to the idea of leaving behind the interim Constitution known as the Transitional Administrative Law, or TAL. "The Iraqis took the basic principle of the TAL and put it in the Constitution. The basic human-rights protections, the freedom of religion. They have followed it every step of the way," with a few changes, Bremer told me in an interview this week. "It is a credit to the work done during the occupation that they stuck with the political structure, and almost all our economic policies are still in place," including the concept of an independent central bank and the new Iraqi currency that Bremer introduced. While he admits "it's too early to tell" what shape the new government and the nation as a whole will ultimately take, "the good news is we're seeing something that's never happened in this part of the world, except Israel. I'm always amazed to find myself scratching my head, examining precinct returns in Iraq."

Bremer says he's worried about the Obama administration's timetable, which calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011, but he trusts Ray Odierno, the general in command in Iraq, to extend the stay of the military if he thinks it necessary. "I think it was a mistake in both Iraq and Afghanistan to set arbitrary deadlines on ourselves," he says. "It would be foolish to think the sectarian divide would be overcome in so few years. If you look at Iraqi history, the Sunnis have run the place since the Abbasid caliphate [1,300 years ago]. This is a pretty substantial revolution that is taking place."

If Bush, Obama, or their successors ever can claim ultimate victory in Iraq, Bremer's carefully designed legal structure may well prove to be a central reason. "The overall strategy we had was to say that we ought to try to do as much as we could in the interim Constitution, particularly in the area of rights," Bremer says. "We wanted to move as far down that road as we could go, on the argument that it's much harder to take away rights once they're given." The bottom line is that Bremer & Co. were trying to do a bit of recombinant DNA in Iraq not unlike what the American occupation in Japan did after World War II: transplanting genuinely democratic concepts in the hope that they will endure, and doing it in such a way that the Iraqis took ownership of them. Will Bremer, who left in June 2004, ever return to the country to examine his handiwork firsthand? Not any time soon. "I still have a price on my head," he says.