‘Close to Conflagration’

Former Ambassador Charges U.S. with Willful Ignorance in Iraq
Reconstruction

by Nick Welsh

iraq.jpgFormer ambassador Barbara Bodine is hardly the
first to itemize the many U.S. policy failures in the Iraq War, but
she may be one of the most qualified such critics, having been
placed in charge of reconstruction efforts the month after the
invasion. A 1970 UCSB graduate who taught as UCSB’s Diplomat in
Residence from 2002 to 2004, Bodine was back in town recently at
the invitation of UCSB’s Orfalea Center and Professor Mark
Juergensmeyer. During her brief visit, Bodine — a career diplomat
with the State Department — spoke formally of her experiences in
Iraq; met informally with a gathering of graduate students,
professors, and members of the public; and participated in a
videotaped interview with Juergensmeyer.

Bodine readily acknowledged her serious misgivings about the
invasion before it was launched but said she was “absolutely
astonished” by the Bush administration’s lack of any post-invasion
planning. In February 2003 — not long before the start of
hostilities on March 20 — Dick Armitage, then deputy secretary of
state, asked Bodine to run the reconstruction effort after the
initial invasion. She was to be responsible for Baghdad and the
Sunni Triangle, home to about 7 million people, or 40 percent of
Iraq’s population. Bodine was teaching a UCSB class on the limits
and value of interventionism in foreign policy at the time. When
she returned to Washington, D.C., she discovered the problem was
worse than she supposed. “We had a great idea of how to invade the
country, but we had no idea what we were going to do with it
afterward. We didn’t have any plan,” she said. “I had no staff, no
mission. It was basically, ‘It’s yours. Go figure out what to
do.’”

Bodine said she was eventually able to “cobble together” a staff
of 15 to administer the political and physical reconstruction of an
area she compared to California “from Los Angeles to the Mexican
border.” But she also discovered the problem was far more insidious
than not having a plan. It turned out a detailed blueprint had, in
fact, been developed for what to do with Iraq in the event of an
invasion. The plan — which measured four feet in binders — had been
18 months in the making, and involved 250 Iraqis, academics, and
experts with the State Department, the CIA, and the National
Security Council (NSC).

The whole undertaking, Bodine stressed, had been authorized by
both Congress and the NSC. But the Department of Defense (DOD)
steamrollered the effort, Bodine charged, waging a successful
campaign for primacy in postwar planning. “It was made explicitly
clear that plan had absolutely no standing whatever,” she said. “It
could not be mentioned. It could not be referred to. And, of more
concern to me, the people who were involved with that plan were
explicitly excluded from any reconstruction efforts. As a result,
the more you knew about the reconstruction of Iraq, the less your
chances were of getting a job in the reconstruction.” According to
Bodine, the effort was quickly taken over by people whose chief
recommendations were political connections.

The degree of self-imposed ignorance was so severe, said Bodine,
that U.S authorities did not even know where many of Iraq’s key
governmental ministries were located immediately after the
invasion. “Honest to God, we were operating with the Lonely
Planet Guide to Iraq
 — literally, the hippie’s guide to Iraq,”
she said. “We set ourselves up for not knowing what hit us.”

According to Bodine, the bitter infighting among American
governmental agencies severely undermined U.S. efforts to establish
if not peace, then at least law and order and basic services in
Iraq. “The DOD did not trust the CIA. They did not trust State.
They did not trust AID [Agency for International Development],” she
said. “To borrow a line from Frank Sinatra, they wanted to do it
their way.” Bodine said those agencies traditionally charged with
designing and executing America’s foreign policy — the State
Department and CIA — were totally outmaneuvered by former secretary
of defense Donald Rumsfeld, who enjoyed strong backing from Vice
President Dick Cheney. “We completely underestimated them. For a
while, it was, ‘Oh, those loons at DOD — they’re so weird.’ But we
just got smashed.”

The key reason the DOD never bothered developing its own
detailed reconstruction plans, Bodine suggested, was that Rumsfeld
and other key strategists were convinced the U.S. could get in and
out of Iraq within four months. “They thought we could go in, tweak
things at the top, and turn it over,” she said. “They thought our
political reconstruction would be complete by August 2003. They
thought the infrastructure would be finished by August, and that
there would be a new constitution, elections, and a fully sovereign
government in approximately four months.”

Barbara_Bodine.jpgBodine, who also served in Iraq with the
State Department for three years in the early 1980s, said she
frequently traveled out of the Green Zone — Baghdad’s heavily
fortified center — to meet with Iraqis during her more recent tour
of duty. She said she was less concerned if the Iraqis she met
belonged to the Baath Party (the party of Saddam Hussein) than
whether they were competent or corrupt. Bodine found that for many
Iraqis — from technocrats to school librarians — Baath Party
membership was all but mandatory. Because of that, Bodine said the
“de-Baathification” policy, announced by Coalition Provisional
Authority chief Paul Bremer in May 2003, alienated those people
most able to maintain basic services. Likewise, Bodine faulted
Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi National Army. As numerous
critics of the reconstruction effort are quick to point out, many
of the disbanded soldiers have since joined the militias now
running amok throughout Iraq, and even now the Bush administration
is struggling to undo the effects of de-Baathification. “We kind of
pulled the bones out of the body politic,” Bodine said. “Then we
act surprised that the body collapsed. However diseased those bones
were, they kept the body up.”

With her characteristically grim sense of humor, Bodine “joked”
that if she were prone to see conspiracies — which she swore she
was not — she might have seen one in Bremer’s decisions to disband
the military and the Baath Party, which she pointed out were made
without consulting any of the military commanders in the field or
other affected government agencies. “If I were an Iraqi and I
wanted to take power, one of the things you’d want to do is remove
the two elements that could challenge me — the Baath Party and the
military,” she said, not so obliquely referring to Ahmed Chalabi.
Initially embraced by the Bush administration as the Iraqi “George
Washington,” Chalabi has since been disgraced for goading the U.S.
into war with bad information about weapons of mass destruction.
“But I wouldn’t want to imply that an Iraqi exile with close ties
to the DOD might have recommended that,” Bodine added.

Bodine said that even during the first month after the invasion,
there were ample signs things were not going as hoped, like
widespread looting and lack of security. Likewise, she said there
were early indications the scattered military forces were aligning
with what would become “the insurgency.” Bodine said military
commanders sought permission to pursue these early insurgents at
the time but were rebuffed; Bodine’s efforts to create functioning
neighborhood councils met a similar fate. Bodine said such councils
not only could provide valuable feedback to the U.S., but might
also promote a sense of bottom-up, grassroots democracy in a nation
suffering from an acute lack of homegrown political leadership. But
although Bodine worked for the State Department, all decisions had
to be cleared through the DOD. “I was told we weren’t going to be
here long enough to do bottom-up democracy, only long enough for
top-down democracy,” she said.

When Bremer took command in May 2003, Bodine was initially
optimistic. He was, after all, a career diplomat with the State
Department. But much to her keen disappointment, Bodine was among
the first to be bounced from her post. Since then, she’s been able
to observe the war from her newfound perch as a visiting scholar at
MIT’s Center for International Studies. While the damage done in
Iraq was not entirely irreversible, she said, it would be extremely
difficult to turn things around. She embraced the recent Iraq Study
Group report — issued by a commission led by former secretary of
state James Baker and former Indiana senator Lee Hamilton — which
urges the Bush administration to begin serious discussions with
regional powers, including Syria and Iran, with whom the U.S. has
no official lines of communication. “Instead, the administration
says, ‘We don’t need to talk; they know what to do.’ That doesn’t
work. At this point, we’re not talking with more parties in the
Middle East than we’re talking to.”

Bodine expressed concern that the Bush administration was
accentuating sectarian differences by focusing on divisions among
the Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurds, instead of on the Iraqi sense of
national identity. She vehemently rejected the notion that Iraq
could be partitioned into three new nations based on sectarian
identity, arguing the three groups are so interspersed and
intermarried throughout Iraq that it would be impossible to draw
the lines for such a map. Finally, she cautioned that Bush’s new
rhetoric — of working with moderate Muslims but against extremists
throughout the Middle East — threatened to divide the entire region
along Sunni-Shi’a lines. “The lesson we failed to learn in Iraq,
we’re now going to apply to the whole region,” she said. Virtually
the only encouraging news Bodine cited was last November’s election
results, in which Democrats gained a majority in both the Senate
and House. This, she said, reassured some Arabs concerned by Bush’s
reelection in 2004 that there has been a fundamental change of
sentiment among the American people.

On recent reports that Bush might be itching for a fight with
Iran, Bodine cautioned, “If we couldn’t handle Iraq, we certainly
won’t be able to handle Iran. It’s three times bigger. Are Iranians
fishing in troubled waters? Absolutely. But I don’t think prodding
and provoking Iran is going to make the situation in Iraq any
better. And it runs a serious risk of making it considerably
worse.”

Ultimately, Bodine was far less than hopeful about the prospect
for peace in Iraq or the Middle East. “I’ve been working in this
region almost my entire career, and I’ve never seen it as close to
conflagration as I see it now,” she said. “If it does set off,
we’re going to be dealing with things we can’t even imagine in five
to 10 years from now.”

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