May 6, 2003

A Civilian Face on Imperialism

With the naming of former ambassador L. Paul Bremer as something of a co-consul proconsul (the news accounts say he will be in charge with former Gen. Jay Garner his subordinate but the real picture at this point is still a little fuzzy, the administration has apparently done its best to put a civilian face on its military occupation of Iraq. What is striking is how little the administration seems to have gained, even in the ability to do PR spin, from this particular appointment. Surely there was somebody available whose immediate negatives, both in the United States and in Iraq, were a little less out front.

It's fascinating but more than a little sad. The best way to imagine that those in charge of policy in Iraq are even mildly competent is to view the entire process from the most cynical perspective possible.

Assume for the moment that the real purpose of the invasion was to establish physical military and intelligence assets inside a country that lies close to the geographical center of the Middle East. That would give the U.S. government easier access than from an aircraft carrier to countries and places where future Islamicist terrorist activity (state-backed or not) is likely to occur, a better capacity to train or curry agents who could "blend in" in such an environment and overwhelming influence in the country with the world's second-largest oil resources.

If the invasion had nothing to do with ending Saddam's tyranny, neutralizing weapons of mass destruction, bringing about democracy or setting an example for the rest of the Arab and/or Islamic world, then it probably doesn't matter much that the first conspicuous appointment is of a man who retired from the State Department to become managing director not just an overpaid associate but managing director of Kissinger and Associates back in 1989.

It might even, from a cynical perspective, be viewed as a relatively good move to send somebody who will be perceived as a practitioner of straight power politics with a realpolitik emphasis rather than some dewy-eyed soul who actually believes his mission is to establish democracy. It would let all concerned know that the United States means to dominate and is in no mood to take any backtalk.

CHRIS HITCHENS, CALL YOUR OFFICE

It all might be a little discomfiting to long-time left-wing maverick (and terrific writer) Christopher Hitchens, who in the face of 9/11 and what he calls "Islamo-Fascism" has become something of a born-again supporter of the national security state in general, of the idea of an ongoing war on terror and of this particular war. He hasn't quite abandoned his tendency to be critical, but he has shifted noticeably.

However, he still believes that Henry Kissinger is a certifiable war criminal and has fairly recently opined that the master of realpolitik, the bomber of Cambodia, the facilitator of Nixon and the author of numerous other outrages, should be charged with war crimes and brought to trial. So here comes L. Paul Bremer, who was, as noted, not just an associate but managing director of Kissinger and Associates. In 1981, when he was still with the State Department, Al Haig, also a Kissinger confederate, appointed him Executive Secretary of the State Department, where he directed the departments 24-hour-a-day crisis management and emergency response center.

So, from Mr. Hitchens' perspective, there must be a certain bittersweet aspect to this appointment. Did he change his spots on war, terror and national security and disappoint a lot of his former friends (though he seems to have gained some new ones) just to have a protege of his bete noir be appointed to the most important post-war civilian post, guiding the Iraqi people on the path to democracy, Kissinger-style? How does Christopher Hitchens feel about that (to use the language of a TV "news" interviewer) and does he think at all about how things are turning out?

ACCOMPLISHED BUT NOT AN EXPERT

Mr. Bremer has a couple of recent feathers in his cap. He chaired a terrorism task force appointed by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert in 1999 that produced a fairly respectable report in 2000 warning of serious terrorism threats and focusing on al Qaida. That report looked pretty good by September 12, 2001, although it was hardly the only report on or warning about terrorism. It is always in the interest of such task forces to find a pressing risk out there in the nasty larger world, there are always dangers in the world (especially given an interventionist foreign policy that among other things reliably creates new enemies). So plenty of task forcers and a few members of Congress can now claim to have been prescient about the possibility of a terrorist attack.

The other thing Mr. Bremer managed, in between being in charge of the Crisis Consulting Practice for Marsh, Inc., which hired him away from Kissinger in October 2001, was to co-chair the conservative heritage Foundation's Homeland Security Task Force, which produced a large magazine-style report in 2002. The report called for tightening up infrastructure security, including designating the Global Positioning System (GPS) as "critical national infrastructure" and therefore to be under the control of the department of Defense. It called for more stringent rules for passengers and freight carriers at airports and a "nationwide surveillance network for early detection of chemical, biological, or other attacks," beefing up (and in effect nationalizing) the National Guard, accelerating the development of missile defense, and having the military more actively involved in advising (and directing?) local and state law enforcement and other authorities on first-response and other practices.

The Heritage report was not all that remarkably more aggressive in calling for closer government supervision of the people as the major response to terrorism than the proposals from a number of quarters in the months following 9/11. It had a number of useful suggestions on tearing down bureaucratic walls so agencies could communicate more efficiently with one another. But it was most definitely a beef-up-big-government response, which is a fascinating though hardly unusual tack for an organization that on at least some other issues claims the mantle of limited-government conservatives. It's hardly unusual for conservatives to check their limited-government credentials at the door when it comes to the national security aspect of the government, although one might have hoped some would have outgrown it with the end of the Cold War.

At any rate, the word on Bremer from a number of retired foreign service people I talked to is that he is capable, but not especially expert on the Middle East. Although he did serve early on in Afghanistan, his ambassadorial posting was to Norway (having been deputy ambassador from 1976 to 1979), from 1983 to 1986. He was Ambassador at Large for Counter Terrorism, the State Department's top post in the terrorism field, from 1986 to 1989, which gives him at least a credential in that field. Thus his expertise in the Middle East or in nation-building is difficult to discern.

Although one former diplomat averred that he is "almost as good as he thinks he is, which is pretty darned good," his major credential seems to be that he is not a military man and thus useful for PR purposes. I got mixed feedback on whether his appointment reflects skill on the part of Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the sense that Powell goes along with administration plans when he knows they are inevitable but keeps working behind the scenes and through back channels to make sure Defense isn't running everything, and diplomats and diplomacy at least have some say in policy. Some say Powell is a good bureaucratic infighter but compared to Defense has essential no staff and few resources, so he's bound to lose most of his intramural battles no matter how skillful he is.

I just haven't discovered enough yet to know whether Bremer is really one of Powell's guys or somebody with both old-line Kissingerian credentials and recent experience in terrorism, a guy with a hard-line-enough attitude to keep neoconservatives placated, or a known neoconservative ally. It could be that the Bush administration came to the conclusion that it would be a good front to get a civilian in charge without much prodding from Powell.

Some say Bremer, with all his counter-terrorism experience, was appointed in part to reinforce the idea that the Iraq war really was no, honest! about fighting terrorism rather than eliminating a nasty guy who has been a handy demon and gaining a territorial foothold in the Middle East.

The really striking thing, however, is how tone-deaf to world opinion and potentially to a backlash within the United States this appointment is. There are retired State Department people with broad experience in he Middle East and a certain amount of cachet in the region several people mentioned Thomas Pickering who might have been available. Instead, the administration chose a guy joined at the hip to Henry Kissinger, who is not viewed especially kindly by most Arab governments, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia. Was the administration simply unaware of how Bremer's negatives might play out, or did it just not care so long as the appointee was a reliable Old Friend?

Neither hypothesis is especially encouraging.

– Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

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