Blogroll Me! How This Old Brit Sees It ...: Official history of Iraq reconstruction reveals incompetence on a Mugabean scale

14 December 2008

Official history of Iraq reconstruction reveals incompetence on a Mugabean scale

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From the New York Times:

An unpublished 513-page federal history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.

The history, the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among a tight circle of technical reviewers, policy experts and senior officials. It also concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag — particularly in the critical area of rebuilding the Iraqi police and army — the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.

In one passage, for example, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is quoted as saying that in the months after the 2003 invasion, the Defense Department “kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces — the number would jump 20,000 a week! ‘We now have 80,000, we now have 100,000, we now have 120,000.’

Mr. Powell’s assertion that the Pentagon inflated the number of competent Iraqi security forces is backed up by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of ground troops in Iraq, and L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator until an Iraqi government took over in June 2004.”
Those phony numbers would help Bush win a narrow victory in 2004. Just as the Department of Homeland Security would issue a new terror alert whenever the president's poll numbers began to sag, so the Department of Defense would issue a rosy new progress report whenever events in Iraq indicated that the situation was spiraling out of control. In fact, it appears that from the beginning of the occupation, the White House saw the appearance of progress in Iraq as a means to an end, the end being the re-election of President Bush:

When the Office of Management and Budget balked at the American occupation authority’s abrupt request for about $20 billion in new reconstruction money in August 2003, a veteran Republican lobbyist working for the authority made a bluntly partisan appeal to Joshua B. Bolten, then the O.M.B. director and now the White House chief of staff. “To delay getting our funds would be a political disaster for the President,” wrote the lobbyist, Tom C. Korologos. “His election will hang for a large part on show of progress in Iraq and without the funding this year, progress will grind to a halt.” With administration backing, Congress allocated the money later that year.
Admittedly, the security situation in Iraq (which the Bush administration consistently asserted was better than it actually was) played a role in the failure of the reconstruction, but the new official history seems to indicate that incompetence and lack of planning played a much larger role:

Titled “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” the new history was compiled by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, led by Stuart W. Bowen Jr., a Republican lawyer who regularly travelsto Iraq and has a staff of engineers and auditors based here. While Mr. Bowen concedes that deteriorating security had a hand in spoiling the program’s hopes, he suggests, as he has in the past, that the program did not need much outside help to do itself in.

Despite years of studying the program, Mr. Bowen writes that he still has not found a good answer to the question of why the program was even pursued as soaring violence made it untenable. “Others will have to provide that answer,” Mr. Bowen writes. “But beyond the security issue stands another compelling and unavoidable answer: the U.S. government was not adequately prepared to carry out the reconstruction mission it took on in mid-2003,” he concludes.
The most obvious reason why an untenable program was pursued is that it put billions of dollars into the coffers of a few influential firms, and millions into the bank account of Vice President Cheney.

In fact, from the review presented by the Times, it sounds like Bowen's history is as much a whitewash of the Bush administration as it is a critique. Rumsfeld's infamous overconfidence and lack of planning appear to have been documented, but the Times' summary doesn't say much about no-bid contracts,
billion dollar overcharges, or the $9 billion that was simply lost.

The Times also didn't mention the degree to which the political spoils system appears to have affected the reconstruction. Most of the contracts were given to Republican-connected firms like Parsons Construction, Halliburton, KBR, Custer Battles, Bechtel, and Blackwater. Much of the reconstruction was overseen by inexperienced young idealists whose primary qualification seems to have been
their affiliation with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

I don't doubt that Rumsfeld's incompetence and Bush's idiocy played a large role in the failure of Iraq's reconstruction, but it appears that rampant corruption also played a major role. The final draft of the official history of the reconstruction won't be released until February, so we'll see then whether it's an honest assessment of what went wrong, or just another Bush administration whitewash.

(cross posted at appletree)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incompetence? That's letting those to blame off too lightly. I'll only go along with that if there's such a thing as "preemptive" and "planned" incompetence.

9:28 pm  

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