Paul Bremer: Security and Iraq

Paul Bremer spoke to CSO about his experiences in Iraq and about the 'war on terror'.

Prior to his service in Iraq, Paul Bremer served as chairman of the Bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism, and recorded a 23-year career in the State Department including serving as Ambassador to the Netherlands under President Ronald Reagan and postings in Afghanistan, Malawi and Norway. Before going to Iraq, Bremer was chairman and CEO of Marsh Crisis Consulting Co., a branch of Marsh & McLennan. In 2006, Bremer published a book, "My Year in Iraq" about his experience leading the CPA.In his speech (see coverage of Bremer’s speech here), Bremer re-asserted that he and his team achieved some important economic and political goals while acknowledging that the security challenges facing Iraq were then -- and still are -- a major obstacle to success.

Later that day, Bremer sat down with CSO’s Scott Berinato and Michael Goldberg to discuss how private sector security executives should view their role in the War on Terror and why he’s concerned about the ongoing debate in Washington about the war in Iraq.

Paul Bremer
Bremer speaks at CSO Perspectives.

The following is a transcript of the interview.

CSO: One of the points you made for this audience of business executives was to be aware of the War on Terror and what that means for U.S. policy. You have a lot of experience in the private sector as well. Are there tips or questions or guideposts that you would give to security executives for looking at those issues as time marches on?

Bremer: One of the things I think is very difficult, and [CSO Publisher Bob Bragdon] mentioned it earlier this morning, is to have a sustained and steady approach from corporate leaders, whether it’s C-suite in the corporation or the Board of Directors, because -- and this is not just true in [the private sector] -- this is also true in government.

There is a tendency in fighting these terrorist issues for attention to spike when there’s an incident and then it has sort of a short half life, a fall off. And in the National Commission on Terrorism report, which we issued back in June of 2000, we drew attention to this problem more as a political matter than a business matter, but it’s the same. It’s important to have a sustained degree of attention. You can’t really have a coherent policy, whether you’re a government or a business, if you’re just being driven by the daily headlines, because it goes like this, goes up and down. So it’s important for people who are dealing with security to try to encourage their leadership, whether it’s, as I say, the CEO or the Board or both, to take a long view of whatever the threat is. And it could be not just terrorism, it could be avian flu, it could be whatever -- take a long view.

When I was in the private sector, I ran a company, set up and ran a company doing crisis management. And our thesis was that corporations regularly have crises. Big corporations have them on the average of every couple of years, whether it’s the CEO dying or somebody going down in a plane or the kind of thing we’re talking about. And so good corporate management tries to take a long view and put in place the systems to deal with the threat, whatever it turns out to be. And it’s easier to say than to do, particularly because the CSO doesn’t always have the kind of bureaucratic clout that he or she needs to make these things happen. But anyway, I state at least the proposition that that’s what they should try to do.

CSO: In your experience, are there ways to get more of that clout to try to argue or advocate or present the knowledge that you have?

Bremer: Well, I think that’s a hard question to answer because you would have to look at each corporation and the personalities and the structure of each corporation. Maybe the General Counsel becomes an ally in this kind of thing. I mean you just have to find your own way forward.

CSO: I was particularly interested in the part of the talk this morning where you’re talking about the state of Islam and the sort of civil war within Islam and I think it was [the work of historian Bernard Lewis]. At some point it seems like extremists are made or, I don’t know, maybe they’re born not made, but what is being done? What can be done to prevent people from becoming extremists? Is there economic stability that you can provide them?

Bremer: Well, I think there are three things. First of all, there really is a problem, and people have written about it, with the madrassas that are being largely funded still by the Saudis, particularly in a place like Pakistan, and by the way, in the United States. Certainly the madrassas in Pakistan have been a breeding ground because the boys who go there, and they go usually quite young when they’re eight or so, are subjected, in many cases, to a sort of barrage of anti-Western ideology. So we have to work at a diplomatic level, political level, with governments like the Saudis and try to reduce the impact of education. Secondly, economics do matter. Poverty is not the root cause of terrorism, but poverty can drive -- can make available to the intellectual leaders of these terrorist groups, the real extremists, [leaders of Al Qaeda like] Zawahiri and Bin Laden and Zarqawi, cannon fodder young men who are without hope and who then say, "Okay, I’ll drive the suicide truck or whatever," what we’re seeing in Iraq. So you do have to work on the economy.

There’s a limit to what the United States can do there in terms of money and I think, my own view, having worked in foreign affairs for about 40 years now, is that the actual amount of funds spent on fixing an economy are not as important as fixing the rules on which the economy works. In other words, respect for private property, open markets, all the things that actually have been shown to work. And thirdly, you come to the political point. Democracy can be an important part, as I argued, of this struggle because democracy offers a way for people who feel that they have some responsibility for how their governed. And therefore, grand strategy to defeat this threat has to have a political dimension and the political dimension is growing democracy.

CSO: Today is the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and we’re wondering when occasions like this come up, how do you reflect on that?

Bremer: Well, I have sort of two reactions. One is, of course, continued concern for the situation on the ground in Iraq because I believe very strongly we did a noble thing in liberating the Iraqis and that it’s proven to be more difficult than we thought it was going to be, but it was the right thing to do, and I see the difficulties that they still have and talk to my Iraqi friends about it and so forth. And of course, I have a lot of friends in Iraq who’ve fought hard, some of them have died for this. So I have kind of a mixture there.

And then when I think back on how did we do during our 14 months there, I reach the conclusion that I discussed this morning. The conventional wisdom that somehow we bungled the occupation is just wrong. We had remarkable progress in the political and economic side, and which were the two areas for which the Coalition Provisional Authority was primarily responsible. I did not have authority or responsibility over the security side. That was really a military [responsibility] and I was not in the military chain of command. And on the security side, we obviously have still got problems.

CSO: It comes through so clear in your book that [you cited the need for] more troops, [quoting] the Rand report, and the need for more troops, the need for more troops. You find yourself as you’re reading it thinking, why isn’t anybody shouting this even louder, even more and I’m just wondering, reflecting on that, do you ever wish you had shouted even louder, fought even harder for that or do you feel like you did everything you could to get those troops?

Bremer: Well, I think I did everything I could on troops. I think the mistake I made, in some ways is -- and I touched on it here today -- I never heard a General, in all the hours that I met with Generals with or without the President, the Secretary of Defense, and so forth, both in Iraq and all over Iraq and back in Washington -- never heard anybody ask for more troops. And I am not a military expert, so maybe the problem wasn’t more troops. Maybe the problem, and there I probably should have been more insistent, was the lack of a clear military strategy. Now there I could have spoken. I’m a historian and I know a lot about history and I’ve read a lot about war and military strategy. I did raise it, but in retrospect, since all of the Generals were saying they had enough troops -- or anyway, none of them were saying they needed more -- there was no way that the Commander and Chief was going to say, "Well, all those Generals are wrong and Bremer is right." I mean why would he? To put him, be fair to the President and to the Secretary of Defense, when all of the military, apparently is saying they have enough troops and you’ve got some retired diplomat saying, "Well, no we don’t."

Where I had more standing, perhaps, and could have been more insistent was on the question of having the military strategy, not just going in and doing raids, but going in and clearing and holding and rebuilding, which as I mentioned this morning, didn’t become a stated strategy until November of 2005.

CSO: When you outline those three central aims of political, economic [and security efforts] which you described, and as you’ve recounted a number of successes in those fronts -- the perception at home is that the security challenge, it makes it seem like that challenge swallows up the others?

Bremer: Well, I think it’s, to some degree, it certainly -- in terms of if you’re an Iraqi, you look at the polls today that come out -- now there are a lot of polls today, so you can take your choice.

You’ve got to be careful about reading polls too closely in a place like Iraq -- but what you see is Iraqi discontent with the situation, and the discontent is driven by lack of security. And as I point out in my book, the fundamental role of any government is to provide security for its citizens. All the rest of it flows from that. So I won’t -- you used the word, what was it, overwhelmed or whatever the word that was used -- I don’t know about that, but it certainly is the core issue. And if you cannot provide security, then the other things are eventually going to be less important to the person in the street, understandably.

I heard from our military during the time I was there, over and over, that the way to resolve the security problem was to give the Iraqis a clear political path forward. And we gave them that. We gave them a clear political path forward. We gave them a constitution, we gave them the elections. Did not solve the security problem.

The way to solve the security problem is to solve the security problem. It’s to defeat the Sunni insurgency. And because we did not provide enough security to defeat the Sunni insurgency, the Shiite turned to their own militia. They said, "Well, you can’t defend us against Zarqawi and his killers and his suicide bombers, so we’re going to turn to Moqtada al-Sadr and let him protect us." And so you got into this sectarian -- by the way, I forgot to mention this morning -- during the 14 months that we were in Iraq, there was almost no sectarian killing. We counted -- we could confirm fewer than 100 sectarian murders in 14 months. These were killings of former Baathists, probably by Shiite, almost all of them in the south, but 100 -- we get that many a day now. A hundred in 14 months. Sectarian violence was not yet a major factor. And it is a mark of the, I would say, success of Al Qaeda in Iraq that their stated objective was to start a sectarian war. And they have had some success in that, essentially by killing innocent Shiite and the Iraqi security forces couldn’t protect them, so the Shiite took matters into their own hand with their militia and you get into a kind of a back and forth.

CSO: Are there any lessons for sort of from history to learn from this sectarian violence in Northern Ireland?

Bremer: If there are, they’re hard because it’s been going on for 300 years. It’s not a place I would particularly model it after. Now eventually, it is perhaps now stepping down in Ireland, although it certainly isn’t over, but it’s been -- even if you only dated from the uprising in 1921, it’s been 80, well, almost 90 years. So I hope [Iraq] isn’t going to take that long.

But the interesting thing in Iraq is that historically, the Shiite and the Sunni were not at [odds]. Now the Sunnis ran the place, under the Turks and under Saddam, under the British, but there’s been generations of intermarriage across the Sunni-Shiite divide. All of the major tribes in Iraq have both Sunni and Shiite members, although there’s usually a tribal chief who does one or the other, but they all -- so and as I said, very little sectarian violence in the occupation period. So what we’re seeing now is the result of the efforts, lamentably successful efforts, by Al Qaeda to provoke this kind of sectarian violence.

CSO: Do you think there are other players promoting that too?

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