Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Bremerian Miscalculations at the End of a Long War

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 31 December 2011 16:20

It would have been tempting to do a year-end summary of Iraqi politics. However, in terms of achievements on the part of Iraqi politicians, there really isn’t that much to write about. In late January, Maliki moved a little on exports from the northern oilfields, thereby strengthening his alliance with the Kurds. The Arab Spring came and went but Iraq just did not seem to care: Much of the first part of 2011 was actually spent quarrelling about the exact number of deputies to the largely ceremonial presidential office. Eventually, three deputies were agreed and approved by parliament; one of them promptly resigned. In July, in a positive move, most ministers of state were dismissed from the cabinet, at least theoretically enabling a better consolidation of the sprawling cabinet. By August, the potential for a more compact coalition with an interest in extending the US presence beyond 2011 actually seemed to exist. But it fell apart again as soon as it had come into existence as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Kurds began quarrelling about the oil law, with the secular Iraqiyya party somewhat surprisingly opting to support the confederalist position of the Kurds. By late October it was clear that there would be no prolonged US military presence; simultaneously, some Sunni-majority governorates became so exasperated with Maliki and his renewed anti-Baathism campaign that they began demanding federalism for their own areas on the Kurdish pattern. The US forces finally withdrew in December; this was followed by further steps on the part of Maliki to legally pursue Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and sack Vice Premier Saleh al-Mutlak (both from the Iraqiyya party), plunging the country into a more serious political crisis than at any point since he first came to power in 2006. Anything else? The word count is at no more than 350. 

Paul Bremer to the rescue. Yes, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. After having reportedly repostured to painting landscapes in 2004, Bremer is now talking again. And writing as well, specifically in The Wall Street Journal.

At the beginning of his op-ed, Bremer declares, “For millennia, leaders in Mesopotamia have survived by making fine calculations about power.” Presumably Bremer sees himself as part of that tradition, because “fine calculations” certainly appeared to be one of his favourite pastimes during his tenure as viceroy of Iraq. In his memoirs, he recounts how at one point he dismissed a gathering of seven Iraqis as “unrepresentative” because it contained only one Sunni Arab. According to Bremer, “representativeness” would have meant a perfect proportional reflection of the ethno-sectarian demographic balance of the population (i.e. around 1.4 Sunni Arabs in this case). In another instance, Bremer nixed the inclusion of an able Christian leader in his governing council because the Christian quota would have thereby become too big according to his own mathematics.

Eight years later, Bremer still does not seem to realise how his fine calculations actually had a detrimental effect on Iraqi politics and society.  He bombastically declares, “the year after the American-led coalition overthrew Saddam’s dictatorship in 2003, al Qaeda in Iraq revealed a cynical plan to kill and maim Shiites to spark a sectarian war. It almost worked. Only President George W. Bush’s courageous decision to surge additional troops in early 2007 saved the country.” Many Iraqis would say it was Bremer’s own focus on sectarian identities when he put together the governing council in 2003 that was the real culprit. They would also add that the “saviour” was not Bush’s surge but Iraqis themselves who began working together across sectarian lines as they discovered just how flawed the constitution they had adopted with American support in 2005 was.

At times, Bremer just cannot seem to make up his mind whether we should cry or be happy about the new Iraq. It is almost touching how he enlists modernisation theory methodology that was in the vogue in the 1950s to count telephones as an indicator of how wonderful everything is in the post-2003 democratic era! But eventually he does find an answer: Everything is fine, except “al Qaeda and Iranian terrorists still active in Iraq”.

Perhaps the most substantially interesting piece of information in the Bremer op-ed is the suggestion that “quiet diplomacy had secured the agreement of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani not to oppose a continued American presence [beyond 2011]”. Back in 2008, National Security Council types would tell us the same thing: Sistani supposedly wanted a long-term military pact with the Americans; only the evil Sadrists opposed it. As is well known, Maliki crushed the Sadrists that year and went on to dictate strict time limits for the SOFA concluded with the Americans. In other words, the Sistani factor never seemed to come into play. Perhaps because it was never based on anything more than some ambiguous statement by his son, Muhammad Rida?

More fundamentally, Bremer’s musings on these topics are typical of a prevalent trend in US policy-making circles in which Iraqi Shiites are seen as profoundly anti-Iranian across the board. That thesis is based on good scholarship by Yitzhak Nakash which rightly identifies anti-Iranian trends in parts of the Iraqi Shiite community. But it also contains unfortunate generalisations in which the Shiites are posited as a monolithic community. In fact, the Shiites that were propelled to political prominence by Bremer and other Americans after 2003 happened to be the minority with particularly close ties to Iran.

As for the current situation, Bremer correctly diagnoses a state of crisis in Iraqi politics.“Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, issued an arrest warrant for the country’s vice president, a Sunni, who then fled to the northern Kurdish area.”  And unsurprisingly, the cure prescribed by Bremer is more US intelligence and military intervention: “We should also seek ways to extend our contacts with the Iraqi military, with the eventual goal of returning at least a cadre of U.S. forces to Iraq. Training Iraqi forces outside Iraq, in the U.S. or elsewhere, could be a useful step.”

“Sunnis” and “Shiites”. Clearly, Bremer is at it again. His op-ed is an unspoken mea culpa second only to that of another former Iraq ambassador, Chris Hill and constitutes a much less effective neo-conservative criticism of the Iraq policies of the Obama administration than that previously put forward by Charles Krauthammer. Put simply, Mr. Bremer, you’ve got the wrong calculator: With analytical tools like that, there really is no point in going back.

Let’s settle for the more modest new year’s wish that one year from now there actually exists a recognisable Iraq to write about.

28 Responses to “Bremerian Miscalculations at the End of a Long War”

  1. Well said Reidar. Bremer is looking for a new relevance and gives himself undeserved passing grade for past blunders.
    His recipe does not show how a little uninvited US involvement will cure the Dawa octopus. I don’t think more direct US presence will ever be tolerated in Iraq other than Kurdistan, even if little, which leads me to a possible scenario of facing up Iran through encouraging Kurdish formal independence, where the US enjoys leverage and umbilical cord relationship.

  2. Ali W said

    Reidar, has Mutlak been fired as you say? Or is he just staying away from the Parliament as a part of Iraqyia?


  3. Reidar Visser said

    Ali, I think the description above is fair, i.e. Maliki has indeed “taken steps” to fire him. He is saying Mutlak has been fired. Constitutionally, this requires parliamentary approval. Some sources say a request for such approval has been received by parliament, whereas some in State of Law are making the rather implausible proposition that Maliki can fire him without parliamentary approval.

    Parliament is supposed to resume in the early new year and it will be interesting to see whether this item actually comes on the agenda.

  4. bb said

    On BGremer5 “miscalulations: By the time he left Bremer had facilitated the Iraqi negotiation of a draft constitution which ensured universal franchise and establishment of an interim government, fully representative across the Iraqi political spectrum, to hold elections for a constituent assembly that would then negotiate a final constitution to be put to universal vote. This election for govt was held less than 7 months after Bremer’s departure in the face of a raging salafi led insurgency trying to stop it. The newly elected government then put the negotiated final draft of constitution to the vote in the following October (2005) where it was overwhelmingly approved. Again in face of raging insurgenjcy.

    Then, last year – only 5 years after this historic Iraqi vote – the people of Tunisia became the second arab country to vote for a parliament to draw up a universal (not confessional driven like Lebanon) democratic constitution to be put to the people for approval or otherwise later this year. Egypt ditto; Libya to follow. And probably Syria eventually (who woulda ever thought?)
    Significantly, Tunisia has chosen a similar PR electoral system to Iraq; as consequence its new govt is a coalition of 3 parties, also similar to Iraq.

    Reidar, the reason I put these two events together is that back here in Australia in the lead-up to the US action in 2003 there were, like UK and Europe, huge anti-war demos. To my astonishment a group of once prominent maoist anti Vietnam war activists I had known personally in the late ’60s/’70s suddenly rematerialised – 30 years older – as vehement SUPPORTERS of the war. Their analysis was contradictory to the neo-cons. Their thesis was that 9/11 had marked the eclipse of US power, or indeed of any pretension to super power, and that the US had been finally forced by self interest to abandon Kissinger realism and would have to cover their retreat by replacing, what they (the maoists) saw as a demonstrably historically fascist arab regime in Iraq by.constitutional democracy. In other words, in their vision the moment in history had come for people’s liberation in arab middle east.

    They argued consistently that after Iraq had established a constitutional democracy, the rest of the Arab “fascist” tyrannies who had been propped by US under 3 decades of Kissingerism would fall under popular uprisings which the US would be powerless to prevent.

    Myself was cautious about their optimism, but it was hard to argue against after the Arab “spring” occurred only months after the Iraqis formed their first post-occupation government in 2010, reinforcing the same European democratic lines that had been established by Bremer.
    Not that Bremer himself would enjoy the idea that he was the exemplar of US power collapsing!

  5. Reidar Visser said

    Bb, I would strongly dismiss the idea any kind of inspirational link from the so-called Iraqi democracy to the Arab Spring. The Iraqi constitution of 2005 must be one of the shoddiest democratic charters of the world, with almost unbelievable contradictions regarding centre-periphery relations. Most demonstrators in the Arab world prayed that they would avoid a repeat of the Iraqi experience.

  6. observer said

    Amen Reidar,

  7. Mohammed said

    The Iraqi constitution seems to have been the product of a few American pseudo-scholars with constraints placed on them by illiterate Iraqis (some of the ‘religious’ passages are laughable such as the specific protection of Shiites to perform the ashura/Muharram rituals). The other constraints came from hired western guns like Peter Galbraith who made tens of millions of dollars for putting in passages to protect the Kurds, and screw over the rest of Iraq since he never felt it should exist as a unified country in the first place.


  8. observer said

    with all due respect – this can not be pinned on the “outsiders”. Every passage was looked over by “Iraqi politicians” who know nothing about the law and how to be accurate in using defined terms that prevent misinterpretation.

    What the US is guilty of is PUSHING to have the piece of trash approved. The “promise” to review the constitution within 6 months was the major carrot — but that is all history.

  9. Mohammed said


    I agree with you completely. Iraqis are to blame first and foremost. When I said illiterate Iraqis (I was referring to the Shiite islamists who are in general poorly educated and are in narrow-minded in their thinking). I wish we had people like you involved at the top tier when it was drafted. With respect to westerners, Galbraith and others did have influence on the final product but their motives seemed to be dubious at best. However in the end, the blame is on the Iraqi politicians for going along with it.


  10. Ali W said

    Reidar, good call on twitter, been thinking of joining, so will do now as well.

    Reidar, what do you make of the wifaq defections occurring all over the shiite south? Some reasons stated are lack of ability to contact allawi, others state sectarian tendencies against the Shia and others even saying allawi doesn’t even lead anymore but hashimi and mutlak.

  11. Reidar Visser said

    Ali, I think this is a complex process that goes back at least until autumn 2009 when Nujayfi, Hashemi, Eisawi and Karbuli joined Wifaq+Hiwar to form the electoral Iraqiyya coalition. Wifaq members south of Baghdad may have felt that some of these figures had portrayed themselves as Sunnis more than as secularists. Then came the marginalisation of Wifaq in the government-formation process, with Ayad Allawi unseated and the Wifaq minitry (communcations) distributed to his own relative, Muhammad. In other words Wifaq south of Baghdad may have felt somewhat marginalised; Iskandar Witiwit was one of the few who had remained relevant as a defence ministry candidate. Now he, too, has quit.

  12. observer said

    I do not know the story about witwit yet, but in Nassriya the guys that “defected” actually had los a democratic election for new leadership. So instead of handing over the offices, they decided that they are the leaders and must stay on top and thus “defected”.

  13. bb said

    In the maoists mind the link was that the US 9/11-forced abandonment of three decades of Kissinger Doctrine ( in not replacing Saddam/Baath with another dictator/ally) would lead to popular uprisings in the arab world demanding the same democratic rights and the overthrow of autocratic leaders. I don’t think they’d use the word “inspiring”. Their predictions proved accurate.

    Arab demonstrators in Tunisia praying to avoid a repeat of the Iraqi experience as they trooped into the polling booths and came out waving their purple fingers? If so, their prayers were answered – they did not have to face down salafi suicide bombers trying to kill them, nor did they face a raging insurgency trying re-establish baath rule.

    Interestingly in the wake of the Tunisia vote, the Islamist party took 41% of the seats. Sounds familiar. It is governing in coalition with two moderate secular parties. Its first cabinet is made up of 41 (!) members, mercifully down from their original wishlist for 50. Also seems familiar.
    Egypt elections saw a 60- 70% win to the Islamists AND the salafis. As these emerging democracies go through their teething pains the current Iraqi setup might be seen in a different perspective.

    M – according to Rajiv Chandrasekarian’s expose of the CPA (2006), the first major draft of the transitional constitution was drawn up by DePauw University law professor Faisal Istrabadi and a
    an international lawyer, Salem Chalabi, nephew of Ahmed. Rajiv says the draft did not address the contentious issues of the role of Islam in govt, the status of the Kurdish region and the rights of women – these were negotiated by the IGC. Rajiv states categorically that the transitional process was the first time Bremer and CPA had taken back seat and the ultimate decisions were made by the Iraqis.

    To put the blame on Galbraith does a great disservice to the intelligence and steadfastness of the Kurdish parties leaders. Isn’t it obvious by now that it is the Kurds who are acting as a safety valve when sectarian arab tensions erupt in the rest of the country?

  14. Reidar Visser said

    Bb, the critical clauses relating to federalism in the 2004 TAL were written not by Messrs. Istrabadi et al. but rather by last-minute gatherings of politicians where Adel Abd al-Mahdi of ISCI played an influential role.

    Re the significant role of Galbraith, see

  15. observer said

    the TAL has nothing to do with the constitution… It was the law used during the transition (i.e. Allawi and Jaafary). The constitution is another thing entirely and Messers. Istrabadi and Chalabi had nothing to do with its draft or finalization.

  16. Mohammed said


    Just to be clear, I think the Kurdish leaders have been (on a relative scale that is), far shrewder and more competent in serving “their people” than the rest of Iraq’s sorry lot of politicians. And when I say “their people,” I am referring to Kurds only. The constitution is quite favorable to the Kurds. More power to them! The Kurdish people have made it very clear that they seek their own independent country. The constitutional passages relevant to issues that Kurds hold dear to their hearts were carefully crafted as compared to amateurish passages in other parts. The rest of the Iraqi constitution is riddled with ambiguities and inconsistencies.

    However, even as imperfect of a constitution as Iraq’s constitution is, neither Al-Maliki nor Iraqiya have abided by it when it went against their interests. The problem is Iraq’s politicians themselves are riddled with ambiguities and inconsistencies.

    As for the Kurds acting like Baby-Sitters for Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Arab children during their spats, the Kurds are getting a great hourly rate in the form of Iraqi petro-dollars (mainly from southern Iraqi oil fields) and national political influence (in a country they really don’t want to be part of nonetheless!!).

    By the way, Ali Allawi has an op-ed in the NY Times today. Compared to other Iraqi politicians (or ex-politicians in his case), he seems to have a very balanced approach to Iraq’s problems.


  17. bb said

    Reidar (oh Twitterer!) yes, that’s what Chandrasekarian means when he says the status of the Kurdish region (autonomy) was left to be negotiated with the IGC. Interestingly, he also says that US State (Rice) and Pentagon (Wolfowitz) kept insisting almost right to the end that there should be no mention of Kurdish regional government in TAL and federalism should be based soley on provincial lines. They lost.

    There is no doubt Galbraith gave effective political and negotiating advice to the Kurds but surely there can be no doubt Kurds would have accepted nothing less regardless of any advice they got. Galbraith understood the first principle of true federalism: ie it is not the granting of powers coming downward from a central government; but the granting of powers upwards from the state entity. It was the same in Australia when we federated at turn of 20th century.

    Observer: on contrary TAL set down all the basic principles on which the final draft was based. The final draft was negotiated under the Jafaari government, was overwhelmingly passed by the voters in Oct 2005. According to Chandrasekarian (and my memory) most, if not all, of the major federalism clauses were already in the TAL – including the 3 governorate veto.

  18. Reidar Visser said

    Bb, the federalism of the constitution is much stronger than the TAL. Galbraith was unhappy with the TAL. The Kurdish demand for sovereignty in the oil sector did not exist pre-Galbraith, vide the KDP constitutional draft of 2003 (security / oil exclusive prerogatives of central govt).

    Unlike Australia (and unlike the unempirical myths promoted by the artificiality theoreticians in the question of how modern Iraq came into being), Iraq has a centuries-long tradition of the areas from Kurdistan to Basra being subordinated to or dependent upon Baghdad as an administrative centre.

  19. observer said

    I know Istarabadi and Chalabi personally and I know that they had nothing to do with the constitution. Some portions of the TAL were used in the constitution and those sections are the clearer parts of the constitution. Had both of these gentlemen been involved in the writing of the constitution none of the ambiguities would have existed and the use of defined terms would have been consistant….

  20. JWing said

    I read several articles where people participating in the Arab Spring said they did not want to repeat the Iraqi experience. After all it went through a U.S. invasion, 8 years of occupation, and a civil war, why would people in the region take inspiration from that experience when considering their own situation?

    Here’s some results from a public opinion poll done by Zogby in Nov. 2011 as well. Most people interviewed in the region did not think Iraqis were doing better after 2003.

    Do you tink that the Iraqi people are better off/worse off than they were before the American forces entered their country?
    Egypt 37% better, 41% worse, 13% same
    Jordan 25% better, 61% worse, 14% same
    Saudi Arabia 16% better, 66% worse, 16% same
    Lebanon 22% better, 57% worse, 3% same
    Tunisia 31% better, 20% worse, 49% same
    UAE 30% better, 48% worse, 17% same
    Iran 25% better, 52% worse, 20% same

    When you compare the situation in Iraq today with the situation before surge of U.S. forces, it it doing better off, worse off or the same?
    Egypt 5% better, 76% worse, 20% same
    Jordan 30% better, 48% worse, 22% same
    Saudi Arabia 25% better, 42% worse, 23% same
    Lebanon 28% better, 42% worse, 10% same
    Tunisia 26% better, 9% worse, 65% same
    UAE 33% better, 51% worse, 16% same
    Iran 26% better, 53% worse, 21% same

  21. bb said

    “people participating in the Arab Spring said they did not want to repeat the Iraqi experience. After all it went through a U.S. invasion, 8 years of occupation, and a civil war, why would people in the region take inspiration from that experience when considering their own situation.”

    Well of course they would not be “inspired” by invasion, 8 years of occupation and civil war”!!

    Nevertheless, when their popular uprisings erupted, the United States, instead of propping up their long term Kissinger-realist tyrannical “fascist” regimes, instead facilitated their removal – even in the knowledge that this would result in Islamists winning the popular vote?

    A dramatic change from how the US acted after the 1991 Iraqi uprisings, was it not?

    The maoists here contended at the time that 9/11 marked the eclipse of US pretensions to run the world; that Kissinger doctrine was dead; that the war to remove Saddam/Baath should be supported because US would have no choice but to facilitate constitutional democracy after which there would be popular uprisings in the rest of middle east which US would be powerless to prevent. That the nine-pins would fall. To them, this was Marxism 101 – that in the choice between ” fascism” and democracy, the correct revolutionary choice was the latter.

    Their predictions proved to be correct on that aspect at least. Still, I guess the notion that the US is not all powerful any more doesn’t go down well in the political classes of the home country!

  22. JWing said


    the problem with your friend’s analysis is that not all of these Arab countries were propped up the U.S. so 9/11 and the Iraq invasion wouldn’t affect them. Tunisia and Algeria for example are far closer to France, Syria to Iran and before that the Soviets. The U.S. has never supported Syria. Only Egypt has been a strong ally of the U.S.

    Also the U.S. has stepped aside from their allies when the writing was on the wall and let them fall sometimes, see the Philippines or Indonesia.

  23. bb said

    Joel, being Marxist my old maoist comrades have a materialist analysis of history. They placed Bush’s action after 9/11 in the context of US “superpower” failures to prevent the fall of allies in Indonesia and Phillipines in the ’90s, but the key to it, in their minds, was NOT the fall of the dictators but their replacement, by popular demand, with democracies, not other “fascist” dictators. Ditto the USSR’s collapse as superpower and the emergence of democracies in eastern europe. They called the US the “last” superpower.

    In terms of French (and other European) interests in Algeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq etc I think they saw them as irrelevant ie, once US decided to abandon realist Kissinger doctrine for its own self interest it could, would and did act decisively regardless of French/Euro opposition.

    Again – the key to their Iraq argument was not that US would merely overthrow Saddam, but that it would replace the “fascist” Baath regime with a constitutional democracy because it had finally realised that was the only way US could “drain the (middle east) swamps” of the terrorist “mosquitos” it itself had created. They dismissed the wmd argument right from the beginning saying it was just a pretext.

    fwiw, myself wasn’t nearly so confident – thought the US would either hand over to the shia exiles and skedaddle (DoD preference) or allow a new sunni arab strongman to emerge with help of Baath army(CIA and State). Wasn’t until Bremer, acting as Bush’s presidential envoy, disbanded the Baath army and made the party illegal that I began to think that the maoists might have got Bush’s strategic thinking/instincts right after all.

  24. JWing said

    I still think you’re grasping at straws. Your friends seem to believe that given the fact that the U.S. was the sole hegemon left it could influence the entire Middle East, even in countries that it had little influence in (Algeria and Tunisia) or countries that it has actively opposed for decades (Syria). Your friends seem to be exaggerating the power of the United States, without looking at the individual countries and their histories and international relations. It also ignores cases like Bahrain where the U.S. looked the other way when the government cracked down on protesters and the Gulf Cooperation Council sent in troops. Where is the big push by the U.S. for democracy there? How about Saudi Arabia? The other Gulf countries? Lebanon? Palestine? Iran?

  25. bb said

    Joel, they believed that once the US and the liberated Iraqis had established a constitutional democracy, then the other regimes would fall by popular uprisings ie US military intervention would not be necessary. They nominated Egypt would be the first.
    Their only surprise was that it took so long for the US to defeat the salafis/the baath and for a democratically elected govt to emerge, but once that happened events have unfolded pretty much as they predicted.
    As for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – a matter of time, that’s all, they would say. With Iran – well, arguably if Hillary Clinton had been president the US would have done a lot more to assist the green revolution to overthrow the regime, which in turn have hastened democratic revolutions in Saudi etc . As it is, however, Obama is the exemplar of US “superpower” retreat from ME, surely?

  26. Ehm..I’m gasping.. Bb, do you really think that “events have unfolded pretty much as they (the US had) predicted.” R U serious?

  27. bb said

    Faisalkadri – to clarify, not the US “predicted” – my erstwhile commo comrades from the 1970s did. The comrades even predicted the muslim brohood would easily win the democratric elections that would be held in Egypt after its popular uprising and there would be nothing US could or would do to stop it.

  28. bb said

    Observer 15/19 Have been re-reading Ali Allawi’s excellent book which I last read when it was first published. From his account I gather the arguably substantial (and contentious) federalism change from the TAL to final constitution was the removal of the “3 governorate” limitation on the formations of regions resulting from shiite pressure? If so, I can see why this would enhance subsequent fears/apprehensions and perhaps was not the wisest decision for the other parties to agee to. But reinforces my contention that the dramatic change to the principle of federalism was in the TAL and this was, however undesirable, just a logical extention.
    The other major issue seemed to be the desire of shiite parties to have Islamic law as sole source in the final draft. They lost that one; perhaps the other was a tradeoff, Observer?

    RV: Have read alot about Iraq so do understand that its tradition of power emanating from central source in Baghdad dates back centuries as you say and cannot be compared to Australia’s environment at federation at turn of 19th/20th centuries.
    However this was not the way the world was going in the late 20th century and 21st. And most especially in relation to recent Iraq’s Kurdish history from late 1980s onwards vv the central govt. I made the comparison to illustrate that federalism is not end of world for Iraq – but would add caveat if unity is to continue, it has to arise from negotiation and measure of consensus at the end of day as it did in Australia…

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