State Dept. Shenanigans in Iraq

Joel Mowbray

7/6/2004 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray

When the new Iraqi interim government took the formal reins of power this past week, there was another official transfer of authority: from the Defense to the State Department overseeing the U.S. presence.

But while the new Iraqi government will almost surely make its own mark, the handover from the Pentagon to State will yield little, if any, change.

Why?  Because State had long ago taken control of the political arena in the now-disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority, despite public appearances that it was the Pentagon?s show.

The State Department, of course, is not willing to own up to its role to date.  Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told National Public Radio on Monday, ?Clearly, the Department of State is taking the lead now.?  He failed to mention that this was largely a continuation of what has existed for months.

Another facet of State?s PR offensive was inviting its favorite pliant reporter, the Washington Post?s Robin Wright, to publish a puff piece.  She complied.

Just below the lead, Wright informed readers, ?Career diplomats in charge of crafting foreign policy often grumbled about being marginalized or vetoed on Iraq policy by political appointees at the Defense Department.?

State hardly should be complaining about having not enough influence in Iraq.  If anything, the situation Wright described would have been more accurate if it was flipped.

What happened in Iraq, in fact, is a classic case study in how legal authority means little when operational control lies elsewhere.  Although the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Jerry Bremer, reported to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the State Department held far greater sway.

When Bremer was staffing up his inner circle, State sent as many of its people as it could.  Defense, on the other hand, sent hardly any.  Only two of the 30-plus members of the political team were from the Pentagon, and none of the 18 senior advisors were from the Defense Department.

The civilian employees in the policy-making divisions at the Pentagon, who are largely appointed by President Bush, are lionized as possessing near-mystical powers in some circles.  A surprising number of pundits and commentators credit (or accuse) this small group of policymakers?often referred to as the so-called ?neocons??as being responsible for the war in Iraq.

For such supposedly smooth operators, though, the Pentagon policymakers proved remarkably inept at controlling a process for which they had actual legal authority.  By providing Bremer with almost no Pentagon-based staffers, almost all guidance and advice came from State, giving the diplomatic corps incredible influence and leverage over Bremer?s decisions.

This has not necessarily been good news.  Before Bremer was installed, State had re-instated a number of top Saddam loyalists in prominent positions, arguing that only those thugs possessed the necessary technical skills.  Although Bremer immediately went clear in the opposite direction?purging the top 15,000 ? 20,000 Baathists?State eventually convinced Bremer to pare the order back.

State was also the agency that had the bright idea to bring in representatives of the Iranian mullahs to help negotiate a truce with radical Shi?ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr?s militia?potentially legitimizing the despotic regime in the eyes of Iraq?s majority Shi?ite population.

Not that it is always better when State is not in charge, though.  The Pentagon official tasked with rebuilding Iraq?s security forces, Gen. David Petraeus, had some dubious achievements when he was essentially the viceroy of Mosul, a Sunni stronghold north of the infamous Sunni triangle.

Gen. Petraeus spent much of his time defending and helping former Baathists who lost their jobs after Bremer ordered a nationwide de-Baathification last spring.  Courtesy of Gen. Petraeus, many got their old positions back, and for those that didn?t ?King David? (as many locals called him) established a jobs program. 

The chief beneficiaries were people purged from the military and security forces, the people who helped keep Saddam in power.  And now Gen. Petraeus is in charge of rebuilding the entire Iraqi security forces.

In the midst of the changes in Iraq last week, the diplomatic corps was apparently brimming with optimism.  From the Washington Post article: ?State Department officials were predicting yesterday how much better things will work in Baghdad.?

Given the recent records of the State Department and Gen. Petaeus, though, don?t count on it.