Bremer and De-Ba’athification

In examining the little contretemps between a Bush trying to slide out from under direct responsibility for the single worst decision in the whole Iraq mess and a Bremer determined not to play fall-guy for a president who didn’t think twice about throwing him under the bus to save his own precious neck, Fred Kaplan at Slate isn’t as forgetful about Chalabi’s early role as Blumenthal, but he does miss Chalabi’s later role and, for some reason, comes over all coy about assigning the decision to Cheney even though the evidence is right under his nose.

Bremer is right about one thing: It wasn’t him. Though he wouldn’t be so self-demeaning as to admit it, he was a mere errand boy on this point. He arrived in Baghdad on May 14, 2003. The next day, he released CPA Order No. 1, barring members of the Baath Party from all but the lowliest government posts. The next day, he issued CPA Order No. 2, disbanding the Iraqi army.

In his memoir, published last year, Bremer wrote that he was handed the orders—and told to announce them as soon as possible—by Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy. “We’ve got to show all the Iraqis that we’re serious about building a new Iraq,” Feith reportedly told him. “And that means that Saddam’s instruments of repression have no role in that new nation.”

Bremer’s version rings true, and if it is then the orders came from Cheney. Period. Feith was L’il Dick’s boy and wouldn’t have dared make a move like that without the Veep told him to. Maybe Kaplan has some doubts about Bremer’s tale, but he doesn’t say what they are.

We can assume caution given that Bremer could be making up a story to save his ass, but since I am not handicapped by legal or journalistic ethics requiring proof, I am at liberty to conclude that, all things being unequal, I find it difficult to believe that a Bush toady like Bremer would take such a huge decision – a decision totally contrary to that of the entire cadre of Bush war-planners –

On March 10, 2003, a week before the invasion, the National Security Council held a principals’ meeting, attended by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, the Joints Chiefs of Staff, and the top aides to all these officials. They decided that after the war, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be set up—similar to such panels in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Communist Eastern Europe—to ferret out the undesirable Baathists from those who could reliably work for a post-Saddam regime. Most Baathists were ordinary, even apolitical, people whose jobs required them to join the party. A rough calculation by NSC staffers and intelligence analysts was that only about 5 percent of the party—the leaders—would have to be removed, and even they would have the right to appeal.

On March 12, at another principals’ meeting, on what to do about the Iraqi military, these same top U.S. officials decided to disband the Republican Guard—Saddam’s elite corps and bodyguards—but to call the regular army’s soldiers back to duty and to reconstitute their units after a proper vetting of their loyalties.

– without orders to do so. Bremer would understand without needing to be told that Feith belonged to Cheney and that any orders he passed on came from that source. Kaplan is absolutely dead-on about that: Bremer was an “errand boy”.

After appropriately dismissing both Paul Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld as the source, Kaplan does finally get to the nitty-gritty.

My guess is it came from Vice President Dick Cheney, if only because his is one of the most leakproof offices in Washington. Had the order originated someplace else, that fact would have leaked by now. It’s like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story; unbarking dogs in this administration, especially at this late date of decrepitude, tend to be the hounds in Cheney’s kennel.

Well, yes, but Kaplan is either unaware that Feith’s place in the chain of command under Wolfowitz was a meaningless bit of administrative misdirection, or he’s deliberately downplaying Feith’s undying fealty to the VP. Cheney is a hardball inside player and a master of administrative gamesmanship. He has people loyal to him and him alone spread through all the offices of the Bush govt. Feith was assigned to Wolfie technically but we know he reported to Dick, and I suspect that part of Feith’s daily report was devoted to what dear old Paul W might be doing behind Dick’s back. Information is the lifeblood of cutthroat corporate power-maintenance, after all, and Dick Cheney is nothing if not a power-player.

Now we’re past the nit-picking, let’s wade into the interesting bit – the entrance, once again, of old friend Ahmad.

But where did Cheney get the idea? A good guess here is that it came from that familiar meddler of the era: the Iraqi exile, chief neocon guru, and suave banker-mathematician, Ahmad Chalabi.

Chalabi, recall, was interested in two things above all, once Saddam Hussein was toppled: removing Baathists from every level of activity in Iraqi politics and society and installing his militia, the Free Iraqi Forces, as the foundation of a new Iraqi army. (Soon after Saddam’s overthrow, Wolfowitz arranged for a military transport plane to fly a few hundred of these militiamen to Nasiriya; they vanished almost instantly into the streets. After that, Chalabi had himself briefly appointed to head the official de-Baathification commission.)

In other words, CPA Orders No. 1 and 2 fit Chalabi’s twin agendas perfectly.

So, was Chalabi the prime mover here?

Of course he was. It’s what he’d been aiming at all along, the climax of his dream to manipulate the US into putting him in Saddam’s Presidential Palace and handing him the keys to the country. By the point of the actual invasion and occupation, Chalabi, through his puppet, Curveball, had the neocon fantasists eating out of his hand.

Dick Cheney may be arrogant, ruthless, and just plain mean, but he’s proved over and over he ain’t much brighter than dim-bulb George and just as gullible. Let’s face it: anybody who would take seriously – let alone start a war because of – the fantasies and illusions proceeding from Laurie Mylroie’s fevered imagination and the tunnel-vision of a purblind greed for oil would be hard-pressed to surpass the IQ of a retarded chicken.

But Kaplan stops short of finishing the story, assuming that the deadly decision to disband the army was the proximate cause of the later destabilization.

When Saddam’s regime collapsed, Iraq’s security system collapsed as well. Rumsfeld had failed to draw up a postwar “stabilization” plan; he deliberately sent too few troops for such a mission, in any case. There was no Iraqi army or police force to keep order. And so there was disorder and the horrors that followed.

Yes, but not right away. Kaplan is forgetting the early period of relative calm when the war was over and Jay Garner was attempting to set up a provisional govt with little help from either the military or the Bush Administration – meaning Cheney. In that lull before Bremer even arrived, our boy Ahmad got the US Military Police to hand over all the files of Saddam’s secret police – files that would have included dirt and a treasure-trove of blackmail-ready material on every political player of consequence in Iraq, as well as a very useful list of informers, back-stabbers, double agents, state spies, black ops boys, and so forth.

Remember, Chalabi was parachuted in with 300 of his FIF “soldiers” after US forces took Baghdad – they were the ones photographed pulling down Hussein’s statue while the real inhabitants hid (it was the only contribution Ahmad’s Army made to the conflict they were supposed to be in the thick of). He was in place and had taken possession of the files within 24 hrs of landing.

Use your imagination and put those two facts together:

  1. Chalabi had possession of the secret police files.
  2. Chalabi was the only one in Iraq who knew that when Bremer arrived, the Iraqi Army was going to be disbanded and all Ba’athists removed “from every level of activity in Iraqi politics and society”.

What would you do in his position, wanting what he wanted?

Sow dissension, of course. Play one faction off against another, use the information in the files to plant seeds of doubt or distrust between potential allies, intimidate your political enemies, and control through blackmail the ones you needed. If you worked fast enough, Bremer’s double shock when he finally arrived and announced it would be the crowning moment when your most intransigent enemies, the only ones you couldn’t con, the ones who already had the power you craved, would have the ground kicked out from under them, their power blown away like desert sand by the big US wind, creating the very vacuum you needed to be there to fill.

The gullibility of Cheney and the neocon establishment didn’t just result in actions based on bogus intelligence. It set a scorpion in the middle of the existing Iraqi political structure, and before Bremer and the rest of the gullible, naive, young and inexperienced Bush politicos had even started packing their bags to depart on their great Free Market Excellent Iraqi Adventure, that scorpion had already produced confusion and chaos in what stability they might otherwise have found.

Worse, though Chalabi failed in his big mission – to become King of Iraq (why is too long a story to tell here) – bank on it, he has been sitting in the background all this time, with the secret police files on his lap, mucking about – playing this one against that one, making promises to one and threatening another, telling lies, spreading rumors, and maneuvering to put himself once more at the center when the US finally leaves.

He will probably fail at that, too, but in the meantime, he has been free to wreak havoc with any hope of Iraq becoming politically stable, and whether we know it or not, acknowledge it or not, we are seeing the results of his handiwork even now.

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