Once dubbed America's 'dictator' of Iraq, Paul Bremer now finds 'stress relief' in art

As the de facto ruler of Iraq, American diplomat Paul Bremer found himself the target of assassination attempts as he tried to get the country back on its feet following the 2003 invasion.

Succeeding Saddam Hussein as leader of a country broken by decades of tyranny and war amid the growing insurgency against U.S. troops made his job as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority arguably the most stressful in the world.

Today, life is very different for Bremer. And like the president who sent U.S. troops into Iraq, Bremer has taken up painting.

Bremer, a youthful 72, studied history of art and history at college, but had never actually tried to paint until about 2008.

He is modest about his skills – and insists his former boss George W. Bush is the better artist -- but he has held several exhibitions and said his work fetches up to $800.

Bremer, who lives near Washington, D.C., and has a summer house in Vermont, said he loved to paint the “wonderful New England blue sky, contrasting with the snow” and the “red barns.”

“I use oils … as they are more forgiving. With watercolors, you get one crack at it and you cannot go back and fix it,” he said.

“It’s actually a good form of stress relief because you really have to concentrate on what you are doing,” he said.

“I can put on a little Bach and listen to a little music, but fundamentally you can just get lost in the painting you’re working on. It’s a different pace of life obviously. You can’t really hurry and painting or at least you shouldn’t.”

However, Bremer said he had not taken up painting as part of some kind of recovery from his time in Iraq, where some called him a “dictator.”

“I don’t have a lot of stress now, certainly nothing like what I had when I lived in Iraq,” Bremer said. “It’s just a question of having a nice change of pace.”

Painting the landscapes of Vermont is a world away from Baghdad in December 2003.

“I’d just seen [then Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld off at the airport. They set off the IED about one second too late,” Bremer said.

“It went off just after our rear axle. My up-armored vehicle had just passed over it and it blew out the back window,” he added. “They were waiting, whoever set it off, and started firing AK-47s through the broken rear window.”

The driver of his vehicle sped off and drove into Baghdad at about 80 mph. No one was killed in what was Bremer’s closest moment to death.

“It was pretty intense at times. It’s not something you forget,” he said. “It was certainly something that was troubling for me as it would be for anybody.”

War is not a subject that inspires Bremer’s artistic side.

“I’m really into landscapes, that’s really my subject,” he said, saying he had always loved the “bright, colorful palettes” of the French and American impressionists.

However, he said he had been asked by friends who served with him in Iraq to paint the country he once ran.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a more different color palette than in Iraq [to Vermont],” he said. “The only part of Iraq that sort of reminds you a little bit of New England is up in the Kurdish area where you have snow. I’ll probably do one eventually.”

Bremer has been criticized for some decisions in Iraq – chiefly disbanding the Iraqi army, though he says this was approved by Washington and tens of thousands of soldiers had deserted anyway.

“We did the best we could with the tools we were given,” Bremer said, pointing to the writing of the region’s “most progressive” constitution and saying he helped get the economy going. “The per capita income in Iraq is six times what it was before the war.”

Painting and Iraq are not the only shared interests of Bremer and Bush. The two men are both cyclists and have ridden together in charity events with the “Wounded Warriors.”

Bremer also said he’d sent a note to Bush to say he had joined “the league of shoecatchers” after an Iraqi threw his footwear at him in London earlier this year in a traditional insult famously used at a Bush press conference.

Bush has spoken about the life-changing effect of taking up art.

“I’ve only seen a couple of [Bush’s] pictures,” Bremer said. “He seems to have got further along in whatever it is, a year, than I did in five, so I guess he’s doing well.”

He said it was “still not clear I have any skill,” saying this was a matter of "public discussion."

One expert, Paul Tucker, professor of art at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, was kind about Bremer's role in Iraq, but not his painting.

“I've admired Mr. Bremer from afar especially the work he did in Iraq, a serious diplomatic challenge. I also am pleased that art has been a release and perhaps a passion for him,” he said.

“Diplomats generally don't make the best artists; nor do heads of state. To wit, George Bush. Churchill wasn't a bad watercolorist; nor was Hitler for that matter. But none of them rise to the ranks of the memorable or the historic.”

But Andy James, an instructor at The Art Academy in London, suggested Bremer should charge more for his work. He said the paintings might fetch up to about $1,500 at auction in London on their artistic merits alone and possibly more because of his past on the international stage.

James noted the “amazing consistency of mood” in Bremer’s paintings. “It’s quick, rapid work that’s somewhat superficial, but he’s certainly not a doubter of himself” as a painter, he said. “It’s OK, it’s all right, but I see a lack of sophistication.”

“[The art] has a lot of sensitivity, but there’s no connected euphoria or joy.”

More examples of Bremer's work can be seen on his website.