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His year in Iraq

Some say Paul Bremer's service laid the groundwork for possible democracy in the Middle East, others see him as a poster child for America’s mismanagement of the war.
Bremer: 'It's much harder to take away rights once they’re given'
L. Paul Bremer IIIJim MacMillan / Reuters-Pool / X80003

Paul Bremer was President Bush’s man in Baghdad— and still a strong defender of the war.  But this former insider now says mistakes were made in the administration’s approach to the war effort. Brian Williams sat down with Ambassador Bremer for an exclusive interview.

For more than a year, Paul Bremer was the American civilian in charge of Iraq.  In a new book, he reveals where he thinks the war has gone wrong, and why.   

Bremer had been a diplomat and a terrorism expert, but nothing prepared him for what he faced when he landed in Baghdad. It was just 11 days after the president had declared major combat over.

Raging fires, looting, chaos, and destruction: That was the scene when Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III first laid eyes on Baghdad. He would go on to become one of the most powerful and most controversial Americans in Iraq.

Some say his service laid the groundwork for possible democracy in the Middle East, others see him as a poster child for America’s mismanagement of the war—a throwback to the days of colonialism.

Brian Williams: When you heard derogatory or pejorative terms toward your role there, like “viceroy,” did that hurt you?Paul Bremer: “Dictator” also, was one. If you’re going to have thin skin, this is not the kind of job to take. 

Appointed as special envoy by President Bush, Bremer was the top civilian American in Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, charged with helping to stabilize the nation and create the framework for a new government.

Bremer: It was a much tougher job than I think I expected it to be.

In an exclusive interview, Bremer told us what happened behind the scenes at the highest levels, and talked about his new book, “My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope,” a book critical of the White House and the Pentagon.

Back when he was appointed in May of 2003, the 61-year-old Ivy League-educated Bremer, a career diplomat, had never been to Iraq and did not speak the language. The ambassador was about to get his boots dirty in a very dangerous place.

Just days after he got the job, Bremer says he saw an alarming report from a think tank, concluding it would take three times more US troops to stabilize Iraq than had actually been sent.

He says he tried to get the attention of his direct boss—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Williams: You’ll need a half million soldiers.  It’s a piece of paper you sent to Secretary Rumsfeld.  How did he react to that?Bremer: So I sent a summary of it around to Rumsfeld and just said, “I thought you should take a look at this.” I never had any reaction from him.

Though Bremer says he never heard back from his direct boss, he says he then discussed his concerns with the president. According to Bremer, President Bush said he would try to get more troops from other countries, but made no mention of increasing the number of American forces.

Once Bremer arrived in Baghdad, he had to quickly decide what to do about the old Iraqi Army. His critics point to this as Bremer’s biggest blunder, they say it helped create a growing insurgency in Iraq.

Williams: Fairly or unfairly, you may be forever known as the guy who disbanded the Iraqi army. Is that fair?Bremer: Well, it’s not fair in two respects.  (a) It wasn’t me, (b) we didn’t disband it. The decision was discussed by my advisors with the senior civilians in the pentagon for weeks before I made my recommendation, which was approved in Washington.

Now the practical problem was this: there was no army to disband when they saw which way the war was going, tens of thousands of them just deserted. 

Still, critics argue that former members of the Iraqi army, along with Saddam loyalists and displaced civil servants formed the insurgency that troubles Iraq till this day.

Williams: Whose fault is it that no one saw the insurgency coming?Bremer: You know I’ve thought about that as I looked back a lot, because we really didn’t see the insurgency coming.

That’s a rare admission, and Bremer goes on to question the focus of the entire Administration back then.

Bremer: It’s another question about how good our pre-war intelligence was. That the intelligence assets were largely focused on the main question: Does he have weapons of mass destruction. It happens we seem to have got that wrong. But I suspect there was very little attention paid to what kind of an insurgency would come afterwards.

Publicly, Ambassador Bremer—always the good soldier, supported the administration’s policy.

But we now know, during that time, Bremer was increasingly worried about the Pentagon’s drive to send U.S. troops home by the spring of 2004, the same force he argued we didn’t have enough of at the beginning of the war.

Bremer says that by November 2003, he raised his concerns with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Williams: You wrote that you told Vice President Cheney there was no military strategy for Iraq, that the policy was driven more by troop rotation. What was the reaction?Bremer: I said to the vice president, “You know i’m not sure that we really have a strategy for winning this war.” The vice president said to me, “Well, I have similar concerns.” He thought there was something to be said for the argument that we didn’t have a strategy for victory at that time.

It’s a surprising admission, considering what the Vice President was telling the public at the time. 

But Iraq was a tinderbox and the newly formed Iraqi Army and police force were no match for the insurgents without U.S. military support. Bremer thought the Pentagon painted a false picture of Iraq’s security forces and he said so.

Bremer: I raised my concerns about the numbers and quality of these forces – really, right from the beginning.Williams: With whom?Bremer: Well, with the president, with Secretary Rumsfeld, with senior military leaders. There was a tendency by people in the Pentagon to exaggerate the capability of the Iraqi forces. And I felt that it was not likely that we would have professionally-trained Iraqi forces able to allow us to withdraw American troops in the spring of 2004.And I said to the president, “I think you need to look very closely at that.”Williams: And what was his reply when you shared with him your view that force protection wasn’t up to estimates? Bremer: You know the president’s style—his style is to guard his counsel.Williams: Was he getting bad advice during this time in your view?Bremer: Well, I don’t know what advice. You know, I was only one of a number of advisers.

In the book, Bremer writes that he was so concerned, in May 2004, he sent a private message to Secretary Rumsfeld asking for more U.S. troops, but nothing happened.

He writes, “I verified that the Secretary received my message. I did not hear back from him.” 

Bremer is candid about having a tough time working with Rumsfeld, but says the two men have been friends for many years and that it was nothing personal.

Bremer says he also raised the security issue with then National Security advisor Condoleeza Rice. He says he told her of his fear that the U.S. had become an “ineffective occupier.”

Williams: That flies in the face of everything that the president of the United States has ever said about our role in Iraq. What was his reaction?Bremer: Well, I’m sure the president would not want us to be an ineffective occupier either. In the eyes of the Iraqis, we’re not only occupying, but we’re not carrying out the fundamental role of law and order. And I was concerned about the juxtaposition of those two things: ineffective and being an occupier. And I said so. Williams: Are you convinced when you go to sleep at night, that on areas like the size of the force, that you did everything you could?  Some will read this book and say “Why didn’t he shout it from the mountain tops if he believed in it?”Bremer: I believe I did everything I could. My view is in government, you have an obligation to tell the president what you think.  You should do that in private through appropriate channels, as I tried to do. The president, in the end, is responsible for making decisions.  That’s what he gets that fancy salary for and that big white house.

While in Iraq, Bremer dealt with attempts on his life and violence on a daily basis, but when asked about his best day, he doesn’t have to stop and think about it.

The capture of Saddam Hussein. Though somewhat unbelievable, Bremer now admits his big moment was something less than spontaneous. The expression “We got him” was actually suggested by an aide.

Bremer: And he suggested, “we got him.”  He said something that will work in English and in Arabic.  Williams: How would you describe the Saddam Hussein you finally encountered?Bremer: Well, I visited him with some members of the governing council that afternoon. They were confronting this monster who had been - had the power of life and death over them and their families. It was quite a powerful scene. He hadn’t been talked to that way for 40 years.

Bremer’s most important day on the job was also his last day in Iraq—on June 28, 2004 -- he oversaw the U-S handover of power to the Iraqi interim government, two days ahead of schedule.

Williams: The sad truth is, today, if you and I were to walk outside the Green Zone, do you have any doubt within minutes we would be captured or killed?Bremer: Look, the security is not as good as it should be. That’s no secret. We’ve got young Americans dying over there still today. That is a painful price of war. That doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes it difficult.

In a statement to NBC News, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, “Ambassador Bremer served his country admirably under extremely difficult circumstances...”

The statement goes on to say “President Bush relies upon a team of military and foreign policy advisors when making decisions about the conduct of the war.”

The Pentagon did not respond to our request for comment on the criticisms of Secretary Rumsfeld contained in Bremer’s book.

Bremer’s frustration with some policy choices, did not change his fundamental belief that this war is a noble cause.

Bremer: I think this had to happen. In my view, the president made the correct judgment… It would be a mistake of historic proportions for us to leave before we finish the job.