Monday, May 19, 2014

From Arrogance To Hubris, Interview With Brad Swanson Former CPA Official On What Went Wrong In The Early Years Of The US Occupation Of Iraq

Brad Swanson was a former State Department official and international investment banker from Virginia when he got a call in early 2004 to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). His friend, Michael Fleischer was in charge of private sector development, and needed help because his office was understaffed. Swanson eventually arrived in Baghdad in March and spent the next four months working on trying to get Iraqi businesses up and running after the invasion. During those few months in Iraq he became disillusioned with the U.S. effort believing that the CPA was trying to do far too much than it had time or ability. Here is an interview with Swanson about his time working for the CPA, and what he thought went wrong.

1. Michael Fleischer called you in February 2004 asking you to work on private sector development with the CPA. What appealed to you that made you leave your family and go work in Iraq?

I felt a duty as a citizen to help repair the damage of this mistaken war, and I wanted to help my friend and former Foreign Service colleague cope with a daunting undertaking. Also I recognized the great significance of what was happening, and the former reporter and former diplomat in me had to be there to witness history in the making!

2. Can you talk about some of the Iraqis you worked with, and what were the problems you ran into with the bureaucracy to make your plans reality?

As a specialist in financial services in developing countries, I was very impressed by the sophistication and commercial skills of the Iraqi businessmen (and yes, they were almost all men), whom I was tasked to help rebuild their enterprises. They were eager to restore a normal environment, but as the security situation degraded by the day, and they and their families endured hijackings, extortion, bombings, assassinations and a general meltdown of markets and public life, they lost much of their hope in the future. Nevertheless, they persisted, with doggedness and even humor, to make the most of a failing situation.

Even more impressive were the Iraqi employees of the U.S. occupation authority in the Green Zone, coming from all skill levels, manual laborers to high-level white collar workers. They were targeted for reprisals by the insurgents and although they tried to hide their employment, a number of them were found out and subjected to torture and death. I used to watch them coming into the Green Zone in the morning and leaving in the afternoon. The zone was in the middle of a dense city, and no one could cross the wire without being observed. The money was good, and unemployment was at a high level, but it took more than money to motivate these people in the face of such risk. Few were demonstrative in their feelings, but it was clear that they understood the danger of their situation and their quiet courage was inspiring.

Seeing this, I grew dispirited as I realized that we were failing the Iraqi people through our own clumsy and obtuse bureaucracy. Congress had appropriated ample funds for private sector redevelopment, but we had to work through the USG formal procurement system, governed by a 1,000-page manual, which was absurdly out of place in a wartime environment. Ironically, some other parts of the CPA were awash in cash, coming through channels with little oversight, but still not much to show for it, while our department was mired in endless rounds of paper shuffling. I personally did not have the influence to resolve the quandary. While we failed to create jobs through our own incompetence, the ranks of the well-funded insurgency grew.

3. When and why did you start thinking that there were flaws with the CPA’s approach to Iraq?

From my first day on the job in Baghdad I saw the dysfunction in the CPA’s structure and approach. A Wild West atmosphere prevailed with multiple power centers and little coordination. The antagonism between the senior military commander, [General] Rick Sanchez, and the CPA Administrator, Jerry Bremer, was palpable. The occupation formally aimed at creating a power structure with Iraqis in charge to which it could hand over in a few months, but there was a deep vacuum within Iraq that no amount of constitution writing and political maneuvering could fill. While the would-be politicians shadow boxed, Iraq slipped every day further into violence and anarchy. At the same time, much of the CPA’s attention was focused on spinning the story for the U.S. audience and making the Administration look good, and this detracted from a clear-eyed vision of how to restore stability to a fractured country.

4. You told George Packer for his Assassins’ Gate book that you believed the U.S. went through two phases in Iraq from 2003-2004. 1st was the arrogance phase, and then the hubris one. Could you explain what you meant by that?

By arrogance, I mean the willfully ignorant plans of the White House and the DOD [Department of Defense] to lop off the head of the Iraqi government and replace it by a hand-picked group of exiles, led by Ahmed Chalabi, who would slide smoothly into place and lead the country into a bright future under U.S. tutelage. No one who had even an elementary knowledge of Iraq’s recent history, and who understood Chalabi and his coterie, would have been so blind to the unreality of the plan. What happened in the aftermath of the invasion – the complete crumbling of the façade of governance that had only been held together by Saddam’s terror – was predictable, and predicted by many before the war, but these voices were not listened to. Of course, by that point, it was too late – we were immured in a chaotic situation with far too few resources to hold it together, and with a game plan that had lost all possibility of being implemented.

By hubris, I mean the phase that followed the realization that our “occupation lite” strategy was a failure. Instead of focusing on security and getting people back to work, we created the CPA with a grandiose set of goals to completely rebuild the Iraqi political and government system-- with advisors in every ministry, with rewrites of the law codes and business regulations, with a complicated, and accelerated, transition to democracy. The scope of CPA’s brief was outlandish, especially in view of its brief lifespan.   

5. You also believed that the CPA suffered from groupthink, how so?

In the hothouse atmosphere of the Green Zone, with deadly risk just outside the wire and mortars sailing overhead, with staff crowding offices and densely housed in trailers, there was an intense sense of community and a tight focus on mission. Also, there was a clear emphasis from the leadership not to embarrass the Administration. Accordingly, skeptical thinking was discouraged. After a while, even those who harbored serious doubts found their objectivity eroding. Their desire to maintain morale began to shape their opinions. The semblance of belief became belief.

6. Instead of trying to completely transform Iraq you thought that the U.S. should have been much more pragmatic and focused upon security and the economy. What would that have looked like and why would it have been more effective?

Most importantly, a clear focus on security would not have led to the disbanding of the Iraqi army. We went into Iraq gravely undermanned to contain the chaos that ensued. Instead of firing the Iraqi armed forces we should have co-opted them. Certain senior officers needed removal, of course, but the bulk of the army was apolitical, and would have been grateful for continued employment and mentoring by the more professional U.S. forces. Instead, many of the dismissed soldiers, disappointed and out of funds, turned to the insurgency.

Regarding the economy, we wasted a lot of time and effort on promoting foreign investment (a politically motivated absurdity during an active insurgency); seeking to sell off state-owned enterprises; rewriting commercial codes; reforming the stock exchange; and other peripheral activity. Instead, we should have used the billions of dollars we had available to directly subsidize the inefficient but job-filled parastatal sector; make loans available on soft terms to any reasonable job-creating enterprise; protect Iraqi industry by taxing or prohibiting imports; and other activity that would help to stabilize employment and production in the short term, even if it went against classic free market principles.


Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate, America In Iraq, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Swanson, Brad, “Broken, but not beyond repair,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/11/04


Thomas said...

Of course, "the Brinkley Group" and various other programs ended up subsidizing Iraqi SOEs - years later.

The flood of imported goods when the borders were opened relieved pent-up demand for consumer goods, but it also destroyed domestic manufacturing. I wonder whether there was a better approach there.

Joel Wing said...

As many people have commented on before the CPA should have kept up tariffs on products that Iraqi companies could produce and lower those on ones they couldn't It should have also been most concerned with keeping as many people employed as possible rather than firing the security forces, Baathists, and those that worked for state owned enterprises. Even after the CPA was disbanded the policy of trying to privatize and enforce "shock therapy" continued. As you mentioned, it wasn't until the Brinkley group came along that there was a real effort to change that. The problem as ever was that many Americans in Iraq either 1) didn't care about the businesses and economy or 2) didn't trust the Iraqis and wanted to do everything themselves

Keith Mines said...

Really well put, thanks Brad and Joel for keeping this project alive. These were my thoughts exactly from Al Anbar in the same period. We needed state provided jobs for a two year period while we got the politics and security settled. I argued this to no avail with Ambassador Bremer, who was more concerned that we might be setting up a statist petro-state, to which i argued, what is wrong with a stable, statist petro state. CPA officials were all afluter over the transition in Eastern Europe and someone made the mistake of citing Hungary, where i was TDY from, as a positive example of privatizing a statist economy. This was a total misreading of the Hungarian case -- where the first post communist government didn't touch the economy for four years, waiting for the Socialists to come in witht he Bokros plan to do so. Those four years bought them political stabilty, exactly what we needed in Iraq. Also needed to grow the security sector massively, which would have taken up most of the slack in the labor market.

Joel Wing said...

Hi Keith,

Thank you for sharing your experiences. I think everyone besides Bremer believes that the CPA took an ideological approach to the Iraqi economy and other issues, which could be called mistaken at best. Even after the CPA was disbanded many of these policies persisted to the detriment of Iraq.