Thursday, May 2, 2024

Review Losing The Golden Hour, An Insider’s View of Iraq’s Reconstruction

Stephenson, James, Losing The Golden Hour, An Insider’s View of Iraq’s Reconstruction, Potomac Books, Inc., 2007


The “Golden Hour” is the time after a war has ended when rebuilding and reforms can be carried out in a country before the public turns against them. James Stephenson was the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) chief in Iraq from 2004-2005. In his Losing The Golden Hour, An Insider’s View of Iraq’s Reconstruction he argues that America failed to rebuild Iraq because of lack of planning, experience and bickering.


Stephenson largely blames the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for many of the problems with the U.S. occupation of Iraq. First, Congress approved $18.4 billion in reconstruction for Iraq. The CPA wanted to spend that all on large infrastructure projects like roads and power plants that would take years to complete and would show little immediate progress to Iraqis. To change that plan would require not only the approval of the CPA but Congress as well. Stephenson thought this was a misguided strategy and ignored his extensive experience in post-conflict countries.


The author served in Lebanon, El Salvador and the former Yugoslavia and saw his fair share of failures and successes. What he learned was that the U.S. has to focus upon small, local projects that have the buy in of communities and can show immediate results so that the public knows that America is having a positive effect. There also needs to be structural reforms carried out to the economy that support the development of private enterprise and investment since the U.S. is a capitalist country and wants to spread that economic system around the world. The infrastructure projects created by the CPA did none of these. In fact, they would have the exact opposite effects as they were large endeavors that would take a long time to complete and employ few Iraqis. Stephenson for example was put in charge of building a power plant and the huge generators sat in neighboring countries for years because they were too heavy for many of Iraq’s bridges and the U.S. military refused to provide security for their trip to the facility.


This brings up the book’s second major complaint which was the U.S. government was not prepared to rebuild an entire country like Iraq especially in the middle of a war. Stephenson has many stories about this such as an ex-Navy admiral who was in charge of the $18.4 billion. He was not only unwilling to change his ideas but thought the USAID was a threat to them and tried to block it from receiving any money. USAID signed a $1.8 billion contract with Bechtel before the war and the CPA only approved a small portion of that largely out of spite. President Bush also agreed to put the Pentagon in charge of Iraq even though it had no experience in reconstruction. The U.S. went through three quick turnovers from when the CPA closed down in 2004 to a new ambassador who was only in country for a few months to another one. Each transition meant a review and a change in priorities which greatly undermined plans. The second ambassador wanted as many temporary jobs for Iraqis as possible to be created. USAID complained the U.S. needed to work on long term employment as well but was blown off. Many know that the Bush administration failed to adequately prepare for postwar Iraq. It continued down that path for years afterwards during the occupation as well.


There is one bright spot in The Golden Hour and that was USAID’s collaboration with the 1st Cavalry Division in east Baghdad. The commanding officer General Peter Chiarelli agreed with Stephenson’s vision of what rebuilding Iraq should look like. Through their efforts on local projects the U.S. was able to win over some of the population away from the Mahdi Army militia.


The Golden Hour is one of many books to criticize the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Not all of it is interesting as Stephenson spends a lot of time discussing battles for money within a bureaucracy. Still it touches on the micro and macro level problems America ran into. The main issue is that it went ahead with plans that ignored the advice of people with experience in post-conflict reconstruction such as those at USAID. If the overall ideas are flawed it won’t work on the ground either and that’s what happened in Iraq.


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