A revealing exclusive interview with Paul Bremer, America’s first ruler of Iraq.

12 February 2021 By Paul Martin

Paul Bremer, who ran Iraq for 14 months after US-led Allied forces invaded in 2003, says that strategic military blunders had seriously hindered his efforts to contain the insurgency in Iraq and had cost Coalition and Iraqi lives.

In a revealing interview in his Maryland home, Bremer spoke out about what he said was his own personal battle – against his country’s top brass. He said a post-Vietnam complex had led US generals to fight a war against insurgents through an ineffective “whack-a-mole” policy.

It had been based on a misconceived military doctrine and it was being fought with woefully small numbers of troops.

“It was a major strategic mistake. And it was knowable at the time,” he said. Bremer said he had urged President George W Bush and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to send double the number of troops.

It took another four years, he said, before the right approach was put in place through the Bush-authorised “surge” – and the uprisings and civil strife around Iraq were properly dealt with.

Alongside him as we spoke in his basement study were photographs that told the story of his life: himself as a young Marine; with President Bush; him and his family with the Pope.

“I did not expect such violence to break out after we arrived,” Bremer said. “I assumed we would have adequate forces on the ground. We should have learned from Bosnia and Somalia that you have to have sufficient force on the ground to protect the people.”

He said the US leadership should have taken the advice of a think-tank that had urged 400,000 troops be deployed, not 180,000. The shortage of forces had “a double-barrelled effect. The insurgents concluded that we were not prepared to … provide security. And a lot of the Iraqi people came to the same conclusion, and started to hedge their belief in the success of the occupation. We only got an appropriate strategy when General Petreus produced a new army doctrine [in 2007].”

To his critics, Bremer bears a significant share of responsibility for Iraq’s descent into chaos, immediately instituting a series of measures which, the critics claim, destabilised an already fragile security situation. The first orders he issued as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority were to ban members of the Ba’ath Party from holding public office, and to disband the Iraqi army.

Within months one of the bloodiest insurgencies in modern times was under way. There were also accusations of massive financial mismanagement. In 2005 a US administration report discovered that around $9bn allocated for reconstruction had disappeared. There was not, however, any suggestion that Bremer was personally culpable for this.

Bremer strongly defends his decisions. “We took opinion polls… De-Baathification never polled below 95 per cent approval. The mistake I made was to turn this over to a small group of Iraqi politicians, and they then broadened it. I think that hurt us because it gave the impression that we were prepared to carry out a really wholesale De-Baathification of the entire society. And that was clearly not our intention.”

He also stressed the decision to disband the army was approved by the British and US governments before he issued his famous decree, and admits to other shortcomings – especially his regime’s failure to get the country going again.

“To defeat insurgency you have to defeat them but also improve lives… clear, secure and build. We never really got the first phase done – securing the population, especially in large urban areas.”

Bremer said the failures of American and British policies in Iraq gave an opening to Iran to expand its influence. Feeling the US was in disarray in Iraq, the Iranians became confident they could resume their nuclear programme without serious repercussions, he said.

He now says the US and Britain pulled out all their forces too quickly, creating new dangers.

Bremer said: “It was a mistake. We should have left troops in Iraq – absolutely yes. That was the recommendation of the American commanders.”

As for himself, he was deeply relieved when his 14-month term of rule in Iraq came to an end. “When I left it felt good to get out. My staff and I still call 28 June 2004 our Liberation Day. I said to the new Iraq leaders: You have your republic – now make it work.”

Bremer has dedicated his life since then mainly to helping with sports charities. He organised a 4,000-mile trek by bicycle across America – in the company of 16 former soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of those cyclists may have been crippled because of the military strategy he now criticises. But he feels the removal of Saddam and the new regime was on balance better for Iraq than to have left the dictator in power.

“Ten years after that invasion, the average income per head was six times what it was under Saddam. The violence, even though it was high by Western standards, was lower than it was. And I still think Iraqis are far better off.”

Paul Bremer in his own words:

“We should have learned from Bosnia, Somalia, and Libya … You have to have sufficient force on the ground to protect the people. We did not solve that problem until Bush made the courageous decision to Surge in 2007. I believe it led to increased casualties – among the Iraqi people and of course among the Coalition forces.”

“We lacked an appropriate counter-insurgency strategy.”

I was walking past the hotel reception when I heard this announcement.  I immediately realised this was some sort of Soviet-speak for saying the Soviet leader was either already dead or was being removed – in a coup.  

For a journalist and foreign correspondent, being in the right place at the right time is sometimes lucky, sometimes an instinct.  I had just failed in both.  Only days before I had been in Russia, making a film about Boris Yeltsin, the recently elected leader of the Russian Federation, which was the major part of the Soviet Union, run by Mikhail Gorbachev.  

Now, my wife and daughters and I were on holiday in the Middle East.  There was a flight to Moscow that evening – but my wife said if I took it and ruined our vacation, it would be the last holiday we would ever spend together.  I got the message.  

In any case, I reasoned, the first thing that gets closed during a coup is going to be the airport … so I’ll probably get forced back on the plane and never get into the city.  Some consolation for failing to make an effort, I thought. We flew back to London together two days later, and, as the Soviet coup was collapsing, I got permission from my wife to fly to Moscow.  

“Where were you when the coup began?” asked the editor of Boris Yeltsin’s in-house newspaper as I arrived in the  so-called Byeli Dom – the White House that was the headquarters of the Russian Federation.  It had been surrounded by tanks during the three days of the coup, and Special Forces were assigned by the coup leaders to attack it.  Yeltsin and his followers were trapped inside, making what might have been their last stand.  

A supporter of Yeltsin’s defiance had managed to smuggle in some gas masks, which he’d stolen from the factory that made them.  They lay all over the floor of a store-room.  “Take a few.  Souvenirs,” said the newspaper editor. “We don’t need them anymore.” 

He told me if I had flown in to Moscow hours after the coup started, the pro-Yeltsin factions had their own people at the airport and were getting their friends in.  You could have spent the entire coup here with us in the White House, reporting live alongside Boris.  Thanks, I said.

Two days later British Prime Minister John Major became the first foreign leader to visit after the failed coup.  Via the British embassy I sent him, and his foreign minister John Hurd, a souvenir has-mask each.  

I had a devilish plan in mind.  The next day Major spoke at a press conference.  I slipped out and stood by a back door that I expected him to leave by.  He did.

He was about to get in to one of those long Soviet-made black cars with tinted windows – they usually carried Soviet officials, Members of the Politburo.  With their sardonic sense of humour, local Russians called these vehicles Member Carriers – the word ‘member’ having the same double meaning as it does in English.

 “Mr Major,” I called as I rushed towards him. “I’m the journalist who sent you a gas-mask from the White House.  Can I have an interview now?”

“Aha,” he said to me.” Bribery and corruption, hey?”  “ Absolutely, Prime Minister,” I said.  

“Okay, he said,  but just two questions.  He stopped in his tracks, and restrained the security detail around him.  I switched on my tape recorder.

 After two questions about the coup, I asked him the most important one: Did  he think Yeltsin would take over from Gorbachev and was the right man to lead the collapsing Soviet Union out of the crisis?”  

Mr Major smiled.  

“Mr Martin, before I was prime minister I was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the British finance minister.  And when I was there, they taught me to count.  That was not two questions, that were three!  Good-bye.”    

So I never got to find out if Britain wanted Yeltsin to take over from Gorbachev.  But he did anyway.  

As the coup had sputtered and failed, Gorbachev had been brought back from his dacha on the Black Sea where he’d been temporarily held prisoner… but to a new reality. 

I will never forget the look of amazement and shock on Gorbachev’s face when, to a packed audience of Communist party officials, Yeltsin announced: “The Communist Party is banned.”  

Yeltsin was basically taking charge of the country.

I also watched with amazement as the statue of the founder of the secret service, the KGB, was demolished outside its forbidding headquarters, the huge grey Lubyanka.   The new KGB chief later showed me around inside the still perfectly preserved office of Yuri Andropov, the only KGB chief who had officially become General Secretary of the Communist Party and therefore Soviet supremo.  

I asked the new KGB chief about another Yuri – who I had known in London.  I’d met him on a bus, and when I heard his Russian accent, had started a conversation.  He told me he lived in the Soviet trade Mission, just up the road from my home, and worked as a Svoet representative on the International Cocoa Board..  

I invited him to visit  us, not for a moment thinking he would.  The Soviets had strict instructions in those days not to mix. To my amazement he phoned two days later, and he and his wife and daughter, dressed in western-style jeans, came for tea.  

We spent several good hours together a few times – I even took him to a cricket match.  Then the KGB  chief in London defected to Britain – and revealed the names of 104 KGB agents.  Yuri was on the list.  

All of them were to be expelled, the British government declared.   I went up my road to try to say good-bye to Yuri, even though no-one was permitted to enter the Soviet Trade Mission – except by special invitation.

To my astonishment, I was allowed in, and was signalled to go to a bus, where the expelled diplomats and their families were on board.

As his coach left for the airport, Yuri called from the window: “I saw your article in the New Statesman about me.  It was — very good….”  

I asked the KGB chief in the Lubyanka if he could allow me to meet Yuri and his family.  “We have no knowledge of any such individual,” was his reply.

So, inside the Lubyanka and inside the Russian White House, I had seen history being made: but I had failed to be there when it really mattered.  

History simply had proceeded, quite successfully, without me.