Ties to GOP Trumped Know-How Among Staff Sent to Rebuild Iraq
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006; A01
Adapted from "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, copyright Knopf 2006
After the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, the opportunity to participate in the U.S.-led effort to reconstruct Iraq attracted all manner of Americans -- restless professionals, Arabic-speaking academics, development specialists and war-zone adventurers. But before they could go to Baghdad, they had to get past Jim O'Beirne's office in the Pentagon.
To pass muster with O'Beirne, a political appointee who screens prospective political appointees for Defense Department posts, applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration.
Many of those chosen by O'Beirne's office to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq's government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance -- but had applied for a White House job -- was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, even though they didn't have a background in accounting.
The decision to send the loyal and the willing instead of the best and the brightest is now regarded by many people involved in the 3 1/2 -year effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as one of the Bush administration's gravest errors. Many of those selected because of their political fidelity spent their time trying to impose a conservative agenda on the postwar occupation, which sidetracked more important reconstruction efforts and squandered goodwill among the Iraqi people, according to many people who participated in the reconstruction effort.
"We didn't tap -- and it should have started from the White House on down -- just didn't tap the right people to do this job," said Frederick Smith, who served as the deputy director of the CPA's Washington office. "It was a tough, tough job. Instead we got people who went out there because of their political leanings."
But many CPA staff members were more interested in other things: in instituting a flat tax, in selling off government assets, in ending food rations and otherwise fashioning a new nation that looked a lot like the United States. Many of them spent their days cloistered in the Green Zone, a walled-off enclave in central Baghdad with towering palms, posh villas, well-stocked bars and resort-size swimming pools.
To recruit the people he wanted, O'Beirne sought résumés from the offices of Republican congressmen, conservative think tanks and GOP activists. He discarded applications from those his staff deemed ideologically suspect, even if the applicants possessed Arabic language skills or postwar rebuilding experience.
Smith said O'Beirne once pointed to a young man's résumé and pronounced him "an ideal candidate." His chief qualification was that he had worked for the Republican Party in Florida during the presidential election recount in 2000.
As more and more of O'Beirne's hires arrived in the Green Zone, the CPA's headquarters in Hussein's marble-walled former Republican Palace felt like a campaign war room. Bumper stickers and mouse pads praising President Bush were standard desk decorations. In addition to military uniforms and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" garb, "Bush-Cheney 2004" T-shirts were among the most common pieces of clothing.
"I'm not here for the Iraqis," one staffer noted to a reporter over lunch. "I'm here for George Bush."
When Tabatabai was asked what would have happened if Hallen hadn't been assigned to reopen the exchange, he smiled. "We would have opened months earlier. He had grand ideas, but those ideas did not materialize," Tabatabai said of Hallen. "Those CPA people reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia."
'Loyalist' Replaces Public Health Expert
The hiring of Bremer's most senior advisers was settled upon at the highest levels of the White House and the Pentagon. Some, like Foley, were personally recruited by Bush. Others got their jobs because an influential Republican made a call on behalf of a friend or trusted colleague.
That's what happened with James K. Haveman Jr., who was selected to oversee the rehabilitation of Iraq's health care system.
Haveman, a 60-year-old social worker, was largely unknown among international health experts, but he had connections. He had been the community health director for the former Republican governor of Michigan, John Engler, who recommended him to Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense.
Haveman replaced Frederick M. Burkle Jr., a physician with a master's degree in public health and postgraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and the University of California at Berkeley. Burkle taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, where he specialized in disaster-response issues, and he was a deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, which sent him to Baghdad immediately after the war.
Haveman arrived in Iraq with his own priorities. He liked to talk about the number of hospitals that had reopened since the war and the pay raises that had been given to doctors instead of the still-decrepit conditions inside the hospitals or the fact that many physicians were leaving for safer, better paying jobs outside Iraq. He approached problems the way a health care administrator in America would: He focused on preventive measures to reduce the need for hospital treatment.
He urged the Health Ministry to mount an anti-smoking campaign, and he assigned an American from the CPA team -- who turned out to be a closet smoker himself -- to lead the public education effort. Several members of Haveman's staff noted wryly that Iraqis faced far greater dangers in their daily lives than tobacco. The CPA's limited resources, they argued, would be better used raising awareness about how to prevent childhood diarrhea and other fatal maladies.
Haveman didn't like the idea that medical care in Iraq was free. He figured Iraqis should pay a small fee every time they saw a doctor. He also decided to allocate almost all of the Health Ministry's $793 million share of U.S. reconstruction funds to renovating maternity hospitals and building new community medical clinics. His intention, he said, was "to shift the mind-set of the Iraqis that you don't get health care unless you go to a hospital."
But his decision meant there were no reconstruction funds set aside to rehabilitate the emergency rooms and operating theaters at Iraqi hospitals, even though injuries from insurgent attacks were the country's single largest public health challenge.
Haveman also wanted to apply American medicine to other parts of the Health Ministry. Instead of trying to restructure the dysfunctional state-owned firm that imported and distributed drugs and medical supplies to hospitals, he decided to try to sell it to a private company.
The group was led by Theodore Briski, a balding, middle-aged pharmacist who held the rank of lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. Haveman's order, as Briski remembered it, was: "Build us a formulary in two weeks and then go home." By his second day in Iraq, Briski came to three conclusions. First, the existing formulary "really wasn't that bad." Second, his mission was really about "redesigning the entire Iraqi pharmaceutical procurement and delivery system, and that was a complete change of scope -- on a grand scale." Third, Haveman and his advisers "really didn't know what they were doing."
When Haveman left Iraq, Baghdad's hospitals were as decrepit as the day the Americans arrived. At Yarmouk Hospital, the city's largest, rooms lacked the most basic equipment to monitor a patient's blood pressure and heart rate, operating theaters were without modern surgical tools and sterile implements, and the pharmacy's shelves were bare.
In May 2003, a team of law enforcement experts from the Justice Department concluded that more than 6,600 foreign advisers were needed to help rehabilitate Iraq's police forces.
The White House dispatched just one: Bernie Kerik.
Bernard Kerik had more star power than Bremer and everyone else in the CPA combined. Soldiers stopped him in the halls of the Republican Palace to ask for his autograph or, if they had a camera, a picture. Reporters were more interested in interviewing him than they were the viceroy.
"I'm here to bring more media attention to the good work on police because the situation is probably not as bad as people think it is," Kerik replied.
As they entered the Interior Ministry office in the palace, Gifford offered to brief Kerik. "It was during that period I realized he wasn't with me," Gifford recalled. "He didn't listen to anything. He hadn't read anything except his e-mails. I don't think he read a single one of our proposals."
When it came to his own safety, Kerik took no chances. He hired a team of South African bodyguards, and he packed a 9mm handgun under his safari vest.