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Occupying Iraq: A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority

Occupying Iraq: A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority by James Dobbins, Seth G. Jones, Benjamin Runkle, and Siddharth Mohandas. RAND, 2009, 364 pp.

The RAND Corporation is well known for its many reports on national security issues. In Occupying Iraq, James Dobbins, director of RAND’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, and several co-authors analyze the US occupation of Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The authors hail the then-recent disclosure of 100,000 new documents and the subsequent insights into US efforts to create a post-Saddam Iraq. The comprehensive analysis and evaluation of the CPA’s efforts at achieving stabilization, democracy, and prosperity reveal, unsurprisingly, a lot more problems than were known or fully understood. This book contributes to the existing literature on Iraq that includes many personal testimonies from US military commanders and Bush administration officials. We are still awaiting the imminent accounts of the top three principals—President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—regarding the occupation of Iraq.

Dobbins et al. address many issues that scholars have pondered for years, but end up providing few answers to the key questions. They appear mesmerized by L. Paul Bremer, the CPA head from 12 May 2003 to 28 June 2004. Most of the book unfortunately presents Bremer as a great chief executive, nation builder, and visionary who ends up thwarted at every turn. Bremer is argued to be a genius who nevertheless makes many mistakes, did not see anything coming, or could not react to many of the problems—not exactly what is expected of a good CEO, nation builder, and visionary. Each time the authors declare Bremer and the CPA to be scions, they follow up with excuses, apologies, and contrary testimony as to why they failed or did not see the consequences of their decisions and actions. The book quickly becomes very disconcerting and contradictory, as the reader is whiplashed between claims of great genius, visions, and intentions versus the realities of the CPA’s many failures and losses.

In practical terms, the book’s failure is also its greatest strength. Rewriting history and attempting to make Bremer seem beyond human ends up demonstrating why the CPA is regarded as such a failure. CPA personnel and the realities on the ground were worlds apart. The book inadvertently highlights the mass discrepancy between the perceptions and expectations of Bremer and the CPA and the actual results. Yes, there were some minor successes, but those who declare that the CPA’s statistics ended up equal to or slightly better than prewar figures use the lowest estimates. Prewar numbers were dismal to begin with, and no one has ever argued that the 2003 war caused significant damage to most of Iraq.

Occupying Iraq is mostly a reinterpretation of what has already been published on the occupation. Bremer’s own book along with Douglas Feith and many others’ are cited by the authors. It is hard to see where the 100,000 new documents were incorporated into the book; most of the citations were already in the public realm. This will be a major disappointment for those expecting new breakthroughs. For others, it should not be surprising, given the CPA’s prior lack of objectivity and informational releases on the occupation.

One notable issue many people have questioned for years is who officially authorized CPA Order 1, firing millions of Ba’ath Party members, and Order 2, disbanding the entire Iraqi military. It is well known that Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith drafted the orders and Bremer publicly announced them. Neither of these two or anyone else has ever stated definitively that the orders were ever discussed or debated at any higher level, especially in the National Security Council. At best, others were notified just hours prior to their issuance. Never has anyone stated that Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld officially signed off on either order. Dobbins et al. make new claims repeatedly in the book that both orders were discussed and debated at the highest levels prior to their issuances on 16 and 23 May 2003, respectively. They claim that Rumsfeld officially authorized the orders, however, they do not provide any compelling evidence for this claim. In fact, many times thereafter, they had to acknowledge that several of the major actors, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, vehemently denied there were any discussions or debate on these orders prior to public announcement. The issue is critical since these two orders are considered the primary cause of the mass insurgency which led to tens of thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties.

The authors avoid or contradict all the evidence and statements from the principals and suggest that both orders were fully discussed and officially authorized by Rumsfeld alone. Finding out who officially authorized CPA Order 1 and 2 would have been the most important reason to read this book, but the authors completely missed the opportunity to resolve this critical issue.

Overall, Occupying Iraq contributes a lot of minor detail and information on the initial occupation of Iraq under the CPA, giving some insight into the failures, confusion, and poor personnel choices and decisions. It does not explain why Bremer, the CPA, and others were so slow or unable to respond and adapt to the realities on the ground. None of the new documents show that Bremer and others actually complained or notified their superiors of the many problems that emerged, including major personnel problems. The book spends too much time praising Bremer for grand expectations, intentions, and declarations and excusing him for so many failures. A more critical and objective view of Bremer and the CPA may have produced a more substantive book.

Occupying Iraq restates information that is already known from previous works but with a much more flattering view of Bremer and the CPA. One can only hope that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are more insightful and objective regarding the final story on the occupation of Iraq.

Steve Dobransky, PhD

Kent State University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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