When the history of the Iraq War is written a decade or more from now, it will include a lot more perspective that the press and the war’s foes are giving it now. It will no doubt view events on the ground in that country as other wars have been chronicled; a mix of stunning bravery, horrible leadership, incomprehensible decisions, and the quiet, unremarkable brilliance of the ordinary US soldier in combat.
In a decade, we will also know whether the war was a net plus or minus for US interests. (To make that judgment now is folly. Example: Viet Nam, where many historians now see the war as a pivotal event in the collapse of the Soviet Union.) We will also know a lot more about the corruption, the confusion, the dishonesty, and the jaws dropping incompetence of the the Administration, the Pentagon, the State Department, and many other government agencies who had a hand in the reconstruction fiasco.
We have known for years that the Bush Administration was unprepared for the aftermath of the invasion. We’ve known about the wasted, stolen, and misappropriated reconstruction funds. We’ve known that the Pentagon was not always honest in its assessment of the progress of Iraqi security forces.
What we didn’t know until now is just how truly bad it was.
An unpublished 513-page federal history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.
The history, the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among a tight circle of technical reviewers, policy experts and senior officials. It also concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag — particularly in the critical area of rebuilding the Iraqi police and army — the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.
In one passage, for example, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is quoted as saying that in the months after the 2003 invasion, the Defense Department “kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces — the number would jump 20,000 a week! ‘We now have 80,000, we now have 100,000, we now have 120,000.’ ”
Mr. Powell’s assertion that the Pentagon inflated the number of competent Iraqi security forces is backed up by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of ground troops in Iraq, and L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator until an Iraqi government took over in June 2004.
Over the years, the Pentagon has simply lied to us about the readiness of Iraqi forces to “stand up” so we could “stand down.” Certainly they justified some of this lying as “good for the war effort.” But it is just horrific that Rumsfeld could face the press everyday and lie about the progress of training the Iraqi army. We already knew he was a “glass half full” sort of fellow when it came to war news. But this wasn’t spin. These were deliberate lies told to maintain support for the war at home. Those of us who bought these figures and argued with war opponents that progress was being made and asked for patience it now turns out that we were just actors in Rumsfeld’s little dramas.
But it is in the reconstruction area that the Bush Administration reveals itself to be not only incompetent but probably criminally negligent with American taxpayer dollars.
You haven’t heard about it because of a government gag orders but there are at least 70 cases of Iraqi contract fraud across the country waiting for January 20, 2009 to start up against American companies who did business in Iraq with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Some trials have taken place already including one involving the company Custer Battles that was given a contract to convert the Iraqi Dinar to a new currency and ended up robbing the taxpayers of at least $10 million. Another case involving Philip Bloom who admitted bribing DoD officials with sex, booze, and cash in order to get millions in reconstruction contracts. His co-defendant was a CPA official.
The list of transgressions is staggering. Uncompetitive bidding (including the granting of Haliburton a multi-billion dollar contract without any other bidders) outright theft, contract manipulation, nauseatingly incompetent accounting by the CPA, bending and breaking of regulations, political favoritism, and $8 billion in cash that has simply gone “missing.”
That last may involve some wretched accounting by the CPA. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of evidence that a lot of that cash just up and disappeared - stacks and stacks of crisp, brand new $100 bills. How could that happen?
Because the Iraqi banking system was in tatters, the funds were placed in an account with the Federal Reserve in New York. From there, most of the money was flown in cash to Baghdad. Over the first 14 months of the occupation, 363 tonnes of new $100 bills were shipped in - $12bn, in cash. And that is where it all began to go wrong.
“Iraq was awash in cash - in dollar bills. Piles and piles of money,” says Frank Willis, a former senior official with the governing Coalition Provisional Authority. “We played football with some of the bricks of $100 bills before delivery. It was a wild-west crazy atmosphere, the likes of which none of us had ever experienced.”
The environment created by the coalition positively encouraged corruption. “American law was suspended, Iraqi law was suspended, and Iraq basically became a free fraud zone,” says Alan Grayson, a Florida-based attorney who represents whistleblowers now trying to expose the corruption. “In a free fire zone you can shoot at anybody you want. In a free fraud zone you can steal anything you like. And that was what they did.”
Does “criminally negligent” apply? That 513 page report mentioned up top supplies some answers:
Among the overarching conclusions of the history is that five years after embarking on its largest foreign reconstruction project since the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, the United States government has in place neither the policies and technical capacity nor the organizational structure that would be needed to undertake such a program on anything approaching this scale.
The bitterest message of all for the reconstruction program may be the way the history ends. The hard figures on basic services and industrial production compiled for the report reveal that for all the money spent and promises made, the rebuilding effort never did much more than restore what was destroyed during the invasion and the convulsive looting that followed.
By mid-2008, the history says, $117 billion had been spent on the reconstruction of Iraq, including some $50 billion in United States taxpayer money.
The history contains a catalog of revelations that show the chaotic and often poisonous atmosphere prevailing in the reconstruction effort.
That’s right. To this day, the administration remains clueless about not only the finances of Iraqi reconstruction but even how to go about the task of organizing the effort.
Criminally negligent? Can’t say for sure but there is certainly plenty of evidence that the Bushies didn’t care enough to resolve the parochial disagreements and turf wars that hampered efforts to consolidate the reconstruction effort and get a handle on how much was going out to pay for what and to whom.
There will be an effort in Congress next year to get to the bottom of all this. With the ascension of Henry Waxman to the chairmanship energy committee, the oversight committee chairman could very well be Ed Towns, a New York Congressman who is dogged, thorough, and much less a partisan than Waxman. But I still think it best that an independent commission be formed to look into the entire question of Iraqi reconstruction. We need to investigate the entire episode and not just cherry pick individual occurences of corruption. Congress is much to busy to do a good job in delving into the whole narrative, hence, a bi-partisan panel should be empowered.
The charge of “war profiteering” against some contractors is no doubt overblown. There are hundreds of honest businessmen who contracted with the US or Iraqi governments to supply goods and services who, by all accounts, performed magnificently - sometimes at great personal risk to themselves and their employees. But there is also a growing body of evidence that dozens of contractors saw an easy way to defraud the taxpayer and through bribery, theft, and fraud, enriched themselves.
He’s the only other conservative writing about this story but I still think James Joyner is on the wrong track with this:
That sounds about right. Of course, the Marshall Plan involved giving the money to leaders of advanced countries to rebuild war-ravaged infrastructure after the conflict had ended, whereas this effort had outsiders with virtually no knowledge of the area trying to create a modern state out of an underdeveloped one while terrorists were trying to undermine the effort at every turn.
My history is a little fuzzy but I remember reading Theodore H. White (who wrote extensively about the Marshall Plan when he was working with Colliers Magazine) that the entire taxpayer expenditure for the Marshall Plan was around $15 billion from 1947-51 and that the primary success of the plan lay in its building currencies and creating markets for goods. Using the dollar to stabilize currencies and aiding France so that it could buy German wheat or Great Britain so it could buy French steel are examples of specific Marshall Plan goals. More than one historian has pointed to the plan as a boost to the idea of a European Common Market.
The point being, there was a government wide effort involving State, Defense, Treasury, and Commerce to realize reconstruction based on cooperation and a specific plan. According to the conclusions in that history of Iraq war reconstruction, the Bushies never even took the first step of organizing their own administration and to this day have failed to do so. It wouldn’t have mattered if Iraq was a western industrialized nation or a third world backwater; the problem lay in a lack of focus on putting an overall plan in place with specific goals and targets.
But kudos to James for highlighting what I’m sure is going to be a big story next year.