Bremer defends disbanding Iraqi army as the 'most important decision I made'

L.A. Cicero Bremer

L. Paul Bremer, the former presidential envoy to Iraq, spoke with reporters last week on campus.

In an interview last week, L. Paul Bremer, who headed the American-led occupation authority in Iraq, defended his widely criticized decision to abolish the Iraqi army.

"I think it was probably the most important decision I made, and it had the effect of avoiding a civil war in Iraq," Bremer said. "The old army had been used to crush Kurds for 50 years." Rebuilding the force reassured the Kurdish minority that there would be real changes, he said, and encouraged support for the January elections.

"Just look what's happened in the last two months," Bremer said. "They had the first free elections in Iraq's history. Nine million people—almost nine million people went out and voted. Sixty percent, more than we get in our presidential elections, and they went at a time when the terrorists were saying, 'We'll kill you if you vote.'"

A former ambassador to Afghanistan and the Netherlands, Bremer oversaw the reconstruction effort in Iraq from May 2003 through June 2004, when the United Stated handed over sovereignty to interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Bremer was famous for carrying out his duties in a tailored suit and tan desert combat boots. He was subsequently awarded America's highest civil award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

During the April 19 interview with the Stanford Report, the Stanford Review and the Stanford Progressive, Bremer also addressed continuing violence after the invasion, which he said was not fully anticipated.

"I think it took a while for the insurgency to really reveal itself," Bremer said. Assaults are now coming from three different groups, he said: anti-Americans led by al-Qaida; loyalists to the former leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein; and tens of thousands of prisoners who were released by Saddam before the war and are offering themselves for hire to the other two groups.

"I don't believe that [the three groups] are tactically coordinating things together," Bremer said, "but they all have in common that they don't like the future of Iraq as a democratic country."

The Iraqi security forces must be better trained and the number of incidents must decline before coalition forces can retreat, he said.

Bremer was quick to point out what he considered the successes of his occupation administration, such as overseeing more than 20,000 reconstruction projects. Bremer noted that the interim government exceeded its target of having 25 percent women's membership, and the actual proportion of 31 percent is twice that in the U.S. Congress. He also noted that elected President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, is the first non-Arab leader of an Arab country.

But he cautioned that the Iraq invasion is not necessarily a blueprint for dealing with undemocratic countries that the United States considers global or regional troublemakers.

"I don't think you can do foreign policy by cookie-cutter measures," Bremer said. "I don't think you can say there's any one model that we can use."

Recent low levels of American public support for the Iraq effort can be explained partly because of the far-off setting, and because the two-year conflict remains unresolved, he said.

"Americans are can-do, impatient kind of people. They like to get on with things," Bremer said. "And this is tough stuff. Nation building is not something that happens overnight."

Bremer later addressed a near-capacity audience in Memorial Auditorium. The sponsoring group, Stanford in Government, signed a contract barring media coverage of the event. Bremer agreed to meet campus press for an interview before the lecture; the Stanford Daily student newspaper chose to ignore the media ban and covered the talk.

Bremer is working on a book about his experiences in Iraq, and he said his publicist wants to limit his media exposure.

"It is quite normal for publishers to avoid having their writers speak on the record before the book is published, for obvious reasons: It detracts from the commercial attractiveness of the book," Bremer said. "So all of my speeches [since returning from Iraq] have been off the record."

The lecture was presented by Stanford in Government and the ASSU Speakers Bureau.