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Former Top U.S. Official in Iraq Speaks Out on War


Where Do We Go From Here?

A former top U.S. administrator in Iraq gives a candid assessment of what prompted the war and offers suggestions on what’s next.

The retired U.S. Army general who served as the first civil administrator in Iraq said the United States invasion of the country was not prompted by an effort to find weapons of mass destruction or to liberate Iraqis from Saddam Hussein.

Jay Garner, retired Army general and former U.S. administrator in Iraq
Photo: Department of Defense

“We talk boldly about human rights in the United States, but we don’t follow that up with action,” said Jay Garner, who was appointed in January 2003 by President George W. Bush to direct the reconstruction of post-war Iraq. “The war in Iraq is a product of Vice President Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz [deputy secretary of defense], Richard Pearle [former Pentagon policy adviser] and Donald Feith [undersecretary of defense for policy], and their tremendous influence over the president.”

Garner was on the Lincoln Center campus on June 14 to address humanitarian aid workers who spent a month at Fordham earning an International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance (IDHA). The IDHA is offered through the University’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs, which was founded in 2001 to forge partnerships with relief organizations, publish books, hold training courses and host symposia relating to humanitarian affairs.

The IDHA participants, most of whom have extensive international field experience, some in Iraq and Afghanistan, took full advantage of the opportunity to question a former top official with insider knowledge of the build up to the invasion and insight into what the best course of action might be in the future.

Garner, who orchestrated the Kurdish relief effort in Iraq following the first Gulf War in 1991, was on the job for just one month before being replaced by Paul Bremmer, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq until the June 28 transfer of power to an Iraqi government. The Iraqi government was supposed to take over on June 30, but security concerns prompted it to take place two days early.

In interviews following his dismissal, Garner said he was replaced because he supported speedy Iraqi elections and was against privatizing public services, a measure supported by the president and his closest advisers. Despite his own support of the quick creation of an Iraqi government, Garner questioned the motivation for the June deadline imposed by the Bush administration.

“The United States drew that line in the sand because there’s a presidential election coming up and because it is getting difficult over in Iraq,” said Garner. “That is just wrong.”

Looking to the future, the most realistic government for Iraq, said Garner, is a loose democratic federation that recognizes ethnic, religious and tribal loyalties. The federation could be divided into regions dominated by groups such as the Kurds, Sunnis and Shia.

IDHA participant Hala Sarraf, an Iraqi who works with the World Food Program in her country, said such a federation is too simplistic because tribal and religious alliances often overlap. She also questioned the new Iraqi leaders, who she said lack the credentials to lead because they were imported by the United States.

“These are people who left in the 1980s,” said Sarraf. “They did not suffer the way the Iraqi people suffered. We need leaders from within the country.”

Strong leaders have not yet emerged from within Iraq because the population has been suppressed for so long, said Sarraf. Those tribal and religious leaders who might seem best suited for leadership positions in a new government are in some cases afraid to come forward because of continuing violence against Iraqi officials and police by insurgents.

Garner acknowledged that while a loose federation looks good on paper, in reality there are many obstacles. But the freedom to make mistakes is part of democracy, he said, and so the United States and Britain should work to prevent a total collapse of Iraqi society as they let the Iraqi people make their own way in the future.

“As Americans, we believe we can take our template for democracy and apply it to any country. That just doesn’t work,” said Garner. “It is better for the Iraqis to create a government imperfectly themselves than to have the United States do it for them perfectly.”

— Suzanne Stevens

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