The New Aristocrats

Rajiv Chandrasekaran in today’s Washington Post writes that agencies in the Bush Administration and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad are not playing well with each other.

Instead of collaborating, agencies have often found themselves split by the gulf between idealistic officials in Washington, some of whom have never been to Iraq, and embassy staffers whose ambition to promote change has been attenuated by the violence and dysfunction they witness every day.

The disagreements often center on arcane subjects — such as tariff policy or the rehabilitation of state-owned enterprises — but the impact can be profound, according to people on both sides of the fights. Embassy staffers said they have wasted countless hours squabbling with Washington instead of focusing on more urgent initiatives to stabilize Iraq. In one incident, as the bickering between Commerce and State intensified, the embassy blocked a team of Commerce officials from entering the country.

Most of the article discusses an Iraqi food distribution program that the idealists in Washington want eliminated.

Some background: Last year at a Camp David meeting, President Bush requested that the departments of agriculture, commerce and energy get more involved in Iraq. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez then asked his staff to draw up a list of Iraq-related projects. Two months later, Commerce sent its list to Baghdad and waited for the embassy to shower them with gratitude.

Instead, the document, “Secretary Gutierrez’s Five Priority Areas for Economic Reform in Iraq,” set off a bureaucratic grenade in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The second item on the list called for the United States to pressure Iraq’s government to cease providing people with monthly food rations, which more than half of Iraq’s population relies on for sustenance.

Embassy officials were incensed. Although the embassy’s economists favored changes to the ration system, they believed that dismantling it as Commerce was proposing could spark riots that might topple the Iraqi government.

“Commerce was stunningly naive,” said a senior State Department official involved in Iraq policy. “They were way out of their lane.”

Part of the problem seems to come from what one means by “help.” When the State Department and the Baghdad embassy say they want help, they seem to mean they want more people and resources. But the Washington idealists think that “helping” in Iraq means thinking up better policies and telling the Baghdad crew what to do.

Some at Commerce regard embassy staffers and their bosses at the State Department as ungrateful and unwilling to embrace others’ ideas — even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pleads with other federal agencies to send more people to Iraq. “We were willing to help, as the president asked us to do, but the State Department feels that it has control of the situation,” said a senior Commerce official involved in the food-ration policy.

Officials at State contend that they do want other federal departments to assist in Iraq, but they said they are less interested in policies that are developed by those agencies in Washington and imposed on Baghdad.

“The problem stems from this view at the White House that the whole Cabinet has to be involved,” the senior State Department official said.

The result, an embassy official with direct knowledge of the food-ration debate said, is that “there are too many cooks in the kitchen.”

The ration program has been going on since sanctions were imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War. In 2003, when L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority was running Iraq, Bremer wanted to dismantle the program because it interfered with the CPA’s plans to promote capitalism. (Bremer, you might recall, is the same genius who dismantled the Iraqi Army.) The U.S. military objected, saying that there was enough social unrest going on as it was.

Then last year the Commerce Department delivered its list of nifty policy ideas to the Baghdad embassy, touching off months of squabbling. Then Susan Hamrock, the director of Commerce’s Iraq task force, and one of her subordinates, Stephen L. Green, asked the embassy for permission to visit Baghdad. Hamrock wanted to bypass the Embassy and talk directly to the Iraqi minister responsible for the food distribution system. The Embassy refused to give Hamrock and Green clearance to visit the Green Zone. Then Hamrock found out the minister would be attending a conference in Brussels.

Hamrock and Green flew to Brussels to see the Iraqis. According to Hamrock’s written summary of the meeting, they discussed changes in the ration system.

Since then, the Commerce official said, Hamrock and other Commerce officials have continued to discuss the ration system with Iraqi officials over the phone and by e-mail.

The minister and other Iraqi officials “fully support our efforts,” the Commerce official said.

The trade minister, Abdul Falah al-Sudani, could not be reached for a comment.

However, it seems that in Iraq, “full support” may not mean full support, exactly. So far, the only reform the Iraqis have been willing to make is to exclude senior government officials from receiving rations.

Commerce isn’t giving up. Hamrock’s boss, Franklin L. Lavin, the undersecretary for international trade, wants “free-market solutions” for the food problem.

Last month, Lavin traveled to Iraq to meet with trade ministry officials. His PowerPoint presentation included an exhortation to revise the ration system by providing handouts only to the needy.

The Iraqi officials present nodded in agreement. But that is about all they have done, embassy officials said.

“No Iraqi politician wants to get rid of free food. It’s political suicide. They’re not going to do it,” said a former embassy official who worked on ration-related issues. “These grand schemes are irrelevant. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours everyone has wasted on this issue, when there were all sorts of more productive things they could have been doing with their time.”

What is it with Bushies and Powerpoint presentations? Anyway, I thought this bit was illuminating [emphasis added] —

Commerce was not the embassy economic section’s only concern when it came to rations. Last fall, the embassy’s Joint Strategic Planning and Assessment Office, headed by a Rand Corp. analyst on contract with the embassy, created its own plan to restructure the ration system. It was even more aggressive than Commerce’s. It called for eliminating the rations in 38 weeks …

… The officers convened a working group composed of representatives from the economic section, the planning office, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. military command and the State Department’s Iraq Reconstruction and Management Office. No Iraqis were invited, according to the two embassy officials.

We keep saying we want Iraqis to take charge of their own country, and then we go right ahead and impose our solutions to their problems.

Over the course of several meetings last fall, the participants who were not from the strategic planning office chipped away at the 38-week proposal. They eventually reached a compromise: The ration system would cease by the end of 2008 — in more than 100 weeks.

To the embassy’s economists, saying they wanted to kill the program in two years was an elaborate ploy, the embassy officials said. It would get them on the record as favoring major changes, but the timeframe almost certainly meant it would not happen. “Things in Iraq change every six months,” the first embassy official said. “If you say you plan to do something in two years, it means you’ll never do it.”

There are other programs that the embassy and the agencies are fighting over, and I’m not certain the agencies don’t have a point about some of these programs. But after all that’s happened (and gone wrong), the unflappable hubris of the Bush Administration continues to amaze me. They remind me of Old World aristocrats — the ones in movies, anyway — inbred, vain, spoiled, and privileged. Movie aristocrats are arrogant fops who get shown up by the plain spoken American hero, who (unlike the fops) is skilled and experienced and smart. Now I wonder how many Bush Administration officials it takes to screw in a light bulb. Oh, wait, they have maids for that. Never mind.

9 thoughts on “The New Aristocrats

  1. What you have described is what happens when reality collides with fantasy(wishful thinking).Over the course of my life I have dealt with numerous idiots that plan a job out on paper and are amazed when things don’t go as planned.Then they blame it on everyone else.
    We need to dump all these aristocats ( no, I didn’t misspell that!) in the middle of Baghdad and let them find their way home.Let them eat kibbie!They broke it, they bought it!

  2. America has bombed the bejesus out of that country, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (including women, children, and the elderly), the country is contaminated with depleted uranium, and now I here about squabble between US agencies filled with Republican flunkies who couldn’t beat themselves out of a paperbag (more heckuva job Brownies). As an American Indian, I find none of this a surprise. This whole effort was never about liberating the Iraqis any more than in the early years of this country the white man was liberating the Indians. It was only to show the cowboy president as a leader (which instead has proved he is not) and to steal all the remaining resources from the Iraqi people. From day one there seems to be no evidence of that so-called “conservative compassion.” As if any of these radical right wing whackos have hearts. Yeah, and I have a bridge I could sell you . . . I think someone is going to need a purification ceremony in Iraq if the Americans ever leave. If the Americans don’t leave, then maybe some sort of ceremony can be done that will drive the Americans out.

  3. “they have maids to do that”
    Kinda reminds me of Slim Pickens’s line in “Blazing Saddles” when he wanted the horses out of the quicksand…..

  4. Pingback: No More Mr. Nice Guy!

  5. This story reminds me of the 24 year old kid who was rewarded for stuffing envelopes for the Bush campaign by being given the job of rebuilding Iraq’s stock market with an operating budget in the billions of dollars after the invasion. Needless to say, the kid decided to reinvent the wheel and squandered billions trying to emulate the American model of the Stock Exchange with millions of dollars in hi-tech computers and complex software. The Iraqi’s already had a system of greater efficiency that could be accomplished by way of a chaulk board. Dude, you’re getting a Dell!

  6. If only Rajiv Chandrasekaran were a master fabulist, and this was all the work of a clever satirist, mocking the foibles of modern corporatist ideological bureaucracy. Sadly, he merely reports the truth, despite it being stranger and more tragic than fiction.

    I find myself imagining the conversation between the Commerce Dept. aparatchik and an Iraqi minister:

    Commerce: We think you should do away with food rations, in order to build your economy.

    Iraqi: (sarcastic) Oh, really? Yah, well then, we’ll get right on that.

    Commerce: Great! You’re behind this idea, then? Terrific.

    Iraqi: (restraining giggles) Yes, we’ll start real soon now.

    Commerce: Great. I knew you’d love it. Look, thanks, I’ve gotta go now. I’ll be in touch.

    Iraqi: What an idiot!
    This idea that competing departments should come up with its own policy suggestions for what to do over there is risible. Maybe NASA could get them started on their manned space program?

    Do they even realize there’s a war on?

  7. “Skilled and experienced and smart” certainly relegates Bremer to the fop group. Until the middle of 2006 most of Iraq’s oil pipelines were not even equipped with working meters. Earlier in the occupation Bremer refused to install new ones – why, no one knows. So where’s the firm declaration by Wolfowitz that Iraqi oil would fund the invasion – not likely given that so much oil is going to smugglers who could care less about funding anything but their own pockets. At the Kurdish-Turkish border oil tankers line up four abreast in eight mile long lines and by way of bribes and who knows what, they pick up their oil and off they go. Did Mr. W. talk to Mr. B.? Doesn’t seem so.

    The more evidence seeping into the media, at a snail’s pace, the more it seems that Iraq was meant to be and is so far just one big cash cow for well-placed cronies in the Bush administration. Why talk or listen to each other when it might cut into your personal profits.

  8. I interned at the IRTF, run by Sue Hamrock, during that trip to Brussels. I didn’t work much with her, as she was the top boss, but I did work a lot for Steve Green (aka “Stephen L. Green”). Any sort of characterization of Steve as some free-market right-wing Chicago boy trying to privatize everything is totally wrong. Also, I can tell you from experience that while we did work on reforming (I never saw the word “dismantle” used and that was never the intention for the semester I was there) the Public Distribution System, it wasn’t by any means the core focus of the office. I worked on the issue myself for a little bit, just researching how other countries run their food distribution systems to see if there could be any easy fixes. However, the focus of the office was to help American and other companies get in Iraq and help rebuild the country, helping US companies link up with the Iraqi government to get contracts, etc. That’s what basically everyone worked on 80% of the day.

Comments are closed.