The Last Days of Bush's Viceroy

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After a four-decade career as a diplomat and civil servant, Paul Bremer is a surprisingly poor performer in public. He appears stiff and uncomfortable addressing audiences, and in interviews he sticks to guarded bureaucrat-speak. Not that Bremer denies these observations: "It's a question of respecting the office I'm in — I have to be a bit careful," later adding, "I'm not running for office here." For the same reason, he's always formally attired at public appearances. "People expect a person who has some authority to be respectful, it's more respectful to wear a coat and tie than to go around in shirtsleeves."

Despite his sartorial efforts, however, many of the Iraqis he has ruled for 13 months don't feel especially respected. Instead, they regard Bremer as an aloof, arrogant American who couldn't care less about them. Baghdad school-teacher Kamel al-Hasni is typical: "He seems very cold, without feeling, without any desire to (engage) with Iraqis," he says. "He doesn't know us, and doesn't want to know us. I have not seen or read about him showing any deep knowledge about Iraq... The only Iraq he knows is the one he hears about from the politicians of the governing council, and most of them haven't lived among the Iraqi people for 20-30 years."

Mahmoud Othman, a Governing Council member and bitter Bremer critic, says the American's main failing is his inability to connect with ordinary folks. "He approached his job like a business executive, he works hard, but he's only trying to please his employers in Washington," says Othman. "It would have been better if (President Bush) had sent a former Governor of an American state, somebody who had administrative experience as well as the ability to connect with people."

Bremer says he doesn't know what Iraqis think of him ("We have no poll data on that") and insists he's not even curious. "What difference would it make?" he asks, "I just do the best that I can, and the chips will fall as they may. I didn't come here to be loved, I came here to do a job. I had to make a lot of tough decisions. A lot of people complain, that comes with the turf."

But not caring how ordinary Iraqis view him is a serious tactical mistake, says politician Raed Mowloud Mukhlas. "For most Iraqis, their impression of America comes from an interaction with a soldier — and it is usually an unpleasant, at checkpoints, with body searches, maybe some soldiers entering their homes and rifling through their things. Bremer should have been the friendly face of America. And it would not have been difficult. People here respond to simple gestures. Even people who hate Saddam remember how, as Vice President, he would walk into a souk or a tea house, with no bodyguards, and just chat with people. If people liked Bremer, they would have been less likely to support the militants who attack the Americans."

As it happens, Bremer did make some impromptu visits to restaurants and shops in the early days of his tenure — these were poorly publicized and have long since been forgotten. These days, it's inconceivable that Bremer could go out without protection. Driving out of the Green Zone to a Sunday lunch with Ibrahim Jaafari, a former exile leader of the Shiite Islamist Dawa Party and one of the Vice Presidents in the interim government, Bremer's convoy comprises four big, black, armored SUVs, preceded and followed by Stryker armored personnel carriers, with air cover provided by two helicopters. There are at least a dozen Blackwater bodyguards. Traffic is stopped at all intersections that the convoy passes. Darkened windows mean that folks outside can't be sure Bremer is in the convoy.

Arriving at Jaafari, Bremer emerges with a huge smile, his arms outstretched. He greets his host with Arabian effusiveness, a bear hug and three loud kisses on the cheeks. The two men exchange the requisite pleasantries in Arabic. Bremer continues to use Arabic whenever he can as the two men talk, Bremer using Arabic words for "yes" and "correct" in responding to his host. Although Jaafari is fluent in English, he prefers to conduct political discussions in Arabic, and Bremer has brought along his own translator. But it's clear that he is paying careful attention to Jaafari's words, and not just waiting for the translator. On a few occasions, he doesn't even need the translator. After a year's worth of daily half-hour lessons in Arabic, Bremer says he often can understand the gist of a conversation.

This is Bremer the diplomat in his element. He later concedes that he's more at ease in these one-on-one situations than in a crowd: "I like people, I get along with them, I enjoy a little back and forth."

After a half-hour monologue in flowery Arabic covering everything from Ronald Reagan to William Jenner, inventor of the smallpox vaccine, Jaafari begins to get to the point. The Kurds, he says, have too much of a say in the interim government. He worries that they are taking only a Kurdish view, not an Iraqi view. Jaafari also complains about the make-up of the interim cabinet, particularly the six women ministers — he says it's a good idea to have women ministers, but says more deserving women were denied.

Having allowed his host to meander on without interruption, the Chief Administrator now interjects. "You know this is the best government Iraq has had in 50 years," he says. "And although not everybody will be happy with every appointment, it is a step forward, towards more representative government." When Jaafari attempts to resume his complaint, Bremer gets firmer: "You have two choices Mr. Vice President, keep complaining about the government or support it. But the government is fixed, and there won't be any changes." Before Jaafari can respond, Bremer smiles and delivers the zinger: "You know, the Kurds call me every day, complaining that they don't have enough say in the government?" Jaafari has been out-maneuvered, and he knows it. He drops the subject.

Not all prominent Iraqi politicians get to see this Bremer, impressing them with his respect for Iraqi social customs and pressing them for the recipes to his favorite Iraqi dishes. Some members of the now-defunct Governing Council complain that the American is peremptory and rude. "His style is to always push us against the wall, to issue ultimatums," says Othman. "If we disagreed with him, he would turn that around and say, ?If you don't agree, you will be in confrontation with the U.S.' "

After lunch at Jaafari's, Bremer's convoy heads for the ministry of higher education for a briefing about the scarcity of funds for education. The minister, Tahir al-Bakaa, used to be a university president, and is clearly nervous in Bremer's presence. The Administrator's greetings are cordial, but not as effusive as with Jaafari. This is another Bremer, the proconsul come to hear a supplicant's petition. Bremer is friendly, still smiles from time to time, but he knows what the man wants — and that he won't get it.

There are no new funds to be had, Bremer explains. "Iraq is a rich country that is temporarily poor," he tells the minister. The government will inherit a huge debt, but must be careful not to indulge in deficit financing. This means all ministries will feel the pinch. But Bremer offers the Iraqis help in seeking assistance for their universities from colleges in the U.S.

Having failed to coax any additional funding from Bremer, the minister makes a last, personal request: could the CPA supply him with a bullet-proof vest? Bremer promises to look into it. Before departing, he gives the minister a pep-talk. "You are part of the best government this country has had in half a century," he says. "There are people who don't want a democratic Iraq, who want to destabilize the country. You are very courageous to accept (the position of minister). You have my admiration." The minister and his colleagues look well pleased.

Bremer's convoy now heads back into the Green Zone, where he will stop for a meeting with Iyad Allawi, prime minister of the interim government, just back from the G8 summit in the U.S. Here, the greetings are brief and devoid of ceremony — the two men meet every day, so after a quick handshake they get down to business.

Under the Transitional Administrative Law, Iraq's interim constitution, real power will lie in the hands of the prime minister. But Allawi, a former senior intelligence operative of the old regime who broke with Saddam Hussein and went into exile three decades ago, has little recent experience in administration. Bremer's daily visits are designed as tutorials in government to bring him up to speed. Today's topics: the organization and staffing of the prime minister's office, and the anti-corruption measures in place for the new government.

Here, another Bremer is on display, not so much the Chief Administrator as the consultant to the prime minister. He's brought along two topic experts, and sits back as they make presentations. Bremer interrupts from time to time, to repeat points he feels deserve Allawi's special attention.

Now that Adnan Pachachi is out of the picture, Bremer's relationship with Allawi may be the closest he has with any Iraqi. The strangest — but no less important — relationship is the one he has with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme Shia spiritual leader based in Najaf. Sistani has refused to meet with any official of the CPA, much less its Chief Administrator. He has sniped constantly about the occupation, about Bremer's policies, about the treatment of Iraqis by Coalition forces. So it is a surprise to learn that he and Bremer have been communicating via intermediaries on average twice a month for the past year on matters of security and reconstruction. Messages are usually passed verbally, but occasionally in writing. A religious man himself ("I pray twice a day, or more, depending on what kind of day it is," says Bremer), the U.S. administrator says he respects Sistani, and communicates the respect in the language of his written messages. He believes the cleric also respects him: "From what he's said to intermediaries, he is grateful for the work I've done, the coalition has done."

It is an odd way for the two most powerful men in Iraq to communicate, but Bremer is philosophical about it. "The world conducted diplomatic relations this way for thousands of years," he shrugs. "Besides, it's his choice, so what choice do I have?"

Come July 1, dealing with Sistani will be Allawi's problem — one of many that the prime minister must face. Bremer sympathizes with the pressure on Allawi, knows the enormous magnitude of the task before the Iraqi. "He was telling me the other day that he went to bed after midnight and was back at work by six. I said, 'Yeah, now you're getting it.' "