Getting the Lessons of Iraq Exactly Right

The report of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction teaches the wrong lessons about the Coalition Provisional Authority and the effort to rebuild Iraq after the war. As Congress begins to hold hearings on the report's findings, it is my hope that our lawmakers will rethink the self-destructive peacetime rules, regulations and petty bureaucracy under which we are trying to win the war on terror.

In the summer of 2003, Ambassador Paul Bremer was assigned the extraordinary challenge of establishing a Coalition Provisional Authority in a country whose dictatorship had systematically ruined the government and the economy. There were no records that were reliable. There were no coherent payrolls. The scale of corruption and dishonesty was staggering.

Accomplishing this task within the American peacetime system of bureaucracy, red tape, micromanagement and negative oversight would have been a daunting task even in the most ideal of environments.

In a rapidly shifting wartime environment, speed and flexibility are the most important requirements for success. However, every military commander I have talked with encountered too much bureaucracy, too much red tape and too much centralization.

The Iraqis themselves have shown that they can move faster than the American peacetime bureaucratic system. In 1991 after the first gulf war and despite the UN-imposed sanctions, it took Iraqi engineers less than 100 days to restore electricity in the country back to pre-war capacity. Now, a year and a half after Saddam Hussein's statue fell, Iraq's power sector still is only producing less than half of its pre-war capacity and nowhere near what is needed for growth and prosperity.

Bremer was also weakened by personnel and budgeting and contracting systems that did not work. The CPA never received the people it needed due to outdated rules that prevent civilian personnel (such as employees of the State, Treasury and Justice Departments) from being properly trained and organized to do jobs that, while difficult, are non-war-fighting roles best suited for civilians.

Those who did get to Iraq were confronted with petty bureaucracy and mindless contracting requirements that made it impossible to effectively spend the money Congress had appropriated. In June of 2004, the CPA had spent only 2 percent of the $18.4 billion appropriated by Congress.

The only truly effective expenditures were made by military commanders through their Commander's Emergency Response Program, a timely and flexible acquisition system designed for immediate humanitarian and reconstruction assistance. It allowed commanders to buy goods and services on the local market rather than through the Pentagon's sclerotic bureaucracy. I was told by one commander that he could order trucks through an Iraqi, have them picked up in Turkey and delivered to local Iraqi police faster than they could process the paperwork for purchasing through Baghdad.

However, that is exactly the type of program that is put at risk by the overzealous, process-rather-than-result-focused auditing mentality displayed by the inspector general's report.

Now that report is tempting Congress to hold exactly the wrong hearings that would create exactly the wrong "reforms" that would make it even harder to recruit patriotic Americans (who will be reminded that you are more likely to become a scapegoat than an honored citizen if you risk serving your government and your country in a dangerous place). These hearings could also lead to new requirements, which could make it even harder for America to manage a transition in the future.

For instance, one of the most widely publicized findings in the report is that more than $400 million given to the Iraqi ministries is unaccounted for due to "weak or non-existent" controls. The report suggests that instead of giving the Iraqi ministers responsibility for their budgets, the CPA should have placed hundreds of CPA auditors into the ministries.

This would have taken the old joke "I'm from the federal government and I am here to help" to astonishingly new heights. Worse, it would have further created the impression among Iraqis that coalition forces were occupiers rather than liberators. What would kind of message would that have sent to the new Iraqi ministers and their staff, if they were being monitored by American "minders"?

The auditors and lawyers whose mindset dominates this report are dramatically out of touch with the practical realities of waging war and setting up a new government in a war-torn country. Bremer needed more flexibility and more authority, not less. He needed to focus more on being effective and not more on being audited. Money is to a successful transition and reconstruction effort as bullets are to a successful battle. No one would suggest that our troops should be audited for every round they fire and every mile of fuel they use in winning a war.

It is my hope that rather than heed the report's findings, Congress uses it to analyze what laws need to be rewritten and what has to be done to make America effective in waging the war against terrorism and for civilization and freedom.

If it leads to that result it will have been a very helpful report indeed.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, is a senior fellow at AEI and author of Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America.

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