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First, Send Everybody Home

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July 1, 2007

Three hundred-thirteen dead U.S. troops in the last three months and no Iraqi territory gained, none held, none pacified. Target-practice for the insurgents against the surge of American troops, set in motion by Presidential Medal of Freedom winner M. Paul Bremer when he sent everyone home four years ago. In one irresponsible and mistaken move, Bremer destroyed a functioning Iraqi society and opted for chaos.

Taking the Czech Republic as an example of a more sensitive and sensible transformation (a regime change, if you will) from communism to democracy, there were lessons aplenty and footprints to be followed. Examples from Czech statesmanship might have served M. Paul and his associates, the failed and dishonored Paul Wolfowitz and the failed and dishonored Don Rumsfeld.

The instructor in this case is Vaclav Havel, dissident, writer and first president of the Czech Republic.

Havel knew better than to create and encourage a witch-hunt within Czech society, opting instead to vet and eliminate the worst of the ex-communist offenders and keep the rest in place. Czech society needed someone to run it. Who was that supposed to be, he reasoned, if all the communists were sent home to idleness and trouble-making? So, the country became democratic in name over night and democratic in reality very slowly. It was a learned craft, this self-government and it is still being learned eighteen years after the ‘velvet revolution.’

But Bremer had no patience for that. He wanted a house-cleaning and, not having time or inclination to listen to the lessons of history from tribal-warlord societies, he destroyed the house rather than do the hard work of nation-building.

* First, he sent home the army

* Then the police

* Followed by the bureaucracy

* And finally the teachers, street-cleaners, public health officials, garbage-men, tax collectors, managers of industry and ice-cream truck drivers

He transacted this foolishness because the army, police, postal workers, managers of everything that provided civil services to the Iraqi population and the teachers, university professors, city officials and on and on,were—big surprise—somehow connected to the Baath political party. Saddam’s party.

As in Czech society (where to hold any responsible job you had to be a communist party-member) Iraq required at least nominal Baath Party membership to advance in that dictatorial society. Most responsible positions were doled out on that basis. You might not love Saddam, but you went along to get along.

That reality was lost on M. Paul. Ignoring Vaclav Havel and the Czech experience, Germany’s reunification, as well as the transitional governments of Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland; Bremer simply sent everyone home. He was in a hurry. The boss wanted democracy on the cheap and he wanted it fast.

So, in a country where the middle class was already selling their furniture to eat, he sent everyone who still had a paycheck home to gnaw at a corner of the remaining rug.

* And turned the streets over to looters

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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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