In Baghdad, a Slice of Traditional Washington Sniping

January 21, 2004
By Jonathan E. Kaplan, Special to the Sun
Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC

BAGHDAD, Iraq Washington's culture of partisan sniping, petty office politics, and young aides angling for recognition by their superiors while working seven days a week and 16 to 18 hours a day has traveled to the banks of the Tigris River where the Coalition Provisional Authority has its offices in Saddam Hussein's former palace.

The chief American administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, has received the most press coverage largely because his fate changes weekly. One week he is rumored to become the next secretary of state while the next week his job is in jeopardy.

But those who carry out Mr. Bremer's policy directives, a class of Washington political and policy aides, most of whom are under 40 and even younger, have received scant attention in the mainstream press.

Their ideological conflicts are not only liberal versus conservative, but sometimes intraparty battles that reflect the ongoing tug-of-war between the Pentagon and State Department over how to wage war and manage the peace in Iraq.

Some aides, on both sides of the political spectrum, agreed that the ideological conflicts were not only petty given the dangerous environment, but irrelevant as well because the work requires the hand of a technocrat, not an ideologue.

Mr. Bremer's key aides have been plucked largely from career positions at the State Department and other key agencies in the government. They are largely nonpartisan, or if they happen to have political leanings, they do not advertise them.

"There definitely were people in CPA who came with not only no Republican credentials, but strong Democratic credentials," said a law professor at New York University who advised Mr. Bremer on constitutional issues, Noah Feldman. "It is to Bremer's credit that he was comfortable working with the most qualified people who had relevant skill-sets."

Mr. Feldman litigated ballot disputes for former Vice President Al Gore in Florida after the November 2000 election.

Other Democratic aides who work for Mr. Bremer include his chief of staff Pat Kennedy, and security adviser Walter Slocombe, former foreign policy officials in the Clinton administration.

More common among Mr. Bremer's closest aides are officials such as Clint Williamson, a Justice Department career lawyer and now the director of transnational crime issues at the National Security Council. Mr. Williamson ran the Ministry of Justice in Kosovo for President Clinton and had advised Mr. Bremer on judicial issues until heading back to the NSC.

The ideological sniping at the midlevel ranks takes on several forms in various degrees of seriousness. Some lower-level conflicts reflect the split between the Pentagon's hawks and State Department's diplomats.

For example, Michael Rubin, a CPA aide who has worked in the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, had criticized a fellow aide on loan from the State Department in a 2002 article in the Weekly Standard.

Mr. Rubin singled out Meghan O'Sullivan, an aide to Richard Haass, the former assistant secretary of state for policy and planning and now chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, because she advocated that the "United States should seek a 'more nuanced' approach to terrorism, whereby 'lesser penalties would apply to lesser levels of state sponsorship.' Such nuance is dead wrong, since it implies some terror to be permissible."

A former CPA official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Secretary of State Powell had to insert himself into the hiring process to make sure that Ms. O'Sullivan was appointed to her post.

Other conflicts reflect petty office politics.

Since CPA employees work on three-month rotations, the organization is constantly short-staffed. To find staffers for last year's donors' conference in Madrid, Spain, CPA relied on a dozen young professionals, in politics and out, who had all done internships at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

A mid-level CPA official said they were tagged as "Rumsfeld's Hitler Youth." She added that there is a competition among some of the staff to see Mr. Bremer, who some are banking to succeed Mr. Powell as secretary of state in a second Bush administration.

But more common inside the "green zone" are loyal Republican staffers wearing Bush-Cheney T-shirts and baseball caps, which is not surprising be cause Republicans control the executive and legislative branches of government.

CPA aides, such as Dan Senor, Scott Carpenter, and Hilary White, who have backgrounds in Republican Party politics, are more common than Democrats.

Mr. Senor, who is Mr. Bremer's spokesman, worked for the former Senator Spencer Abraham, a Republican of Michigan, now the secretary of energy. Mr. Senor went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School and joined CPA from the Carlyle Group, an investment firm with strong GOP ties.

Mr. Carpenter, 39, had been working at the State Department as a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Before that, he had worked at the International Republican Institute for seven years and before that for then-Rep. Rick Santorum, a Republican of Pennsylvania.

Now the director of CPA's governance group, he works "on everything related to democratization process in Iraq," he said. "It's my favorite job since I worked on the Hill. You're in the center of everything. There's a lot of running around, so much going on and so little time."

Ms. White, 28, volunteered on the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000. She joined CPA after a two-year stint as a political appointee at the Department of Agriculture and "advancing" Mr. Bush's foreign trips.

"I was interested and believed in what President Bush was doing," she said. "I've now extended my stay twice."

A Fort Worth native who graduated from Baylor University with a degree in finance, Ms. White serves as a public affairs officer in Hilla, an hour's drive south of Baghdad. The American outfit in Hilla helps teach the finer points of democratic government to sheiks and tribal leaders.

She points to success she's had in opening women's, human rights, and tribal centers where democracy is taught. "We measure success by how the Iraqi people are responding," she told The New York Sun. "They're responding and wanting more democracy teaching."

Many CPA aides loyal to the Bush administration cannot resist a dig at the press coverage of the U.S. occupation. "There's a thirst to learn more about democracy," Ms. White said. "Some of the people call Bush their savior. Those are stories you don't see back at home."