Paul Bremer's Victory Lap

As Iraq votes in a new government, Bush’s man in Baghdad talks to Tunku Varadarajan about what his team did right—and Obama’s disappointing record in promoting democracy abroad.

03.29.10 11:20 PM ET

When I telephone him at our agreed mid-morning hour, L. Paul Bremer III—or “Jerry,” as he’s known more informally—seems just a little stressed. Was the post-election news from Iraq getting to him, I wonder—all those demands for recounts, all those accusations of fraud. Not at all, as it turns out: He is worried about his little Maltese, which has a persistent liver infection. “I’ve been on the phone to the pet hospital, trying to find out when our dog’s going to be released,” he says. “Can I call back in 10 minutes?”

“Obama’s a bit of a mix,” muses Bremer, as we conclude our conversation. “He’s cut back on the democracy-building budget in the region.”

Had the dog been with him to Iraq, I ask when he rang back, trying to imagine the life of a fluffy little pooch in the Green Zone in Baghdad. “Oh no,” he responds, no doubt bemused by my question. “The dog kept my wife company [in Chevy Chase, Maryland] when I was in Iraq”—which was from May 2003 to June 2004, the torrid time in which he was the chief administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the governor of a formally occupied country.

Steve Inskeep: Into Taliban CountryIraq has just completed parliamentary elections and Bremer is keen to stress that these elections, while “remarkable,” should not be viewed as unduly exotic: “It’s the fifth election since the first one in 2005—the fifth. And the turnout was 62 percent. I looked up the numbers, and the average turnout for U.S. presidential elections over the last 100 years is 52 percent.” These elections in Iraq, and the impressive turnout, show that “the idea that we ‘imposed’ democracy there is a complete myth. There is overarching support for democracy there.”

That said, the latest elections have thrown up some potentially combustible math: Ayad Allawi’s secular, nationalist, Sunni-backed Iraqqiya slate has 91 seats, a plurality in parliament but still far, far short of the 163 needed to govern. Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite State of Law party has only 89 seats, and al-Maliki, the current prime minister, has refused to accept the validity of Allawi’s numbers. There are other parties, too, led by men who mutter darkly about rigging and violence, not to mention the famously recalcitrant Kurds. How rosy can all this be? Doesn’t the splintered result worry Bremer?

There is a pause, then an answer: “I think we’ve got maybe three general conclusions. One, it’s clear that the Sunnis have recanted from their huge strategic mistake of boycotting the 2005 parliamentary elections. There was very high turnout in their provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, and Salahuddin. It is hard for them to reconcile themselves to the fact that they’re not running Iraq.” So they came out to vote.

Bremer’s second conclusion is that “the monolithic Shiite bloc has fragmented. The Iraqi National Alliance (INA) [which includes Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, or ISCI] really did rather badly—they lost a lot of seats.”

Third: “If you look at the three largest parties—Allawi’s Iraqiya, Maliki’s State of Law, and the INA—they now have 77 percent of the seats in parliament. They had a much smaller percentage, overall, before. So there is a consolidation around these three parties. Of course, we could see the INA break apart in the negotiations that are going on. It’s possible that Muqtada al-Sadr or the ISCI, or Ahmad Chalabi, could be enticed to join a coalition with Allawi or Maliki.” Here, he adds: “But Chalabi won’t join Allawi.”

Bremer sees much that is positive in this political swirl: “It’s amazing! There was an election in the Arab world in which no one knew what the outcome would be. This has never happened before. And next, they have to negotiate to form a coalition. Representative government is possible in the Arab world! Also note that Iraq’s Shiites have taken to democracy in a vibrant way. People need to focus on what this means for a Shiite democracy across the border, in Iran.”

Does Bremer have a preferred coalition outcome in Iraq’s parliament, I ask. Would he like to see Ayad Allawi return as prime minister? After all, Allawi was appointed interim PM in 2004, on Bremer’s watch. Bremer hesitates, then says: “You have to go back to 2004, in the spring, and to what we faced then. And Allawi was the right choice at the time. But no, I’ve been gone from Iraq for a number of years and in my case, I don’t think it’s appropriate to express a preference [on the present situation].

“But American interests would be served by a broadly based Iraqi government, one that covers the sectarian, secular, and geographical angles. This would signify a decision by the major components of Iraq to compromise.” It’s clear that he means a coalition that includes Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds— an arguably Utopian arrangement that would require the mother of all compromises.

Have the elections affected the time-table for the withdrawal of American troops? Here, Bremer insists that any draw-down of troops “should not be dictated by a bureaucratic deadline, but by conditions on the ground. I think President Obama has said that withdrawal should be conditions-based, and that he will take into account what Gen. Odierno [the U.S. military commander in Iraq] says. And that’s good: I certainly trust Gen. Odierno’s views on this.”

Bremer doesn’t want the withdrawal to happen a day sooner than necessary. “The process of putting together the government is likely to take months—it took six months in 2005. These things take time even in mature democracies. I remember when I was U.S. ambassador to The Netherlands. It took three to four months to get a government there.” Does he envisage the possibility of a political stalemate in Iraq? “I don’t, no. I don’t see a situation where there will be a failure to reach a compromise. We will see al Qaeda try to derail the matter again, though. They did so in 2005, when they blew up the [Shiite] shrine in Samarra. But let’s hope they don’t succeed.”

Iraq’s former viceroy ends with a paean to his old boss. “The election in Iraq is a very important vindication of George W. Bush’s vision that the way to correct a lot of the instability in the Middle East is to bring democracy to countries that haven’t experienced it. American policy before that was set in effect by FDR in World War II—the view that we had a greater interest in stability in the Arab world than in change. Bush’s understanding was that this was NOT the best way to secure U.S. interests in the long run.”

And what does he think of the Obama vision? “Obama’s a bit of a mix,” muses Bremer, as we conclude our conversation. “He’s cut back on the democracy-building budget in the region. And I’ve been disappointed, to be honest, that the administration has not been as outspoken about promoting democracy in the region as Bush was.”

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)