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Postwar Iraq / The viceroy of Baghdad

by David Kirp

The war in Iraq was initially billed as a cakewalk, the aftermath a triumphal celebration, but the Bush administration badly underestimated the difficulties of both war and peace. From Baghdad to Basra, in the past week Iraq's cities have less resembled Paris in 1944 than mayhem, "Lord of the Flies" style.

While Iraq smolders, a retired three-star general and defense contractor named Jay Garner waits at his seaside villa in Kuwait City; on Tuesday he zipped across the border for a get-acquainted meeting, held in an air- conditioned tent in Ur, with the myriad Iraqi factions vying for favor. Though his official title, coordinator of civilian administration, is blandly bureaucratic, Garner is Iraq's viceroy-in-waiting.

Forget the United Nations, which the Bush administration regards as a glorified food bank. And forget those nations foolhardy enough to oppose the war. General ("call me Jay") Garner is the boss. Unfortunately, he's the wrong man for the job.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Garner reportedly did good work on behalf of Kurdish refugees. But the circumstances were very different; back then he was acting under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council, which authorized both the war and the humanitarian regime. Since 1997, thanks to his old friend Dick Cheney, he has been president of SYColeman. The firm designs some of the weapons used in leveling Iraq. (More precisely, it makes tracking devices that pinpoint enemy targets, but try explaining the difference to the family of a "collateral damage" victim). Even as he supervises the reconstruction of Iraq, he hasn't given up his day job.

This makes him, Fortune magazine says admiringly, "the most important businessman you've never heard of." And that's the problem. While lawyers can debate the fine points of conflict of interest, this arrangement doesn't pass the ethical smell test. To appoint an arms dealer as Iraq's putative nation- builder gives those who wonder about America's intentions an irresistible target.

A rival firm is suing Garner's company over insider dealings with the Pentagon. Now he's stage-managing the great carve-up, determining which firms get the multimillion-dollar contracts to rebuild Iraq and run its oil wells. Not unsurprisingly, the names in his Palm Pilot begin and end with Bechtel, a company with deep ties to the GOP and Halliburton, Dick Cheney's old firm. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a fuss, the United States agreed to throw a bone to some British outfits, but those who opposed the war will get none of these peace prizes. To the winner go the spoils is a hoary rule of war, but it's not one likely to win the United States any friends.

Suspicion lingers among Iraqis that the United States cares only about their country's oil reserves. While U.S. Marines stood by and watched hospitals looted and museums pillaged, they observe, a machine-gun battery was guarding the Ministry of Oilbuilding. Garner's choice to head the Iraqi oil operation won't reassure these skeptics. He's Philip Carroll, the ex-CEO of Shell Oil.

Then there's the complex matter of Garner's ties to Israel. He's been criticized in some quarters for having helped Israel to develop its missile defense system. That's misguided - there's nothing problematic about helping Israel to survive. But in the fall of 2000, Garner signed a petition praising the "remarkable restraint" of the Israeli military's response to the intifada. That gesture makes him look like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's man in Iraq, and if winning the support of moderate Arabs is critical, this is one more reason to send Garner home.

Perhaps the Bush administration's message is that the views of moderate Arabs, or the United Nations, or our old allies don't matter. If the strategy is to scuttle the long-standing regimes of cooperation, write R.I.P. on the entrance to the U.N. Security Council and make winning through intimidation America's Middle East motto, then Garner fits the role. But this "made in U.S. A." label will be a hindrance if the idea is to foster a stable Iraq -- a country that's on the road to democracy. That will require all the finesse we can muster and all the help we can get. Just ask the motley crew in that air- conditioned tent.

This article was originally posted on SF Gate.