Commentary Magazine


Where’s the Support for U.S. Civilians in Iraq?

In recent years there has been a welcome outpouring of love and admiration for American troops. It has been common to hear, “I may not support the war, but I support the troops.” A commendable sentiment, but why doesn’t it extend to civilians who have risked their necks in war zones?

I was struck by Jim Dwyer’s snarky New York Times column about my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Dan Senor, who is contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate in New York. There are plenty of reasons for a liberal columnist to disagree with the conservative Senor on matters of policy, but Dwyer chooses instead to launch a very personal attack on Senor’s service in Iraq as chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority during 15 tumultuous months from the spring of 2003 to the summer of 2004. Dwyer sneers: “As Iraq was entering its bloodiest days, Mr. Senor was a prophet and cheerleader for the Bush administration, his daily messages seemingly disconnected from the country that was imploding outside the American headquarters in Baghdad, known as the Green Zone.”

Echoing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, he goes on to describe the Green Zone “as heavily populated by Republican loyalists” — like Senor — “who brought little experience to the towering task of restoring Iraq to any semblance of normalcy after the invasion.”

Granted, Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer and his senior aides, including Dan Senor, were not well-prepared for the task of governing Iraq. Nor did they have adequate resources for the task. But that was hardly their fault. Blame lay in the senior levels of the administration and the military, where there was an appalling lack of planning for the post-invasion phase of the Iraq operation. Troop numbers remained grossly inadequate despite Bremer’s pleas for more help.

Bremer & Co. made mistakes of their own (who wouldn’t?), but they were not wrong about everything or even most things. Some of their projects — a new Iraqi constitution, for example — have been standing the test of time. Some of the worst decisions — disbanding the Iraqi army and purging too many Baathists — seem to have been dictated from Washington. Whatever the details, there can be no doubt that Ambassador Bremer and his aides did the best they could in an extremely challenging, dangerous, chaotic environment.

Did Dan Senor put a positive gloss on events? Of course. That was his job. He was the official spokesman. Maybe Jim Dwyer would have preferred that he join the press corps in daily bemoaning Iraq’s woes, but that wasn’t what he was paid to do. His job was to give the official CPA line, and in the process try to calm and improve the situation rather than simply pointing out the numerous deficiencies that were being (for the most part accurately) exposed by the news media.

To read Dwyer and others, you would think that being sent to Iraq was akin to an all-expenses paid holiday in the Bahamas. In fact, it was a dangerous assignment that was, with some heroic exceptions, for the most part avoided by experienced Foreign Service officers who generally opposed the decision to go to war. The largest group of people volunteering to go, aside from those in uniform, were a bunch of young conservative idealists like Senor. Their dedication and idealism reminds me of young liberals who were inspired by JFK to join the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.

Scott Erwin, a former Council colleague, was one of them. A onetime White House intern, he postponed his senior year in college to work for CPA — an assignment that ended on June 2, 2004, when he was shot four times in an ambush that killed two Iraqis who were in the same car. He survived but others didn’t. Even the Green Zone, while safer than the surrounding areas, was hardly a pocket of tranquility. It was a constant magnet for rocket and mortar attacks that frequently landed in the embassy parking lot and killed a number of employees over the years. It was generally safer to be on one of the giant Forward Operating Bases, where most Americans in Iraq, troops and contractors alike, were garrisoned.

We should be celebrating those who volunteered to serve in the Iraq war, whether they wore a uniform or not — not demeaning their service to score political points.