Part one

Mehdi Hasan VO: Born in a war-torn Iraq under American occupation, ISIL's toxic blend of military know-how and potent ideology, set off to conquer the Middle East.

The US had dismantled the Iraqi state, purged its leaders and disbanded its army. Those ex-Saddam soldiers lost their jobs but kept their guns - and many of them bitter, angry and unemployed joined forces with self-styled "jihadists" to go to war.

Barrack Obama VO (archive): ISIL is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, they grew out of our invasion.

Mehdi Hasan VO: Today their campaign of terror has redrawn borders, deepened Sunni-Shia divisions and struck targets worldwide. Many blame my guests for Iraq's descent into chaos.

Paul Bremer (archive): This is not a country in anarchy.

Mehdi Hasan VO: He was chosen by President [George W] Bush to rebuild the country.

George W. Bush (archive): Thanks for taking this honour, I am proud of you.

Mehdi Hasan VO: But his critics called him a colonial viceroy, a dictator, the many who broke Iraq. 

Paul Bremer (archive): I leave Iraq gladdened by what has been accomplished and confident that your future is full of hope.

Mehdi Hasan (PTC): I'm Mehdi Hasan and today I'll go head to head with Paul Bremer, appointed by George W Bush to run the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the Iraq war. I'll be asking him how personally responsible he feels for the birth of ISIL and for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in that country. There's no panel, no audience, just me and him.

Mehdi Hasan: Paul Bremer, thanks for joining me on Head to Head. There are some who would say that the decisions you took in Iraq in 2003 after the invasion led directly or indirectly, even, to the rise of groups like ISIL; that you're in a sense the father of ISIL. What do you say to them?

Paul Bremer: I say it's nonsense.

Mehdi Hasan: You say it's nonsense? Kofi Annan, the then UN Secretary General who is one of those people, he said earlier this year you cannot disassociate the situation in Iraq today from the US intervention of 2003 because the link is clear. Even Tony Blair, one of the Iraq invasions most ardent defenders listen to what he told CNN:

Tony Blair (archive): "You can't say that those of us who removed Saddam Hussein in 2003 bear no responsability for the situation in 2015." 

Paul Bremer: "You can't say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015."

Medhi Hasan: Your response to Annan and Blair?

Paul Bremer: Well, I think it's important to remember that ISIS didn't come out of nowhere. It's basically al-Qaeda in Iraq, version 3.

There was a terrorist group called Ansar al-Islam that was active when I got there in 2003. It was succeeded by al-Qaeda in Iraq which was defeated by the Iraqi army with American help in 2009 and now there's ISIL. Now, you could say, well none of this would have happened if Saddam Hussein was still in power, but that's an argument for leaving Saddam Hussein in power. I don't accept that. I think Iraq is much better off without Saddam Hussein today than it would be if he were still in power, and, by the way, I think American interests are better served without Saddam Hussein.

Mehdi Hasan: I think the argument that the critics make is not that it was simply a matter of getting rid of Saddam, and that's a different debate which we won't have on this show, but it's more about what happened after Saddam fell, the decisions you took directly led to people joining up with such resistance groups, becoming part of an insurgency.

You don't accept that that had a connection? You said there's no evidence that you've seen to the rise of al-Qaeda and Iraq and then the rise of ISIL that you see today?

Paul Bremer: Well, there's a connection between the rise of ISIL and al-Qaeda. And between al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam.

Mehdi Hasan: But not between your decisions … but not between your handling of Iraq.

Paul Bremer: I don't see it.

Mehdi Hasan: What's interesting about your record in Iraq is it's not just left-wingers or anti-war liberals or Democrats who have criticised you, as you know, your fellow Republicans have taken shots at you as well, who supported the war. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, he described you as quote, "The largest single disaster in American foreign policy in modern times". Why would he say that? 

Paul Bremer: Well, I supposed because he believes it. I mean he has a right to that opinion.

Mehdi Hasan: It's a pretty strong opinion! The largest single disaster! Not the second, not the third! You're the biggest disaster.

Paul Bremer: I've been called a lot worse that aren't on the record. But he's entitled to his view, it's one I don't share.

Mehdi Hasan: OK, well let's get into some of the background which has produced some of those criticisms. I want to put three of the main criticism that have been levelled at you over the past decade, three things you did as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority that have been tired directly or indirectly to the rise of ISIL today: the so called De-Baathification order, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, and the setting up of the Iraqi political system, some would say on sectarian lines. Let's listen to you speaking back in May 2003.

Paul Bremer (archive): "The Coalition Provisional Authority disestablished the Baathist Party on April 16. Shortly I will issue an order on measures to extirpate Baathist and Baathism from Iraq forever. We have and will aggressively move to seek to identify these people and remove them from office."

Mehdi Hasan: That very controversial De-Baathification decree that you issued I think less than a week after arriving in Iraq in May 2003, ended up purging former members of Saddam Hussein's party from public service, tens of thousands of people, school teachers, civil servants, engineers lost their jobs.

Many of them weren't hard core Baathists or Saddamites, but they were of course Sunni's who became further marginalized in this new Iraq. Ricardo Sanchez, who is the General to the US Military Commander on the ground, he called your De-Baathification policy quote, "a catastrophic failure".

Paul Bremer: The De-Baathification decision was made on recommendation of the thousands of Iraqis that the State Department had consulted with before the war in the years 2001 and 2002.

There was no dispute about the fact that the something had to be done about the party. The De-Baathification decree that I issued was carefully drawn to affect only 1 percent of the Baath party about 20,000 people.

The mistake I made, and I have freely admitted it, was I said we're not going be able to make the fine distinctions about whether Abdul joined the Baath party because he believed in its ideology or he joined because it was the only way to get a job. I said we're going to have to turn it over to Iraqis to make those distinctions. The mistake I made was turning it over to Iraqi politicians who then did what you said. They then applied it to teachers and people who were not part of the original decree.

Mehdi Hasan: And as they were doing that, what were you doing; just watching?

Paul Bremer: No. I pulled it back. I had to reverse the decision of the Iraqi De-Baathification Council. I put worked with the Minister of Education to put 11,000 teachers, who had been inappropriately affected, back to work and I took the authority back from the Iraqi politicians.

What I should have done is I should have found some Iraqi judges, and there were plenty of judges who Saddam paid no attention to because he didn't use the court system. I should have put a panel of judges together who could have made those distinctions and who could have kept it from becoming a political football. 

Mehdi Hasan: Some say you should have also listened to your own advisors who you found in Baghdad working for the US. General Jay Garner who is the Director of the office for reconstruction of Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq when you arrived there, he said he tried to persuade you to soften the De-Baathification order but you said to him quote, "I'm not asking for your advice".

The CIA station chief told you not to do it. He warned you, if you do this you're going to drive 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground by nightfall and you reportedly replied it's not open for discussion. Do you wish you'd done a little bit more discussion before you made such a controversial decree?

Paul Bremer: No! As a matter of fact, what I did do, they were intending to issue this decree even before I got to Iraq and I said to the defense department, I think I should get out there and talk to the other people about whether we should do this or not. That's why it came a week later.

Mehdi Hasan: A week! So you did a week of talking for such a major move? A week is not very long, some would say.

Paul Bremer: The Baath party had already been outlawed by General Tommy Franks a month before that in the freedom message he issued on April 10, 2003.

The only question was: it was clear the Baath party was going to cease to exist. It had already ceased to exist. The question was what do we do with the members who are the top members. And the decree was drafted intentionally to effect only the top members, 20,000 people is what the station chief told me, not 20 to 50 or whatever that was.

Mehdi Hasan: 30 to 50,000. He didn't say it?

Paul Bremer: What he said to me was 20,000 which conformed with what I had heard from the Pentagon.

Mehdi Hasan: So you are saying you didn't disregard their advice. The advice as they relay is not what you remember them saying to you?

Paul Bremer: Well - correct.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. You gave a second order in May 2003, less than two weeks after arriving in the country, to disband and dissolve the Iraqi army.

General Colin Powell, Secretary of State at the time, said he wasn't consulted on the decision to disband the army. He didn't agree with it. He said it resulted in Iraqi soldiers being left quote "jobless and angry, prime recruits for insurgency".

General David Petraeus, who you've since praised for the surge, who went on to become CIA director, he says that the order to disband the army created quote, "tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of additional enemies of the Coalition". And we now know that ISIL is full of ex-Iraqi army colonels, generals, majors. They seem to be vindicated in what they said. 

Paul Bremer: First of all, neither Powell nor Petraeus said anything like that in 2003 - 2004.

Mehdi Hasan: Well you didn't tell Powell, did you? He said, I didn't know about it. Had you talked to him, he might have told you that.

Paul Bremer: My job was in Baghdad. My job was not coordinating the American government in Washington. My reporting channel to the President that he set up was through the Secretary of Defense. Secretary of Defense was fully informed as was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was Secretary of State. He's told me since that he did not hear about it and I've said to him, Mr. Secretary, that wasn't my job to do inter-agency coordination. So, fair enough, Petraeus was serving at the time.. 

Mehdi Hasan: In Mosul.

Paul Bremer: And he said nothing to me of the kind that he now says afterwards. So, it's important to take the decision in terms of the consequences at the time and the background at the time.

I was told explicitly by the Kurdish leaders they got rumors that some American colonels wanted to recall the Iraqi army. Explicitly the leaders of the Kurdish party said, If you recall the army, we are going to secede from Iraq, that Kurdistan will have nothing to do with that. The Shia, who represent whatever, 60 percent of the population, were cooperating with the coalition and they too heard these rumors that we were going to recall the army and they said that's basically creating Saddamism without Saddam. You're going to get another colonel here... 

Mehdi Hasan: The Shias?

Paul Bremer: The Shia and it was clear that they also would stop cooperating with the coalition if we had recalled the army. So the idea of recalling the army, politically, was a disaster.

Mehdi Hasan: You say that the Shia's were against it as well and yet Ali Allawi, who was Iraq's first Shia Defense Minister post-war, said your disbanding of the Iraqi army quote, "Came as a shock to most Iraqis because it was difficult to", quote, "even for the Shias to accept a wholesale dissolution of the armed forces and leave the country bereft of an army". Laith Kubba, who I'm sure you know, former advisor to the State Department, became a spokesman for the Shia-led Iraqi government, he says that your measure to dissolve the Iraqi army was not a smart one. It alienated large numbers of people.

Paul Bremer: I did not disband or destroy the Iraqi army. There was not a single member of the Iraqi army, that single unit standing to arms on April 17 as General Abizaid has testified himself. The question wasn't to disband. That was a mistake. We should never have used that verb. The question was should we recall the army, and I've given you the political reasons which to me were decisive then and continue to be decisive today for not dis-recalling the army.

Paul Bremer: So the argument that we threw a bunch of people on the streets, first is wrong. They were already go home. Secondly, that they had no income is also wrong because we paid them retirement and they were free to go out and set up businesses, they could set up newspapers.

Mehdi Hasan: In a war-torn country with a shattered economy, it wasn't exactly a free market utopia at the time.

Paul Bremer: Do you know three weeks after I got to Baghdad there were already a hundred newspapers being printed in Baghdad. Don't talk down to the Iraqi people! They were very ... 

Mehdi Hasan: I'm not sure every soldier wants to become a journalist, with respect. 

Paul Bremer: Maybe every soldier didn't want to be a journalist. Maybe some of them wanted to join and army against ...

Mehdi Hasan: Not "maybe", they did.

Paul Bremer: Maybe, I don't know. Not during the time I was there. The evidence was very thin on that. If members of the army decided they didn't want to become journalists or farmers or set up businesses which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis did in the wake of the freedom, and if they took up arms it wasn't because they were being paid or didn't have alternatives. It's because they didn't believe in the future of a democratic Iraq.

Mehdi Hasan: You said that at the time there was no evidence they were going off to fight an insurgency, in your own book, you said Sharif Ali, your negotiator with the Sunni tribes, told you in 2004 that insurgency in Baqubah were quote, "former intelligent special security and military people who did not oppose the coalition or the Americans but they feel left out of the political life and want to be included". That's your words in your book, Paul Bremer.

Paul Bremer: That's actually Sharif Ali's --

Mehdi Hasan: But you're relaying. You're saying no one told you at the time they were fighting. He came and told you they're fighting against you, the people you sacked.

Paul Bremer: We knew there were some of them there, but to argue that that was the motor force and for people to say it's ISIS today, it's just simply not the case.

Mehdi Hasan: So, Kofi Annan, David Petraeus, Colin Powell, all the experts who study it, they're all wrong to say there was a link.

Paul Bremer: Excuse me. Kofi Annan, who served as secretary general while I was there never raised this question with me, neither did Colin Powell, neither did David Petraeus.

Mehdi Hasan: Ok, so let's say they didn't raise it with you. Let's just look at hindsight.

Paul Bremer: They didn't, I'm not saying it, I'm saying it.

Mehdi Hasan: Let's say they didn't say it, you're right. You didn't get the advice you needed on that. Even now today though they are looking back in hindsight and saying it was wrong. What you're doing is you're saying it's still right even though the evidence shows that ISIL now is full of Iraqi ex-army generals, colonels -

Paul Bremer: Actually the evidence doesn't show that it's full of them and..

Mehdi Hasan: Well one study recently found 25 of the top 40 ISIL commanders are all ex- Baathists.

Paul Bremer: Well, there may be some ex-Baathists, but they are people

Mehdi Hasan: The majority.

Paul Bremer: They are people who obviously don't believe in an independent democratic Iraq. If you join up with ISIL you're joining up with an ideological organisation that would overthrow everything that has been established in Iraq in the last 12 years. So, I have no sympathy for those guys. They chose their side.

Mehdi Hasan: We're talking about how we got to the situation. Just to be clear on one last thing on this army section. President Bush, when asked in 2006 by his biographer about why the decision to disband the army was taken, he replied, well, the policy was to keep the Iraq Army intact. Didn't happen, Bush said. You went against the policy of your president, your commander-in-chief?

Paul Bremer: No, that's absolutely wrong. What he meant was before the war, and that's been well-documented, it's also in my book, before the war they had hoped that the Iraqi army would be able to be used on reconstruction projects. That was the argument that had been made before the war. But as I said earlier, the fall of Baghdad on April 9 there was not a single unit of the Iraqi Army standing to arms anywhere in the country according to the general in charge.

Mehdi Hasan: And you didn't want to recall them, as you've just told us, you didn't want to recall them, and yet the policy of the White House was, quote, "the Iraqi Army be maintained as an institution because we believe that it would be dangerous to put 300,000 men on the street with guns without jobs". That was the White House policy according to the White House guy in charge, Frank Miller of the National Security Council. But you did the other thing. You want men with guns unemployed on the street.

Paul Bremer: Well, I don't know, I don't know, I have no idea what Frank Miller's talking about because my guidance came from the president, didn't come from some staffer.

Mehdi Hasan: And the president told his biographer that you didn't follow his guidance.

Paul Bremer: No, you've got to read the history more carefully. He's quite right, the policy had been that there might be some use for the Iraqi Army after Saddam was thrown out. The fact is there was no Iraqi Army afterwards. So, it's all- that's all a fantasy. Whatever Mr. Miller's talking about has nothing to do with the decisions.

Mehdi Hasan: There was no army afterwards because the CIA in the US told the army during the war and before the war, go back to your homes and wait to be recalled. You didn't recall them.

Paul Bremer: They did not say go back and wait to be recalled. You made that up. You made that up.

Mehdi Hasan: I made that up? Well, you should talk to Colonel John Agoglia who worked for General Tommy Franks in Central Command.

Paul Bremer: I'd be happy to talk to any colonel who wants to talk.

Mehdi Hasan: You should talk to him. Colonel John Agoglia says, our policy was to drop pamphlets, do psychological operations, tell the Iraqi Army to go home and wait for a time to be part of the new Iraq, and you're saying that that wasn't your policy. You didn't want to call them back?

Paul Bremer: It wasn't the policy of the American government. The president approved the policy on disbanding the army. The Secretary of Defense approved the policy, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved it.

Mehdi Hasan: The chairman of the whole.

Paul Bremer: Excuse me. The general in charge of the forces on the ground in Iraq when I got there approved the order.

Mehdi Hasan: The joint chiefs say they never saw the order. General Powell says he didn't see the order, Petraeus says he doesn't agree with you on that.

Paul Bremer: General Powell did not. General Powell did not see the order and I understand that, and he told me that afterwards, some time afterwards, but that wasn't my job, that's the job of the National Security Council.

Mehdi Hasan: Do you ever think if you'd taken a little longer than two weeks you might have got this right?

Paul Bremer: No, I think we've got it right.

Mehdi Hasan: Let's look at sectarianism.

Today, especially with the rise of ISIL, there's much talk of a Sunni/Shia war in Iraq, in a country in which Sunnis and Shias have previously been coexisting, intermarrying for centuries.

There are plenty of analysts who say it was the post-war Iraqi political system, that you helped set up based on quotas, ethnic and sectarian, that has exacerbated and institutionalised sectarianism in Iraq today to the extent that as the Washington Post noted, even the communist party member of the Iraqi governing council was chosen, not because he was secular or communist, but because he was a Shia.

Paul Bremer: Well, actually that's not right. He was chosen because he was a communist. He was also a very good member of the governing council. Let's look at what happened. What were the alternatives for a political structure in Iraq?

First of all, unlike Afghanistan, there were no Iraqi political leaders who had any major support in the country, there was no Iraqi Karzai. Secondly, the small group of people that the American government had been talking to before I got there, a group of 7, was not representative of the country. There was, for example, only one Sunni Arab. So, the Sunnis were seriously under-represented.

So, we had to work with the UN Special Representative Sergio de Mello to put together a government, interim government. He and I both preferred to put together what could be called a technocratic government, but the problem was there were no technocrats available who could stand up to ...

Mehdi Hasan: You'd sacked a lot of them by de-Baathing them. 

Paul Bremer: No, I didn't sack them.

In fact, what we found in the ministries, there's another myth going around, so I'll save you a question, that the de-Baathification collapsed the Iraqi government. That's absolutely nonsense. So the question was how do we get to a reasonable size interim government that is representative of Iraq.

The Shia insisted that whatever we- group we appointed, they had to be a majority. Because they are asserting, I think probably correctly, that they were a majority of the population. And we were trying to promote democratic rule. Then the Kurds said, well, we're 25 percent of the population so we're going to have to have 25, at which point the Sunni said, actually, we're a majority, we should have a majority.

So, the insistence by the Shia on having a majority set in train a path which, regrettably, did exacerbate sectarian tensions as time went on. Because once the governing council was in place the governing council then replicated these sectarian ... 

Mehdi Hasan: So, you accept in hindsight that was the wrong way to go about it?

Paul Bremer: It was the only way to go about. It certainly was not ideal. Nobody has ever come up with a better way to have done it. Do you have a better idea? Have you read a better idea of what to do?

Mehdi Hasan: No, but I wasn't appointed to go to Iraq and consult with many people, and that's because...

Paul Bremer: No, but you're asking questions. Well, you've done a lot of research. Why don't you have a better way?

Mehdi Hasan: I do have a lot of research here. Ali Khedery, who is the longest serving US official in Iraq, US diplomat, former colleague of yours, he said you, quote, "foolishly laid the foundations for a deeply divided exclusionary sectarian new Iraq". That's your former colleague.

Paul Bremer: Look nobody has come up with a credible way we could have moved - other way, we could have moved to democratic government in Iraq other than appointing an interim government.

And nobody has told me how to avoid in the face of the Shia, the Kurds, and the Sunnis, insisting that it be representative of the percent of population they had, nobody has told me of a way to have avoided that. There was no - I don't say it was an ideal solution. It wasn't. It happens to have been the least bad solution that we could carry out. 

Mehdi Hasan: The reason you get so much criticism on this I guess is because generally the whole approach of the US to Iraq seems to have been one based on very little evidence-based research or actual investigation of what was happening on the ground.

Peter Galbraith the former US diplomat wrote in his book The End of Iraq, that a group of Iraqi Americans went to see George W. Bush in the White House shortly before the war, and after having a chat with them they - it became apparent to them that President Bush didn't have a clue as to the difference between Sunni, Shias, and Kurds, wasn't even aware of how deep those differences were within Iraq.

When you arrived in Baghdad were you aware of the differences between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, and the history of Iraq?

Paul Bremer: Well, I was as aware as I could become. I had served in the region, in Afghanistan, admittedly, not an Arab country but a country with also a small, in that case a very small Shia ethnic, or sectarian group. I had travelled as a diplomat throughout the region, though never to Iraq. I certainly did not consider myself an expert on Iraq any more than I do today.

Mehdi Hasan: But given those fissures underlying so much of this …

Paul Bremer: I understood that they were ... Well, no, they were pretty clear by the time I got there. You didn't have to be a genius to figure out.

I had an extraordinary group of very able Arabists, both American and British, who were assisting me. So, there was no doubt we knew that we had a problem. Maybe the President didn't have the detailed knowledge that Galbraith says he has before the war but he certainly understood the problem by the time I came into government in May. 

Mehdi Hasan: In your memoir My Year in Iraq, you recall a conversation with Sharif Ali who had served as a negotiator with Sunni leaders in Anbar and who told you about grievances, and marginalisation, and warned you to expect them to retaliate, to get angry and retaliate in some way. You wrote that you told him, if that was the case, quote, "you'd better start praying for the Sunnis. If the Sunnis decide to use violence there is no place for them in new Iraq". Surely in hindsight that was the wrong thing to say given today's Iraq is all about who feels part of a new Iraq.

Paul Bremer: Well, I don't know - I don't remember that conversation. 

Mehdi Hasan: It's a conversation you wrote about in your book.

Paul Bremer: Yeah, I don't remember the conversation.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay. Well, I'm telling you the quote. Do you regret saying that? It's in your book. I'm quoting from your book. You said that they better pray for the Sunnis if they want to be part- they won't be part of a new Iraq.

Paul Bremer: No, it was a correct assessment, it was a correct assessment. The Sunnis needed, and at that time they were involved in killing Americans, the Sunnis needed to decide that they wanted to be part of a democratic Iraq, and most of them did. Most of them did.

Mehdi Hasan: On that note we are going to have to take a break. When we come back in part two of Head to Head we're going to be discussing the torture at Abu Ghraib and how to defeat ISIL. Join us after the break. 

Part two 

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to part two of Head to Head. My guest here in Washington DC is Paul Bremer who was President Bush's special envoy to Iraq and in charge of running that country after the US invasion in 2003.

Paul Bremer I want you to listen to what President Bush said when he appointed you to be his man in Iraq back in 2003. 

George W Bush (archive): Gerry Bremer agreed to become the presidential envoy to Iraq. In selecting Gerry Bremer our country will be sending one of our best citizens, he's a man with enormous experience. He's a person who knows how to get things done.

Mehdi Hasan: When you arrived in Iraq shortly after that announcement, Paul Bremer, did you speak any Arabic?

Paul Bremer: Very little. I spoke, I had learned some Persian when I lived in Afghanistan, and I could make As-Salamu Alaykum, and [unintelligible] toray, which is the Persian version. I did not speak much more than a few sentences.

Mehdi Hasan: Had you served as an ambassador to any Arab country?

Paul Bremer: No.

Mehdi Hasan: And had you ever worked on post-war reconstruction anywhere in the world?

Paul Bremer: No. but I had lived in three countries that had been occupied by the Germans and reconstructed after the war, the Second World War. And if you live in those countries you get a strong feeling of what it's like to be in an occupied country. So, I had a sense, and I didn't like the fact that we were called an occupying force, it was something the lawyers foisted on us.

Mehdi Hasan: It was true - well, it was true.

Paul Bremer: Well, it was true - it was true, but it didn't have to be called that.

Mehdi Hasan: The reason I asked those questions about your background is according to the Special Inspector General's report on the work of the coalition provisional authority that you ran, you were seen as a, quote, diligent, intelligent public servant.

But the report adds, the choice of Bremer raised some eyebrows. He had never participated in a joint civilian-military operation, had little experience in international development, had never served in the Middle East, and did not speak Arabic. Do you think you were the right man for the job, the best man for the job?

Paul Bremer: Oh, I'm sure there were plenty of people that could have done it better. No question.

Mehdi Hasan: Did you not think when President Bush came did you not say, you know what, this is not my thing, I'm not, I don't have the requisite skills?

Paul Bremer: I've spent almost all my life in public service, I believe in public service, I believe it is an obligation of an American citizen to serve his country if he can, and I believe no American citizen should say no to the President of the United States unless he has some major moral or health reasons for doing it. So, when the president asks ... 

Mehdi Hasan: Whatever job the president offers you take it even if you're not qualified to do it?

Paul Bremer: You'd be surprised how many people in Washington take that offer. I'm not saying it would be me ... 

Mehdi Hasan: But you did take it. You did take it in 2003. That's basically what you're telling me.

Paul Bremer: The President of the United States asked me to undertake a tough job, and I agreed.

I supported the president in his effort to get rid of Saddam, so I agreed that it was the right thing to do. I don't know why in the end I wound up on the short list, but I did, and I'm sure there were half a dozen people who could have done it better. That's not the argument. The question is what did I do, how well did I do with the hand I was given.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay. Well, you've been criticised not only for the decisions you made as head of the coalition provisional authority of the war, some of which we discussed, but also for the way in which you made them.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who was a member of the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003-2004, later national security advisor, he said you told him that you had, quote, inherited all the power of Saddam Hussein, and when he asked you, what's left for us, the Iraqis, your reply to him was, you are my advisors.

Did you see yourself essentially as a dictator?

Paul Bremer: No, and as a matter of fact I explicitly gave to the governing council all of the authority to, the only thing they couldn't do was pass a law. They could pass laws, or bills, I had to sign them.

Under international law I had the authority and the only authority to sign laws. When the ministers were appointed, and they were appointed by the governing council, not by me, in September 2003, I called them together and I said, you ministers are in charge of running your ministry.

I will support you, and I never once overruled an Iraqi minister in a decision that he or she made in the next year? So, we devolved full authority onto the Iraqi ministries, and we tried to get the governing council of which Dr. Rubaie was a member. We tried to get them to play a more active role. They, for a variety of reasons.. 

Mehdi Hasan: I mean, he's saying otherwise 

Paul Bremer: Well, he can say otherwise. I mean, I have the records of the meetings with the governing council, so

Mehdi Hasan: Before you went to Iraq you addressed a group of business leaders in the US. You said, we're going to be running a colony almost in Iraq, a colony.

Paul Bremer: Bad choice of words.

Mehdi Hasan: Isn't it ironic that you were the chief representative in Iraq of the United States of America, a country which claims to want to spread democracy in the Middle East and yet in Iraq in 2003-2004 it was a Shia cleric, a Shia Ayatollah, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who effectively forced you to hold elections earlier than you'd actually wanted to.

You wanted to keep the unelected Iraqi governing council going until a constitution was written. Sistani wanted elections earlier. In the end Sistani got his way and you didn't.

Paul Bremer: Right. That's correct I think on the whole Ayatollah Sistani - played a constructive role in moving Iraq towards a democratic government.

He - I told him often that I thought he really shared the view that the president had, and he was quite helpful. His insistence on early elections was I think a mistake, and there was nothing we could do about it.

Mehdi Hasan: But you were just saying to me earlier that, what would you do instead, there was no alternative, how do we get a representative government. Well, some would say the alternative was let the Iraqi people pick a government. You were stopping them from doing that.

Paul Bremer: The Iraqi people had no way to pick a government, they had no constitution, they had no electoral law, they had no constituency boundaries, they had no political parties law, they had no ... Excuse me.

Mehdi Hasan: And yet in December 2005 they had elections. And yet in December 2005 they had elections.

Paul Bremer: Because we helped them get a constitution, we wrote a political parties law, we wrote a media law, we helped them figure out what to do about constituency - constituted boundaries. We put in place a political framework on which Iraq could build. And by the way, let's just be clear, since then they held a referendum in which they approved a constitution, they have held six elections, and we have just seen the fourth successive peaceful transfer of power in an Arab country, something that's completely unprecedented. Now, there are a lot of problems in Iraq today.

I'm not making the case that everything is perfect there, but I am saying that we put in place a political framework that led Iraq to a democratic government and that that has largely succeeded so far. They've got real problems today, no question.

Mehdi Hasan: Just sticking with what you did, not only were you not in favor of early elections, you ran the green zone in Baghdad according to journalists on the ground, people who have written about it, investigated it, not with the help of experienced Arabists or post-conflict experts, but with young, inexperienced, ideological Republicans.

A 24-year-old kid who hadn't worked in finance was asked to help reopen the Iraqi stock exchange. A 21-year-old man who hadn't even graduated from college, boasted that his only meaningful job had been as an ice cream truck driver, was asked to help run the ministry of interior.

Is there any wonder that there was so much chaos on your watch if these are the kind of people who were involved in the decision making.

Paul Bremer: Well, those are not the kind of people.

The kind of people I had, my British counterpart was a long-time Arabist who at that time was serving as ambassador, the British Ambassador to Egypt. I had on my staff a man who had been three times in Iraq, Hume Horan, the leading Arabist in the American diplomatic service, Ryan Crocker, who subsequently was Ambassador to Iraq, was serving on my staff. I can go down the list. 

Mehdi Hasan: Was 24-year-old Jay Hallen asked to help open the Iraqi stock exchange? Was 21-year-old Scott Irwin, the former ice cream truck driver, asked to work on the ministry of interior?

Paul Bremer: You know, you're just making jokes. You're just making jokes.

Mehdi Hasan: I'm not making jokes. I'm reading out the names of people. The joke is that these people were asked to do important work in a war torn country. Some would say that is the joke.

Paul Bremer: Look, are you saying that in no government there are people who shouldn't be in their jobs? 

Mehdi Hasan: I'm saying the American government probably doesn't have a former ice cream truck driver looking after the Department of Justice, is what I'm saying, but the Iraqi one did, under your watch.

Paul Bremer: The man that you are so critical of who set up the Iraqi - for coming in to set up the Iraqi stock exchange, did that, and the stock exchange is still working today. So, let's not be so sarcastic about somebody who's only 24.

Mehdi Hasan: Former US Diplomat James Dobbins, who you took advice from before you flew out to Iraq, he says, the CPA operation became an exercise in heroic amateurism in which hundreds of dedicated courageous Americans went and filled positions for which they had not the slightest preparation.

Paul Bremer: Well, I think that's true in some cases. I don't argue that everybody was ideally suited. I probably wasn't the best choice to head the place, but on the whole we succeeded very substantially. I've talked about the politics. Let me tell you what we did with the economy since you've now raised the question of the economy.

Mehdi Hasan: Please …

Paul Bremer: When I got to Iraq, the World Bank said that Saddam Hussein's 30 years had taken Iraq, which is a rich country, from the same level of Spain in 1980 to the level of Angola in 2002. There was no budgeting, there was no ... 

Mehdi Hasan: Sanctions helped. Let's be honest.

Paul Bremer: Sanctions had nothing to do with that. The acting minister of planning told me after I got there that they calculated that the inflation rate at the end of 2002 was over 100 thousand percent a year.

Their banks were closed, there was no system for transferring funds between the banks. Saddam Hussein, for example, cut the healthcare budget down to $13m in a country of 26 million people. I raised that budget to a $1bn. According to the World Bank, at the end of 2002 Iraq had the highest infant mortality rate and the shortest life expectancy of any country in the region. This was a rich country until Saddam got his hands around it. It was not the sanctions, it was 25 years of corruption, and misallocation of resources.

Mehdi Hasan: We can argue about the fact that Saddam's an awful dictator.

Paul Bremer: No, we're not going to argue about that.

Mehdi Hasan: Well, we are going to argue because there are plenty of UN officials that say the sanctions did cripple the Iraqi [unintelligible]. I'm saying, let's forget that, let's say you did, you came in, you improved what you inherited, is what you're saying.

Paul Bremer: Alright, now let me tell you what we did. Now let me tell you what we did.

Mehdi Hasan: I'm saying the Saddam benchmark is a pretty low benchmark to use as your improvement.

Paul Bremer: Well, it's the benchmark I had.

Mehdi Hasan: Fair enough.

Paul Bremer: So, take inflation. When I left, inflation was no longer 100,000 percent, it was 15 percent. Unemployment was no longer over 50 percent, it was 10 percent. I'm talking about June 2004. I had increased the healthcare budget from $13m to $1bn. Infant mortality today, by the way, has been halved from the time I was there. We put in place a political structure and we improved the economy dramatically.

Mehdi Hasan: One of the most controversial episodes that took place on your watch was the revelation of torture and abuse in US detention centres such as Abu Ghraib. Let's listen to what George Bush and your former then boss the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said about that.

George W Bush (archive): "I told them I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families. I told them I was equally sorry that people - that seeing those pictures, didn't understand the true nature and heart of America."

Donald Rumsfeld (archive): "I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They are human beings, they were in US custody, our country had an obligation to treat them right, we didn't, and that was wrong. So to those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of the US armed forces, I offer my deepest apology." 

Mehdi Hasan: Have you offered an apology, for what happened in Abu Ghraib? You were the guy on the ground.

Paul Bremer: Yes, yes. I went immediately that I heard about it with General Sanchez, who was in charge of the American forces, to the Iraqi government and made my apologies for what had happened there. Sanchez also made his apologies, and it was a disgrace.

Mehdi Hasan: You say in your book that the first you learned of it all was in January 2004, yet in May 2003 the top UN official in Iraq, Sérgio de Mello, raised his concerns with you about the treatment of detainees. In June and July 2003, Amnesty wrote you letters detailing torture at US detention centres. In November 2003 Iraq's then human rights minister says he asked you for permission to visit Abu Ghraib and you turned him down. Are they all lying or did you just turn a blind eye to what was going on in these places?

Paul Bremer: Well, neither. I assume they're not lying. The only one of those three that I have a memory of is the Ministry of Human Rights, and I don't remember turning him down.

Mehdi Hasan: So, then he is lying?

Paul Bremer: The first time that we knew that we really had a problem there was in January when some film was released. I immediately gave instructions, I was in Washington that day, I gave instructions for us to put out a statement condemning it. The military, our military, said they had an investigation ongoing about it, and it then was effectively out of sight from us until, I think it was, in May or in April or May 

Mehdi Hasan: So, the people who say they warned you about it, they're either lying or you don't remember ...

Paul Bremer: No, I don't- I just- I don't- I'm not-

Mehdi Hasan: I mean, Amnesty published letters June and July 2003 saying here were already allegations. Did you investigate?

Paul Bremer: Yes we did.Yeah, I did.

Mehdi Hasan: And you didn't find anything?

Paul Bremer: No, but-

Mehdi Hasan: Well, you were in charge of the Iraqi prison system

Paul Bremer: Right. No, I wasn't technically in- I was not in charge. That's actually wrong. The military was in charge. I was not in charge.

Mehdi Hasan: You said in your own memo that you were in full control of the Iraqi prison system. That's your memo, June 8, 2003, coalition provisional authority, your words. But you were in charge. That is correct that you were in charge?

Paul Bremer: The system was run by the military, and I had frequent meetings with General Sanchez and with General Abizaid about the reports and about the need - 

Mehdi Hasan: So, it's the military's fault?

Paul Bremer: And about the need to reduce the number of prisoners we were holding. We had no mechanism to even know who we were holding or how many people we were holding. The people who were involved in the awful stuff going on at Abu Ghraib were serving military officers from the National Guard. I had no - I was not on the chain of command for anybody in the military. That was v - that's very clear under American law.

Mehdi Hasan: So, do you regret saying you were in full control of the Iraqi prison system when you clearly weren't?

Paul Bremer: I meant that it was my responsibility to get the prison system set up and going.

Mehdi Hasan: Because a lot of your critics, people who have reviewed your book, they say that the problem with Paul Bremer is on the one hand he was this all powerful authority, he said, I was the paramount authority, but when things go wrong he blames the US military, he blames the Shias, he blames everyone else.

Paul Bremer: I've taken full responsibility for the mistakes I've made.

Mehdi Hasan: But there- you think there are fewer than your critics. That's the problem.

Paul Bremer: Well, if you made a list of the mistakes the critics say I make we could sit here for sixteen hours.

Mehdi Hasan: You wrote an op-ed in June 2014 which was headlined, Only America can Prevent a Disaster in Iraq, as we've discussed on this show, many would argue that America created the disaster in Iraq. Let's put that to one side. What would you now be doing in Iraq that President Obama isn't?

Paul Bremer: Well, I think there are three things in Iraq that have to happen.

First of all, a much more vigorous air campaign. Secondly, we need to get special forces on the ground and we need to get them integrated into Iraqi forces at the battalion level, get them out front, and it's risky, but help them do what they're planning, help get intelligence to the operators who are out there, and indeed conduct special operations forces. Thirdly, we need to get more heavy equipment to the Kurds.

The Kurds are the best fighting force in Iraq. They are defending a thousand kilometre long front. In the end I agree with the president's stated objective which is that - which is to defeat ISIL. That's the right objective. That's - but that requires a more substantial effort by America.

Mehdi Hasan: You say you want to get US Special Forces on the ground out front you say.

There are plenty of analysts who say that sending in US forces, boots on the ground, is playing into ISIL's hands. Dr. Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at King's College in London who studied the group extensively, he says ISIL is, quote, aching for a conflict with the West.

He says the execution videos were bait to provoke an overreaction. ISIL spokesman al-Adnani himself last year was taunting President Obama's air strikes. He said, is this all you're capable of doing, in an online video. Are America and its allies unable to come down to the ground? Why do you then want to give ISIL what it so clearly wants?

Mehdi Hasan: You say you want to get US Special Forces on the ground out front you say.

There are plenty of analysts who say that sending in US forces, boots on the ground, is playing into ISIL's hands. Dr. Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at King's College in London who studied the group extensively, he says ISIL is, quote, aching for a conflict with the west.

He says the execution videos were bait to provoke an overreaction. ISIL spokesman al-Adnani himself last year was taunting President Obama's air strikes. He said, is this all you're capable of doing, in an online video. Are America and its allies unable to come down to the ground? Why do you then want to give ISIL what it so clearly wants?

Paul Bremer: I don't want to give them what they want, I want to defeat them. What defeating them is going to take-

Mehdi Hasan: By putting boots on the ground, which they want to do. They see that as another quagmire.

Paul Bremer: We have boots on the ground. We have boots on the ground. We have 3,500 Americans on the ground.

Mehdi Hasan: How many do you want?

Paul Bremer: I don't know. I'm not a military expert. I can't say

Mehdi Hasan: Roughly. Hundred thousand, ten thousand? Roughly.

Paul Bremer: No, it's probably ten thousand, maybe a few more. Probably -

Mehdi Hasan: And that will lead to the defeat of ISIL which controls a third of Iraqi territory?

Paul Bremer: You aren't a military expert, are you?

Mehdi Hasan: No, I'm not.

Paul Bremer: Okay. ISIL has the biggest weakness, which is a repugnant ideology. Iraqis do not support a group, and we saw that when Al Qaeda in Iraq overplayed its hands, Iraqis do not support a group that practices beheading, rape, enslavement of women, and crucifixion of children. That is not the Iraq I know. That's not the Iraq I like, and that's not the way they will take charge of Iraq. So, they are weak. They need to be like any bully, punched hard in the nose and be shown to be weak, and that takes a more aggressive American policy.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay. So, on that aggressive policy, on the punching of the nose, I'm not a military man, but I can do basic maths. When you had 150,000 US troops on the ground you struggled to control that country, pacify that country.

Paul Bremer: You're the one that's adding 150,000. I'm not. I'm not adding 150,000.

Mehdi Hasan: I'm reminding you that there were 150,000 troops on the ground when you were there. You didn't think that was enough. You wanted half a million at the time. You were criticizing Donald Rumsfeld for not having enough troops, you were sending him memos, and yet today you think ten or twenty thousand will do the job that 150,000 couldn't do against a group that's far more vicious, as you say, controls a third of the country? Really?

Paul Bremer: Yes. Yeah. Well, I think we probably need some thousand more. Two, or three thousand. I don't know the number, you'd have to ask the military experts. It can be done. There is an American-trained Iraqi army that is being reconstituted, that needs to be brought forward again. Don't forget, the Iraqi army with American help defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq. By the end of 2009 al-Qaeda in Iraq had been defeated by the Iraqi army with American help. So, it can be done. It doesn't need 150,000 troops.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay. Before we finish I want to remind you what President Bush said when he awarded you the very prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom back in 2004.

George W Bush (archive): 'For 14 months Bremer worked day and night, in difficult, dangerous conditions to stabilize the country, to help its people rebuild and to establish a political process that would lead to justice and liberty.'

Mehdi Hasan: Given you received that Medal of Freedom from the president for, quote, stabilizing the country, for bringing about liberty and justice, given many would say Iraq today lacks stability, justice, liberty, what do you say to critics of yours who say it's time for you to give that medal back?

Paul Bremer: Well, I don't agree, it won't surprise you to know. I did those things that he president said. The Iraq that we were talking about, at the end of 2004, and the Iraq today, is indeed a democratic country. It's not stable, and it's not stable largely because the president's successor, President Obama, pulled the American troops out at the end of 2011.

Mehdi Hasan: Oh, come on. That was President Bush's decision to withdraw troops in 2011. You know that and I know that. It was signed in 2008 by the President of the United States George W. Bush.

Paul Bremer: Right. But what you also know if you've done your homework, as you appear to, is that President Bush intended to have 20 to 30,000 troops after 2011 under a new Status of Forces Agreement. President Obama pulled those troops, pulled all the troops out, and you can date-

Mehdi Hasan: After the Iraqi democratic government that you praised said, we don't want them here, we're not going to give you immunity. Across the spectrum. Kurds, Shias, Sunnis said, we don't want American forces staying. That's the government you were praising, a democratic government. You can't insist on keeping troops in a country-

Paul Bremer: Mr. al-Maliki told President Obama he was willing to sign the Status of Forces Agreement. The American government insisted instead against all precedent that we would tell the Iraqis what their process should be and insisted that that Status of Forces had to be passed by the Iraqi Parliament.

In any case, it was all an excuse used by Obama. Because we have 3,500 troops on the ground now with no Status of Forces. So, it is seen for what it is, an excuse. 

Mehdi Hasan: How long would you stay in Iraq for? Forever?

Paul Bremer: I would stay as long as American interests are served by being in Iraq. I don't know how long that would be, but that's not the question. The question now-

Mehdi Hasan: What about Iraqi interests?

Paul Bremer: That's not the question. I'm a servant of the American government, so my perspective is going to be, what is in America's interests. You asked a question about how long America would stay.

Mehdi Hasan: I asked a question about another country and you said American interests. I'm wondering about Iraqi interests. If they don't want American troops there, who cares about American interests, right?

Paul Bremer: Well, of course. Well, no, of course.

Mehdi Hasan: You believe in democracy.

Paul Bremer: No, of course. Fair enough, but that's not the case. Al-Maliki was willing to have the troops there, they're obviously willing to have them back now under al-Abadi because we've got 3,500 of them there. So, the question how long they should stay, they should stay until they achieve their objective, which the president states, correctly, is to defeat ISIL.

Mehdi Hasan: And you've said that going into Iraq and your year there was absolutely worth it. In 2004 you said that Iraq is a better place than it was before. Do you think the families of the 150,000, 250,000, 600,000 people who have been killed there since 2003 depending on which study or survey you choose to believe, do you think they think it was worth it, and do those hundreds of thousands of dead ever weigh on your conscience? Do they keep you up at night?

Paul Bremer: You know, that's sort of a stupid question. Of course somebody who lost a relative is not going to be happy about it. They might still think that Iraq is a better place. I would simply make the argument it is for the reasons I gave. Iraqi per capita income today is six times what it was in 2003. Infant mortality has been - [crosstalk]

Mehdi Hasan: Does that cancel out the hundreds of thousands of deaths? I'm just- you're giving me statistics

Paul Bremer: You can't cancel out 100,000 deaths.

Mehdi Hasan: Which is why I'm asking you about the deaths, and you're not answering about the deaths, you're talking about the economy. The hundreds of thousands of deaths, do they weigh on you now when you look back at your record? What do you think about those deaths? How much responsibility do you take for those deaths?

Paul Bremer: No, I am talking about - Those deaths are not my responsibility. Of course I am sympathetic with it, of course, anybody would be.

Mehdi Hasan: But you don't take any responsibility for them?

Paul Bremer: I - for what? For what?

Mehdi Hasan: There were hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis as a result of invasion and occupation of Iraq that you were part of.

Paul Bremer: There were hundreds -- No.

Mehdi Hasan: You weren't part of it?

Paul Bremer: I wasn't part of what?

Mehdi Hasan: The invasion and occupation of Iraq. You were not the seat -

Paul Bremer: I was certainly in charge of the occupation, I was not part of the invasion. I was part of the occupation. Look, what is the alternative? The alternative is Saddam Hussein, who killed at least a million and a half of his own citizens in 20 years before the liberation, would still be in power.

There's no point in kind of asking a theoretical question. The question I faced was, Saddam is gone, now what do we do? And I think on the whole that we certainly made mistakes, on the whole we gave the Iraqi people a political structure that has survived the following 12 years so far, we gave them a constitution which is the most liberal constitution anywhere in the region, we started them on the process for economic growth, indeed I cited some figures about economic growth, they are on the whole better off. Of course it's a tragedy that people have died, but that doesn't offset the good things we did. That's all I'm saying.

Mehdi Hasan: Paul Bremer, thanks for joining me on Head to Head.

Paul Bremer: Thanks.

Mehdi Hasan: That's it for our special show here in Washington DC. Head to Head will be back in the Oxford Union next week.

Source: Al Jazeera