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It’s not as easy as it looks to the Washington Post

“Ties to GOP Trumped Know-How Among Staff Sent to Rebuild Iraq,” blares the headline on the front-page of the Washington Post. If true, this would constitute serious malfeasance by the Bush administration, but the Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran doesn’t manage to make the case. He shows that seven senior-level members of the Coalition Provisional Authority had ties to President Bush, his administration, or another Republican administration. But the scant pieces of information he provides about the seven don’t show a lack of “know-how” (for example, the senior adviser for transportation had been the deputy secretary of the U.S. Transportation Department; the senior adviser for higher education had been a college president; the senior adviser for education had been Bush’s education policy adviser). Nor does Chandrasedaran show that any of these senior advisers performed poorly overall in Iraq.

Instead, he focuses on three other individuals. The first is Jay Hallen, a 24 year-old staffer who was assigned by his boss in Iraq (not the administration in Washington) to reopen the Baghdad stock market despite a lack of background in finance. Chandrasedaran does not claim that Hallen had any meaningful GOP connections — apparently, he didn’t even support the war in Iraq. So, while one can certainly question giving this assignment to Hallen, it was not a case of GOP ties trumping know-how. Moreover, in Chandrasedaran’s telling, Hallen’s “failing” had nothing to do with lack of financial expertise. He stands accused, rather, of trying to create a modern stock market instead of simply reopening the market as it was. In the end, according to Chandrasedaran, Hallen was outflanked and his vision was not realized. An interesting story, but no scandal.

Chandrasedaran also finds fault with James Haveman, who was selected to oversee the rehabilitation of Iraq’s health care system. Haveman had been the director of International Aid, a faith-based relief organization that provided health care overseas, so he did not lack relevant experience. Nor does Chandrasedaran show him to be a GOP insider, although he had been a community health director (additional relevant experience) under a Republican Governor, John Engler of Michigan. Haveman apparently tried various market-based strategies to keep costs down, and he sold the “dysfunctional state owned firm that imported and distributed drugs and medical supplies” to a private company. His critics say Haveman’s approach proved unsuccessful. But even if that’s true, it wouldn’t be a case of GOP ties trumping know-how; it would be a case of a market-based approach not succeeding. And Chandrasekaran provides little reason to believe that a different approach would have worked significantly better.

Chandrasedaran’s final target is former New York police chief Bernard Kerik. Chandrasedaran concedes that Kerik was dispatched to Iraq not because of his GOP ties but because of his “star power.” So again, Chandrasedaran’s example doesn’t support his thesis. Kerik stands accused of the opposite offense of Haveman — instead of imposing his theories, Kerik allegedly ignored the details, courted the media, and left the real work to the State Department expert in international law enforcement. Chandrasedaran’s sources say that Kerik was “the wrong guy at the wrong time.” Kerik says he wasn’t given sufficient funding to hire foreign police advisers or establish large-scale training programs. Either way, given the presence of Kerik and the State Department expert, the problem does not appear to have been lack of policing know-how.

Chandasedaran’s piece also suffers from an apparent failure to appreciate the inherent difficulties of nation-building. These difficulties are not magically overcome, as Chandasedaran implies, by having international bureaucrats run the show. Certainly, the U.N.’s performance in delivering services and keeping the peace in areas less perilous than Iraq is not without its critics. This is not to deny that some administrators are better than others, and that some administrators selected by the Pentagon did not perform well. But Chandasedaran falls short of demonstrating that the approach our government used to select administators for Iraq was fundamentally flawed.

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