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Warriors without Weapons – Recruiting FSOs to Rebuild Iraq

In the lead-up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, State Department officials realized they would need to deploy scores of Foreign Service Officers familiar with the language and culture of Iraq to put the country back on the path to successful governance once the fighting was over. Finding officers with the necessary skills to rebuild Iraq from the ground up when the ranks of Middle East specialists were already stretched thin meant reaching out to retired as well as active-duty officers. The ready agreement of those recruited for Iraq to put their lives on hold for months and fly into a war zone was indicative of the willingness of Foreign Service Officers to make personal sacrifices, even after retirement, to fulfill the “needs of service.”

James Larocco served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau (NEA) from 2001-2004. During his time at NEA he was charged with assembling as many FSOs with experience in the Middle East as possible in advance of the Iraq invasion. John Limbert was called out of serving as Ambassador to Mauritania in March 2003 for assignment as Cultural Affairs Officer in Iraq, initially stationed in Kuwait, then in Baghdad, where he observed the ad hoc creation of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) in the months after the invasion. Timothy Carney came out of retirement in early 2003 to serve as an advisor to the Ministry of Industry and Minerals as it worked to rebuild Iraq.

All three were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy: Larocco in January 2011, Limbert in May 2006, and Carney in June 2002.

For more information about the Iraq War, the Foreign Service or the experience of those who served in Iraq, please follow the links.

“I raced the few feet from my office to Liz Cheney’s, a five-second run, closed the door and said ‘Liz, I need you to call your dad.’”

James Larocco, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, 2001-2004

LAROCCO: In advance of the war, I was trying to line up as many FSOs and other State [Department] personnel, anticipating a dominant role for State following the ousting of Saddam. Even though that role was not forthcoming, it was clear from Day One following Saddam’s downfall that a large cadre of experienced FSOs, with language, area experience and specialized skills would be needed.

The pool was not large, and our posts in the region were already very lean. It became clear that the need could only be filled with a mix of active duty and retirees. And that’s what happened.

In some cases, we recruited the retirees, in others they were recruited by the CPA [The Coalition Provisional Authority, established by the U.S., UK, Australia and Poland, served as a transitional government in Iraq from April 2003-June 2004.]

Of course, [L. Paul] “Jerry” Bremer himself was a retired FSO [Bremer was the chief executive of the CPA, with the title of U.S. Presidential Envoy and Administrator in Iraq.]  There were many retired FSOs we tracked down and asked to play their part. I was deeply touched by the sense of duty these officers displayed. Needs of the service was a powerful term even well into retirement.

We desperately needed, for example, someone to help rebuild the shattered Ministry of Finance, so essential to the operation of any nation state. David Dunford, an economic officer specializing in financial issues, was someone I had always looked up to as an econ officer myself…

I knew David was a master of banking and finance when it came to the role of the government. David was not an easy man to track down and talk with. He clearly was enjoying his retirement, as I recall, in Arizona. When I finally got hold of him, he was exactly as I had remembered him: a no-nonsense, practical, focused guy.

I laid it all out for him. He sighed, saying he couldn’t decide on the spot. When do you need me? he asked. Yesterday, I said, and he laughed. How often did we hear that when we were in the service? David came through, and did an exemplary job under the most trying conditions.

I truly hope that someday the story of the FSOs in Iraq in those days, retired and active duty, is put together as profiles in duty, courage, professionalism and patriotism.

Getting the administrative piece right was among the most daunting challenges, and [Chief of Staff, Coalition Provisional Authority, Baghdad, Iraq, May-November 2003] Pat [Patrick F.] Kennedy was pulled out of the U.S. Mission at the UN in New York to take on this task. He did so with his usual mix of a calm but frenetic, tireless task-by-task approach. In many ways, he was the glue that pieced together so much that otherwise was moving in separate directions.

It was far from a normal mission. The military had its piece, and even during my brief visit, the division between General [Ricardo] Sanchez [commander of Combined Joint Task Force 7, the coalition ground forces in Iraq] and Bremer was palpable. There was the White House public affairs team and the White House political team, both with their own lines of authority.

State officers tried in vain to influence and inform in Baghdad. The most important roles for FSOs were outside of Baghdad, in difficult places like Najaf, Mosul, Babylon (Al-Hilla) and Kirkuk. In some respects, they were more than chiefs of mission in these areas.

In Babylon, in particular, Mike Gfoeller could be compared to the traditional British political agent in the field, dabbling in actual governance. That is a tale I will leave to Mike to tell. Our officers in the field worked closely with their military counterparts, not simply as political advisors, but taking on themselves a variety of self-initiated roles, roles that otherwise could not be filled by our military personnel.

There are wonderful stories of cooperation between our military and these FSOs, and in many cases, the synergy, the innovation, the unique solutions carried out by these teams with only minimal or no supervision from above was in the finest American tradition.

One of the episodes that I would like to relate in this regard involves one of the retirees posted in Iraq: John Limbert… I will never forget the day John, who was in Baghdad, phoned to say that the museum was being looted. I had visited that museum back in 1977 when I was hitchhiking around Iraq, and I recall vividly the impressive collection.

No plans had been made to safeguard antiquities, since we expected to be out of Iraq in 90 days… In any case, John called, expressing extreme anguish. He had called CENTCOM HQ, and could not get any action. I said I would take care of it. He should get back to doing whatever he could on the ground and with our forces stationed near there.

I then called CENTCOM HQ [Central Command headquarters], speaking directly with David Litt, the Political Advisor, pressing the issue hard. The answer I got back was straightforward: it’s not in our mission. I was told this was vetted at the highest levels there.

I then did something I had never done before and never would do again. I raced the few feet from my office to [Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Lynne Cheney Perry] “Liz” Cheney’s, a five-second run, closed the door and said “Liz, I need you to call your dad.”

I explained the situation, underlining that this was not just Iraqi patrimony; it was ours. It was the whole world’s. Immediate action was essential to safeguard these treasures. She made the call…

In this case, as one who had done the Grand Tour of Europe as a young man to absorb the great works of Western civilization, the far corners of China and the Gugong in Taipei to appreciate the treasures of Chinese civilization, and virtually every site of Arabic civilization from southern Spain and North Africa to the grave of Job in the hills above Salalah in Oman, this was my one chance in my lifetime to act on my love of the humankind’s endless reach to transcend and express that transcendence. I couldn’t miss it.

“… What I didn’t realize … was the political food fight that was going on back here over the composition of our group.”

Ambassador John Limbert, Cultural Affairs Officer, Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, March 2003

LIMBERT: I haven’t seen the numbers, but I’m sure we’ve had several thousand Foreign Service people serve in one function or another in Iraq at least once and perhaps more. There’s a great deal of pressure, subtle and otherwise, on people to go serve there and, to be fair…if you are an Arabic speaker, if your specialty is the Middle East, why not?

In early March 2003, I got a call from somebody in the Near East bureau, a friend of mine, or someone I thought was a friend. He said, “Hold on to your chair! Would you be willing to go to Iraq, to serve as an advisor in the new administration there, a senior advisor?”

After I calmed down a minute, I said, “Well, could you be more specific?”

He said, “Well, we can’t, but we think you’d be the senior advisor to the new ministry of commerce.”

I thought that was funny, because my knowledge of commerce is less than satisfactory, but there it was. Of course, as you know, when the State Department says, “Would you like to?” it’s not really a question.

So, really, at that point, I had a choice: I could go or I could say, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to do this.” And had I done that, then I could have served out the remaining six months of my time as ambassador and retired.

No one said that, but that was clear enough. No one put a gun to my head. So my wife at that time had gone to New York to be with our daughter, who was having a small operation. I talked it over with them and neither of them was very happy about the war. They shared my view of what a mistake it was, but my wife and daughter both said, “You should go.”

So then I called back and said I would do it. They said, “Well, we don’t think it’s commerce. It might be the ministry of planning.”

I said, “Look, this is the Foreign Service. Whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do it. If that’s what you need, that’s what you need.” And then, half jokingly, I said, “I’ll do pretty much anything except religion.”

And then they said something to the effect of, “How soon can you get to Kuwait?”

I said, “Well, I’ll pack my bags but I want to make sure that this place is safe before I go. How long do you need me?”

They said, “Six weeks.”

… And then I got a call saying, “Can you go to Kuwait as soon as possible? When you get to Kuwait, report to General Garner’s staff.” General Garner was head of something called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA); he was putting his team together in Kuwait.

Well, I didn’t quite know why they were pushing me to go so quickly. As a matter of fact, we sat in Kuwait for about a month, not doing a lot. But what I didn’t realize then was that – this has of course all come out in accounts since – was that back in this town [Washington] there was this tremendous food fight going on between [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and [Secretary of State Colin] Powell over who was going to staff the reconstruction effort and who was going to manage it.

State, I think, had bargained for a certain number of positions, but Rumsfeld still wanted veto power over individuals. There was a question over who would be number one and who would be number two at different ministries.

I get to Kuwait, make my way to the hotel where we’re all staying, a big resort hotel outside Kuwait City, actually quite nice, and then the next morning I go and meet General [Director of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq Jay] Garner’s people, and his first words to me are, “So glad you’re here and so happy you’re going to be in charge of religion.”

… What I didn’t realize and I only realized later, and Bob Woodward has sketched this out pretty well in his book, was the political food fight that was going on back here over the composition of our group. And what that explained was why my contacts in the Department were so anxious that I should get to Kuwait as soon as possible.

Garner led something called the Organization for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. It was called ORHA in those days. It was the predecessor of what was later called the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority and then later became the U.S. embassy.

General Garner, a retired three star general, was putting this together, but he worked for the Defense Department. It was a Department of Defense operation. To say that were people in the Defense Department who were micromanaging this operation was an understatement, really. This was micromanagement on steroids, down to the details of who was going to be working with Garner and what each person was going to be doing.

To get somebody appointed and out of Washington, one had to go through the Department of Defense system, because that person had to be detailed to the Department of Defense….So amid all of that infighting, the Department said, “We’ve got this person out in Mauritania, and we can send him right to Kuwait, and nobody will be the wiser.” So I showed up there, flying under the radar, so to speak.

The person in charge of civil administration was clearly not the right person. Again, some of the writers of subsequent accounts talk about this, but I’m not going to mention the name. How they chose him, how he came there, was unclear. I think he was a political appointee. But he never took charge of that operation, so we drifted around by ourselves and formed our own teams.

I first established the fact that I was not going to do religious affairs. It was hard to think of anything more wrong than putting an outsider in charge of religious affairs in a Muslim country. That’s about as bad as you can get. There may be stupider things to do, but I couldn’t figure out one.

So they said, “Okay, we’ll put you in charge of cultural affairs,” which on the surface, was very appealing. Iraq has its archeology, its history, and a culture of literary. In the Arab world they say books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut, and read in Baghdad. Baghdad had a very vibrant cultural life, not only with books but music, art, sculpture, and painting.

Here’s what I think was particularly appalling. You mentioned fiasco. The assumption was that our operation, ORHA, would be in existence for about sixty days. Military goes in, defeats the Iraqi Army, ORHA comes in, helps set up a civil administration, goes away. ORHA becomes an embassy and some interim Iraqi administration starts running things. Maybe there’s some residual help.

But if our organization is going to exist for only sixty days, then there was little urgency to set up any kind of structure. The thought was, “We can do this on the cheap, we can do it without any particular organization and it doesn’t matter who we put in charge. We can take some political operative from Kansas and put him in charge and it won’t make any difference. We’re only going to be there sixty days.”

Well, I’m no expert on Iraq and neither were most of my colleagues, but we all looked at each other and said, “This is a lot harder than they think. Do they know anything about this country, about what the background is, about what the resentments are, what’s bubbling under the surface? They better think more than sixty days, ‘cause sixty days isn’t going to work!”

“Nor by hindsight was there the will or even the capability to protect the sites that needed to be protected”

Timothy Carney, Advisor, Ministry of Industry and Minerals, 2003

CARNEY: My first notion that things were beginning to look serious in Iraq was in November 2002 when I was invited to the U.S. Institute of Peace on November 25 for a session on lessons learned in previous peacekeeping efforts that might be applicable to administering Iraq.

The meeting at USIP brought together a number of people with experience in previous peacekeeping missions – myself in Cambodia, for example; Peter Galbraith in former Yugoslavia, Bob Perito for his efforts in Haiti and peacekeeping and civil police work in general, a fairly large number of other people, all of whose names I do not recall. Elliott Abrams, then on the NSC staff, was the notable participant in the meeting.

The agenda was to look at a number of key questions. The one that received the most focus was screening or vetting the Iraqi civil service to determine who was unacceptable or who one had to hold their nose and keep in order to run a bureaucracy effectively. We talked about civil police. We spoke about the need for an effective media and a number of other topics were judged as well. I had basically dropped out of anything related to Iraq after that. I had a couple of other projects on my own.

I was sitting at home March 12 when I got a call from [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz, who asked me to join the effort that had been stood up in response to President Bush’s determination in January (NSPD-24) that there should be an Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) located in the Pentagon that would concern itself with Iraq after a possible military victory.

I said to Paul that of course I would accept, but I would first have to speak with Jay Garner, head of ORHA. I did. I met with Jay on Friday, March 14.

In the meantime, my wife let a couple of colleagues know that Wolfowitz had given me a call. One of those colleagues was Robin Raphel, for whom I had worked as her deputy when she was Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs.

Robin, then Vice-President at NDU [National Defense University,] had been tapped by the State Department, and was with Barbara Bodine in training at Fort Meade. Robin let the Middle East Bureau know that Wolfowitz had called me and I got a call on Thursday, March 13, from Jim Larocco, DAS in the Middle East Bureau, who pretended that I was on the State Department’s list, and suggested that I might want to go to Iraq as the Senior Advisor in the Ministry of Industry and Minerals.

I told Jim that I was going to see Jay Garner the next day and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do there. He suggested that I let Jay know that the State Department had me in mind for advisor in the Ministry of Industry and Minerals.

Monday, the 17th of March, I got hold of the State Department. I had tried to talk to Ruth Whiteside, but she was not available. She was then the deputy Director General and deputy head of Personnel at State. Not reaching her, I spoke with a woman named [Management Counselor] Kathleen Austin [-Ferguson] who offered me a WAE (While Actually Employed) status to go to Iraq. That was not acceptable. There wasn’t enough salary in it … I called the fellow at the Pentagon whom Jay had introduced me to.

He organized a contract with SAIC, which is a large contractor that works from government contracts. SAIC signed me up by Friday, March 21st, and I was on a plane the 23rd for Iraq. I was on a plane with a group that was going to fulfill the contract SAIC had won to create an indigenous Iraqi media, an effort that has proved to be inadequate at best, anemic, underfunded, poorly staffed, and badly directed.

Everybody knew it was ad hoc. Everybody knew that we were going to have to get to Baghdad and make do. And the looting started around April 8 or 9 when the troops took Baghdad, and it dismayed all of us.

The ministerial wing had submitted to the Combined Forces Land Component Commander, CFLCC, a list of 24 sites that needed to be protected, and that document was never acted on. Nor by hindsight was there the will or even the capability to protect the sites that needed to be protected except the Oil Ministry and the Ministry of Military Industrialization that had split off from the Ministry of Industry and Minerals in the mid-’90s and became the locus of Iraqi efforts to clandestinely procure WMD related equipment.

The essential problem was, the civilian mission needed to be out in front, and the instructions from the Pentagon were that nobody would say anything to the press. The Pentagon’s focus, understandably but inadequately, was on the military effort. Part of the result of that was that the military, for the most part, had no clue and less interest in what the civilian effort was thinking about or planning to do.