Home inSight Book Review: War Front to Store Front

Book Review: War Front to Store Front

Americans, by a fairly wide margin, tell pollsters that the Iraq war “wasn’t worth it.” This reflects, perhaps, an isolationist sentiment and desire to ignore a divisive and painful episode—a public more interested in “cocooning” than in foreign policy. The public can turn away and does. Policymakers and analysts, however, should require of themselves an understanding of the military, diplomatic, economic and social slices of the war, some of which were more successful than others.

Both the interested public and the professionals would find War Front to Store Front by Paul Brinkley a very good slice of Iraq with which to start.

The book could be subtitled: Hooray for Capitalism, Small Government and Leaving Business to Businessmen. Brinkley, an almost-but-not-quite-failed dotcom executive, was invited into government service in 2003 by Department of Defense officials who recognized his talent for logistics. Planning a Washington-based project to improve DOD contracting, Brinkley found himself in Iraq, a lone wolf business guru working outside most of the bureaucracy and reporting to the very highest levels of DOD. Before he returned to the private sector six years later, Brinkley also served tours in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Rwanda. In each place, his goal was to find competent local business people who could, with American private-sector business assistance, produce real, meaningful goods and services with which to improve their economies.

“The Worst Thing You Can be is Successful”

He was very good at it, but never underestimate the power of bureaucracy. As Brinkley notes, “A humorous adage I often heard while in government, ‘the worst thing you can be in Washington is right,’ seemed to me to have an unfortunate variant, ‘the worst thing you can be in Washington is successful.'”

On Brinkley’s first trip to Iraq in early 2006, he met with Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Commander of the Multinational Corps—Iraq (MNC-I). Chiarelli had made the intellectual connection between economic stability and long-term security.

The more work (i.e., hope) the U.S. could provide, the fewer people would resort to the insurgency, Chiarelli and Brinkley agreed. Brinkley and his small team traveled extensively and mostly fearlessly around the country, including to insecure Sunni areas, to find businesses and businessmen they could support. Tapping associates in the U.S. and other countries, Brinkley restarted factories, provided on-the-job training for bureaucrats and managers, pulled cash that was fueling the insurgents out of the economy and helped restart the banking system. Tens of thousands of Iraqis owe Brinkley their livelihoods; not a bad return on investment.

The book, however, could also be subtitled: Ten Ways to Ruin a Country.

Ten Ways To Ruin a Country

Brinkley spent as much time battling the American bureaucracy as he did finding factories that could be made operational. His nemesis was the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which planned to redesign Iraq with no experience in the country and without regard for the people who lived and worked there. The CPA:

• Stood down the Army, sending hundreds of thousands of men with weapons home to places where a) there was no work and b) they were humiliated by their circumstance.

• “De-Baathified” down to low-level government workers, removing people who knew how to run departments and industries, replacing them with people who were a) inexperienced and b) fearful.

• Shut down all government-owned factories on the grounds that they were arms of the Ba’ath Party, taking no account of what a factory actually produced or how meaningful the jobs were in that particular place.

• Took over banks and industry bank accounts, meaning that even if a factory received permission to reopen (Brinkley’s job) it had no money.

• Removed tariffs from Iraqi goods, allowing neighbors to import to Iraq high value items had previously been domestically produced, and undermine local businesses and agriculture.

• Handed out massive amounts of cash, allowing for massive corruption by Americans and Iraqis.

• Funded the start of projects but failed to have enough cash in the pipeline to continue or expand successful undertakings.

• Failed to take account of disparate regional conditions.

The other two modes of destruction were arrogance and fearfulness, which should be considered at some length:

Brinkley met with the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO), follow-on to the CPA. “I asked about their travels around the country and how often they got to go see towns and businesses, to see first hand where there might be opportunities for positive effort to take place. This brought a litany of complaints about security and how the security situation was so bad they weren’t about to travel in the country. Most had not left the Green Zone in months; a few had never been ‘outside the wire.’ One had seen a factory in Baghdad, a large dairy processing plant that he described as the worst facility he had even seen. Other than that, they had no direct experience with Iraq outside Baghdad, or with businesses in Iraq. Yet their opinions were firm and fixed. There was no room for debate or discussion. As far as they were concerned, Chiarelli was simply wrong.”

Paul Brinkley

Asked about the shuttered factories, the IRMO delegation said it was “shock therapy” just like in Eastern Europe. Brinkley pointed out that “comparing a shattered, war-torn economy like Iraq to Eastern Europe might not be the best comparison. After all, there was no European Union sitting next door to Iraq ready to move in, invest and hire Iraqi workers, as there had been after the cold war in Europe.”

No dice. IRMO moved on to its next rote line: “Iraqis don’t have the skills necessary to compete in today’s world. It will take years before they are ready. And they have no work ethic. You are wasting your time trying to get productive work out of Iraqi factories.”

Brinkley’s conclusion? “Regardless of what they thought, Iraq wasn’t some laboratory for a social science experiment.”

“Real Countries”

That is the setup—all the rest is (very interesting and well-written) commentary. Brinkley developed enormous respect for the men and women in uniform—from enlisted personnel right up to the Flag and General Officers. He found American business people almost uniformly willing to consider Iraq in 2007-08, and many successful ventures took place. Afghanistan was harder, but even there, American companies, revved no doubt by Brinkley’s first-hand, on the ground research, showed up. Japanese, South Korean, German, and French companies did as well.

A fifteen-month foray into Rwanda and an unsuccessful venture into Pakistan rounded out Brinkley’s service to the United States government. The most simple conclusions—that allowing skilled people to do what they do best is a good idea; and understanding that policy papers and Washington-based analysis will fold upon meeting conditions in the real world regardless of how well-intentioned the wonks—seem the right ones.

Brinkley provides two further themes that should be useful to Americans hoping to provide aid in less-developed countries:

• First, Foreign Aid used to be easy. Send wheat, dried milk, vaccination kits, malaria nets and water purifiers for the poor and the sick (in bags promoting the USA or not) to keep them from dying. This is no longer the case. Social media and international communications have given people even in remote places the understanding that the world has more to offer than food on the dole; they want a society that will pay for the smart phone, the Vespa, the iPad and iPhone and iwhatever. They want trade and commerce, profits, and the benefits of the 21st Century. And why shouldn’t they?

• Second, government and large bureaucracies of government are equipped only to do the easy part. The failures of the immediate post-war period in Iraq were largely due to large bureaucracies—mainly the Coalition Provisional Authority, but also the State Department and USAID—not being flexible enough to read the signposts and provide the kind of aid Iraqi wanted.

War Front to Store Front contains a deliberate editorial oddity. Brinkley is generous and very specific with his praise, naming names and pointing to dozens of people on his team, in Washington, and in the localities who believed in his mission and provided the very best kinds of government service and assistance. He has pointed barbs for a lot of specific people as well, but if you think he’s going unmask the villains, he mentions not a single one of them by name, title or description sufficient for identification.

In the best tradition of American citizens, Brinkley is thus clearly marked a civilian doing government service, rather than a government operative writing a book.