In charge of Iraq - and eager not to be
This week, retired US Gen. Jay Garner becomes one of the most important heads of state in the world and, he hopes, the one with the shortest term in power.Skip to next paragraph
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His daunting task: to rebuild Iraq, help launch a stable government there, and then write himself out of the scene as soon as possible.
As administrator of a conquered nation, he is not angling to be the next American Caesar, a term once used to describe Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who directed the 6-1/2 year Allied occupation of Japan after World War II.
Nor is he using his new status to promote his own cult of personality, another charge leveled at MacArthur. Former colleagues say that General Garner brings a quality to the job that his outsized predecessor did not: humility.
He will need it.
Garner confronts rival factions in Iraq and critics at home. But, like the precision-guided missiles he has spent much of his career promoting, he is prone to keeping his objectives on target. The retired three-star general said recently he expected his job to last three or four months.
Experts say that could be a stretch. Unlike MacArthur, he does not start this assignment a well-defined plan on how to do it or even what is to be done.
The official US objectives in postwar Iraq range from providing food and reopening schools to purging Baath Party members from public life, and laying foundations for a democratic Iraq.
Moreover, to achieve them requires working with groups who profoundly disagree on how to rebuild on the ruins of the Saddam Hussein regime - Iraqi opposition groups, international relief organizations, and even rivals within the Bush administration.
Even before his first day in Iraq as head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), critics were saying the job was too big or that Garner wasn't right for it. Some Arab commentators worried that his ties with Israel signaled a conspiracy to rebuild Iraq in Israel's interest; others, that his ties with US defense contractors only confirmed that the war had been about oil and US business interests.
Still others don't look much beyond the fact that he reports to the Pentagon, which they say means he aims to turn Iraq into a docile American colony. As he presided over the first meeting with Iraqi groups to discuss an interim Iraqi government, thousands of Iraqi protesters nearby shouted, "No to America and no to Saddam!"
But even critics concede that he brings to this assignment a record of success in the region: Charged with helping Kurdish refugees after the first Gulf War in 1991, he directed a multinational humanitarian relief effort, Operation Provide Comfort, in northern Iraq. When he handed the operation over to the United Nations, after three months, Iraqi Kurds pleaded with him to stay, lifting Garner on their shoulders and crying: "No, no, Saddam! Yes, yes, Bush!" For years, Garner kept a photograph of that scene in his Pentagon office.
"He struck me as somebody who got it: the enormity of the task," says a US administration official. "He took with humility his ability and the ability of the US to tackle these big problems... to focus on what could be accomplished in the time frame and with the resources we had."
Former colleagues say he knows how to pick his battles and keep his missions doable. Asked to describe his management style, many offer the same profile of a man who is disciplined, focused, not ideological, and "very, very tough." Some add he has an uncommon degree of common sense and a record of wresting solutions out of tough situations.
Former aide Mike Deegan describes flying low over northern Iraq with Garner in the spring of 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort: "I said, 'General, look at all those beautiful poppy fields down there.' He looked over at me and said, " 'Mike, that's not our assignment'," says Mr. Deegan, now president of ACDI/VOCA, a Washington based international development group. "It could have become a big drug interdiction effort, but that was not our mission."
Once, when the nightly menu for American forces in northern Iraq got down to mashed potatoes and M&Ms or more stuff in cans, Garner made a call to the Italians across the way, who were eating fresh fruit, vegetables and five kinds of pasta. Turns out, they were happy to take on a few hundred more for dinner.
A graduate of Florida State University (not West Point), Garner studied history, then public administration at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. He started his military service in the Florida Army National Guard and served two tours in Vietnam before working up to become the Army's top specialist in missile defense. His official biography doesn't mention his role in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.