WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
Back in the United States, he waged blistering bureaucratic battles in the Pentagon over the future of missile defense programs, which were seriously downgraded during the Clinton years. He also took a tough line with congressional critics who questioned the performance of US Patriot missiles after the Gulf War. Those same missiles have come in for criticism in the current war, after incidents in which they downed coalition aircraft.
Maj. Gen Robert Scales, a colleague during those years, recalls "very, very tough" Pentagon fights in the mid-'90s, when Garner was Army assistant chief of staff. "No matter how hard he was pilloried within the Pentagon, he never ever walked away from a sense of soldierly values," he says.
"He is very focused, incredibly tenacious. He has enormous organizational abilities to make order out of chaos - and is one of the few generals who has had good experience with the interagency arena [during Operation Provide Comfort]," he adds. "He has worked with the United Nations and the State Department, but I think there is no question who will be in charge."
Like many former admirals and generals, when Garner retired from military service in 1987, he stepped into a top job with a defense contractor, SY Technology, a California-based company that specializes in missile defense.
Until this week, Garner has kept a conspicuously low profile. He has not appeared before Congress, despite many invitations, and refused requests for interviews with the press.
This week, he enters into the minutiae of what is sure to be a highly complex mission. Twelve years (and two stars) ago, when Garner directed the ad hoc relief operation in Northern Iraq, he arrived in early April to assess the terrain, where some 60,000 refugees were in desperate need of food and shelter. From the start, his goal was set up camps that met UN standards for a hand-off - right down to the size of tents and the number of latrines - say sources close to the operation.
Rather than attempt to disarm the Kurdish fighters, Garner required that they leave their arms with the Spanish guards before coming into the cities.
When hostile Iraqi forces threatened to blow up one of Saddam Hussein's big palaces under construction in the region, Garner responded by asking if they needed any help. "Ask if they need any explosives," he said.
Just as the UN official delegation was spotted on the horizon to take over the operation, a firefight broke out nearby. Unwilling to jeopardize the handoff, Garner sent a message to US forces: "Y'all get that over with real quick, and you let hose guys know they don't want to [make me angry]." The firefight ended, and the handoff occurred as scheduled.
No one expects the handoff to be as simple this time. Humanitarian groups that worked with Garner in northern Iraq say they expect his role to be much more challenging this time. "Any concerns from the [aid groups] have nothing to do with the man, it's who he reports to," says Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, a humanitarian relief organization based in Portland, Ore.
Managing relations with the small army of international businesses wanting in on postwar Iraqi contracts will also be a challenge. Already, European critics are charging that Garner's ties to the US defense contractors gives "the military industrial lobby ... a direct access to the levers of power," said Le Nouvel Observateur, a leading French weekly. "The selection of a weapons maker and former military general for the top civilian job in Iraq tells the people of the Middle East that we intend to dominate them militarily," says Michael Shellenberger, who founded the website StopJayGarner.com.
Critics, especially in the Arab world, say that Garner's public statements in support of Israel's crackdown in the Palestianian territories also compromise his new role in Iraq. In an October 2000 statement, Garner and 43 other retired US admirals and generals credited Israel with exercising "remarkable restraint" in response to the "lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of the Palestinian authority."
"The idea that 10 days spent in a friendly democratic country after 31 years of military service makes him unable to fairly represent US interests in Iraq is ludicrous and offensive," Says Shoshana Bryen, who organized these tours for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affiars, a Washington-based group.
But in the end, all that counts is whether he can carry out the mission. If he does that, he can, like General MacArthur's "good soldiers," just fade away.