09/27/2006 10:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush and the Buck

Who was in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq? Why weren't there more civil servants watching the till in Baghdad? Who allowed the contractors to run wild? All these were great questions raised by a commentator reading a previous post.

It was an issue that I wrestled with constantly while writing my book on the failures of the U.S. nation building effort in Iraq. Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq is indeed about corporate greed. But ultimately, I came to decide that the buck stopped at one place, and only one place: the Bush administration.

After all, blaming a multinational company for making money--even lots of money--is like yelling at a dog for chasing a cat. It's what they do. The real culprit is the person holding the leash. And in this case, that was supposed to be the federal government.

The Bush administration crafted the nation building mission in Iraq with all the care of a sand castle. Restoring Iraq was one of the most important jobs of the war effort. It had the concrete, strategic goal to protect American lives. Beyond Iraq, the reconstruction effort was supposed to play an important role in the wider war on terror. A free Iraq, with open markets and a rising GDP, would become a democratic oasis in the deserts of the Middle East.

The administration decided to turn over execution of this vital task to a bunch of private firms whose chief interest was profit. Fair enough. Perhaps multinationals like Bechtel and Parsons could have done the work. They'll have a chance to explain themselves at a Congressional hearing Thursday. But the administration didn't bother to provide the leadership, vision or accountability to make sure that the job got done. It was rebuilding without a foreman.

There was never any single figure, never any single agency that took control. Responsibility drifted between different agencies and people, as money flew out the door and policy was crafted on the fly. Program leaders stuck around for a year at most. Contract officials came and went every few months. Both the State Department and the Pentagon had trouble filling slots. In the U.S., the Army Corps of Engineers has 30,000 people and a budget of $12 billion to do public works. For the first two years in Iraq, the reconstruction effort never had more than 50 government employees and a budget of $18.4 billion. It didn't matter. The program was like an enormous bulldozer with a cinder block on the gas pedal, grinding blindly forward.

The results? After three years, Iraqis have less power in their homes than under Saddam. Oil production is below its pre-war peak. The clearest sign of failure is the unabated violence. Thousands of American soldiers have now died fighting those same angry young men who were supposed to have jobs. Private contractors, aid workers and civil servants have been killed working on projects that were supposed to produce a grateful populace. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in a vicious guerilla war and sectarian conflict.

The Bush administration and the neoconservative architects who conceived and supported the war have not built their nation on a hill. U.S. military commanders have not seen a decline in attacks against soldiers. The most disappointed group of all may be the Iraqis themselves, many of whom believed the U.S. could help restore a nation wracked by dictatorship, two wars and a dozen years of sanctions. Instead, their lives are a daily misery, wracked by violence, political chaos and a lack of basic services.

By nearly every measure, the reconstruction failed. It did not spark an economic renewal. It did not win the trust of a shattered people. And it has not made Iraq more peaceful.

That is a political, moral and leadership failure of the highest order.