How Trump is continuing the worst part of the Bush legacy
Team Trump is starting to resemble the gaggle of hangers-on and ideologues that George W. Bush sent to wreck Iraq
Since his election as the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump has done his best to confirm liberals' worst fears, surrounding himself with Breitbart zealots, dodging security briefings, bringing his "blind trust" to meetings with foreign leaders and tech titans, briefly tanking the stock of Boeing with a bizarre and (of course) factually inaccurate tweet about the cost of Air Force One, refusing to divest himself of his business holdings, harassing The New York Times, attacking a local labor leader by name, and magically fast-tracking a series of Trump building projects in Turkey, Georgia, and Argentina after chatting with their leaders.
And then there's his Cabinet.
Team Trump is starting to resemble the gaggle of hangers-on and ideologues that George W. Bush sent to wreck Iraq in the form of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Remember, the first year of the Iraq War — the year that the whole thing was irretrievably lost — had two defining features. The first was a preference for bluster, bravado, and loyalty over actual expertise. The second was the Bush team's bizarre commitment to immediately transforming Iraq into a tax shelter on the Tigris.
Sound familiar? It should. Because both of these features are readily apparent in Trump and the dollar-store hucksters and cartoon billionaires with whom he is surrounding himself.
Like Trump and his cronies, Coalition Provisional Authority staffers got what little information they possessed from Fox News and shared right-wing Thinklandia's hostility to the career diplomats and analysts in the State Department, preferring instead to staff the CPA with movement conservatives. The leaders of America's Iraq fiasco infamously blundered into Baghdad having largely discarded the State Department's painstakingly detailed Future of Iraq Report, which predicted the insecurity that would plague post-war Iraq. State Department and NGO experts were "deemed too liberal" to participate in the Iraqi reconstruction project, as detailed by Rajiv Chandrasakaran in Imperial Life in the Emerald City. People with no experience in post-conflict situations, like former New York Police Commissioner and future tax felon Bernard Kerik, were preferred over eggheads with actual knowledge of Iraq or rebuilding broken societies. John Agresto, a woefully underprepared ideological hardliner tasked with rebuilding Iraq's 22-campus university system, told Chandrasakaran unapologetically that he deliberately read zero books before arriving in Baghdad.
And just like the Atlas Shrugged-thumping vultures about to take over Trump's departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development, the Bush administration believed that the rigid application of orthodox free-market principles would magically heal Iraq's social and economic wounds. To lead the CPA, Bush appointed Paul Bremer, a retired diplomat with little meaningful background in Iraqi politics or society. What Bremer and Iraq's new viceroys saw when they surveyed the landscape from the commanding heights of the fortified Green Zone was a bloated public-sector bureaucracy that needed to be aggressively privatized to unleash the power of market capitalism in the Middle East.
Limits on foreign direct investment were obliterated. Tariffs were abolished. The CPA oversaw the implementation of a regressive 15 percent flat tax of the sort that drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub types have been scheming for in D.C. for decades. Tim Carney, the diplomat sent to run Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Minerals, and who, of course, had no experience with either, was shocked when he discovered that Bremer and the ideologues believed that all of Iraq's publicly owned companies should be swiftly privatized, in spite of the very clear laws of war prohibiting an occupying power from selling off state industries. Because Bush's wrecking crew believed government could be done on the cheap with minimal staffing, Carney was given two people to spin off all of Iraq's publicly owned enterprises in a matter of weeks. He quit after two months in disgust.
We know how this all ended. Things went so badly so quickly that the CPA was often referred to as "Can't Provide Anything." Ideological extremists with Big Ideas but no conceivable plan for how they would work in practice turned Iraq into a smoldering, strife-torn ruin. The CPA's inept, dogma-fueled decisions — including disbanding the Iraqi Army and aggressively firing thousands of civil servants — spiked unemployment and helped trigger the insurgency, whose veterans are now marauding around the region in the form of ISIS. Reconstruction efforts, which were supposed to be seamlessly paid for by Iraq's oil revenues, were chronically underfunded and understaffed across the board. Somehow our trillion-dollar occupation never even managed to get the electricity back on. Market zealotry was a massive failure in a centrally planned economy that would have needed a decade to restructure itself even in peacetime.
Trump's crowd shares the CPA's utter contempt for civilian public administration — hence a Cabinet full of lobbyists, oil executives, generals, and D.C.-luncheon-circuit true believers. Anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing their organization led by people with no administrative skill understands the costs of bad leadership. Many of Trump's nominees and advisers are not just inexperienced in the fields where they are now supposed to direct enormous American agencies or represent America to the world (Ben Carson, Nikki Haley, Rex Tillerson) but also dangerous extremists (Scott Pruitt, Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Carson, again). Many have pushed radical theories of public education (Betsy DeVos), commerce (Scott Puzder), and foreign policy (Flynn, again), or are activists with long histories of opposing the whole mission of the agency they are being put in charge of (Rick Perry, and Pruitt, again).
The wreckage left by the American administration in Iraq is a good preview of what the Trump Coalition Provisional Authority has in store for the United States. Trump is clearly going to gleefully sell out his gullible white working-class base. But the destructive turn away from Obama-era policies on taxes, regulations, private prisons, criminal justice reform, minimum wages, worker protections, and fair housing policies is the least our worries. The longer-lasting damage is an accelerated decline in the state's capacity to govern — key functions will be farmed out to corporate rent-seekers, talented leaders will disappear from the public sector altogether, and institutional memory of proper processes will be obliterated agency by agency. The end result will be a government that fails to fulfill the core functions for which it was designed, worsens America's dire inequality crisis, and loses the little remaining faith of its citizens.
Bush's war planners naively thought that they could remake the Middle East in our image. At the end of four (or, God help us, eight) years of this kind of governance, America may look more like Iraq than the other way around.
And remember, no one responsible for the full-scale catastrophe of the Iraq War has ever paid any meaningful price for what they did. On the contrary, the war's blinkered architects disappeared into D.C.'s partisan waiting room — the network of right-leaning think tanks, lobbying shops, and consulting firms that provide a safe haven for out-party elites as they anticipate their next turn in power.
And here's something that should really unsettle you. Almost none of the guys who ruined Iraq have stepped up to take a position in the Trump Coalition Provisional Authority. Why? Because they rightly see it as a Baghdad-style hardship post.
Bush-era foreign policy hand Eliott Cohen's bombshell op-ed in The Washington Post advising conservative foreign policy elites to run for the hills is just the tip of the iceberg. When your administration is deemed too reckless and radioactive by the architects of the Iraq War, you're in serious, serious trouble.