This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.

Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, December 21, 2003.

After a chilly daybreak, my mind is racing with recollections of the past few weeks, churning an irresistible urge to express them. I’m still bothered by the call yesterday from my boss, Dave Nash, announcing he’s planning to quit. He’s the one who brought me from the Pentagon to the presidential palace in November to be his public affairs officer. Neither Baghdad nor Iraq inspires me at a personal level, but it’s exciting to sit near the center of the $18.6 billion effort he heads to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, even in its earliest planning stage. His quitting before we start construction means I’ll have to return to Army public affairs. (I had been a special assistant to the secretary of the Army, Tom White, but he resigned on May 8, derailing my professional life in the process.) When the job went flat, I jumped at Nash’s offer. Nash is a retired rear admiral, formerly in charge of Navy construction. As I tell reporters, he knows how to build stuff ’ big stuff. He is the right man for the job.

Nash isn’t a victim. Well, he is and he isn’t. It would be easier to say one way or the other if his charter weren’t so ambiguous. He had a vision worthy of a master builder and others shared it. The short version is that, in September, Nash was hired by Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to create, from scratch, a self-contained organization of assorted technicians and specialists that, as an integral part of the CPA, would supervise the reconstruction of the Iraqi infrastructure. This means fixing things relating to oil, water, electricity, and roads. But on the verge of letting the first tier of contracts to get things rolling, voices in Washington jerked his authority to proceed, apparently while they decide if the organization Nash created is really the way they want to go. On December 15, he was informed that his program, originally budgeted at $18.6 billion, might be reduced to $1.9 billion. That is still a lot of pocket change, but hardly enough to start the program promised by Congress and the administration.

Then, in a private meeting on December 19, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, told Nash that perhaps the staff Nash had created was too small for such a large project, and that maybe the work should be turned over to others, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Army Corps of Engineers, which manage large projects, reducing the risk of trying something new. Someone had Wolfowitz’s ear, but we had no idea who it was.

As Nash wrote to his staff, ‘They are suggesting that I possibly would be the titular head of this new organization. I told him (Wolfowitz) that I was not interested in being a part of that approach,’ indicating he was not interested in being a figurehead. Nash said he would gladly step down and let the agency of their choice take over. Wolfowitz said more study was required before any decision could be made, and Nash advised him that ‘now is the time to make a decision and not start one way and then switch approaches downstream.’

Since Nash hired me as part of an organization about to be abolished, if he walks, I’ll be expected to follow. In fact, I will be given no choice by others in the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority. I’m writing this in present tense, because Nash has not officially tendered his resignation, nor has Wolfowitz decided if Nash’s Program Management Office will be disbanded, merged, or reorganized. It’s still possible that Nash will be left in charge of the PMO as presently configured, chartered to get contracts on the street as soon as he can. This means construction could start close to February 2004, as originally planned.

Charles Krohn is the author of The Lost Battalion: Casualties in the Battle of Hué, and the recipient of the Silver Star and several Bronze Stars.