This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
Meanwhile, Nash was getting good copy from the reporters I rotated into his office before his departure, including John Hendren of the Los Angeles Times and Peter Spiegel of Financial Times. This fit neatly into the strategy of making Nash into a national figure, a poster child for reconstruction, something I thought could be useful after he left the PMO job. For now, it would help bring our dilemma to national attention.
Regardless of what happened to Nash, I believed the program must succeed. Despite problems in setting up the management scheme, ‘this must be fixed one way or another, because it’s in our national interest,’ I wrote to one confidant.
The Financial Times featured an interview with Nash on December 29 under the headline: cpa’s king of reconstruction faces a daunting task to rebuild war-torn Iraq. The lead was this:
David Nash’s small and sparsely furnished office is housed in a distant outer wing of the Republican palace, which serves as the headquarters for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. But if inter-agency bickering in Washington can be resolved in the coming weeks, the retired admiral’s quarters will suddenly become the most important in the sprawling CPA compound.
On December 29, the syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote a column that brought the program into crisper focus, upsetting some who took out their wrath on me as the most likely suspect feeding Novak. (Associates in Baghdad who were helpful in the past signaled their intent to distance themselves from what I was doing. I didn’t blame them. I instinctively knew there was some point where I would have to stand alone.) Novak’s piece began:
A pall was cast over Christmas for U.S. government civilians in Baghdad when they received word two weeks ago that the $18.6 billion for Iraq’s reconstruction rushed through Congress in November was indefinitely on hold. They have been told not to issue requests for proposals, which surely will extend the promised Feb. 1 date for contract award and, therefore, the beginning of reconstruction. No official announcement of the slowdown has been made, though the Pentagon has confirmed published reports … . Nobody is more disappointed by these latest developments than retired Rear Admiral David J. Nash, a civil engineer in Baghdad managing the $18.6 billion infrastructure reconstruction program.
I could have written the penultimate paragraph myself:
There is no disagreement inside the American team that the national interest will be better served the more quickly Iraqi rebuilding begins. This will cut into Iraq’s huge unemployment labor pool and invigorate the economy. In addition, it may provide evidence of the U.S. long-term commitment to the country. ‘If the people see siding with us as the wave of the future,’ one official told me, ‘maybe they will help frustrate the terrorists.’
The column closed with a trenchant observation that must have opened some eyes like ice water: ‘What’s needed now is the rapid utilization of that $18.6 billion to rebuild Iraq, and that is why the unexplained slowdown is so frustrating.’
The next day I found myself in a counseling session via telephone with a high-level Pentagon public affairs official, who must be nameless so long as I’m still operating in the chain of command. On the surface he thanked me for being in Iraq to assist with the war effort. His subtext was that I was making life too difficult for Washington bureaucrats responsible for dealing with the reconstruction issues, carrying implications far greater than I could possibly understand. If things seemed stalled, that was not my concern. He reminded me that my client was the US government, not Dave Nash. I promised to be more careful in the future, a face-saving gesture for both of us.
Evidence that the plan to force a high-level decision was apparently working provided some satisfaction, but still the results were inconclusive. I’d walk the plank, if I had to, but it was too early to alert the sharks. I also reminded myself that my residual client was more than the US government.