Skip to main content

An Insider’s View of Iraq’s Reconstruction

Reviewed by John M. Handley

Losing the Golden Hour: An Insider’s View of Iraq’s Reconstruction by James “Spike” Stephenson, Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2007 (ISBN 978-1-59797-151-5) 166 pages, $23.95

Spike Stephenson presents the reader an account of Iraqi reconstruction during his thirteen-month tour, which began in February 2004. He brought to Iraq some 25 years of experience with USAID, including tours in Egypt, Grenada, El Salvador, Lebanon, Serbia, and Montenegro. Stephenson was USAID mission director in Iraq and in his last three overseas postings, and is an expert on reconstruction as well as post-conflict transition, civil-military cooperation, and counterinsurgency.

The book contrasts the autocratic management style and overall objectives of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s (CPA) Ambassador Paul L. Bremer III and his main reconstruction advisor, Admiral David Nash, head of the Provisional Management Office (PMO), with that of what Stephenson and fellow USAID representatives believed should have been the goals: security, economic growth, and local governance. Bremer and Nash wanted large infrastructure projects that took considerable money and time to build, while USAID wanted to focus on democratization, economic policy reforms, private sector development, civil society, rule of law, community development, and the empowerment of local governance.

The book is largely about money, or from USAID’s point of view, the lack of it. Stephenson gives the reader valuable insight into how reconstruction both was and was not funded. When he addresses the $18.4 billion supplement for reconstruction, he points out that a sizable portion, around $5 billion, was specifically earmarked for USAID and for the grass-roots, bottom-up approach USAID used to build local communities, economies, and governance. Ambassador Bremer treated the entire reconstruction supplemental as one package, under the control of the CPA and its PMO. Rather than provide the funds USAID needed to operate all of its mandated programs, the PMO treated USAID as one of its own lesser organic agencies and from time to time sent it task orders — accompanied with very limited funding – to accomplish tasks that were mostly outside the interest and priority of any USAID mission. It is an interesting account of how the CPA treated, for the most part poorly, all the different agencies and departments that were purportedly working together to accomplish the same goals.

With the notable exceptions of various USAID personnel, Major General Pete Chiarelli, commander of the First Cavalry Division, and Colonel Ken Cox, Chiarelli’s Engineer Brigade commander, few people come off well in this account. Stephenson singled out Chiarelli as the most important individual he encountered in Iraq when it came to actually allowing USAID to do what it does best. Chiarelli and Cox visited Stephenson to see what USAID could do to help the First Cavalry Division win the “hearts and minds” of the people of Baghdad by putting people to work, connecting power and sewer lines, and actually having a positive impact on the lives of the local nationals. The plan the division and USAID created and implemented brought about some very positive results for the locals as well as for the coalition forces, but only after Chiarelli personally visited Ambassador Bremer and secured the funding necessary for this implementation.

The term, “losing the golden hour,” comes from Stephenson’s Vietnam experience when medics knew that they had at most an hour to get a wounded soldier to treatment or most probably the soldier would die. He believes the United States lost that “golden hour” during the reign of the CPA, and he seems very uncertain that the patient (Iraq) will survive. Stephenson provides numerous accounts of hubris and incompetence on the part of Bremer and Nash specifically, and the CPA in general, but he also provides an impressive array of accounts of bravery, courage, and duty on the part of the U.S. military, the Iraqis, and the many contractors working under the most difficult of circumstances to make life better for everyone in Iraq. In the world of reconstruction and post-conflict transition for war-torn, failed, or failing states, this relatively short book provides a number of “lessons learned” that could make future reconstruction operations considerably more successful – if only those in authority will take the time to read it.End.

Comments are closed.