Where did ISIS come from? The story starts here.

AS SOON AS I ARRIVE AT HIS HOME, a well-kept but slightly dated fieldstone Colonial in Chevy Chase, Maryland, he ushers me down a staircase into the basement, past one bookcase packed with white binders and another stacked with board games. We end up in a dimly lit corner where a desk, a couch, and a treadmill all jockey for space. “This is basically my office,” L. Paul Bremer tells me, adding almost apologetically, “and our exercise area.”

For a man who once commanded the world’s attention, working out of a palace and wielding expansive powers over 25 million people while serving as America’s viceroy in postwar Iraq, these quarters seem modest. But the reminders of a more influential time are all around. Each of those white binders is labeled “CPA Archives,” as in the Coalition Provisional Authority that President George W. Bush appointed Bremer to run one month after US troops had cruised into Baghdad. (At one point during his reign, Bremer is said to have waved off a British general’s concerns about the legality of a certain security measure with the quip “I am the law.”) Along the white-paneled walls hang framed photos of Bremer with the biggest stars in the firmament of Republican administrations over the last half century: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bushes 41 and 43, as well as Kissinger, Haig, Rumsfeld, and Cheney.

When George W. appointed Bremer in May 2003, after the exhilaration around the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue had been quickly followed by a descent into looting and lawlessness, most people were caught off guard. That included the Bush administration’s first postwar point man in Iraq, retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, who had just arrived in Baghdad when he learned he was about to be replaced. Although Bremer was a former ambassador, he spoke no Arabic, had no experience with postwar reconstruction or with running a large organization, had never served in the military or the Arab world, and had never even visited Iraq. Those shortcomings did not hinder his candidacy. Perversely, as I would learn from Bremer, they enhanced it.

Bremer’s Iraq tour turned out to be relatively brief, just 14 months, yet it continues to resonate to this day. That’s particularly true around a couple of enormously consequential decisions that he announced during just his first two weeks in Baghdad. In those decisions, critics argue, one can find the roots of the lethal insurgency that upended Iraq, as well as the scourge of ISIS that followed and now threatens to draw American troops back onto Iraqi soil for the third time in as many decades. In the end, though, how much should Bremer be held responsible for the continuing mess of the Middle East?

It’s been more than five years since US combat troops left Iraq. It took about that long after Vietnam for the nation to begin wrestling honestly with the forces that had led us into that mistaken war. It’s time we start doing the same with Iraq. And the case of L. Paul Bremer — at once well intentioned, infuriating, and tragic — is the ideal place to anchor this kind of reexamination...


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