The retired general who briefly led America's postwar Iraq reconstruction efforts said Tuesday that the war was a mistake, calling it one of many foreign-policy missteps that have emboldened U.S. enemies and contributed to unrest throughout the world.
Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, a Windermere resident, spoke Tuesday to a breakfast group of 50 Rotarians at Windermere Town Hall to share his expertise on the Middle East and discuss Iraq, Iran and the conflict in the Gaza Strip.
"We should never have gone to war with Iraq," he told the Orlando Sentinel after the speech. President George W. Bush, he said, "let his advisers talk him into it. ... Plus, he had a burr in his saddle on Iraq because they made an assassination attempt on his father."
Now 76, Garner was appointed the first director of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance after the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and regularly visits the Middle East on business, having returned from Israel two weeks ago.
Garner served just one month as the chief civilian administrator in Iraq and was replaced by L. Paul Bremer III.
"The thing you need to realize is that the Iraq we created was not an ally of the United States," said Garner, whose plan for stabilizing postwar Iraq differed from what was carried out under Bremer. "The Iraq we created was an ally of Iran."
In his short-lived term as chief civilian administrator in Iraq, Garner had used Saddam Hussein's Baathist loyalists in crucial positions.
When Bremer took over, however, he issued decrees banning thousands of Baathists from being part of the government and dismantling the 500,000-member Iraqi army. Those moves have since been criticized by military historians as mistakes contributing to the instability in Iraq that aided the insurgency.
In an interview with the PBS investigative-news program "Frontline" in 2006, Garner called America's postwar decisions avoidable mistakes.
"I think that we stood a chance," Garner told the PBS program. "We would at least have [had] an opportunity to have a different outcome."
In that same interview, Garner said he did not know why he was replaced so quickly, but that the plan was always for him to serve temporarily, calling himself a "lame duck" as soon as he arrived in Baghdad.
On Tuesday, Garner described Iraq as a historically "fractured country" and said the U.S. hoped it would evolve as Kurdistan has.
The region in northern Iraq, sharing a border with U.S. ally Turkey and inhabited by Kurdish people, is guided by a constitution and has held Democratic elections. Kurds fought with the U.S. against Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"We need to ensure that Kurdish Iraq survives," Garner said. "They're Democratic; they're very, very pro-American. They sit in one of the most strategic locations in the Middle East, with our enemies to the east, west and south ... and they're oil-rich."
As for the rest of Iraq, Garner said the U.S. should walk away from a country splintered by religious factions.
"I think we should only provide enough troops in Iraq to ensure our people in the embassy are safe and can be evacuated if necessary," he said. "I don't think we should ever get involved in an Arab-on-Arab war. I don't think we should ever get involved in a religious war."
After his talk, he also expressed disappointment with every president who followed the elder George Bush.
"I grew up absolutely in love with this country and believing everything the government said," said Garner, who served in the U.S. Army from 1962 until 1997. "In the last 10 years, I've gotten so disenchanted with the government, so disappointed with it."
He criticized President Barack Obama's decision to first threaten Syria with military action over a stockpile of chemical weapons and then back off.
"We drew a red line in the sand with Syria, and then we cowardly backed away from it, sending a message to all of our enemies that we're all bark and no bite," Garner said.
"You look at what's happened since we did that: North Korea's been firing missiles right and left all over to show they can attack from anywhere in their country; the Chinese have been pushing us around in the Far East; Russians have taken over Ukraine, and they don't care what we think about it; Hamas is now attacking Israel; and we've got this regional war going on in Iraq. That's all because we showed everybody we're all bark and no bite."
Weighing in on the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, Garner voiced strong support for Israel, which, he said, was responding correctly to rocket attacks from its enemies. He also criticized the media for overplaying the carnage and suffering of Palestinians in Gaza while failing to report enough on the indiscriminate firing of more than 1,600 rockets and missiles into Israel during the past 10 days.
"People say, 'Well, the Israelis ought to back off,'" Garner told his audience. "Hell, no, they shouldn't back off. They need to go in there and clean all that up," he said to applause.