OP-ED | Tom Foley’s Time in Iraq, And Why it Matters
In 2003, President George W. Bush, fresh off the conquest of Iraq, needed a director of private sector development for the new Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which would govern the country from Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. He found an old Harvard classmate running a business specializing in corporate “turnarounds,” and offered him the job. Thomas C. Foley of Greenwich accepted.
Foley’s hire, given that he’d raised a ton of money for the 2000 Bush campaign, drew some speculation that it was a reward. Foley saw it instead as his skills being put to use. “[President Bush] knows that I have been involved in operating companies and particularly had done some turnaround work and managed companies in high-stress situations,” Foley told AFP at the time. “Does this sound [like] a reward? It sounds like the short straw.” And so off he went.
It’s surprisingly hard to pin down specifically what Tom Foley did in Iraq. Major sources on the CPA or the war in general tend to gloss over or ignore him. His campaign, when I contacted them for information, said that in addition to creating a privatization plan for Iraq’s state-owned businesses, “Mr. Foley [oversaw] 160 or so of Iraq’s state-owned enterprises. He was also responsible for restoring the foundations of a private-sector economy including a new stock exchange, a new commercial code, new credit-based lending, for example.”
Mostly it seems that Foley was concerned with the plan to privatize Iraq’s creaking state-owned enterprises — a plan that was eventually torpedoed by the Iraqis over fears the companies would be sold to foreign firms, among other things.
Other than that, was he successful? A RAND Corporation report from 2009 argued that the CPA was at least partially successful in reviving Iraq’s economy, pointing to vast growth in post-conflict GDP. “The CPA achieved these results,” says the RAND report, “By curbing inflation, issuing a new currency . . . reducing external tariffs, reforming the banking system, expanding liquidity, and stimulating consumer demand.”
Foley clearly played a role in some of this. “Mr. Foley’s team accomplished a lot while there,” his campaign said, including “. . . a modern stock market, a well-functioning, western-style commercial code, restored sources of credit for businesses and individuals, and so forth.”
But that isn’t all there is to the story. The book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post portrays the CPA as hopeless bunglers, and Foley as incompetent. “After Foley had been in Baghdad for a few months,” writes Chandrasekaran, “Bremer concluded that he wasn’t the right guy for the job, but he was a friend of the president. Bremer told people in the palace that Foley was ‘untouchable.’” The book also suggested that Foley actually stood in the way of the re-opening of the stock market, wanted to privatize everything within 30 days, and when told that seizing state companies would violate international law, he said “I don’t give a s*** about international law.”
Foley denied Chandrsekaran’s accusations during a 2010 interview with the Connecticut Post, calling the book “fiction.” Imperial Life in the Emerald City won the 2007 BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, and is still one of the most-cited works on the CPA.
As for whether his Iraq experience ties into how he might run Connecticut, Foley’s campaign said that there are “few lessons that could be applied to Connecticut.” One lesson could be that “. . . centrally planned economies and over-involved government do not work, but that lesson was obvious before Mr. Foley’s arrival.”
So why do we care?
Mostly, it’s relevant because it helps us understand the kind of man who might be our next governor. How does he work in incredibly high-pressure situations? Can he deliver?
It also matters because Iraq has bubbled back up into the American consciousness lately. Sectarian extremists have taken over many cities, leaving the U.S. and the feeble Iraqi government scrambling for a solution. “Mr. Foley believes the hope he had for the long-term outcome in Iraq . . . has been dashed by President Obama’s desertion of the Iraqi people and our interests there when he withdrew all our troops in 2012,” Foley’s campaign said.
Of course, there are those who see the invasion of Iraq, and the rise of sectarian violence that happened under the CPA’s watch, as the ultimate cause of today’s bloodshed.
In the end, Foley was part of one of the most controversial chapters of our recent history. For that reason alone, it’s worth knowing the facts about his time in Iraq.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.