He might have the toughest detail this war has to offer. Jay Garner, the retired Army general and former Star Wars commander, is currently holed up at a Hilton resort near Kuwait City, trying to make sense of his mission. Appointed by Donald Rumsfeld in late January as chief of the Pentagon’s controversial Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, Garner is in charge of coordinating the military’s reconstruction effort in Iraq and insuring that democracy can take hold once the last Bradley fighting vehicle rolls out of Baghdad.
But Garner, at 64, is in many ways spectacularly unsuited for the job. He won accolades for his supervision of refugee operations after the first Gulf War, but since he left military service for the military industry in 1997, Garner’s record has been checkered with charges of corporate cronyism and allegiances to neocon hawks and Israeli right-wingers. That history could make his mission a lot tougher–or even sabotage it entirely.
Garner’s duties are superhuman: to oversee planning for a new Iraqi government, supervise the construction of every water tower and school, and appease the gamut of political, religious and corporate factions clawing for Iraqi turf while winning the confidence of more than 24 million war-scarred citizens. He must also quell growing fears at the United Nations, the State Department and the CIA that Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has stolen control of postwar Iraq–and will claim the spoils of war.
Defense officials contend he’s a unique commander who shares Rumsfeld’s vision for a prominent military role in postwar peacekeeping. Garner led the Kurdish refugee campaign Operation Provide Comfort in 1991, a mission generally deemed successful by aid workers. The Kurds didn’t want Garner to leave, it was then reported, and hoisted the decorated general on their shoulders like a newborn emperor.
His résumé, however, has changed since then. While on “sabbatical” since January from SY Coleman, Iraq’s viceroy-to-be remains the paid president of this defense company, which makes components for logistical and surveillance products deployed all over Iraq.
“He’s a conflict-of-interest disaster,” says John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. “Garner doesn’t know how to build democracy. He knows how to build weapons systems and kill people.” He also knows how to win big military contracts.
Curiously, only months after Garner got his new job at the Pentagon, SY Coleman’s parent company, L-3 Communications, was blessed with the group’s biggest contract to date: a $1.5 billion daisy to provide logistical services on the Iraqi frontlines and elsewhere. While it’s unclear what role Garner played in pushing that contract–an L-3 spokesman did not return calls–critics have questioned other sweetheart deals that went his way.
This past fall, federal investigators began looking at a fishy contract SY Coleman (then SY Technologies) had won from the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, which Garner once directed, without having to bid on it. Shortly after the $48 million award was announced, it was withdrawn for lack of funds, and inspectors chose not to probe further.
The allegations were first made public last summer by a Colorado-based civilian inspector named Biff Baker, who’d been hired by a Defense Department subcontractor in 2001 to assess military contracts. Baker said he found that Garner had used connections with old colleagues to send millions’ worth of wasteful contracts toward SY Tech. Garner denied the charges and then bombed Baker with a libel lawsuit. (Baker accepted a gag order in a settlement in January.)
Garner may soon face a libel suit of his own. A SY competitor, DESE Research, claims Garner trashed its top execs during meetings with military contracting officials who had previously been under his command, all in an effort to steer business SY’s way. DESE attorney Howell Riggs confirmed that a suit against Garner and SY Coleman charging “tortious interference, slander and conspiracy” would be filed in the coming months.
“The general rule: You don’t do business with people you worked with,” says Steven Schooner, a professor of procurement law at George Washington University. “At the very least, it creates the appearance of impropriety.” Garner’s spokesperson did not return calls.
“Jay’s very aggressive and did what he could to pull contracts, even if that meant pulling strings,” a former top industry executive who worked closely with Garner told The Nation. Given the Pentagon’s habit of awarding contracts close to home (Dick Cheney’s Halliburton) and the conflicts of interest among key advisers (Richard Perle), Garner’s history of strong-arming military dollars does little to burnish the office’s lofty goals.
What might unsettle Iraqis most are the political ties Garner has developed while hawking military goods and services to Israel, such as the components SY makes for the Arrow and Patriot missile defense systems. In 1998 Garner took an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel on behalf of a right-wing think tank, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. He later put his name to a controversial statement blaming Palestinians for violence in Israel and suggesting a democratic makeover of the Middle East.
“He’s a wild political miscalculation,” says Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who predicts that an American occupation of Iraq could look a lot like the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. “The efforts at reconstruction couldn’t be designed better to give the wrong impression.” The result, Ibish says, could be mass resistance to Garner, his team on the ground and even independent relief agencies. To avoid that, an activist has founded StopJayGarner.com, where guests can sign letters calling for Garner’s resignation.
But for Garner to step down could also be a costly miscalculation, leading to more instability within Iraq. Instead, Garner’s ambitious role should be redefined and many of his duties doled out to officials from legitimate relief agencies. If he fully divests of his stakes in SY, Garner could prove to be an asset–as, say, military liaison to a reconstruction effort led by the United Nations. But the humanitarian mop-up should be left to the humanitarians, and governance to the Iraqis.