Imperial Life in the Emerald City (by Rajiv Chandrasekaran)

Mistakes Were Made

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Reviewed by Moisés Naím
Sunday, September 17, 2006

IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY

Inside Iraq's Green Zone

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Knopf. 320 pp. $25.95

When President Bush announced in May 2003 that he was appointing L. Paul Bremer as the top U.S. civilian official in Iraq, I received an e-mail from one of his former business colleagues: "I just heard that Jerry [Bremer's nickname] will be running Iraq. And the Iraqis thought that the worst we could do was to bomb them."

At the time, I just smiled and dismissed the message. Three years later, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's extraordinary book made me realize how tragically prescient that e-mail had been. Imperial Life in the Emerald City is full of jaw-dropping tales of the myriad large and small ways in which Bremer and his team poured fuel into the lethal cauldron that is today's Iraq. He was not alone and had many eager and powerful partners in Washington, Baghdad and elsewhere. Still, by reporting on daily life and decision making inside the Green Zone, the cloistered compound that housed Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Chandrasekaran shows how incomplete our conventional wisdom is about what went wrong in Iraq.

That common wisdom holds that while the decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein is still open to debate, American mismanagement of the country after the invasion is not. Even the Bush administration's staunchest supporters now accept that "mistakes were made" and admit that, for example, dismantling the Iraqi army and driving out officials tied to the old dictatorship's Baath Party (both policies that Bremer championed) were bad ideas. But often implicit in this dominant interpretation is a complacent understanding, even a justification, of U.S. mistakes made during the occupation. After all, goes the thinking, ethnic divisions, suicidal Islamist fanatics, decades of oppression and decay, and all sorts of other obstacles conspired against the success of the bold American enterprise.

It is hard to hold that view after reading this book. Chandrasekaran, now an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, was The Post's Baghdad bureau chief in 2003-04 and has a keen eye for the small detail that illuminates larger truths. He clearly suggests that the self-inflicted wounds created by CPA ineptitude, arrogance and ignorance were far from inevitable. Nor, he shows, were they minor causes of the mess the United States faces today in Iraq. Imperial Life in the Emerald City documents the way that an avalanche of unjustifiable mistakes transformed a difficult mission into an impossible one.

Take, for example, the story of Frederick M. Burkle Jr., a Navy reserve officer and physician with two Bronze Stars whom a colleague describes as "the single most talented and experienced post-conflict health specialist working for the United States government." Burkle was ousted a week after Baghdad's liberation because, he was told by his superiors, the White House preferred to have a Bush "loyalist" in charge of health matters in Iraq. Burkle was replaced (fully two months later) by James K. Haveman Jr., a social worker whose experience as the community-health director for Michigan's former Republican governor, John Engler, had followed a stint running "a large Christian adoption agency in Michigan that urged pregnant women not to have abortions." Haveman had also traveled widely "in his capacity as a director of International Aid, a faith-based relief organization that provided health care while promoting Christianity in the developing world." (That pro-life stance was not uncommon in the CPA: Two staffers report being asked during their job interviews if they supported the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling.) Chandrasekaran's rendition of Haveman's performance in Iraq makes for unnerving reading: the launch of an antismoking campaign while hospitals lacked pain killers; the emphasis on preventive medicine in a country ravaged by a bloody insurgency; an attempt to refashion Iraq's health care system with a U.S.-inspired model based on private providers, co-payments and primary care while newborns routinely died for lack of incubators.

Or take the case of Capt. John Smathers, a reservist and personal-injury lawyer charged with bringing some order to the chaotic traffic jams that ensued after U.S. authorities eliminated all import duties and the country was flooded by imported used cars. The solution? Download Maryland's motor-vehicle code from the Internet, translate it into Arabic and, after much haggling and revision, have Bremer sign it into law. CPA Order 86 included provisions such as, "Pedestrians walking during darkness or cloudy weather shall wear light or reflective clothing."

Micromanaging and emulating U.S. institutions was also the instinct of Jay Hallen, the clueless 24-year-old in charge of reopening the Baghdad stock market. His approach was to create one patterned after the New York Stock Exchange. (No, it didn't work.) Nor was Hallen the only inexperienced twentysomething CPA staffer given responsibilities for which he was utterly unprepared. Six of the "ten young gofers" that the CPA had requested from the Pentagon to handle minor administrative tasks found themselves managing Iraq's $13-billion budget. Where did the Pentagon recruit them? From the Heritage Foundation; they had sent their resumes there, looking for work in that conservative think tank.

When so much money is combined with organizational chaos, a state of emergency and the expectation that powerful friends in Washington would provide any needed cover, corruption is inevitable. Sure enough, Chandrasekaran offers tales of corruption among American contractors that read like dispatches from a kleptocratic banana republic.

Readers should avoid the temptation to dismiss Imperial Life in the Emerald City as yet another book documenting America's misadventures in Iraq. That of course it is, but the book offers more than a dispatch from the trenches. Chandrasekaran does not set out to score partisan points or unveil large geopolitical lessons; he is, essentially, a reporter telling readers what he saw. Yet it is impossible to read his book without thinking about the larger implications of the story he tells.

What caused the massive collapse of common sense that doomed the CPA and undermined the U.S. gamble in Iraq? That is the question that every page tacitly forces on the reader. American ingenuity, pragmatism and practical approaches to problem-solving are legendary. But Chandrasekaran shows that what reigned in Iraq was massive incompetence, patently unfeasible schemes, naive expectations and arrogance fueled by ignorance. His book methodically documents the baffling ineptitude that dominated U.S. attempts to influence Iraq's fiendish politics, rebuild the electrical grid, privatize the economy, run the oil industry, recruit expert staff or instill a modicum of normalcy to the lives of Iraqis. Nor are the book's complaints Monday-morning quarterbacking. The CPA's failings caused widespread grumbling at the time. Chandrasekaran tells of a message board on which some Marines had drawn a gravestone inscribed with the words "COMMON SENSE." The caption underneath it read: "Killed by the CPA."

Why? What happened? Chandrasekaran does not try to answer these questions directly. But his indispensable book offers powerful hints as to what the likely answers are. Bremer's regency suffered from too much unaccountable political power, too much carelessly spent money and too many ideological certitudes. Those conditions allowed incompetence, petty partisanship, patronage, nepotism and corruption to thrive. That is why "mistakes were made" -- and Chandrasekaran gets us away from that passive-voice formulation to show who, precisely, made them. Those mistakes go a long way toward explaining why success in Iraq is proving so tragically elusive. ·

Moisés Naím is editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine and the author of "Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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