Monday, Sept. 18, noon E.T.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Monday, September 18, 2006; 12:00 PM

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, is an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post. He heads the Continuous News department, which reports and edits breaking news stories for washingtonpost.com, and he helps to shape the newspaper's overall multimedia strategy. From April 2003 to October 2004, he was The Post's bureau chief in Baghdad, covering the American occupation of Iraq and supervising a team of correspondents. He lived in Baghdad for much of the six months before the war, reporting on the United Nations weapons-inspections process and the build-up to the conflict. He was online to discuss his new book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, and to answer your questions.

The transcript follows:

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Hello everyone. I'm looking forward to chatting about my new book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. I'm looking forward to your questions. Fire away....

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New York City: A fascinating account in the Post. Can't wait to read the book. The question: to what extent did such behavior undermine the battle of hearts and minds in post-war Iraq?

Sandy

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question, Sandy. I believe that the Coalition Provisional Authority -- the U.S. occupation government in Iraq from April 2003 to June 2004 -- had a rare opportunity to resuscitate Iraq. It's hard to remember now, but back then the Iraqis were turly happy to be liberated from Saddam's government. They were eager for American help to reconstruct their country and they wanted U.S. forces to help establish order. But the CPA, in my view, squandered that goodwill by failing to bring the necessary resources to bear to rebuild Iraq and by not listening to what the Iraqis wanted -- or needed -- in terms of a postwar government. By sending, as I've written, the loyal and the willing over the best and the brightest, we hobbled our efforts there.

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San Luis Obispo, Calif.: Rajiv:

I will have to steel myself to read your book, Life in the Imperial City. Reading your excellent article in the Post Sunday was almost more than I could take. If it weren't so tragic, the unbelievable story of cronyism trumping competence in rebuilding Iraq would be funny.

My question: I consider myself to be well informed, but I didn't know that a 24-year-old with no background in finance was tapped by the Bush administration to run Iraq's stock exchange. And I didn't know that 20-year-olds with Bush campaign and Heritage Foundation credentials were running Iraq's $13-billion budget. Or that a guy with an unsuitable background was put in charge of Iraq's health system. Why didn't the media give us these specifics several years ago? And why didn't John Kerry and the Democrats pound the Republicans on these points during the 2004 campaign? Anybody with sense could foresee that these were incompetent choices to rebuild Iraq. Why weren't we voters given this information?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I've gotten a lot of questions like this one. If I had known all this at the time, I would have written about it in The Post. This wasn't a case of holding back the juicy details because it would make for a better book. The CPA was run like the Bush White House. Reporters weren't allowed to troll the halls without an escort from the Strategic Communications Office. And even if you could get a CPA staffer alone, it was tough to determine what was really going on. Many of them were told, in no uncertain terms, that they were not speak to reporters without a minder present. It wasn't until those CPA staffers returned home to the United States that some of them came to realize the mistakes of the occupation effort, and they felt more comfortable to talk about what happened.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: It's very nice that you're telling us all this now, but where was the reporting when it was happening?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: See above. That said, I did write several hard-hitting pieces about the CPA back in 2004. (We'll add some links to those stories in this chat.)

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washingtonpost.com: Mistakes Loom Large as Handover Nears: Missed Opportunities Turned High Ideals to Harsh Realities (Post, June 20, 2004)

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Alabama: Excellent article. I don't want to get into one of these tiresome "Blame the media" rants, but: Were these connections reported at the time? If not, why? I was sickened to read that people were being vetted on their abortion stance; I suspect many other people would have felt the same in 2003.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: See above.

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West Orange, N.J.: What share of Iraq's parliament and cabinet spend most of their time inside the Green Zone? How many people enter and leave it daily?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Iraq's prime minster and many cabinet ministers live and work in the Green Zone, which has since been renamed the International Zone. They do so because it's still far safer than other parts of Baghdad. What it means, however, is that they are, to some extent, also as cut off from ordinary Iraqis as the Americans who live there.

But let me be clear: I'm not saying that Americans, or even members of Iraq's government, should live and work outside the Green Zone now. It's too dangerous. But what I say in my book is that during the first months after the liberation of Baghdad, when it wasn't so dangerous, the Americans should have spent more time interacting with people outside the Emerald City.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Why didn't Bremer resist, more than he apparently did, when incompetent people were dumped on him? Did he know? Did he care?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Bremer was among those most frustrated with the recruitment process. Soon after Bremer arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, he concluded that his occupation administration needed hundreds more Americans with expertise in economic development, health care, education and other countless other specialties required to run a nation. When his repeated pleas to the White House for skilled professionals went unheeded, he dispatched one of his top aides to Washington to recruit staff for the CPA.

The aide, Reuben Jeffrey III, a former Goldman Sachs banker, approached the problem like a businessman would: He hired two executive headhunters to scour the government and the private sector for talent. They agreed to report within days to the CPA's Washington office, located in the Pentagon. But on headhunters' first week on the job, O'Beirne's staff issued them new orders: Clean out your desks and leave the building by the end of the day. The recruitment of people to work for the CPA, the staffers said, was O'Beirne's sole domain.

Although Jeffrey interceded and managed to keep them in the building, it was clear he had lost the turf war. The headhunters were told their roles were restricted to helping interview and process applicants who had already been screened by O'Beirne's staff.

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Stafford, Va.: Yesterday's excerpt (Wash Post) from your book makes it a must read for me...your quote about hiring the "loyal and the willing instead of the best and the brightess" is priceless!! Do you know if things have changed?? Are they placing qualified people in key positions in Iraq now??

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The CPA was dissolved when Ambassador Bremer returned governing authority to the Iraqis in June 2004. The CPA was replaced with an American embassy that is staffed with professional diplomats. The result has been that far more people with Arabic language skills, experience in the Middle East and post-conflict reconstruction skills are working in Baghdad.

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Silver Spring, Md.: So from your answer to the first question, I'm guessing you belong to the camp that believes we could have pulled off a successful transition in Iraq--if we'd done it right--rather than the camp that says that there was always something incoherent about the project of bring a democratic peace to a divided country at the point of a gun??? Also, have things changed? Or are the b & b now staying away from Iraq because it's a lost cause??? Many thanks

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Rebuilding and governing Iraq was always going to be a challenging task. Even if we had done things better, I don't think we could have prevented an insurgency or civil strife among Sunnis and Shiites. But I do believe that if the U.S. government had approached the situation differently, perhaps the insurgency would be smaller in scope and scale, and perhaps there would be somewhat less religious fighting.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: So okay, what is your solution for Iraq now and what historical evidence do you have that it will work? We have enough Monday morning quarterbacks.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I don't have a magic bullet solution for Iraq. That's not the point of my book. What I've tried to do is explain what happened in the Green Zone in the first 15 months after the fall of Saddam's government -- the mistakes that were made, how the people who were responsible for governing and reconstruucting Iraq lived in a bubble that was cut off from the rest of the country.

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Washington, D.C.: Along with the reported dumping of bricks of cash into the desert your article makes it sound like we are wasting our resources at all levels. Is Congress overseeing the failure of the CPA employees or are they more concerned about the outside contractors and missing funds?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Congressional oversight of the CPA was extremely limited. There were very few tough questions asked of Bremer by Congress while he was CPA administrator.

Some of the best investigative work into the operations and business practices of the CPA has been performed by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

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Pelham, Mass.: Dear Rajiv,

Great article yesterday, and stunning to read of the extent of the nepotism and misguided policy that was applied in the staffing of the CPA. My question is: Are there any parts of Iraq that are operating sustainably in terms of food, medicine, and energy at the present time? Also, what are your expectations in terms of how things will develop there? Will the Kurds form an autonomous state? How will things be organized in terms of infrastructure in a year or two, given the present chaos?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Well, the Kurdish north is operating reasonably well, but they've been largely autonomous since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. There are fewer insurgent attacks in the southern parts of Iraq, but I do not believe that suggests that those places are stable. Large parts of the south are wracked by rivalries among various Shiite political factions, including Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Iran is exercising a fair degree of influence over local affairs in parts of the south.

Many ordinary Kurds want to form a separate state, but thus far, the two most powerful Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, have committed the Kurds to remaining part of Iraq.

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Charlottesville, Va.: The article is depressing but the book, along with Ricks', appears to be must reading for understanding what the present is going to bring in the future. Hopefully we will have people with better judgment. But these circumstances were well known by some. In mid-2004 I was in Paris and a French mid-East scholar told me he knew that the US State Department was full of good, knowledgable people about the region. He couldn't understand why they were not involved in the then Iraq.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks. There were several talented Middle East specialists from the State Department who were either kept out of Iraq or kept away from Bremer's inner circle. The best example is Tom Warrick, who headed the Future of Iraq Project, which was an effort to work with Iraqi exiles to prepare for governing and reconstructing post-Saddam Iraq. Fortunately, Warrick is now working closely with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

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Alexandria, Va.: At National Review, and confessing he's friends with the people involved, Ramesh Ponnuru suggests you have some basic problems of competency yourself when it comes to the facts. Will you be addressing the idea that you're spinning this war against the Bushies?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I haven't read his piece, but I'll do so after this chat.

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Washington, D.C.: Given the situation now, do you think that we will be able to prevent a civil war in Iraq?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I certainly hope so. It pains me to see the daily reports of violence there. But preventing a broader civil war isn't going to be easy. The Interior Ministry security forces need to be purged of members of Shiite militias. The Iraqi government needs to bring more Sunnis into posiitons of power. The national parliament needs to address issues of federalism and regional autonomy in a way that doesn't leave Sunnis feeling like they've lost out. And, perhaps most important, U.S. and Iraqi troops need to create conditions -- first in Baghdad, then elsewhere -- that make Shiites and Sunnis feel like they can live side-by-side as they have for generations.

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Rockville, Md.: Do you agree with people who've argued that American forces used targeted violence at journalists? Or did you have an opinion on snarky right-wingers saying reporters in the green zone just report from balconies?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I don't believe that the U.S. military has deliberately targeted journalists. Working in a war zone is dangerous and sometime people, journalists included, get caught in the crossfire. But I don't believe our troops -- for whom I have the utmost respect -- have gone after, or are going after, reporters.

As to your second question, I did not live in the Green Zone. I lived outside, in what some have called the Red Zone. Sure, I went into the Green Zone regularly to report, but I spent all of my nights in Iraq outside the Emerald City.

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San Antonio, Tex.: Once these former CPA staffers returned to the U.S.'s shores, how did you get them to open up about their experiences when serving in Bremer's Green Zone? Do they locate you, once the word was on the street that you were writing a book, or was it easy for you to locate them? How do they feel about their "service" in the Green Zone once they are no longer on the scene? Are they using their CPA experience to piggyback to even more important jobs, administration or non-administration, in the U.S.?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Some did contact me, but most of the people I interviewed were people I contacted. I had met some of them in Baghdad. Others I met for the first time back in the United States. I wasn't easy to track people down since there wasn't a list of where everyone went; most people went back to their old jobs in government or in the private sector. In some cases, people have used their involvement with the CPA to land new, and better, jobs in the government. Most of them are political appointees.

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Virginia: Were there any CPA staffer who refused to talk to you?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Yes. There were several who refused to talk to me. But that's their right. Nobody has to cooperate with an author. But I was surprised with the number of people who opted to talk, often at length. Most of them, incidentally, were Republicans. They agreed to talk, and voice criticism of the CPA and some of the Bush administration's policies toward Iraq, because they want to prevent such mistakes from happening again.

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There were stories...: The Post did report on this in May 2004. Too bad voters and the television media found the "Swift Boat" stuff to be more newsworthy...

In Iraq, the Job Opportunity of a Lifetime Managing a $13 Billion Budget With No Experience

By Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks for pointing that out. Ariana's story was excellent.

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Providence, R.I.: I read the excellent aricle about your book and can't wait to read the book now. This stuff should be in the front page across all newspapers and TV news. It is a issue with journalists not asking the right questions or are media owners discouraging the negative publicity of this White House?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Please see my earlier response. I tried my best to understand how the CPA operated and describe it in stories at the time. As for media owners, I should note that my editors here at The Post have never told me to soft-pedal any of my reports from Iraq. At the same time, they haven't encouraged me to emphasize one element of the story, or one side of a story, over another. They have wanted me to be fair, and that's what I think I've been with the book.

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks for all of the insightful questions. I'm sorry I wasn't able to answer all of them. Hopefully I'll be able to come back for an encore sometime in the future.

And now for a shameless plug: The article in Sunday's paper is adapted from my book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. You can find it in bookstores or from online booksellers. If you want more information about it, or want to contact me, visit my personal Website, www.rajivc.com/

Thanks.

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