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An embarrassing indictment of the incompetence and hubris that affected almost every step of post-war decision-making.

Book Review: Imperial Life in the Emerald City – Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

In his April 2003 paper entitled, “A Unified Mission Plan for Post Hostilities Iraq,” retired Lt. General Jay Garner, the first chief executive of the Coalition Provisional Authority, wrote that “History will judge the war against Iraq not by the brilliance of its military execution, but by the effectiveness of the post-hostilities activities.” During the CPA’s yearlong reign in Iraq those activities were extremely ineffective as documented in Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post’s former Baghdad bureau chief. It is an embarrassing indictment of the incompetence and hubris that affected almost every step of post-war decision-making. “We were so busy trying to build a Jeffersonian democracy and a capitalist economy that we neglected the big picture,” an aide to L. Paul Bremer III, the second head of the CPA, admitted in late May 2004. “We squandered an enormous opportunity and we didn’t realize it until everything blew up in our faces.”

Through a series of interviews, Chandrasekaran makes clear in his reporting that the problems arise from many sources. Pettiness that would be expected between junior high school girls reigned at the Pentagon as they fought tooth and nail against many decisions made by State Department and those sympathetic to their ideas. The Americans in charge didn’t appear to care about what was best for Iraq or the United States. In the book, they come off like a bunch of sycophants and hot dogs who missed their chance to be cowboys in the American Old West and were joined by hucksters looking for a quick buck. Their ignorance of the Iraqi culture and at times of the job they were assigned caused major problems. There were also too many pro-business, free-market Republicans who couldn’t understand that their ideals of limited government couldn’t work in a place that now had no government after the U.S. military removed it.

Chandrasekaran shows that some volunteers weren’t qualified for the jobs they were assigned because James O’Beirne, White House Liaison to the Pentagon, was more interested in candidates having the “right political credentials,” according to Frederick Smith, Deputy Director of the CPA’s Washington office. O’Beirne wanted to know how a person voted in 2000 and their position on abortion, which was rather ironic considering how many lives were terminated early by the invasion of Iraq.  It explains why 24-year-old Jay Hallen, who had no background in economics or finance, was assigned to remake and rebuild the Baghdad Stock Exchange and why Frederick M Burkle, Jr., a physician with an impressive resume of degrees and international experience was replaced as the man in charge of fixing Iraq’s health-care system by social worker James K Haveman Jr., whose only related experience was being “a director for International Aid a faith-based relief organization that provided health care while promoting Christianity.” 

Of course, the turmoil caused by foreign fighters and insurgents added to the difficulties of the CPA and the Iraqi people. Chandrasekaran mentions a few incidents, but since his focus was on the Americans in the Green Zone, that aspect doesn't get full coverage.  Instead, he illustrates how many CPA decisions fueled strife and dissent among the Iraqis. John Agresto, the man assigned to fix Iraq’s university system, spoke with Chandrasekaran and felt “the establishing of a quota for Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds on the Governing Council, and then filling many of those seats with politicians and religious leaders who were more interested in doling out favors to their supporters than in doing what was best for their country” was a mistake. Making the Iraqis focus on their tribes added to the civil war fighting, although it did sound like the members of GC had acted no differently than the U.S. Congress and Senate.

The situation might have been handled better if other counties and the UN were allowed to help as the Iraqis wanted, to the Pentagon’s frustration. Although considering how deadly Iraq had become on a daily basis, and with Thomas Foley, the CPA official in charge of Iraq’s privatization and a Bush classmate, saying things like he didn’t “give a shit about International law,” it’s not hard to see why other countries weren’t interested in helping.

Chandrasekaran’s reporting is very good. He remains objective in his word choices when it would be so easy to attack and lambaste those in charge.  The book had a great pace as vignettes of Green Zone life broke up his investigating. I found myself almost laughing at the absurdity of it all, but this was no nonfictional Catch-22.  I became infuriated reading about the incompetence conducted in my country’s name in what is arguably the greatest foreign policy blunder in the past 40 years.

Furthermore, the author lays out a number of serious fraudulent practices by the company Custer Battles, including overbilling, which caused them to be sued on behalf of the U.S. government. An addendum should have been of benefit to the paperback explaining that a jury found Custer Battles guilty in March 2006, but the following August, Judge T.S. Ellis III overturned the verdict. In February 2007, the same judge dismissed fraud charges against the company in a case involving security for Baghdad International Airport.

Unlike Michael Moore, who creates an industry of nay-sayers and fact-checkers from his projects, I had trouble finding anything negative about Imperial Life in the Emerald City, which is not the case with Dan Senor, a Senior Advisor to Bremer. But Chandrasekaran easily dismissed his points

Many on the left cry out for members of the Bush administration to be charged with war crimes. At the very least, this book makes clear for the many Americans and Iraqis who have lost loved ones that a case for criminal negligence could be made. An anonymous CPA worker stated, “If [Iraq] succeeds, it will be in spite of what we did, not because of it.”

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS

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