Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Review: Imperial Life in the Emerald City
Imperial Life in the Emerald City CoverBy Rajiv Chandrasekaran. ISBN 1-4000-4487-1. The author's depiction of post-war Iraq is definitely colored by a strongly-held point of view. His descriptions of what he encountered are at times absolutely merciless. Yet the facts, which Chandrasekaran lays out with careful and deliberate precision, seem to merit his scorn. The first half of the book recounts the lack of planning following the invasion and the extraordinary hubris that followed. One week before the United States pulled down Saddam's statue, the section of the "Unified Mission Plan for Post Hostilities Iraq" pertaining to civil administration had yet to include a mission statement, a concept of operations, or any timelines. The retired U.S. Ambassador assigned to manage Iraq's Foreign Ministry, left in the dark by the government, turned to an internet message board for guidance. As massive looting and riots ravaged Baghdad after the invasion, the Americans assigned to manage the provisional government tried to match the buildings being pillaged on CNN with their assigned ministries. "It was like, 'There goes your ministry!' 'There goes mine!'" Chandrasekaren quotes the interim minister recalling. The list of sites that needed security never made it to the military, leading to Secretary Rumsfeld's infamous explanation that "freedom's untidy." Decision-making before and after the invasion Secretary Powell at the State Department against Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney at the Pentagon. The intelligence and advice coming out of State conflicted with the Pentagon's vision of a democratic, Western-friendly Iraq. When L. Paul Bremer was appointed to lead the provisional authority, he came to Iraq with the desire "to make some bold decisions." His boldest decisions came right out of the gate, with the first two Coalition Provisional Authority Orders. Order Number 1 called for the "De-Ba`athifcation of Iraqi Society", banned anyone from the top four tiers of Sadaam's party from future employment in the public sector. This resulted in the firing of just about everyone with specialized knowledge needed to run the country, along with nearly all of the teachers. Order Number 2 disbanded the Iraqi military, putting 250,000 - 300,000 military-trained personnel out on the street, with a grudge against the people who did it. They would come to form the backbone of the Sunni insurgency. Example after example follows.

The second half of the book, in which the CPA (nicknamed "Can't Produce Anything" by the U.S. military forces within the Green Zone) eats humble pie time and time again, is bookended by violence. It opens with the October 26, 2003 rocket attacks against the Al-Rasheed hotel, which shattered the illusion of peace and safety from within the fortified Green Zone, and more or less ends with two crucial military engagements: the March 19, 2004 ambush of three Army humvees in Sadr City that followed Bremer's decision to silence al-Sadr's Al-Hawza newspaper and the all-out assault on the city of Fallujah in April 2004 launched in retaliation for the brutal deaths of four defense contractors. Chandrasekaren does find a few positive forces in the mix. Jim Otwell, the outspoken and pragmatic fight fighter from Buffalo, separated the fight directorate from the corrupt police force and got funding to replace the equipment damaged in the initial looting. Because of his work with the firefighter's union in upstate New York gave him the most experience with labor relations in the CPA, he is tasked to be the interim minister of labor and social affairs. In this role, he fought to stop food subsidies from being monetized: the women handled the food rations, he noticed, and there would be no guarantee that the men would spend the equivalent money as efficiently. Steve Browning, a specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers, was put in charge of four ministries in the immediate aftermath of the war. As head of the health ministry, he got generators for all the Iraqi hospitals. Despite not being an electricity expert, he was tasked with restoring electrical output to pre-war levels, and accomplished it in just over two months. But for the most part, the second half of the book chronicles the idealistic but unqualified and unrealistic CPA staffers butting up against the entrenched Iraqi status quo and the consequences of their own incompetence. Browning's plan for future development of the electrical grid, for instance, envisioned small power plants close to communities, so the locals would have an incentive not to sabotage them. Instead, the CPA decided on massive power plants that became targets for insurgent attacks and were still uncompleted when sovereignty was handed back to the Iraqis. His replacement at the Health Ministry envisioned a system of local clinics and unsubsidized medicine while the hospitals lacked sterile conditions and basic equipment. In the epilogue, nonpartisan diplomats and technocrats from the State Department with local expertise and fluency in Arabic take over as the Republican Palace becomes America's largest embassy, but in Chandrasekaren's view it's too little, too late. "If this place succeeds," one CPA employee told the author amid departure preparations, "it will be in spite of what we did, not because of it."

Adam Lenhardt is a print journalist from Albany, NY. He currently reviews films from Boston.
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