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


Our readers are doubtless already familiar with the allegation that the Bush Administration made an epic mess of Iraq. But what exactly did they do wrong? Rajiv Chandrasekaran explores this in his account of the year and a bit immediately after the invasion, when the country was officially occupied.

Chandrasekaran was the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, and his access to information about backroom deals and infighting in both Washington and Baghdad is impressive. But this is no dry academic piece about how decisions are made, and the author talks to a variety of Iraqis and Americans about what is happening around them. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are vignettes about life in the Green Zone, which is so cut off from the realities of the rest of the country that it gets nicknamed the Emerald City, in a reference to the Wizard of Oz.

So just what could the occupying forces have done differently? De-Baathification and the dismissal of the army should already be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to Iraq, so let's discuss a few other issues. One that stands out is that loyalty, rather than competence, was the key attribute the Bush Administration wanted from its employees in Iraq. The people making hiring decisions was more concerned about whether the candidates for a given position were the right kind of Republican than about whether they had any knowledge of the field they'd be in. It is morbidly amusing to read about the 24-year old with no financial experience who was put in sole charge of reopening the Baghdad stock exchange.

A second problem was that Iraq was supposed to be a model for the rest of the region. Official Washington was so hellbent on installing fancy Western systems at every level of society from trade to traffic management that it made the perfect the enemy of the good. Furthermore, the Americans in Iraq had little respect for Iraqi culture or traditions, but wanted to impose their way of doing things, whether it came to holding elections or eating pork. Their paternalistic approach quickly made them many enemies, and they let slip not only the opportunities they had to make incremental improvements, but also whatever hope they had of having any influence at all.

Finally, the bureaucratic infighting involved was the stuff of legend. An ideologically blinkered Defense Department (led by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al) backed up by Vice President Cheney repeatedly went up against a more realistic State Department and CIA, with the National Security Council often intervening. At State, Powell had to push and shove to get any of his staffers meaningful positions since Defense believed the career Arabists working for him were not sufficiently optimistic about Iraq's prospects for success. Then, as things fell apart, the Coalition Provisional Authority ended up employing so much spin to cover its failings that people stopped paying attention to it.

If I have one criticism of what is a very well-written book, it is that Chandrasekaran makes practically no effort to disguise his biases. As soon as figures are introduced, the author introduces his after-the-fact opinions of them and their decisions. He is quick to attack the lack of qualifications on the part of many of the Republican staffers in Iraq who failed, but turns a blind eye to the fact that others with this handicap did fairly well, at least given the circumstances. And so even questionable figures are treated with kid gloves so long as the oppose the Administration.

Posted by dubaiwalla at January 17, 2008 03:27 PM
Filed Under: Iraq

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Comments

Posted by: eerie at January 22, 2008 01:26 PM

Oh. Ummm, oops?

Posted by: dubaiwalla [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2008 11:43 PM

There is no rule against multiple reviews. In fact, they might be a good idea.

Posted by: eerie at January 24, 2008 05:21 PM

No Oops mate, your view is ... well somewhat different, and more than one review is a good thing.

But "alleged incompetence" - come now, this is Aqoul - bloody fucking incompetence, period.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at January 25, 2008 03:55 PM

Better a double entry than none at all. But especially ok when a good one, as here.

Posted by: matthew hogan at January 26, 2008 09:46 PM

Now I finally read it. My ten-word review: Good story, worth reading, but a bit too slickly arranged.

Posted by: alle at April 5, 2008 12:08 PM

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