Sunday, October 01, 2006

Review of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (2006) by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book based on his reporting for the Washington Post from Iraq has gotten a lot of much-deserved attention. When the history of the disaster known as the Iraq War is written in later years, books like Chandrasekaran's will be among the more important sources. Imperial Life in the Emerald City should be particularly useful in this regard, because it draws extensively on interviews with participants in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that ruled Iraq from shortly after the American invasion of 2003 until near the end of June 2004.

The basic outlines of the record of the CPA are known. But Imperial Life not only adds a great deal of detail to the well-known story. It also conveys a haunting sense of the CPA's hopeless distance from the people it was ruling. Chandrasekaran tellingly refers to CPA chief Ambassador Jerry Bremer throughout as the American "viceroy" in Iraq. Viceroy is a title from the days of British colonial rule. Bremer was never officially called that. But by using that title, Chandrasekaran helps the reader cut through the almost magical language used by the Bush administration to desribe what was happening in Iraq.

"Emerald City" was a fond but cynical nickname given to the American-controlled Green Zone by the CPA's American employees, based on the fictional residence of the Wizard of Oz. The Green Zone is a fortified section of Baghdad where Saddam Hussein's national government was headquartered, as were the CPA and subsequent Iraqi governments. That the nickname Emerald City comes from a children's story makes an excellent metaphor for the inexperience of so much of the CPA staff.

The book left a few strong impressions with me. A lot of the problems the CPA experienced in Iraq are symbolized by the fact that so few of the CPA's employees spoke Arabic. That in itself was more than a symbolic problem, of course. It was a very practical problem in itself.

If you were a loyal Republican, you could go to the Emerald City

With so few Arabic speakers, it almost goes without saying that the CPA wound up with few people who were actual experts in anything about Iraq. The State Department had some, but Rummy's Pentagon didn't want them. They weren't reliable ideologically. But the CPA was the occupation government and had to run the entire civil government of the country.

The history of the brief life of the CPA reads like the story of a software startup company. One that blows through huge amounts of venture capital, delivers a lousy product late, and goes bankrupt after a little more than a year. The CPA was a startup, an organization that had to be pulled together on the fly while its market, the demand for government services, exploded. (In the context, maybe "expanded rapidly" would be better than "exploded".) To complete the Silicon Valley analogy, the CPA was trying to revolutionize its industry without hiring experienced software engineers, and most of the ones they did hire didn't know the right programming language.

Imperial City would actually be a useful book for a management study of an ad hoc organization pulled together with a time-limited mission. Chandrasekaran provides a lot of rich information about the organizational dynamic at work of the kind that such a study would require.

Looters ransacked Baghdad and other cities; Rummy said freedom was "untidy"

One thing that Imperial City makes clear in several different ways is that the massive looting in Baghdad just after the fall of the city to the Americans had a catastrophic impact on the American - excuse me, "coalition" - mission there. In one of his most bizarre public performances, Rummy brushed off its significance with giggles and his famous observation that "stuff happens".

Rummy was determined to use the Iraq War as a showcase for his version of "military transformation", which relied heavily on high-tech warfare (read: heavy reliance on air power) and a minimal number of troops. So when Baghdad fell and the Baath regime suddenly dissolved, the Army didn't have enough troops to keep order. Rummy was careful to make sure the Oil Ministry building was protected. But he allowed all the others to be looted. "Freedom's untidy," he said. Indeed. So is anarchy.

Jeffrey Record of the US Air Force Air College desccribes the problem in Dark Victory: America's Second War Against Iraq (2004):

A scarcity of force on the ground, fear of acting like an imperial occupier, inadequate planning, poor execution, bureaucratic infighting between the State and Defense Departments, and the prospect of occupation "fatigue" all combined to produce anarchy in Baghdad for almost two months after the collapse of Saddam's regime and to raise doubts concerning U.S. staying power in Iraq. Since order was the precondition for the accomplishment of all other occupation tasks, the failure to establish it in Baghdad and other parts of the country delayed implementation of such critical jobs as restoring electricity, providing potable water sources, and distributing humanitarian relief supplies. "What does it say about the situation when criminals can move freely about the city and humanitarian workers cannot?" asked a senior CARE staff member in Baghdad in May 2003.

The combination of massive looting, arson, and other criminal activity was in the first instance a function of woefully insufficient numbers of "boots on the ground." A Pentagon leadership determined to prove that a relatively small ground combat force could conquer a country the size of Iraq seems not to have recognized that that same force would be inadequate to accomplish U.S. postwar objectives in Iraq. Only about 150,000 coalition troops were needed in Iraq to win the war, but more were required to secure the peace. Commented army lieutenant general David D. McKiernan, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq: "Imagine spreading 150,000 soldiers in the state of California and then ask yourself, 'Could you secure all of California, all the time, with 150,000 soldiers?' The answer is no." (my emphasis)
Mario Vargas Llosa also emphasized the far-reaching destructive impact of the looting in his dispatches from Iraq for El País, collected in Diario de Irak (2003). Describing conversations he had with members of the Faculty of Languages in the National Univeristy of Baghdad and others, he writes:

¿Quiénes eran estos saqueadores que han dejado más heridas, rencores y cólera en los iraquíes que los bombardeos de la coalición? No exagero si digo que en las decenas de diálogos, charlas y entrevistas de estos días no he escuchado a un solo iraqí lamentar la caída de Sadam Husein, quien claramente era detestado por la gran mayoría del pueblo que esclavizó, y que, por el contrario, todos, o casi todos, parecen celebrarla. Ni siquiera he escuchado muchas lamentaciones por las víctimas de los bombardeos. Pero si en algo hay unanimidad, es en abominar de los espantosos saqueos que siguieron a la caída del dictador y que han convertido a Bagdad y, al parecer, a buen número de ciudades y pueblos de Irak, en ruinas, casas desventradas y quemadas, altos de escombros por doquier, y a una inmensa cantidad de ciudadanos esperanzados con el fin de la dictadura — fueron ellos quienes derribaron las estatuas del dictador y han pintarrajeado y raspado sus imágenes por doquier — en gentes que han perdido todo lo que tenían, sus muebles, sus recuerdos, sus viviendas, sus ropas, los ahorros que escondían en sus hogares por temor a que en los bancos se los confiscaran. Todos se preguntan: «¿Por qué los norteamericanos se cruzaron de brazos?». «¿Por qué no los pararon?». Es un misterio todavía sin respuesta. Había cientos, miles de soldados en las calles que hubieran podido atajar con energía desde un primer momento a ese enjambre enloquecido de Alí Babás que como una nube de langostas hambrientas arrasó con Bagdad y otras ciudades iraquíes, a lo largo de varies días, sin que aquéllos intervinieran. Hasta ese momento, habían sido recibidos por muchos iraquíes como libertadores, pero, a partir de los saqueos, la simpatía se troco en frustración y hostilidad.

[Who were these looters who had left more injuries, rancor and anger in the Iraqis than the bombing by the coalition? It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the dozens of dialogues, talks and interviews of those days I didn't hear a single Iraqi mourning the fall of Saddam Hussein, who was clearly detested by the great majority of the people he had enslaved, and that, on the contrary, everyone, or nearly everyone, seemed to celbrate it. Nor did I hear a lot of complaining about the victims of the bombing. But if there was one thing one which there was unanimity, it was in despising the fearful looting that followed the fall of the dictator and converted Baghdad and, it appears, a good number of the cities and towns of Iraq, into ruins, houses gutted [?] and burned, mounds of rubble from wherever, and an immense number of citizens who were hopeful with the end of the dictatorship - it was they who pulled down the statues of the dictator and dessicrated tore down his images from everywhere - [they were made] into people who lost all they had, their furniture, their memories, their homes, their clothes, the savings that they hid in their homes for fear that the banks would confiscate them. Everyone asked: "Why did the Americans stand with their arms folded?". "Why did they not stop them?" It is still a mystery without an answer. There were hundreds, thousands of soldiers in the street who could have intervened to put a stop to it from the first moment in which this mad swarm of Ali Babas [thieves] that devastated Baghdad and other Iraqi cities like a cloud of hungry locusts, over a period of several days, without them [the Americans] intervening. Up until this moment, they had been received by many Iraqis as liberators, but because of the looters, sympathy had turned into frustration and hostility.]
A long catalogue of missteps by both the military and the CPA compounded the problems even further. Imperial Life is focused on the Emerald City, i.e., the civilian CPA. So what was happening on the military side is only a secondary focus of the book. This may tempt some readers to seize on criticisms of the CPA by uniformed military officers and say, "if they had only followed the military's suggestions ..." It is a temptation that should be resisted. As bad as the mistakes and inaedequacies were in Washington and in the Green Zone, the actions and decisions of our infallible generals also played a major part in producing the mess we're facing in Iraq today. Our esteemed generals shouldn't be allowed to hide from criticism behind an "honor the troops" facade. It's been a heckuva job all the way around.

Problematic actions by the CPA fill Chandrasekaran's book. The ideological and impractial decision to ban such large numbers of Baath Party members from government employment left the ministries short of experienced managers and technical personnel. Dissolving the army sent many of the experienced officers from the disproportionately Sunni officer corps right into the resistance.

I don't have a brain but I have lots of ideas! Why don't we import a bunch of cars and turn Baghdad traffic into an unending nightmare?

The free-market zealotry of the CPA led them to drop import restrictions on automobiles. The result was a classic case of the unintended consequences of which conservatives are so intensely aware whenever someone proposes a domestic program to benefit poor or working people. Chandrasekaran writes:

But the biggest problem had its roots in a well-intentioned CPA policy. Peter McPherson, Bremer's economics czar, abolished duties on imports, including a tax on cars that could be as much as 100 percent of the cost of the vehicle. Within days, savvy entrepreneurs brought truckloads of used cars to Baghdad from as far away as Germany and the Netherlands, and Iraqis who had socked away money under their mattresses bought their first car, or, in many cases, a second car for the family. The CPA estimated that a half million cars were shipped into Iraq in the first nine months of the occupation, more than doubling the number of vehicles on the road. Iraqis were happy — until they had to get somewhere or fill up the tank. Yes, they were living atop the world's second-largest oil reserves, but Iraq's refineries could not produce enough gasoline to fuel all the new cars. Gas lines stretched for miles, prompting the CPA to pay Halliburton millions of dollars a day to truck in gasoline from Kuwait and Turkey. But even with gas in the tank, the volume of new cars on the roads made routine trips interminable.

Iraqis weren't the only ones grousing. American soldiers grew increasingly nervous about getting stuck in traffic. Although the traffic police had returned to their posts a few months into the occupation, the CPA forbade them to levy fines. The traffic cops had been notoriously corrupt, forcing motorists to fork over money instead of issuing them summonses to appear in court. The CPA was standing on principle, even if declawing the cops meant that traffic would continue to crawl.
The book is full of similar examples. One more that I'll mention here has to do with Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who is familiar today to those who follow the Iraq War news as the Supreme Jurisprudent, the highest and most respected religious authority among the Iraqi Shi'a. The CPA was full of loyal young Republicans who were staunchly against abortion. But the severe shortage of Arabic speakers and actual experts on Iraq or Shi'a Islam had its costs. Chandrasekaran writes:

It took months for Bremer and his aides to grasp al-Sistani's clout. Because the ayatollah didn't want to meet with Americans, the CPA was forced to rely on Iraqi interlocutors. The viceroy's first emissary was an Iraqi American from Florida who had been part of the team of Iraqi exiles recruited by [Paul] Wolfowitz to assist in reconstruction. He was neither a diplomat nor a politician, but a wealthy urologist who had developed and patented a penile implant for impotent men. After receiving reports that the urologist was exaggerating his ties to the White House, the CPA replaced him with a pharmaceutical executive from Michigan. Neither man, Shiite politicians told me later, projected the requisite gravitas.

"If you were occupying Italy, would you send a doctor to visit the Pope?" one of the politicians asked.
When Sistani issued a fatwa (Islamic legal ruling) in July of 2003 opposing Viceroy Bremer's proposed method of writing a new constitution, the CPA brushed it off. One of Bremer's senior aides said, "The view was, 'We'll just get someone to write another fatwa'."

I'm going to destory your fatwa, my little pretty ayatollah!

Juan Cole was writing about Sistani at his Informed Consent blog at the time. On 06/06/03, he wrote:

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani threw his weight behind the desirability of a near-term interim government in Iraq, during a meeting with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. [Text missing] and calling for elections to a national assembly for Iraqis to produce a new constitution, according to Patrick Tyler of the New York Times. Sistani is deeply unhappy with current conditions in the country, saying, "The allied campaign to end the tyranny and oppression of Saddam Hussein "is like an occupation, not a liberation, as the people have been told." He and other Shiites also complained about the US appointing Sunni governors and administrators in the Shiite areas.
When Sistani's fatwa came out that the CPA pretty much ignored, Cole wrote the following on 07/05/03:

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has intervened forcefully in Iraqi politics. In a fatwa, or legal ruling, issued on July 1, he denounced US civil administrator L. Paul Bremer's plan to appoint a committee to draft a new Iraqi constitution. He insisted that Bremer had no such authority, and that the Iraqi people themselves must elect delegates to any constitutional convention. Moreover, he said, the constitution should be subject to a popular referendum before being implemented.

The US sees itself as the liberator of Iraq, one that must patiently oversee the transition to a new government for an Iraqi people still incapable of governing itself. Iraqis like Sistani, however, insist that Iraqi sovereignty must be part of the process.

The problem is that Bremer plans to rule Iraq himself, through Western and Iraqi appointees, for at least two years. He has announced he will form a political committee of 25 to 30 individuals that will, according to the liberal Iraqi newspaper Al-Zaman, advise the civil administrator and help oversee ministries. It will also prepare the way for an Iraqi constitution, to be drafted by a gathering of 125 appointees who will be called together in a month or two. ...

Enter Sistani. His fatwa was issued after he met with [Ahmed] Chalabi. It may well be that Chalabi and Hakim have decided that the best way to push Bremer back toward the original Defense Department plan [to put Chalabi in charge of Iraq] is to enlist the aid of Sistani, a towering religious and moral authority for most Iraqi Shiites. The ayatollah, a quietist, would not have ordinarily wanted to get involved in day-to-day politics. But he is in competition with more radical clerics like Muqtada al-Sadr, who have rejected American rule altogether, and he is willing to address foundational issues like the constitution.

Sistani's fatwa burnishes his anti-imperialist credentials by appealing to the primacy of national self determination. ...

So far, ordinary Iraqi Shiites, grateful for the end of Saddam's reign, have provided the US with a grace period. Calls by radical followers of Sadr for demonstrations against the US occupation have elicited little support. Sistani's fatwa, however, signals that the patience of even quietist Iraqi Shiites is not unlimited. It also raises the question of whether a government fashioned mainly by the US can ever achieve true legitimacy. Without such legitimacy, Iraq could become a cauldron of instability.

Sistani has thrown down a heavy steel gauntlet. Will Bremer pick it up? He ignores the fatwa to his great peril. (my emphasis)
Cole, who is one of the leading authorities on Shi'a Islam in the United States was providing this kind of information daily on his blog. It was there for the looking.

Oh, and Sistani got his way.

Another temptation in reading this book is to get too caught up in the can-do attitudes of most of the characters in the book. The CPA was full of ideologues, fools and incompetents. But they were relentlessly optimistic. So it's tempting in reading the book to start thinking, if there had been a good reason for the invasion, and if there had been better planning for the post-conventional-combat phase, and if the CPA had the right experts and language skills, and if the Cheney-Bush administration had put more troops there, and if they had contained the looting in Baghdad, and if Bremer hadn't shut down Muqtada al-Sadr's newspaper in early 2004 and set off armed clashes with his Mahdi Army militia, and if ..."

But after so many if's, you begin to realize that you're conjuring up a world as different from the reality of the Cheney-Bush administration as life in the Emerald City was from life in the rest of Baghdad. It has been observed that the neocons didn't invade Iraq, they invaded the Iraq of their dreams.

Pay no atttention to the chaos on the other side of the Emerald City walls! There's nothing but good news here!

There's no need for the rest of us to make a similar mistake. What the Chney-Bush administration attempted to do in Iraq was going to turn out badly, no matter what. There are lessons to be learned about nation-building and "post-conflict environments" from the Iraq War disaster. But it's not a case of some golden opportunity missed because of a few mistakes. This war was a bad idea from the get-go.

One of Chandrasekaran's obvious goals in the way he structured the book is to create a sense of how detached the CPA was from the reality of Iraq. And he succeeds. Reading the book, I often found myself thinking about Herman Melville's story "Benito Cerrino", in which a slave ship has been taken over in a slave revolt but the slaves force the captain and crew to pretend to be in charge when another shiop meets them at sea. And of the stories of Paul Bowles, in which people from "advanced" cultures find themselves in the midst of a culture that is alien to them and find themselves overwhelmed by the unexpected. In this story "Pastor Dowe at Tacaté", the main character winds up this way at the very end of the story:

There was a chorus of dogs barking as he entered the village street. He began to run, straight through to the other end. And he kept running even then, until he had reached the point where the path, wider here, dipped beneath the hill and curved into the forest. His heart was beating rapidly from the exertion. To rest, and to try to be fairly certain he was not being followed, he sat down on his little valise in the center of the path. There he remained a long time, thinking of nothing, while the night went on and the moon came up. He heard only the light wind among the leaves and vines. Overhead a few bats reeled soundlessly back and forth. At last he took a deep breath, got up, and went on.

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