In the zone

Buying Iraq’s broken dreams
By JOHN FREEMAN  |  January 4, 2007

070106_inside_books
OCCUPIED: The Green Zone sounds more like the Mall of America than a fortress.
Nearly four years into the Iraq War, the mistakes that tipped the US presence from occupation to quagmire stand out amid the rhetoric. Even presidential loyalists admit it was a bad idea to disband the Iraqi army, as L. Paul Bremer III did, a move that sent heavily armed, unemployed men straight into the insurgency. It was also a bad idea to put formerly state-owned Iraqi businesses up for sale to foreign bidders. To a nation already looted by its dictator, this looked like larceny.

What kind of bubble could have spawned such wrong-headed decisions? Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran gives a detailed answer with his examination of the plush, walled-off palace grounds at the heart of Baghdad where the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) set about rewriting Iraq’s laws with very little grasp of the society they had imbedded themselves within.

Given Chandrasekaran’s findings, it’s difficult to fault the CPA members entirely for their ignorance. As he describes it, the Green Zone sounds more like the Mall of America than a fortress. Staffers could buy T-shirts that read, “Who’s Your Baghdaddy?” A mural of the World Trade Center hinted at the muddling of Iraq and 9/11 that had brought us there. Halliburton took care of everything, from supplying the Fruit Loops to making sure employees’ Chevy Suburbans were washed every two weeks to rounding up and killing the stray cats who infiltrated the blast-proof walls.

More than half of the CPA’s staff had never been outside America, let alone traveled to the Middle East. George Packer detailed how bureaucratic infighting stripped much-needed talent from the mission in his 2005 book The Assassin’s Gate, but Chandrasekaran mines this vein deeper still. Two of CPA governor Bremer’s top aides were in their 20s and had no experience in Arab affairs. The man in charge of Iraq’s health care boasted of not having read one book about the country before arriving.

Bremer may have made decisions like a Fortune 500 CEO, but they were often the wrong ones. The first emissary to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite leader, was a millionaire urologist from Florida, not a knowledgeable diplomat. Iraq didn’t need a flat tax rate or a reduction of import taxes, as one of Bremer’s key aides concluded; it needed electricity. It didn’t need an anti-smoking campaign, Chandrasekaran points out; it needed emergency rooms that were sterile.

Sealed off in the bubble of the Green Zone, the CPA dreamed up pie-in-the-sky notions, and when the money started rolling in, contractors began to rob the government blind. But this was not a time to waste cash, no matter how much the US had to spend. As the CPA dug into Iraq’s books, it realized the country had been running deficits for years. Sanctions had destroyed the government. When insurgents began bombing the Al-Rasheed hotel on the edge of the Green Zone, the bubble burst and the reality the CPA had ignored came flooding in. By that point it was too late. The 2004 elections were approaching in America, and the new goal, as this book makes clear, was not to complete projects but to ensure they would no longer be our problem. As Chandrasekaran notes, it seems we failed at that, too.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone | By Rajiv Chandrasekaran | Alfred A. Knopf | 336 Pages | $25.95

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