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"Imperial Life in the Emerald City": Origins of the Iraq Disaster

Message Bernard Weiner
HardRight conservatives tend to downplay how the U.S. got into the Iraq War. Why dive back into all that?, they say, our troops are there so let's just finish the job.
But if the foundations for a war were faulty to begin with, and then in the occupation mistake upon mistake is piled on top of that, the invading nation will never get it right, no matter how many fixes and how many new generals and how many escalations. It's the same pattern we witnessed in Vietnam decades ago.
These observations became immeasurably strengthened for me by reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran's recently-published "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone" (Knopf).
It should be quite apparent to all, with the Iraq War about to enter its fifth year, just how badly the Bush Administration has screwed it up, from even before its beginnings to its current escalation. Chandrasekaran's volume -- plus Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco," Rory Stewart's "The Prince of the Marshes," and many other recent books -- provide telling details to such an extent that I almost couldn't bear to keep reading at times. At every step of the way, the Bush Administration was making yet another ghastly error, and the result was more slaughter, more troops and civilians killed and maimed, more chaos and torture and hatred of the United States.
Short version of these books in military slang: SNAFU ("Situation Normal, All F----- Up") doesn't even begin to describe the monumentality of the ignorance and incompetence that accompanied the U.S. war and occupation. Try FUBAR ("F------ Up Beyond All Recognition"), then quadruple the FUBAR and you get closer to what actually happened, and apparently is still happening.

Chandrasekaran -- former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo and Southeast Asia -- begins his trenchant book by focusing on the mind-set that underlies the U.S. military adventure in Iraq, and elsewhere in the greater Middle East. It is the stereotypical attitude of arrogant colonialism: We know what's best for these "ragheads" in Iraq, so just get out of our way and let us do our job.
As we know from previous reportage, the Bush Administration placed great faith in the neo-con ideology that underlay the U.S. attack on Iraq, and on the assumption that the Iraqis would be grateful and passive acceptors of the occupation authority. When reality showed up, the Bush Administration had great trouble accepting and adapting, and still does.
Because it was based on lies, deceits, denials, and lack of adequate planning, the foundation for the war was rotten at the core. As a result, the CheneyRumsfeld militarist crew constantly found themselves trying to play catch-up, often years too late, and were puzzled when their new tactics didn't work.

Chandraserakan, who interviewed more than 100 U.S. governmental insiders in Iraq, provides numerous examples of ignorance, ineptitude, and stubborn denial of the facts on the ground inside the Coalition Provisional Authority. (Note: All quotes that follow here are from his "Imperial Life in the Emerald City.")
How could the U.S. get it so wrong? One example among many: The CPA was there to nation-build, but started with a severe handicap: "Most of the CPA staff had never worked outside the United States. More than half, according to one estimate, had gotten their first passport in order to travel to Iraq." 
In short, they found it difficult to be in the real world because they had never left their own world, either physically or in their heads. That deficient reality was evident in how they lived in Iraq:
>>"From inside the Green Zone, the real Baghdad -- the checkpoints, the bombed-out buildings, the paralyzing traffic jams -- could have been a world away. The horns, the gunshots, the muezzin's call to prayer, never drifted over the walls. The fear on the faces of American troops was rarely seen by the denizens of the palace. The acrid smoke of a detonated car bomb didn't fill the air. The sub-Saharan privation and Wild West lawlessness that gripped one of the world's most ancient cities swirled around the walls, but on the inside, the calm sterility of an American subdivision prevailed. ... It was 130 degrees outside ... Inside the Green Zone, air-conditioners chilled buildings to a crisp sixty-eight degrees." 
The first USA administrator in Iraq, Lt.-General (Ret.) Jay Garner, more open to meeting and listening to key Iraqi leaders and ordinary folk, from the get-go was deliberately kept ignorant of policy decisions by Washington. He was booted out for not adhering closely enough to the CheneyBushRumsfeld line, especially because of his desire to organize an early election and transfer power back to the Iraqis.
Neo-con Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld's point-man on post-war Iraq, expected that "without a clear blueprint for the political transition, Garner would turn to Chalabi and his band of exiles. Feith would get the outcome he wanted without provoking a fight ahead of time with State and the CIA, both of which regarded Chalabi as a fraud." (Note: Both agencies, often along with the National Security Council, were invariably frozen out of the informational loop by the Pentagon/White House hardliners. What a way to run a war!)
The picture painted of Garner's replacement, L. Paul ("Jerry") Bremer, is that of an imperious, micro-managing, ideological viceroy in the old colonial tradition. Many of his aides were young GOP HardRightists, who had little or no expertise in government at home or in nation-building abroad. They were appointed because they knew somebody with conservative clout or as a payoff for their work for the GOP or the BushCheney election committee.
This self-defeating patronage system led to such dangerous absurdities as this: A 24-year-old GOP real-estate agent, with no training or education in financial matters, was put in charge of resurrecting the Baghdad Stock Exchange. Or: "Six of the gofers were assigned to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, though they had no previous financial-management experience." No need to wonder how millions and billions of U.S dollars went missing.

Clearly, as Chandrasekaran notes, Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Feith, Wolfowitz and the others back in Washington were the overall policy makers who disastrously took the U.S. into an unnecessary war and occupation, but if there is a master of arrogance and stubborn in-theater incompetency in the author's narrative, Bremer fits the bill.
Basically operating on his own, it was Bremer who made the early decisions that guaranteed the rapid rise of the insurgency in Iraq: He disbanded the Iraqi army, thus putting hundreds of thousands of young, armed men out into the streets, jobless (unemployment ranged from 40-60%; "the USAID-Treasury document outlined no program to create jobs."). He did little or nothing about the massive tortures and abuses at Abu Ghraib and in other Iraqi prisons.
Bremer instituted a much too draconian anti-Baathification program, which meant there were too few teachers to teach, too few civil servants to run the ministries, and the Americans appointed to do so were overworked and/or lacking the requisite skills, contacts, and ability to speak Arabic. At least one appointed administrator was reduced to begging for help from anyone out there on the internet.
Bremer accepted Rumsfeld's small-army concept until much too late and then begged for more troops to be sent, only to be turned down without comment (instead, private "contractors," such as Blackwater, were employed, making up about 10% of the American force). He denied contracts and jobs to Iraqis, and handed out no-bid contracts to large, greedy American concerns like Bechtel, Halliburton, et al. He tried to graft a democratic and free-market-capitalistic system overnight onto the existing Iraqi social, economic and political structure. He had no concept of who Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani was in the Iraqi power structure and his commanding authority as a political/spiritual leader. He decimated the Iraqi educational and medical-care systems. He never really dealt with the looting issue and with guarding the abandoned ammo dumps. He had MPs involved in civilian law-enforcement. He never was able to provide the Iraqi population a consistent supply of electric power or clean water ("The CPA seemed to be treating the problem of restoring power as an afterthought"). And on and on.

Iraq became Bremer's own duchy and he ruled with an iron fist and in near-total isolation. "He didn't share a draft [of his transition plan to Iraqi sovereignty] with the State Department, the National Security Council, or the CIA. The first time Colin Powell saw the plan, Chandraserakan writes, was on the editorial pages of the Washington Post, which published an op-ed by Bremer entitled 'Iraq's Plan to Sovereignty'." 
>>"The viceroy was adamant that his plan was the best. He rejected the idea of holding early elections, he said, because voter rolls and elections laws didn't exist. But the real reason was that he feared Baathists or religious extremists might triumph. ... He continued to brush off Grand Ayatollah al-Sistanti's fatwa stating that Iraq's constitution had to be written by elected representatives. ... Inside the Emerald City, al-Sistanti was just another old man in a black turban."
Bremer eventually gave in to the extent of forming a Governing Council of Iraqi leaders, but he made sure they had no power. He "viewed them as lackeys. ... frontmen, and he needed their imprimatur on big decisions so it would appear that the Iraqis concurred with their occupiers." 

The goals of the CPA were utopian, unrealistic, and, given its untrained administrators, destined for failure. For example, an Office of Private Sector Development was established, the mission being to "privatize all of Iraq's state-owned enterprises within thirty days." Lunatic? Yes, but these were the kinds of crackpot neo-con ideas energizing the CPA.
When the first director of that office was forced out for non-performance, a new guy was moved in, "someone with no previous experience in promoting free enterprise in a socialist economy. But he had connections: His brother Ari Fleischer was Bush's press secretary."
Part of the envisioned privatization scheme was going to depend on the CPA giving each family a debit card loaded with the cash value of all the rations they were due. They neglected to notice that "nobody in Iraq used credit cards. There were no automated teller machines. Phone service and electrical power were unavailable for much of the day." 
In short, the CPA was an ongoing disaster, run by bunglers who couldn't shoot or think straight. And so, in 2004 expectations shifted. "What was best for Iraq was no longer the standard. What was best for Washington was the new calculus. ... The only election that mattered was the one in November -- in the United States." 

 Just before Bremer departed for the States, after post-election "sovereignty" was granted to the Iraqis, he signed a hundred orders. "Many in the Emerald City assumed that if you wanted to change something, you changed the law, just like in the United States. But Iraq didn't work that way," especially since "laws promulgated under the occupation were suspect." Iraqis just ignored the ones that didn't fit their reality. (Actually, international law apparently makes it illegal for an occupying power to impose post-occupation "laws" on the occupied country.)
As for training up Iraqi police and army units: "The Americans misunderstood us," said Major Rad Kadhim, the senior officer at the Rafidain station. "We will fight for Iraq. We will not fight for [the Americans]." 
Even when the U.S. worked with local Iraqis in developing joint projects, the Americans would invariably get it wrong. "A team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook won a $4 million grant to 'modernize curricula in archeology' at four of Iraq's largest universities -- schools where students were sitting on the floor because they lacked desks and chairs. 'It was like going into a war zone and saying, Oh, let's cure halitosis'." 

 Could things have turned out more positively? Chandrasekaran quotes a leading U.S. administrator: "We should have been less ambitious. Our goal should have been to build a free, safe, and prosperous Iraq -- with the emphasis on 'safe.' Democratic institutions could be developed over time. Instead, we keep talking about democratic elections. If you asked an ordinary Iraqi what they want, the first thing they would say wouldn't be democracy or elections, it would be safety. They want to be able to walk outside their homes at night." 
Chandraserakan writes:
>>"Where the CPA saw progress, Iraqis saw broken promises. ... Only 15,000 Iraqis had been hired to work on reconstruction projects funded with the Supplemental [appropriation], rather than the 250,000 that had been touted. Seventy percent of police officers on the street had not received any CPA-funded training. ... More money had been devoted to administration than all projects related to educations, human rights, democracy, and governance combined." 
>>"'The biggest mistake of the occupation,' [said a respected moderate Iraqi leader] 'was the occupation itself.' ... Freed from the grip of their dictator, the Iraqis believed that they should have been free to chart their own destiny, to select their own interim government, and to manage the reconstruction of their shattered nation. ... Iraqis needed help -- good advice and ample resources -- from a support corps of well-meaning foreigners, not a full-scale occupation with imperial Americans cloistered in a palace of the tyrant, eating bacon and drinking beer, surrounded by Gurkhas and blast walls.
>>"The compromise between their desire for self-rule and the absence of a leader with broad appeal could have taken many forms, as the State Department's Arabists pointed out over the months after the invasion: a temporary governor appointed by the United Nations, an interim ruling council, or even a big-tent meeting -- similar to the 'loya jirga' convened after the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan -- to select a crop of national leaders. ... Would that have made a difference? We'll never know for sure, but doing a better job of governance and reconstruction almost certainly would have kept many Iraqis from taking up arms against their new leaders and the Americans. There still would have been an insurgency, led by zealots who saw no room for compromise, but perhaps it would have been smaller and more containable.
 >>"'If this place succeeds,' a CPA friend told me before he left, 'it will be in spite of what we did, not because of it'." 
Chandrasekaran's book ends in mid-2005 with an epilogue suggesting that things were even worse than they were before, as civil-war slaughter broke out big time. And, in 2007, things are even worse still. No minimalist "surge" of U.S. troops will be able to alter the essential situation, especially given that the Sadrists essentially have gone to ground until the U.S. leaves. That day when the American troops leave can't come too soon, for all concerned. #

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently is co-editor of The Crisis Papers ( To comment: .
First published by The Crisis Papers 3/6/07.
Copyright 2007 by Bernard Weiner.
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Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer-editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (more...)
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