The Least and the Lightest: the American Misadventure in Iraq

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Greeen Zone

I knew abstractly that the American Occupation of Iraq was a colossal bungle and tragedy, but I never felt so viscerally what a pathetic, artificially created humanitarian crisis it was until I read Emerald City. With no planning, no thought process, no vision (well, really an anti-vision), no training, no anything – America destroyed the political, economic, and social structure of a society and neglected to replace it with anything.

Much like Halberstam’s tremendous The Best and the Brightest, Chandreasekaran tells the story of an ill-fated American invasion through the personal stories of the main players. Viceroy L Paul Bremer III and his harem of obsequious twenty-year olds plays a prominent role; former MSU President McPherson, who dedicated himself to the quixotic task of liquidating all of Iraq’s obsolete and valueless factories and developing a tax code; James O’Bierne, who was responsible for finding callow young Republicans (instead of, say, competent and experienced internationalists) to staff the project; and a few heroes, like Otwell, Dehgan, Finance Guy, and Stock Market guy, who attempted to create real solutions to real problems, despite the lack of any support from the rest of the CPA. Each story drives the nail deeper: these people were not there for the right reasons, and the work they did was not helpful – was, in fact, largely destructive.

Emerald City introduces some fundamental rules for both day-to-day living and grandiose attempts at nation-building, well worth consideration:

Redesigning the entire economic, political, and social structure of a country requires immense work, planning and foresight. It probably shouldn’t be attempted in the first place.

Bremer arrived in Baghdad with a three-step plan to turn Iraq into a Free-Market Democracy, neglecting the fact that the Iraqi economy had been heavily (and perversely) subsidized and socialized for several decades.

He assumed that these dramatic changes could simply occur by fiat – and, as viceroy, he could make any rules he wanted with no oversight. He ‘”only need put down his signature to impose a new law, or to abolish an old one. He wasn’t required to consult with Iraqis or even seek their consent. ‘As long as we’re here, we are the occupying power,” he said as we drove back to the Green Zone. “It’s a very ugly word, but it’s true.’”

It takes more than one anal-retentive diplomat to rebuild an entire foreign country.

When you live inside a fortress, you can create your own reality:

And when you live inside a fortress, it is likely that no one will disabuse you of the reality you create. The 60 square mile Green Zone had three heavily guarded entrances. Iraqis that worked in the GZ had to wait in line for hours every day to get in. Americans were reluctant to leave the GZ, because with so few entrances they could be sure that someone was watching them (probably with malicious intent) as soon as they left the area. Plus, the Green Zone had TVs and pools and alcohol and bacon.

Unfortunately, this meant that the people supposedly running Iraq had very little idea what was going on in Iraq. They knew no Iraqis, they had no familiarity with Iraqi culture, and they could hardly guess at the conditions Iraqis lived in. They occupied completely different worlds, and yet had the audacity to think they knew enough to make far reaching social, economic, and political decisions.

Chandrasekaran tells the story of a pool party broken up by an enormous barrage of gunfire throughout Baghdad. The Green Zone partygoers scatter in fright to prepare themselves for the assault they fear might bring the end of the occupation. Several hours later it is announced that Iraq had won a soccer match gaining them entry into the World Cups. There was no attack, only celebrations.

When you invade a country, make sure someone speaks the language

Almost no one in the CPA spoke Arabic. This would have been more of a problem if CPA officials actually left the Green Zone, but as they stayed in their fortress (and imported other nationalities – Kuwaitis, Pakistanis, and Indians – to work for them), this need was shockingly hidden. Still, laughable if tragic errors in translation occurred constantly and no one had any idea what most Iraqis were doing or thinking outside the Green Zone. Apparently, this didn’t seem to be a problem.

Also, an estimated 50% of CPA staff applied for their first Passport to work in Iraq!

Hiring Practices Matter:

Don’t hire assholes because you admire their public relations skills. Don’t ask job candidates who they voted for in the last election or what they think about Roe v. Wade. Actual job skills and knowledge matter more than political allegiance. When you run a country, at least a few people need to be competent. When you hire someone, you should be able to train them for their job. You should, in fact, know what their job is – there should be reasonable and thought-out goals for this job. There should be adequate resources for accomplishing job goals.

A group of twenty-year olds who were surprised when the Pentagon recruited them to work in Iraq, as they had never applied for such a position. “It wasn’t until they arrived in Baghdad that they discovered how they had come to the Pentagon’s attention: they had all sent their resumes to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

“Because of the personnel shortage in Baghdad, six of the gofers were assigned to manage Iraq’s $13 billion budget, even though they had no previous financial-management experience. They quickly earned the name the “Brat Pack.””

Ultimately, this wonderful book leaves one wondering about the Iraqi experience outside the walls. Chandreasekaran focuses on the life and politics inside the Green Zone (and there is more than one book’s worth of information there), but one wonders about what the Iraqi citizen’s experience of the occupation was – after all, isn’t that the true story of the war? Sadly, I think, we are a long way from that story being told. Emerald City tells the tale of an immense American fuck-up, and it is a good one, but somewhere out there is the more compelling story of what those momentous mistakes meant for the people of Iraq.

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Packers 35, Bears 21 (Dec. 25, 2011)

            One image incapsulates the Packers victory last night: Aaron Rodgers stifling a yawn after throwing his umpteenth touchdown of the game. In fact, the TV camera caught Rodgers yawning several times between plays during the game. The Packers were back to their usual selves, which, at least on the offensive side of the ball, meant that they were operating with such consistent brilliance as to be almost painfully boring.

            On the whole it was a good game. Green Bay once again looked impressive. However, as many commentators have noted (see here and here), demonstrated certain exploitable weaknesses once again.

            First off, the good: Aaron Rodgers and his receivers were back to their fairly unstoppable selves. Rodgers threw for a career best 5 touchdowns, one of which traveled a good 60 yards in the air. Notably, the Packers chose to throw several times from within the Bear five yard-line – scoring touchdowns every time. For whatever reason, these touchdowns – a back-shoulder throw to Nelson, a slant to Jones, and a slant to Finley – looked absolutely unstoppable.

            Rodgers bulleted the ball at the receivers and the cornerbacks did not react. I was not sure whether this was due to a general level of incompetence in the Bears secondary (cornerback Zach Bowman had a particularly awful game) or Rodgers’ uncanny ESP-type communication abilities with his receivers. Size, strength, and aggressiveness, fortes of the Packers wideouts, certainly helped too. It all seemed far too easy.

            Also good, was proof again that the Packers’ Defense can defend a lead. With the opposing offense in pass-first mode, the Packers D has an enormous aptitude to make big plays. Interceptions come easy and, given the quality of the Packers’ Offense, can make up for the big plays that the Defense inevitably allows.

            This combination of an extremely potent offense and a high-risk, high-reward defense (itself prefaced on the realization that with an offense this good, a positive turnover differential wins the game) has forced opponents into very conservative offenses. Don’t give up a turnover, the lesson seems to be, and you might be able to beat the Packers. The Bears and Chiefs have both executed this strategy very well – I hope the Packers will be able to adapt to it and lure their opponents into a riskier big play offense. We are a team designed to win the shoot-out.

            However, with that comes the bad. The atrocious run defense of the first half indicates that the Packers might find themselves in slower tempo games as the playoff approaches. With Ryan Pickett out, the Bears pushed our D-Line back several yards back on many running plays. B.J. Raji was virtually invisible the entire game (1 assisted tackle) and Howard Green is just a slab of meat slathering the turf (he can certainly move backward – but as far as this observer can tell no evidence exists proving that the man has any sort of lateral or forward mobility). Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews appear to be the only people who can tackle. Unfortunately that means that 1) Woodson tackles the running back 5 yards downfield after cutting through a sea of offensive lineman or 2) Clay Matthews runs around the entire offensive line and catches up to the running back from behind after his 3rd or 4th cutback. Either way, it’s not a good way to stop a slow, pondering, soul-sucking, clock-ticking drive.

            Another worry is that the Bears managed to stop the Packers offense with 3-and-outs several times in the first half. This is incredibly dangerous not only because, as previously mentioned, the Packers Defense is only really effective when opponents are playing catch-up, but also because, given the Defense’s penchant for allowing long and languorous drives, a sputtering Packers Offense might disappear from the field for quarters at a time resulting in a massive Time of Possession imbalance like we saw against the Chiefs. Once the Offense got rolling, these worries faded away – but a few miscues on offense, a few more drops by JerMichael, and…well, we lose control of the game.

            Still, it’s good to know we’ll be at Lambeau for the rest of the season. It will be exciting to see Matt Flynn get to play some real football next week (I have high hopes for him as a starter on some other team – he certainly has been a good member of the Packers) and refreshing to have Cliffy possibly back in the line-up. A few weeks of rest will definitely do the team good and hopefully we can continue yawning our way through the playoffs.

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Packers vs. Bears

Packers vs. Bears

This is how we used to tackle Bears…not so much the case these days – Sunday, September 13, 2009. (Benny Sieu/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

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Snobs and Slobs: Rivalry Week in Michigan

Four years ago, I left my home state of Wisconsin to attend Michigan State University, and for four years now I have puzzled over the rivalry between MSU and UM. Why is there such rancor, such vitriol, between citizens of the same great state? Why is there so much contempt between two such fine and nationally-respected public universities?

But now, after four years of careful observation, I understand. The MSU-UM rivalry is at its core a class conflict. To attend the University of Michigan is to associate oneself with upward mobility and ambition, to attend Michigan State is to associate oneself with practical skills and the common touch, and to attend the rivalry game is to view the cathartic collision of these two worldviews: white-collar vs. blue-collar, Ann Arbor vs. Lansing, Wolverine vs. Spartan.

Certainly, the rivalry’s rhetoric directly points towards the prominence of class. Michigan fans, as any Spartan will be sure to tell you, are blue-blooded snobs coasting on Daddy’s slush fund, and Michigan State fans, as any Wolverine will assure you, are drunken slobs from the backwoods boonies. These stereotypes are not necessarily true, but they often become true over the course of college. Prospective Spartans become full-blooded Spartans and prospective Wolverines become full-blooded Wolverines—often to the detriment of both parties.

MSU vs. UM: A yearly ritual in Michigan

This class division stems from a long line of historical tradition. Venerable UM, founded in 1817, has educated Michigan’s social and economic elite from the very beginning while the younger MSU (1855), the nation’s first land-grant college, had a much more populist mandate—the education of farmers, engineers, and schoolteachers. Every year since the rivalry has grown and the schools have become ever more cemented in their roles.

This always struck me as foolish, for both UM and MSU have much to learn from each other. It wouldn’t hurt for Wolverines to become slightly less insufferable and perhaps the Spartans could use a bit of culture and refinement. Certainly the two schools could stand to have a slightly more mature intercollegiate relationship.

To humbly submit an example, in Wisconsin we have several fine public schools—but they coexist in friendly harmony, because state cohesion is important when you live next to the wastelands of Minnesota. There is only one flagship school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but it combines aspects of both UM and MSU: its identity merges an elite public school with a community-minded land-grant philosophy. Construction majors learn poetry and philosophers take forestry. Moderation is, of course, the Wisconsin way.

Yet, in view of the emotional MSU-UM football game this weekend, perhaps I am exposed as a simple and ignorant Sconnie. Because, while the Wisconsin model of higher education makes far more sense, it results in far less interesting rivalry college football games. And what, in the end, is more important?

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Allow me to introduce myself:

I believe in the Big Ten. I find inconsistent weather patterns amusing. I enjoy dry humor and comedic understatement. I identify with Garrison Keillor. I’m attracted to rusted-out, abandoned factories and I think that the canoe is the single-most enjoyable method of transportation. I know with absolute certainty that the Green Bay Packers are the NFL’s greatest franchise, and proof of God’s interference in worldly affairs. I hate the Asian Carp with a burning passion, and consequently distrust Illinoisians and the rest of their southern ilk.

In short, I love the upper Midwest. From the Border Lakes of Minnesota to the dunes of the Michigan coast, from the beers of Wisconsin to the cherries of the Traverse Bay, from the Badgers to the Gophers to the Spartans (but certainly not the Wolverines), I am a man bound to the coordinates of North by Midwest.

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