Book Reviews

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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