IRAQ: Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone

By Bodine, Barbara K. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

IRAQ: Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone


Bodine, Barbara K., The Middle East Journal


IRAQ Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 298 pages. Acknowledgements. Notes to p. 306. Index. $25.95.

Reviewed by Barbara K. Bodine

We do not lack for books on the Iraq War. Like the elephant and the blind men, each addition to the bookshelf explores another facet, another angle, and another theme to try to make sense of how we got in, how we messed up, and how we get out. Except in a few quarters, most accept that key policy decisions early on - callous dismissal of the looting, American hyperfocus on subnational identities, demobilization and de-Ba'thification - aided and abetted the forces that, if they don't destroy Iraq, will scar it for generations. It will haunt us for as long. Debate focuses on the Washington-centric political dynamics behind those decisions, and how they played out in Baghdad.

But US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's "1000 tactical mistakes" were committed neither exclusively nor primarily by the military. Responsibility must be shared with those charged with the day-to-day management of the occupation - the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). No one went to Baghdad to fail. With some notable exceptions, few were motivated by greed. And while some might have been driven by ambition, many were motivated by a sense of service to both American policy and Iraqi needs, and all by a measure of sacrifice. What went wrong?

In Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, pulls back the curtain of spin to reveal not the all powerful Oz, but a bumbling snake oil salesman frantically, futilely, operating a bank of bells and whistles. The author recounts in a series of vignettes the corrosive effect of an occupation built on partisan loyalty and ideological purity at the expense of experience and expertise. A CPA/Washington official candidly states: "The criterion for sending people over there was that they have the right political credentials" (emphasis mine; p. 91).

Iraq was a blank slate to prove the tenets of the Bush Administration's governing philosophy. Regional and post-conflict experience was deemed to be not only irrelevant but suspect. The "clean slate school" saw the looting as a good thing. The loss of assets and infrastructure, including universities was a draconian but effective means of government "shrinkage." In another take on "clean slate," one senior advisor admits he read no books on Iraq. He wanted "an open mind" (p. 166).

Beginning with "Who Are These People?" Chandrasekaran juxtaposes narratives of the often-marginalized experts with those of high-profile politicos and hubristic novices. The first to fall was Fred Burkle, a seasoned post-conflict public health expert and medical doctor-replaced within days of the fall of Baghdad by a nonphysician from Michigan's community health services whose first order of business was an anti-smoking campaign. …

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