Imperial Life in the Emerald Palace aka Green Zone, Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Vintage, 2010 movie tie-in re-edition of 2006 original, 365 pages, ISBN 978-0-307-47753-8

It’s bad enough that the 2003 American invasion of Iraq was an exercise in imperial power projection legitimized by spurious intelligence reports and an orchestrated public-relations campaign: it wouldn’t have been so bad if the whole thing had been neatly wrapped up in a few weeks, followed by a tidy “Mission Accomplished” ceremony.  But no; as history rolls on, the country is still dangerous seven years later, with American soldiers still fighting it out with local insurgents.  Aside from the whole issue of not invading countries unless there’s a good reason to do so, what went wrong?  Why were Americans unable to foster a smooth transition from Saddam Hussein’s regime to a peaceful Iraqi democracy?

Journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran was on the ground for much of the first year of the American occupation of Iraq.  With Imperial Life in the Emerald Palace, he describes the tragedy of errors that characterized the initial efforts to run the country after taking military control of it.  Winning a war is easy when you have an army that get more than half of the world’s total military expenditure.  Keeping the peace, though…

The best chapter of the book remains the first, “Versailles on the Tigris”, which describes the surreal life in the Green Zone surrounding Saddam’s Republican Palace, an area of Baghdad reserved for the foreign nationals taking over the country.  This oasis of Americana had Doritos, alcohol, sunbathing, DVDs, bacon, American flags –everything to remind staffers of home, “home” often being the southern USA.  Even in faraway Baghdad, US politics remained omnipresent: Staffers were often political operatives associated with Republican interests, sometimes young enough to allow enthusiasm to triumph over experience and knowledge.  (“More than half… had gotten their first passport in order to travel to Iraq.” [P.17])  Many of them spent their entire stay in Iraq within the fortified walls of the Green Zone.  If they weren’t working directly for the US government or military, then they were employed by the many corporate sub-contractors.  And yet they had electricity, running water, relative peace and security… quite unlike the Red Zone outside.

Such contrasts go a long way to explain how Americans exhausted the initial supply of goodwill that accompanied their invasion of the country.  But as Chandrasekaran describes, the year in which the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) led Iraq simply made things worse.  The blame starts at the top, with the ideology leading the so-called reconstruction of the country.  Led by neoconservative leadership, the CPA set out to remake Iraq as a beacon of what a pure market economy would be, ignoring local customs in trying to install a right-wing system at all costs.  Never mind that you shouldn’t trust anti-government people to run a government: One of the most pernicious impacts of this top-down mission to remake Iraq at the image of the Bush-era Republican Party was that fairly competent reconstruction experts were sidelined and replaced by people whose biggest credentials were ideological.  Loyal staffers, often far too young to have any experience in the areas they were asked to manage, came from Republican political ranks and often went back to the Bush/Cheney 2004 re-election campaign once their tour of duty was done.  (Interestingly, some of the most capable people on the ground in Iraq were military personnel: regardless of rank, they knew their area of expertise and –whenever allowed to act– were generally able to complete their assigned tasks.)

Everyone on the ground meant well, of course; Chandrasekaran’s portrait of CPA staffers involved is generally sympathetic, even when it’s clear that they’re out of their depths.  But meaning well and doing well isn’t the same, and much of the book is a description of unbelievable blunders caused by a lack of expertise, ideological straightjackets, overuse of for-profit contractors and US partisan political considerations.  When a country is crying out for stable electricity, water, government and police, it’s not such a good idea to start by privatizing everything in sight (especially when no one is interested in buying), trying to implement a high-tech stock exchange, getting rid of competent military personnel and copying US State traffic laws.  But ideology often makes people do strange things…

Perhaps the biggest strength of Chandrasekaran’s book is how clearly it manages to present a complex set of issues, through mini-narratives reconstructed from documents, interviews and his own work on the ground.  There’s a great passage in the chapter named “A Yearning for Old Times” that manages to vulgarize the complicated mess that was Iraq’s electrical infrastructure problems, and how it was made worse by greedy contractors, dumb budgeting and an emphasis on short-sighted repairs rather than infrastructure renewal.  Much of the book is just as easily readable, helped along by a strong streak of black comedy at the ineptitude of the American effort.

It goes without saying that, as easy to read as Imperial Life in the Emerald Palace can be, it’s also an upsetting experience.  There’s a basic trust from citizens, whenever the government spends a few trillion dollars doing something, that a basic level of administrative competence will be met in working toward the project’s goals.  It’s one thing to disagree with neoconservative on the need to transform Iraq into a free-market heaven.  But if it works, then the debate becomes moot.  Alas, what happened in Baghdad in 2003-2004 was a failure of governance: the occupation was so incompetently mismanaged that it burned through the reserves of Iraqi patience after the fall of Saddam’s government and ignited a good chunk of the insurgency that followed.  (De-Baathification, which drove thousands of experienced soldiers in the cold rather than try to contain them in the existing hierarchy, was one of the biggest mistakes of the occupation’s first year.)  One can point at Iraq circa 2010 and claim that it’s finally working (something still very much under discussion), but there’s a credible claim that if the CPA had actually listened to its reconstruction experts, exerted greater control over its subcontracting, embraced local talent and respected Iraqi customs, then far less money, hardship and lives would have been required to get to a better result.

But that may remain a matter for alternate historians and partisan bloggers.  Until we can get trans-dimensional media reports, there’s Chandrasekaran’s book to detail the mistakes that were made, hopefully so that nothing like that can ever be allowed to happen again.

[March 2010: One final note on the relationship between the book and the Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone movie: As Greengrass’ foreword in the movie tie-in edition of the book states, Imperial Life in the Emerald Palace provided the context in which the original story of the film takes place.  Sharp-eyed readers will spot a number of background details in the film that are taken straight from the book: So it becomes a rich contextual briefing for the film if you happen to read the book first, or an expansion of the setting of the movie if you read it afterward.  Either way, it’s a well done adaptation that fully exploits the strengths of both medium.]

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