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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Life in the Green Zone

This last weekend I finally got around to reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life In the Emerald City, a remarkable eyewitness account by a Washington Post reporter of the disastrous history of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ruled Iraq from shortly after the U.S. invasion until the establishment of an interim Iraqi government in June of 2004.The book (published last fall) is a rich lode of infuriating but at times amusing (in a Keystone Kops kind of way) anecdotes about the CPA’s self-doomed efforts to fulfill the Bush administration’s fantasies of rebuilding post-invasion Iraq into an economically viable and stable secular democracy–without, unfortunately, much input from the Iraqis themselves, or any significant expertise. Like George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate and Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory, it examines the huge consequences of letting the country fall apart after the invasion, and then undertaking an occupation staffed by well-meaning but largely unqualified people without the time or resources they needed to get much of anything right. But Chandrasekaran does a superior job capturing particular moments that epitomized the whole mess, such as the appointment of a 24-year-old with no serious financial background to run the Baghdad Stock Exchange; a large grant made to set up partnerships between U.S. and and Iraqi universities, at a time when the Iraqis schools couldn’t get funds for basic lab equipment, computers, or even electrical wiring; and on the very eve of the end of the occupation, a sudden transfer of nearly two billion dollars in Iraqi oil revenues to Halliburton to transport oil into the country from Kuwait. And as the title indicates, there’s lots about the deeply isolated and somewhat surreal life the CPA built for itself within the Green Zone, barracaded inside one of Saddam’s palaces, mostly knowing little about the country they ruled, unable to speak the language, and engaging in behaviors like the heavy and conspicuous consumption of pork and beer that were guaranteed to alienate Iraqis. Like other authors, Chandrasekaran traces the origins of the CPA fiasco to a series of huge mistakes (aside from the decision to invade Iraq in the first place), aggravated by the Bush administration’s general, underlying arrogance, and extensive bureaucratic infighting. The oddest remains the abrupt reversal of the original administration decision to quickly hand over the keys to Iraq to its pet assortment of exile politicians, which suddenly made a completely unplanned and inherently counter-productive occupation necessary. This about-face placed Paul Bremer, supported by a hastily assembled and untrained staff heavily composed of ideologues and political hacks, in a position to make a variety of other mistakes, ranging from the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the denuding of the Iraqi government, to the pursuit of conservative hobbyhorses such as privatization while the country ground to a halt and Iraqis turned anti-American. We’ll never know if Iraq would be in any better shape today if the administration had stuck to the original scheme and handed off power to the first Iraqi exile who arrived in Baghdad with an autographed photo of Dick Cheney, or just asked Grand Ayatollah Sistani to pick a transitional government. But it’s unlikely it could have turned out much worse.

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