America’s invasion, or liberation if you will, of Iraq in 2003 involved two wholly distinct problems. One had to do with the decision to attack Iraq in the first place, with all the policy and logistical manoeuvres this implied. This issue polarized commentators in America and around the world, and both the legality and the practicality of the move were widely debated.
The second matter had to do with the administration of Iraqi territory once the country was won. The manner in which the task of nation-building was handled would crucially influence the world’s perception of America’s move; indeed, it was clear that by successes in this area, America might regain some of the political capital it had squandered.
Certainly, the rhetoric coming from the provisional American government about economic reconstruction, a new constitution and the move to representative democracy sounded good. But the reality, contends Rajiv Chandrasekaran, chief of The Washington Post, Baghdad bureau, during the year after the invasion, was something else: a chaotic and sometimes farcical story of misplaced priorities, petty squabbling and ignorant blundering.
Chandrasekaran’s book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, which has just been awarded the prestigious 2007 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, is a chronicle of life in the Green Zone, or “Baghdad’s Little America”, the district formerly occupied after the invasion by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that was in charge of Iraq from April 2003 till the handover of power in June 2004.
The CPA, Chandrasekaran acknowledges, faced grave problems from the outset. Iraq’s economy was in shambles after decades of mismanagement by a self-serving dictator. Its industries were falling apart, corruption was endemic and citizens were heavily dependent on government handouts. What infrastructure there was had been severely damaged by the war itself; further, large amounts of state property were looted in the days following the military campaign, when no authority was in place. There was confusion over whether the pre-war Iraqi administration, police force and army could be trusted to restore order, or whether a de-Baathification purge was first required to rid the government of Saddam loyalists. Although Saddam’s regime had been toppled, armed insurgents remained active all around the country.
But if the American provisional authority botched the job, Chandrasekaran demonstrates, it only had itself to blame. For one, much of its planning and man management was haphazard. The CPA was in charge of a difficult post-conflict situation, but more than half its staff had never worked outside the US.
Among the horror stories Chandrasekaran cites is that of a 24-year-old with no background in finance placed in charge of restarting the Baghdad stock exchange, and a contractor with no previous experience defrauding the government of huge amounts of cash after a successful tender to provide security to an airport. Within America, the Pentagon, under the command of secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, and the state department under general Colin Powell were often at loggerheads, so that the appointees in Iraq tended to break up into factions. But the main reason why the CPA was so inefficient was because in its composition, as Chandrasekaran says elsewhere, the loyal and the willing were favoured over the best and the brightest.
Chandrasekaran is at his most persuasive and damning when he details how many members of the CPA were Republican loyalists, chosen more for their political sympathies than for their skills, and committed to an impractical vision of Iraq as the Arab world’s first free-market democracy. In fact, after the handover of power in 2004, many CPA staffers returned to America to work on the Bush re-election campaign.
While there is much to praise in Chandrasekaran’s book, his writing also features some emphases which are problematic. He has a fondness—this is a technique that non-fiction writers have borrowed from fiction as a way of heightening drama—for recording the thoughts of characters in italics instead of quoting them (“Yee-haw, thought Fish, who was sitting behind Aguero”). In arguing how this or that was a “missed opportunity”, he often does not take a consistent position, instead using the fact that something went wrong, to make the case that another way was better. This is a good, interesting and necessary book, but it is not in the highest class of reportage or non-fiction.
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