Book Reviews: Imperial Life in the Emerald City & My Year in Iraq

Rajiv Chandraskaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone is, among other things, instructive on how to create an insurgency through occupation. Yes, you read that right. Chandraskaran shows how reconstruction efforts were short-circuited and really pissed off the population frequently and unerringly. Chandraskaran’s portrayal of a period that roughly overlaps the existence of the Coalition Provisional Authority is one of myopic and ignorant staffing, priorities, and execution. 

How do insurgencies develop? Read this book to see how the people in the middle ground had their options removed and how extremists and criminals had recruiting opportunities handed to them on silver platters, not to mention plenty of time to refine their own operations as neon warning signs were ignored and dismissed.

Because of their similarity and at the same time contrast, my book review here comments on both Chandraskaran’s book and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope. Nearly identical in scopy, they are diametrically opposed in their perceptions of reality.

Starting with Imperial Life, Chandraskaran digs into the details like a forensic historian, tearing at the paper castles Bremer and the Administration created for themselves and the American public. He delves into the politics of who was allowed to participate, what information was not shared, and how “loyalists” without appropriate, or in many cases, any experience were placed. Michael Goldfarb, in his New York Times review of the book, hits some of the highlights of Imperial Life, including comparisons between people like the extremely qualified Frederick M. Burkle Jr and who was replaced by the extremely unqualified James K. Haveman Jr for the job of rebuilding Iraq’s healthcare (if the importance of healthcare isn’t obvious, see this RAND report on the importance of healthcare in ‘nation-building’).

The difference between these two books is astounding, quite honestly. Bremer, as Goldfarb writes, has apparently “read one C.E.O. memoir too many”. An accurate states considering the frequent platitudes Bremer heaps upon himself.

Bremer likes to finish a section on a positive reflection while Chandraskaran finishes with reality, a bit of bad reality. For example, on the disbanding of the Iraqi army, CPA Order No. 2, Bremer concludes with Kurdish leader Jalal Talabini telling him that the “decision to formally ‘disband’ the old army was the best decision the Coalition made during the our fourteen months in Iraq.”

On the other hand, Chandraskaran notes Bremer’s plan backfired. Bremer was clearly not concerned with the large number of unemployed he created in a country with already high employment, which he was actually seeking to increase through privatization and restructuring. Failing to heed warnings from the military, State, and logic, Chandraskaran includes an interview with a soldier who had been a part of an Iraqi army protest against the disbanding:

In a land of honor and tradition, the viceroy had disrespected the old soldiers…. I did see another former soldier [months later] who had been at the protest.

“What happened to everyone there?”, I asked. “Did they join the new army?”

He laughed.

“They’re all insurgents now,” he said. “Bremer lost his chance.”

On Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 1: De-Baathification, Chandraskaran writes about Jay Garner, effectively Bremer’s predecessor who lead the Office of Humanitarian and Reconstruction Aid (OHRA), “barging” into Bremer’s office with the CIA station chief protesting the de-Baathification order. The CIA station chief said the order, which Chandraskaran writes neither National Security Advisor Rice nor Secretary of State Powell had seen, would “drive fifty thousand Baathists underground before nightfall. Don’t do this.”

Bremer, on the other hand, writes the order would only bar “about 1 per cent”, or about 20,000, would be knocked out, according to “our intelligence community.” He describes these top four ranks as “Senior Party Members”. The reality, which Chandraskaran writes, was much broader and deeper than this 20,000. Further alienating a nation without regard to how de-Nazification really worked (which was the model and an image Bremer frequently invokes in My Life).

On a side note, Bremer blames Garner and his men for failing in their job and for leaking information to the press.

One last comparison between the two books that I’ll make is on Bernie Kerik. Despite the obvious need to create security, police training was not given over to an expert, but to Bernie Kerik. It’s interesting how rarely Kerik appears in Bremer’s book. This is probably because of the terrible job he did, which is detailed on many pages in Imperial Life.

Imperial Life’s theme is reward over execution. The civilian leadership, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, disregarded knowledge and history of reconstruction, nationalism, identity, and even Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in favor of placing people who, too often, were selected out of “loyalty” to the Republican party and got their first passport in order to work in the Emerald City, aka the Green Zone. Cause and effect was something that could be manipulated without consideration of reality. 

The impact of private contractors in Iraq is evident in Imperial Life, while they are almost completely absent in My Life. From BearingPoint to Haliburton to DynCorp to Blackwater, Imperial Life clearly shows how independent, and even in charge, the contractors were, except when they made a suggestion contrary to Bremer’s perception of reality.

This is not just a book in the “snafu genre”, as Foreign Affairs described it. It is a book on how the situation deteriorated so badly in Iraq.

In the end, I’d skip My Life and read Imperial Life to get one view on how the situation in Iraq got so bad and our missed opportunities. Those two words — missed opportunities — appear too frequently in Imperial Life through interviews of OHRA, CPA, military, and contractors done after the completion of their tours. A clear take-away is the mess in Iraq today was not preordained but the result of our doing our damned best to screw it up.