Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Bookplanet: review of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" (that would be the Green Zone in Baghdad)

MOUNTAIN VIEWS: NEW BOOK EXAMINES IRAQ FAILURES -- by John Hanchette/ Niagara Falls Reporter

OLEAN -- Saddam Hussein's richly deserved execution by the rope as 2006 neared its end seems to have given Shiite Muslims and most Americans a sense of fulfilled vengeance.

But the Butcher of Baghdad's stark demise -- a far gentler departure than he provided most of his murdered enemies -- will not bring closure to this country's miserable experience in Iraq. That remains a distant specter.

Many new and worthy books are sprouting on this subject, but if you wish to understand the foreign quicksand we're in, and you can't stomach reading more than one tome on the topic, pick up the outstanding study "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," by Washington Post newsman Rajiv Chandrasekaran ($25.95, Knopf, 320 pages).

I received it as a Christmas gift, one of the best I've yet had, and greatly admire the author's diligent legwork and courage in assembling the detailed, enlightening material over his year-and-a-half in Baghdad as the noted newspaper's bureau chief. (He is now the newspaper's assistant managing editor.)

The book covers the 18-plus months immediately following our unilateral invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, the planning of which began about two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed our world in 2001. Those months contained a sense of American fervor, hope and optimism -- solid expectation, even -- that we would show the world how to build a sustainable Jeffersonian democracy and capitalist economy in a far land accustomed mostly to death, dictatorship and deprivation. The words one hears now are anarchy, corruption, despair.

It was not always thus. First, a bit of history, and an explanation I've long sought of why some Iraqis still evince nostalgia for the "good old days" under Saddam, even as their friends and relatives were imprisoned, slaughtered or disappeared.

When he came to power in the '70s, Saddam -- brutal and uneducated though he was -- installed a socialist welfare state that functioned far more smoothly than the Soviet model. That's because Iraq was sitting on an ocean of oil second only to Saudi Arabia in volume and already accessible through wells and pipelines installed by colonial powers through the early 20th century.

Government jobs -- in a state-owned factory, a ministry or the many security services -- "were plentiful and guaranteed you a salary for the rest of your life," writes Chandrasekaran. "Paychecks were low, but the cost of goods and services was subsidized by the government. Gasoline was sold for less than a nickel a gallon. Nobody paid for electricity, not even the state-owned factories that guzzled hundreds of megawatts. Every family received monthly food rations from the state. Education, even college, was free. So was health care."

For the many farmers, the price of fertilizer was so generously subsidized they would often sell their allotment in Jordan and Syria instead of using it on crops. Why spend months sweating in the fields when one could net more income fencing off the fertilizer?

In department stores run by the Ministry of Trade, Iraqis could find top-design footware, clothing, watches and accessories "at a fraction of their retail price anywhere else in the world." If an Iraqi bought an international flight ticket on Iraqi Airways, it was subsidized. If an Iraqi wanted an imported car, whether from Sweden, or Germany, or the United States, it was subsidized.

Iraq's health care and university systems were regarded "as the best in the Arab world."

The author describes tens of thousands of Indians, Somalis, Pakistanis and Egyptians moving to Iraq in the late 1970s "to work on massive infrastructure projects: the construction of a six-lane highway to Jordan, luxury hotels in Baghdad, bridges across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers."

As the director of a state-owned vegetable-oil factory told the author, "We had a very, very good life."

But the belligerent Saddam could not stand prosperity. All the wealth went to his head and fueled a desire for regional power. In 1980, he foolishly invaded Iran, expended hundreds of thousands of young Iraqi lives, became mired in an eight-year war fought to no clear end and put his nation into permanent debt by blowing tens of billions of dollars on his military misadventure.

Then, as that decade ended, notes the author, Saddam "had the lunacy to invade Kuwait" (which he insisted was legally Iraq's 19th province), a rash move that resulted not only in a thundering, remorseless military response by Bush the Elder, but in more than a decade of "debilitating United Nations sanctions that cut off Iraq from the world." The sanctions enriched the immoral Saddam personally as he bootlegged oil to a petroleum-hungry world, but it impoverished his people.

"But all along," writes Chandrasekaran, "there was little, if any, recognition among ordinary Iraqis that their economic system was rotten to the core. After all, it was the same system that had given them a good life a generation earlier. The thinking among those Iraqis was that if Saddam and the sanctions were gone, they'd be wealthy again."

It was amid this unrealistic mindset that President George W. Bush and his belligerent neoconservative advisers thrust Americans in harm's way. Once Dubya declared "Mission Accomplished," a Coalition Provisional Authority (read: occupation administration) was set up in Iraq. Republican loyalist L. Paul Bremer III was installed as CPA chief, and confident Americans expected something along the lines of proconsul Douglas MacArthur's stern and successful resuscitation of Japan after World War II.

Instead, this book describes a stubborn imperial viceroy right out of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera presiding over further demise of that godforsaken nation by pursuing irrelevant and almost comic pie-in-the-sky neoconservative solutions instead of rebuilding the infrastructure, restoring electricity, reopening hospitals and winning gratitude and support from the inhabitants.

Bremer set up shop in Saddam's most luxurious palace on the banks of the Tigris in the so-called Green Zone (the Emerald City reference in the book's title), a secure, four-miles-square enclave surrounded by vaulting blast walls. It was inaccessible to Iraqis (except for well-searched, non-resident maids, waiters and grunt workers) and it turned quickly into Little America -- a place of several bars, cold beers, a disco, American women attired in hot pants, a movie theater, dry-cleaning services, barbecues and buffets piled high with pork, swimming pools with uniformed drink-fetchers, a shopping mall where one could purchase porno films, row upon row of new SUVs ... most of this run by Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's former firm.

Soon, it all started to resemble Oz. The author details how.

From the beginning, the enclave, by design, was cut off from wartime realities outside the wall. They have now permeated.

Instead of listening to veteran State Department experts or advisers from the military who actually perceive the incipient chaos outside the castle, Bremer lets his underlings populate the CPA with platoons of twentysomethings who are questioned by White House screeners -- mainly on their loyalty to the Republican Party, who they voted for in 2000 and their views on sociopolitical subjects like the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. Federal experts with prior experience in the Middle East are either shunned outright or told by Bremer's screeners to take a walk once the fresh-faced GOP loyalists establish their patronage pull.

A 24-year-old who has never worked in finance is put in charge of re-establishing the Baghdad Stock Exchange. Young American main-chance opportunists with absolutely no previous experience are hired as contractors and paid scores of millions of dollars to guard closed airports and other non-functioning structures of Iraqi society.

Frederick Burkle Jr., a renowned and incredibly credentialed physician who had worked in Kosovo and Somalia as a public health veteran from the U.S. Agency for International Development -- a man with postgraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Berkeley, a man who taught disaster response at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, a man who had helped Bush the Elder provide medical aid to Kurds in northern Iraq during the first Gulf War -- was given the boot by Bremer associates in Iraq because he wasn't sufficiently "loyal" to Dubya.

He was replaced by James K. Haveman Jr., a Michigan social worker with no medical degree but well-connected politically to the neoconservative architects of the current war. Instead of trying to stem emerging epidemic diseases, provide decent drinking water, replace looted and demolished yet vital surgical equipment, restore basic hospital services, or bring in depleted life-saving drugs and medicines, Haveman, according to the author, concentrated on an anti-smoking campaign. This, in a country where virtually every male adult and youth sports a cigarette habit.

In charge of the public-education effort, the new CPA health minister placed a closet smoker.

Iraqis, noted the author, "faced far greater dangers in their daily life than a little tobacco."

The list of dimwitted decisions and myopic wasting of billions and billions of American taxpayer dollars goes on and on, all detailed in this book.

Perhaps the worst decision with the worst ramifications was Bremer's insistence on purging the reconstruction effort of nearly all functioning Baathists -- members of Saddam's ruling political party.

Instead of just removing party leaders, managers and mid-level functionaries, the original strategy of Pentagon war-planners, Bremer -- to "eradicate Saddamism" -- also banned regular rank-and-file Baath Party members from holding positions in any government ministries, affiliated corporations or other government institutions. Bremer shared this top-to-bottom plan with the Pentagon, but the decision was hidden from Secretary of State Colin Powell and even National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Not only did this decision "remove the brains of the government" and virtually gut the rebuilding effort of any competent personnel and Iraqi participation in rebuilding industry -- it also aided the eventual insurgency that ruined American plans.

The de-Baathification plan impressed the much-respected Jay Garner -- the former lieutenant general and Middle East veteran originally appointed to take overall military command of postwar Iraq -- as harebrained and "too harsh."

Garner warned Bremer, "You're going to drive 50,000 Baathists underground before nightfall. Don't do this."

Bremer did it anyway. He also disbanded the Iraqi army, most of which hated Saddam in the first place and would have gladly supported the American occupation if it truly meant rebuilding their country, guarding their communities and jobs. The Baathists and the soldiers -- all pissed off and most armed -- went home with their weapons. Many of them today are shooting Americans.

The CPA, which no longer exists, will be treated harshly by history. In the end, it will be judged as more about taking care of friends, taking care of opportunistic friends of friends, political patronage and political ambitions than about rebuilding a torn country.

Only a third of the $18.4 billion appropriated for the CPA by Congress specifically for rebuilding Iraq has been spent to this day. About 40 percent of that fund has gone for guards, security, armored vehicles and blast walls. About $8.8 billion, according to Pentagon auditors, cannot be accounted for. How can you lose track of an amount like that unless chicanery is involved? About 40 percent of Iraqis are unemployed.

Meanwhile, the elections held two years ago this month (January), a democratic success if not a political one, resulted in Sunni Arabs -- who comprise 20 percent of the population -- winning only 8 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. The Sunnis have resorted to insurgency. The majority Shiites and the Kurds control the legislature. They have responded to Sunni death squads in kind on the streets.

Chandrasekaran writes: "Sunni insurgents began attacking Shiite and Kurdish civilians with the same ferocity they directed at the Americans. Shiites living in Sunni areas north of Baghdad began to flee south. Sunnis in Shiite communities to the south of the capital left their homes and moved north. A civil war had begun."

It seems clear to me (and others in government who won't say so publicly) the way out of all this is partition of Iraq -- anathema to the Bush administration because Turkey and Iran don't want parts of it to happen.

Iraq is a strangely hybrid nation to begin with, opportunistically cobbled together by western victors after World War I from sections of the old Ottoman Empire, using uninformed (and some say drunk) surveyors and mapmakers who didn't know a Shiite from a shoehorn, nor any of the intricacies of Islamic politics or religion.

My prediction:

Before he leaves office, Bush will arrange to give the Kurds their Kurdistan and the oil fields they covet. That progressive corner of Iraq -- the largest massing of indigenous people on the planet without their own nation -- is already prospering and well-defended in the north. Bush will make a deal with the Turks to help send expatriate Kurdish rebels in Turkey back home. The United States will keep airfields and military bases in Kurdistan.

The Bush administration will allow the Sunnis to keep the center of the country and the current capital, Baghdad. They can name it what they want.

The south and Basra will be Shiite. It already is, and militant Iran plans to annex it anyway. Better to make it a satellite state in Tehran's orbit than to see another war over the territory.

Bush will probably use this part of the deal to gain nuclear development concessions from Iran's leadership mullahs, something along the lines of: Tehran, stand down your drive for nuclear armaments, let in the international inspectors, and we'll virtually gift you with the south of Iraq.

Don't bother writing the White House or your members of Congress. They'll all deny it's being considered. But it will happen.

And if you read Chandrasekaran's book, you'll understand why.

(John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at )


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