Thursday, February 08, 2007
02:42 Imperial Life In The Emerald City
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone
by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
It’s like something out of a novel by J. G. Ballard: a gated community filled with all the comforts of the western world located incongruously in the middle of a war-ravaged country. Or perhaps it owes more to Paul Bowles, with its tale of Americans, led predominantly by their own naiveté or arrogance, being completely undone by the Arabic world. But it’s hard to imagine a better depiction of why the U.S. occupation of Iraq is, and was always doomed to be, a colossal failure than Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s record of the year he spent inside Baghdad’s “green zone.”
The “green zone” is the heavily fortified base of the Coalition Provision Authority, located in and around Saddam Hussein’s former palace. Think “green” as in naïve or “green” as in money, and you have a summary of the U.S. occupation. After Baghdad fell, the Coalition Provisional Authority were in charge of stabilizing the rest of the country. But many people were hired for the CPA based not on their qualifications but on their loyalty to the Bush Administration or the Republican party. Even some of those interviewed seemed surprised that they were hired and sent to Iraq.
A pattern repeats throughout the book: someone who knows very little about Iraq is hired to help rebuild part of the country’s damaged infrastructure. They are usually well-meaning and have some good ideas, though often inappropriate or unworkable. Once in Iraq, they discover that they are literally starting from scratch: the widespread looting that began after the war, which the Pentagon was warned about and did little to prevent, has stripped much of the country of its basic infrastructure. (Looting is such a common theme that by the time I was on page 100, I checked to see if it was in the index, curious to see how often it was mentioned. Sadly, no entry for “looting.”) Faced with few resources and an almost impossible task, some sink into cynicism while others try as best they can, but achieve little before they return to the U.S.
There are many times in Imperial Life in which the culture clash is so obvious and funny that you don’t understand why those living through it don’t see it. A recent college grad, who knows nothing about finance, is hired to re-build Iraq’s stock exchange. Opportunists win a contact to guard Iraq’s major airport for millions of dollars even though they have never run a security operation before. A media consultant is hired to create a television news service in the country, but soon runs afoul of the military for not broadcasting enough “positive” news about US efforts.
But perhaps “funny” is the wrong attitude to take here. My bemusement at others’ foolishness is tempered by knowing the chaos that the Bush administration has unleashed on that country. It’s hard to laugh about cross-cultural ignorance when said ignorance has cost tens of thousands of people their lives (and that’s a conservative estimate – pun intended). Recently, after a night out, I had a drunken argument about Iraq with a friend of a friend, who quickly resorted to the “isn’t it good that we got rid of Saddam Hussein -- do you wish he was still in power?” “I don’t see much difference” I replied. “He killed thousands of people, and now we’ve killed thousands more. I’m sure the people who died in the war wished he was still in power. We’ve lost that moral argument.”
“Yeah, but things might get better now…” he answered.
Another green zone.