In Imperial Life in the Emerald City, the Washington Post’s former Baghdad bureau chief draws back the curtain on those who attempted — with limited success at best — to remake Iraq in America’s image following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
For about 15 months beginning in April 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) — a coalition in name only, because it was almost wholly American — served as Iraq’s government. It enacted laws, printed currency and collected taxes, all from behind the walls of a seven-square-mile compound nicknamed Emerald City, walls that kept them isolated from the very people they ostensibly served.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who spent two years in Iraq as a reporter, weaves a vivid tale of the stubborn, often misguided zeal that marked their rule during that crucial period. Although basic necessities like electricity, medicine and clean drinking water were in short supply throughout the country, US officials became fixated on largely irrelevant short-term goals like computerizing the stock exchange and instituting an anti-smoking campaign, Chandrasekaran writes.
The CPA enclave was a slice of homegrown suburbia on the banks of the Tigris, with staffers cut off from the wartime realities. They could lounge by the Olympic-size swimming pool, drink in one of a half-dozen bars or retire to their rooms and watch bootleg DVDs purchased at the Green Zone Bazaar, a line of shops exclusively for Americans’ use. Fare in the dining hall featured cheeseburgers and pork chops rather than local cuisine; everything, including drinking water, was shipped in from other countries.
Furtive sexual liaisons provided another popular pastime. A 10-to-1 ratio of men to women meant the latter could be quite selective.
CPA officials rarely left the compound, and those who did always had an armed escort, either soldiers or well-paid civilians. Chandrasekaran stunned one staffer when he told the man he lived in the “Red Zone,” traveled in Baghdad without a security detail and regularly visited Iraqis in their homes. “What’s it like out there?” the staffer asked.
Chandrasekaran shows how political credentials often trumped practical experience when it came to filling staff positions. Frederick Burkle Jr, a physician and decorated Naval Reserve officer, was initially tapped to rehabilitate Iraq’s devastated postwar health-care system. Holder of several advanced degrees from Ivy League universities, he was considered an expert in disaster relief, having been tasked with providing medical assistance to the Kurds during the first Persian Gulf War.
A week after Baghdad fell, Burkle was sacked, Chandrasekaran writes, because the White House wanted a “loyalist” in the job. His replacement, a social worker without a medical degree, had no experience in disaster-response matters but possessed solid-gold political connections — to John Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan.
The book examines, in excruciating detail, the interagency bickering that hampered the mission. The CPA operated under the control of the US Defense Department, with Paul Bremer, the American viceroy, reporting directly to Donald Rumsfeld. The few staffers who came from the US State Department — including those possessing Arabic-language skills and significant experience in the Middle East — usually found themselves shunted to the side. Bremer seemed to surround himself with young, unseasoned advisers, Chandrasekaran observes. “Like the president, Bremer valued loyalty above all else.”