on November 26, 2006
Here's how it works. You have a degree in, let's say, English Literature, and your resume says that your entire work experience has been working on the campaign of Republican senator Schmurtz. You apply for a job working for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, and sigh in relief at passing the hardball questions asked of you like, "How do you stand on Roe vs. Wade?", and "Whom did you vote for in the last presidential election?" Finally you end up in Baghdad's green zone, and are put to work designing a new traffic code, or trying to set up a computerized stock exchange.
Maybe your name is James Haveman, a 60 year old social worker. I don't know if we have a job for you. Wait, you are a true party loyalist? How about taking over the Iraqi health care system? Currently we have a gentleman running it named Frederick Burkle, Jr. He's a physician with an MA in public health, postgraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and UC Berkeley. He specializes in disaster-response issues, a subject he taught at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The problem with him is we aren't sure he is a Republican loyalist. So Jim why don't you go over and take his place?
I am definitely not making this up. If this were a novel by, say, Carl Hiaasen, it would be the funniest book of the year. Tragically, this is real life. I finished this book right after reading "Fiasco", and don't know if I can take many more recountings of the disaster that is Iraq.
The folks that were sent to Iraq to build a new nation made all the wrong decisions at just the right time. They were literally trying to turn Iraq into a little USA. The new traffic codes and the new regulations for the stock exchange? The Iraqis read them through, and carefully filed them in the circular file. Another big idea was to sell of the assets of state run companies and attract private investors. Selling an occupied countrys' assets is a clear violation of International Law. And there were no investors in the whole world who were interested in these companies. The CPA eliminated all import tariffs, so Iraqis bought 500,000 cars in the first year of occupation. Of course this meant mile long lines at gas stations, and when you finally got your gas you entered total gridlock on streets that were often full of military roadblocks.
This is another fascinating book on the disaster of Iraq. It'll make you angry and cry out in frustration, but all of us need to know what is going on over there.
This book was so absorbing that it kept me up past midnight. I had to finish it. It is unique, focusing in a very easy to read way on the terrible errors committed that made Bremer's rule a complete failure.
The author documents both the unreality of the Green Zone ("The fear on the faces of American troops was rarely seen by the denizens of the Palace") and the terrible errors that resulted from arrogance, ignorance, and plain bureaucratic in-fighting.
The author opens by concluding that most of those serving in the provisional authority simply gave up and went through the motions. He calls them a motley bunch, most qualified by allegiance to the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party, rather than actually being competent or even relevant. The author makes an informed speculative judgement that fully half of those serving, many callow youths, got their first passport to take the political appointments in Iraq. Great line from one disillusioned staffer: "I'm a neo-conservative who has been mugged by reality."
Bremer screwed this up, but it was Dick Cheney who chose him for the job and got General Garner fired. Dick Cheney also personally directed the removal of Tom Warrick, the only person in the US government that actually understood Iraq in all its nuances, from the Garner team, largely to protect Chalabi--a thief and a liar according to CIA and State, a willing accomplice who sucked up to Cheney--and block objections to Chalabi being installed as the leader.
The author also reports that Doug Feith kept General Garner ignorant in order to promote Chalabi as the one with the answers.
The bottom line within this book comes in four parts:
1) Bureaucratic in-fighting and Pentagon civilian arrogance lost the peace before it even had a chance.
2) Looting destroyed all the ministries while the sanctions destroyed the infrstructure. The US made things worse by insisting on hiring US companies playing by US federal acquisition rules, and ultimately spending 40% of the money on security instead of reconstruction.
3) Bremer single-handedly destroyed any possibilities of peace with his first two decisions--purging the Bathists not only drove 50,000 people, the ones with all the knowledge, underground, it provided the insurgency with its leadership. Dismantling the military and police created an army of insurgents overnight. Finally, in seeking to privatize the Iraqi economy, Bremer and his deputies were in specific violation of international law preventing occupying powers from doing just that.
4) Bremer set aside the inter-agency process (just as Dick Cheney did in Washington) and while the author credits Bremer with zeal, it can safely be concluded that he was the most ignorant, arrogant, destructive pro-consul in modern history. Common sense was killed by the Bremer and his CPA.
From Cheney to Rumsfeld to Wolfowitz to Feith to Bremer, there is a clear-cut culpability for destroying what was left of Iraq, for wasting half a trillion dollars, for losing more US troops to combat than were murdered on 9/11, and for creating 65,000 amputees, all for an elective war and a refusal to listen to the wisdom of the truly experienced officers: Tony Zinni of the Marines and Shinseki of the Army. It does bear mention, however, that the success of these four individuals in doing great harm was made possible by the simultaneous failure of three safety valves: the Congress, the press, and our senior military officers, most particularly General Tommy Franks, who was all to eager to do Rumsfeld's bidding, declare victory, and never mind the transition from hostilities to a stablization & reconstruction phase.
All four books together are a compelling indictment of the Bush-Cheney administration, and confirm my view that between them, Cheney and Rumsfeld, between giving Sadaam Hussein chemical weapons in the 1990's, and lying to America to justify an elective war and then screwing it up with Bremer, have done vastly more harm to the publics and people of America, Iraq, and Iran combined, than have Bin Laden and Saddaam Hussein himself. This is my informed judgement as the #1 Amazon reviewer of non-fiction; they have cost America its moral standing, half a trillion dollars better spent on peace, 65,000 amputees, more US dead that were murdered on 9/11, and have destroyed the lives of millions of decent people around the world and especially in the Middle East and the USA.
The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11
Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency
Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It
Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life
Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage
Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025
The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (American Empire Project)
on January 14, 2007
This book walks you beneath a war that, until now, I had only known via tv, blog, and magazine. I think every american, regardless or left or right wing should read. I am a conservative and noticed that the author seems to take shots here and there about key players being neocons, but also I suppose he's assigning blame where blame is due. What makes this book so scary is how embarassing all of it is. You see how our government pretty much threw their friends and cronies into power, and those friends ruined the direction in iraq. Regardless of what side you stand on politically, you owe it to yourself to read this eye--opening inside account of the Iraq mess. I kept hearing Homer Simpson say, "Doh," in the back of my head while reading.
on January 5, 2007
While most debates about the Iraq War focus on the strength of the military presence - are there enough troops, etc - Chandrasekaran's inside perspective paints the failure in Iraq clearly as a political and civil failing, where there were not enough officials to rebuild the infrastructure, and those that were there had their positions because of their connections, and not their credentials. While officials continue to insist that the war "will be won," it becomes clear here that the war was lost soon after the statue of Saddam fell, when looting (which was not stopped, because officials had not made it a priority, and orders to protect certain areas were not communicated to troops) destroyed the nation's ministries, and thus their ability to govern. We see an insurgency born not because of differing political philosophies, but because the CPA was completely unable to provide jobs and even the substandard government services that the Iraqi people had under Saddam's reign.
A frustrating book to read as well, as you realize that the insurgency might have been stunted before it took hold had the CPA been either competent or qualified. The desire to have "good Republicans" in key roles as opposed to experienced experts might have cost us this war and a golden opportunity to bring democracy to the region. An important book to read to not only understand why we failed, but also to gauge our chances of success going forward.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran is with the Washington Post; he has spent time in both Afghanistan and Iraq since the American missions in both places. His experiences in Iraq as well as his interviews with those in Iraq during the time of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority, under the control of Paul Bremer) and the precursor organization (under Jay Garner)provide important bases for this work. The picture is not pretty, and ties in with arguments advanced by other books on Iraq written of late.
First, as readers already know, there was no real plan for after the war. The book makes it clear that much of the redevelopment of Iraq was ad hoc. Since no one understood how much in tatters the electrical grid was, there was no real preparation for dealing with the degraded system. And the end result was that infrastructure was worse after the war as compared with before. And the CPA was unable to do much to restore power and make the system work better.
Second, many of the "leaders" selected by the CPA were chosen for their political connections. For instance, very young (twenty something) people who had built IOUs from the Administration for, for instance, working in the Bush election campaign, were selected to head units for which they had no expertise at all. Sometimes, seasoned administrators were pushed aside, occasionally because they were not gung ho enough politically.
Third, the CPA was fairly clueless about what was happening on the ground in Iraq. They were slow to pick up on the insurgency, for example. It took them some time to understand the importance of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They became landlocked in the "Green Zone," as conditions worsened outside.
The book begins with a quotation from T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), who said in 1917: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."
The book indicates the number of times when Iraqis were given secondary status to Americans, whether in running organizations or on political decision-making. One important neoconservative, on reflection of his experiences in Iraq, became most disillusioned. He commented to the author: "I'm a neoconservative who's been mugged by reality (page 5)." What began as an easy military victory turned into a quagmire. As the American involvement moved from liberation to occupation, things began to disintegrate. As one Iraqi told the author (page 290): "The biggest mistake of the occupation was the occupation itself."
All in all, one of the more powerful books about the American incursion into Iraq; it is also one of the best descriptions of the CPA's reign in Iraq. It triangulates strongly with other volumes.
on February 20, 2007
This is a necessary ground-level view of tragic folly, in which the ever-more endangered liberators of a Moslem nation eat pork (prepared by Moslems in a Halliburton contract) and drink beer behind 17-foot blast walls in the tyrant's palace. If they show any curiosity about the nation at all, they tend to read "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Iraq" as a crash course. As Hannah Arendt writes of the "banality of evil", this book can be read as a meditation on the evil of banality.
Still, Chandrasekaran's portrayal of the individual Americans is even-handed, even sympathetic, ranging from the heroic (professional soldiers and diligent civilians trying their best in impossible circumstances to restore a broken country) to the base (Bernie Kerik, who comes off as a goon strictly in it for Bernie). Even Jerry Bremer - while condemned overall - gets a fair shake, almost getting it right with the Kurds, though far too late. One is reminded of Graham Greene (The Quiet American, The Third Man), George Orwell (Burmese Days and the short essay Shooting An Elephant), the peerless cartoonist Walt Kelly (Pogo: "We have met the enemy and it is us.") and even Voltaire (via Pangloss of Candide),
In the end, this series of mordant blackouts and black comedy sketches produces an object lesson about the dangers of well-intentioned Americans who (viz., the Current Occupant) ask the world to judge us by our intentions (noble, or so we believe) even when the results are disastrous.
The story of university president and worthy Republican John Agresto makes a good framing device. He is deputized to reform an Iraqi university system without desks or buildings, as fresh-faced, clueless children of Republican contributors are dispatched to start the Iraqi stock exchange and revive national ministries. In the end (pages 286-87), Mr. Agresto writes: "We, as a country, don't have a clue as to what has made our own country work, and so we spread the gospel of democracy-at-all-costs abroad."
Good point. After reading this excellent book, Tom Ricks' Fiasco, and Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near, complete your education with Lou Dubose's "Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency." Then take a long shower, turn off the cable news, and read Jacob Needleman's "The American Soul" and discover again all there is to love about our country. Then get involved while tempering your rage with good humor.
One hopes that Our Man in the White House includes this book in his "eckalectic" ongoing reading contest with Karl ("Boy Genius/Turd Blossom") Rove. But I am not placing any bets.
on September 19, 2006
This enlightening book is clearly written and very disturbing, a revealing look at what happens when American idealism and bravado mixes with ignorance and incompetence in an already dangerous place. The on-the-ground glimpses of life in the Green Zone give this book the weight of reality, though you'll wish it were fiction.
on March 12, 2007
Through a number of real characters, Chandrasekaran does an excellent job of revealing why this experiment in empire building has been a complete failure.
After our invasion, we had no coordinated, overall plan. At best there was a theme--democractize/privatize/restructure Iraq based on a neo-con preconceived ideal. There was absolutely no understanding of the disparities between the two worlds, and the wall around the Green Zone was more than just a symbol of the separation of Zone's inhabitants from the real world of Iraq and its people--their culture, their needs.
There were lots of important high level jobs to fill in this "redo" effort, and the selection process had more to do with loyalty to party and Bush than with real credentials for the complex task at hand. Some came for the adventure, some came to fulfill personal goals, some came out of a sense of patriotic duty. But the separation provided by the wall was always there. We directed, with little input coming from the Iraqis. When their suggestions were offered, their complaints voiced, they were disregarded--they were more of an afterthought to our grandiose plans.
None of those who came were prepared for the degree of destruction left in the wake of the wholesale looting we allowed to run rampant. Electric wiring ripped from walls, machinery stripped from factories, supplies from hospitals, books, desks, and computers from schools. This compounded the damage caused by our bombing. Despite our promises for rebuilding and the better life democracy would somehow bring, little, if anything, has been accomplished.
Chandrasekaran walks the reader through this monumental debacle one character at a time, and Paul Brehmer steals the show. You'll gain a much deeper understanding of why this has been such a failure. Our "redo" agenda took precedence over providing practical, even critical, necessities. It's time we give up our role of dominating occupier and accept the unintended consequences of our actions. We owe the Iraqis for the damage we've done, and the first installment requires giving them back their country.
on November 24, 2006
Rajiv Chandrasekaran has done Americans a great service with Imperial Life in the Emerald City, his detailed account of the Coalition Provisional Authority's term in Iraq.
Chandrasekaran's narrative painstakingly details the many errors that have riddled the U.S. effort to reconstruct Iraq: flawed personnel selection that emphasized White House ties at the expense of technical expertise; a grandiose and unattainable mission (the CPA is charged with turning Iraq into a Western-style democracy when the more urgent needs are restoring civil rule and the electrical grid); troop levels inadequate to keep order; and a tendency to impose American concerns and solutions in an Iraqi context where they are hugely inappropriate or irrelevant.
Examples of this last difficulty are numerous. To wit: an American public health official who is preoccupied with streamlining Iraq's drug formulary during a period when hospitals lack power and basic supplies; a young U.S. program manager intent on creating the Islamic world's first computerized securities trading system when the Iraqis want only to return to the previous non-automated but functional model; American appropriations for teaching tropical agriculture classes in a non-tropical Iraqi city whose agricultural college has been bombed out of existence.
Chandrasekaran's narrative is all the more powerful because it is an even-handed depiction, rather than an anti-White House jeremiad. CPA head Jerry Bremer makes some fateful errors of judgment (most notably de-Ba'athification on too stringent a scale, the dismantling of the Iraqi army, and the failure to cultivate influential Shiite cleric al-Sistani, a failure that jettisons the U.S.'s first efforts to establish an Iraqi government), but emerges as an intelligent, tireless and charismatic leader. Other CPA staffers are revealed as dedicated-- even if occasionally under-qualified-- workers who do their best under difficult conditions and the constraints of too-short periods in which to accomplish their assignments.
Sadly, CPA workers, members of the U.S. armed forces and the American public were told that Iraq could be transformed into a Western democracy with comparative ease in a limited time frame. Chandrasekaran shows that this vision was, at best, naive. Iraq, weakened by years of dictatorship and economic hardship, lacks the economic and civic underpinnings of a successful Western democracy, and the religious and ethnic divisions that cleave the country have been exacerbated by war and economic collapse. Against this grim reality, the CPA's efforts take on a Potemkin Village-like quality.
Chandrasekaran suggests that American reconstruction efforts in Iraq would have been best directed to restoring the basics: civil order, electrical power, the functioning of state-owned enterprises that provided many Iraqis with employment, hospitals and the education system. This reader believes that he is correct, as a functioning society provides the underpinning for democracy.
Sadly, Colin Powell ("You break it, you own it") appears to have called America's results in Iraq correctly. Imperial Life in the Emerald City provides a well-drawn portrait of just how right Powell was.
on January 3, 2007
This is a very readable book that provides a penetrating insight into the early attempts to govern Iraq after the U.S. occupation. It recounts how the Bush Administration consistently failed to live up to minimum expectations for thoughtfulness and planning. Many of those officials placed in charge of large sectors of the Iraqi economy and society had absolutely no idea what they were doing but had passed the Bush Administration's loyalty tests. The US will be living this history for many years to come and this book sheds light on how this came to be.