Book Review: Imperial Life in The Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Rajiv Chandrasekaran (2007)

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

Broken Promises & Missed Opportunities

five out of five stars

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY: INSIDE IRAQ’S GREEN ZONE is an important piece of investigative journalism; indeed, it should be required reading for every politico on Capitol Hill. IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY is an account of what went wrong in Iraq – politically and practically speaking – in the aftermath of the American military invasion. It’s a story of broken promises and missed opportunities, nepotism and cronyism, bureaucracy and incompetence. The Green Zone, much like the Bush administration’s vision of a post-war Iraq, is a fantasyland, a veritable Oz, subject not to the realities of the times but only to the whims of its creators. Day-to-day life in Iraq’s Green Zone, then, is emblematic of our failure in Iraq.

But let’s start at the beginning. After the invasion of Iraq, American forces set up shop in the Green Zone, a 4-square-mile gated area of villas and palaces in central Baghdad which had previously been occupied by select government officials, ministries, and Saddam Hussein and his family. From here the so-called “coalition of the willing” (read: America) tried to rebuild and restructure Iraq via a transitional government called the Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA), which was formed on April 21, 2003 and disbanded on June 28, 2004. By chronicling the CPA’s exploits in the Green Zone, Chandrasekaran explains how our utter lack of post-war planning stretched a war that was supposed to last “weeks rather than months” into an occupation that recently passed the five-year mark.

The CPA was doomed from the start. Instead of sending out best and brightest minds to help the Iraqis build a democracy in their newly-liberated country, the Bush administration vetted recruits for loyalty and partisanship. Rather than cooperating with the Iraqi people, CPA eggheads tried to foist changes upon them – and radical changes, at that (e.g., a shift from a socialist to capitalist economy…in a period of months, not years). Programs were underfunded, or not funded at all. Sectarian differences were stressed and reinforced by clueless newbies, leading to a highly fractured and contentious interim government. Meanwhile, de-Ba’athification purged the Iraqi government of all experienced politicians.

Bush loyalists, charged with recreating Iraq in America’s image, had little or no knowledge of Iraqi culture and society – an oversight that was not corrected once CPA employees arrived in Iraq, as they were rarely allowed to leave the Green Zone and experience Iraq first-hand. Instead, they remained sequestered in the Green Zone, which had been remade into a “little America”, a “bubble”, an “American subdivision”. Though many of the cafeteria workers in the Green Zone were Muslims, CPA employees expected them to serve pork dishes with a smile. (Even this secular atheist is aghast at the religious and cultural insensitivity!) Whereas the economy of Iraq could have benefited by providing for the CPA’s needs in the Green Zone, much of the work was outsourced to American companies, and most of the supplies were imported. All the while, essential services (for the Iraqis, that is) suffered; water, electricity, food, jobs – to date, Saddam has proven more able to provide the necessities for the Iraqi people than have the occupying American forces. This is perhaps why we have lost their hearts and minds – and why America is still engaged in warfare with militia groups five years after the invasion.

Watching the Senate Armed Services hearings on Iraq on the teevee today, it’s striking how quickly the Democrats and Republicans alike are to blame our current problems on the Iraqis themselves. It’s almost like listening to a spousal abuser blame his wife for her beatings. We invaded Iraq – and then we failed to help them rebuild a country, a government, that was already in rough shape to begin with; one that we further decimated by waging war upon it. Afterwards, we tried to ram our version of a democratic, free society down their throats, instead of working hand-in-hand with the Iraqi citizens to build a viable and stable country. The problems that we face today are our own, as is illustrated in IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY.

Whether you believe that the war in Iraq was a justified pre-emptive strike or an impeachable offense, there is no denying that America has a responsibility to the people of Iraq. By showing us the many ways in which we have failed to fulfill these obligations, Rajiv Chandrasekaran also gives us an important roadmap for change and success.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)