News & Politics

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone

Rajiv Chandrasekaran—the Washington Post's former Baghdad bureau chief—cuts through levels of bureaucracy, painting in bright colors how Iraq got so complicated and messed up.

Bob Woodward’s State of Denial and Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco are excellent books about the policy, decision-making, and strategic aspects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But to understand how occupation turned into snafu, Imperial Life in the Emerald City is the book to read.

With a novelistic eye for detail and irony, Rajiv Chandrasekaran—the Washington Post’s former Baghdad bureau chief—cuts through the bureaucratic B.S., painting in bright colors how Iraq got so complicated and messed up. This could be a nonfiction version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. No wonder Matt Damon is said to be negotiating for the movie rights.

The main character isn’t Rumsfeld, Bush, or Cheney, but rather Lewis Paul Bremer III, the United States’ first viceroy in Baghdad after the capture of Iraq’s capital. Bremer was viewed by the White House as a “can-do, take-charge” diplomat with close ties to Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig.

Consistent with Ricks’s view in Fiasco, Chandrasekaran blames the insurgency on Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army and disqualify from postwar service all Baath Party members who had served under Saddam. The people who could have policed the streets and operated the postwar economy were put out of work, and thus the insurgency was born.

The book’s setting is the Green Zone, a seven-mile square in the middle of Baghdad from which electricity, food, order, and democracy were to flow out into the country, building an oasis of peace and security. Chandrasekaran has tracked the efforts of enthusiastic, often idealistic, sometimes mercenary Americans, many of whom were young and inexperienced at building a utopia.

In Washington, we hear much about the need to build a democratic, stable government in Iraq; less is heard about the need to get its factories back on line, its schools operating, its bomb-pocked roads rebuilt, its electricity running, and its police trained. There was even a project to reestablish the Baghdad stock exchange—one of the book’s funniest and most telling misconceived adventures.

Like many such well-meaning projects, the job fell to a 24-year-old fortune seeker with no financial experience. He was to help rewrite Iraqi securities law and create the country’s version of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Computers were flown in; white boards were replaced; and everything was modernized. But as soon as the operation was turned over to the Iraqis, everything reverted to how it had been. Extraneous employees who had been fired to streamline the new department were brought back; disgruntled former staff were considered too dangerous.

Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik was assigned to oversee training of the Iraqi police force. Kerik spoke confidently of Iraqi security but traveled with a team of South African bodyguards. At one meeting, he noticed Iraqis in the room. “Who are these people?” he snarled. “What the f— are they doing here?” An aide replied: “Bernie, that’s the reason we’re here.”

Then there’s the story of John Smathers, a Laurel personal-injury lawyer and former Prince George’s County prosecutor. Smathers was a captain in an Army Reserve unit who was assigned to write a new set of traffic laws for Baghdad. With the help of an Iraqi judge, he spent three weeks creating a 53-page traffic code, modeled after Maryland’s. “If it was good enough for Baltimore,” Chandrasekaran writes, “it was good enough for Baghdad.” Eventually, Smathers’s work became part of Bremer’s Order 86, one of hundreds of mandates Bremer created with the flourish of a pen.

Smathers, who had received four Bronze Stars for bravery, didn’t last long enough in Iraq to see the final result of his efforts. In February 2004, he was in a convoy that was ambushed; he was sent to DC’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center to recover.

A story not told in the book is that Smathers eventually had seven operations to repair his injuries. To help him along, the government located his dog, Scout, and the two were reunited at Dulles International. After all of those surgeries and two years of physical therapy, Smathers felt that the worst was behind him. Then last February, while walking Scout, he dropped dead of his injuries.

Smathers isn’t listed as a casualty of the war. Until I became aware of the sad end to this lawyer’s life, Chandrasekaran’s book had made me laugh, as one would through the movie M*A*S*H.

Suddenly, none of it seemed funny.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Random House


4.0 Stars

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