Thursday, July 4, 2013

Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this compelling piece of on the ground journalism, Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran describes the chaotic and ill managed period of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s time in Iraq.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City details the actions of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq between the immediate post-invasion period and the handover of power to the Iraqis, with so-called insurgency attacks on the rise during that period. The CPA, headed by Paul Bremer, was run like a modern business enterprise. The whole 2003 – 2004 episode, as described by Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, reads like an interesting example of what happens when technocratic thinking is applied to problems that require common sense and a firm grasp of reality. From the get-go, the CPA had big plans (dreams, really) of creating a fully functioning Western democracy in a matter of months. The Iraqi people were merely putty for the realisation of this grand scheme.

In fact, the Iraqi people were to all intents and purposes invisible to their occupiers. The list is long of CPA hot shots who took zero interest in Iraq’s history, culture, language and deeply damaged psyche. In many examples, it seemed as though the Americans thought of the Iraqis as standing in the way of their elevated vision for a Middle Eastern democracy. The recruitment process for getting on the CPA payroll required an enthusiastic belief in the ideals and political aims of George W. Bush. People with few qualifications could find themselves fast tracked into plum jobs in Iraq if they were connected in some way to key Republican Party figures. Those with appropriate skill sets were often sent back for not being simpatico enough with the overall Bush program. It was a case of not what you know, but who you know.

Chandrasekaran writes in a pithy and fast paced manner. He works a large amount of material into a cracking tale of good intentions turned into a terrible farce. He reports from on the ground in Iraq and the Green Zone, giving his writing a feeling of great immediacy. Imperial Life in the Emerald City almost reads like a novel, with absurdist scenes involving government officials and contractors creating mayhem but patting themselves on the back for a job well done. This is a tale of bureaucracy gone mad. George W. Bush convinced a hoard of fellow believers in a form of magic thinking. He thought he could invade Iraq, raze half of it to the ground, and build it up again in a couple of months as a glittering democratic jewel in the Middle East.

Imperial Life in the Imperial City is a both a cautionary tale, the anatomy of a train wreck and an example of what happens when political dreams backed up by awesome military power crash against reality.

Imperial Life in the Imperial City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN: 9780747592891 RRP: $24.95