HardRight conservatives tend to downplay how the U.S. got into the Iraq
War. Why dive back into all that?, they say, our troops are there so
let's just finish the job.
But if the foundations for a war were faulty to begin with, and then in
the occupation mistake upon mistake is piled on top of that, the
invading nation will never get it right, no matter how many fixes and
how many new generals and how many escalations. It's the same pattern we
witnessed in Vietnam decades ago.
These observations became immeasurably strengthened for me by reading
Rajiv Chandrasekaran's recently-published "Imperial Life in the Emerald
City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone" (Knopf).
It should be quite apparent to all, with the Iraq War about to enter its
fifth year, just how badly the Bush Administration has screwed it up,
from even before its beginnings to its current escalation.
Chandrasekaran's volume -- plus Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco," Rory Stewart's
"The Prince of the Marshes," and many other recent books -- provide
telling details to such an extent that I almost couldn't bear to keep
reading at times. At every step of the way, the Bush Administration was
making yet another ghastly error, and the result was more slaughter,
more troops and civilians killed and maimed, more chaos and torture and
hatred of the United States.
Short version of these books in military slang: SNAFU ("Situation
Normal, All F----- Up") doesn't even begin to describe the monumentality
of the ignorance and incompetence that accompanied the U.S. war and
occupation. Try FUBAR ("F------ Up Beyond All Recognition"), then
quadruple the FUBAR and you get closer to what actually happened, and
apparently is still happening.
U.S. 'TUDE OF ARROGANT COLONIALISM
Chandrasekaran -- former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo
and Southeast Asia -- begins his trenchant book by focusing on the
mind-set that underlies the U.S. military adventure in Iraq, and
elsewhere in the greater Middle East. It is the stereotypical attitude
of arrogant colonialism: We know what's best for these "ragheads" in
Iraq, so just get out of our way and let us do our job.
As we know from previous reportage, the Bush Administration placed great
faith in the neo-con ideology that underlay the U.S. attack on Iraq, and
on the assumption that the Iraqis would be grateful and passive
acceptors of the occupation authority. When reality showed up, the Bush
Administration had great trouble accepting and adapting, and still does.
Because it was based on lies, deceits, denials, and lack of adequate
planning, the foundation for the war was rotten at the core. As a
result, the CheneyRumsfeld militarist crew constantly found themselves
trying to play catch-up, often years too late, and were puzzled when
their new tactics didn't work.
DANGERS OF IGNORANCE & ISOLATION
Chandraserakan, who interviewed more than 100 U.S. governmental insiders
in Iraq, provides numerous examples of ignorance, ineptitude, and
stubborn denial of the facts on the ground inside the Coalition
Provisional Authority. (Note: All quotes that follow here are from his
"Imperial Life in the Emerald City.")
How could the U.S. get it so wrong? One example among many: The CPA was
there to nation-build, but started with a severe handicap: "Most of the
CPA staff had never worked outside the United States. More than half,
according to one estimate, had gotten their first passport in order to
travel to Iraq." In short, they found it difficult to be in the real
world because they had never left their own world, either physically or
in their heads. That deficient reality was evident in how they lived in
"From inside the Green Zone, the real Baghdad -- the
checkpoints, the bombed-out buildings, the paralyzing traffic jams
-- could have been a world away. The horns, the gunshots, the
muezzin's call to prayer, never drifted over the walls. The fear on
the faces of American troops was rarely seen by the denizens of the
palace. The acrid smoke of a detonated car bomb didn't fill the air.
The sub-Saharan privation and Wild West lawlessness that gripped one
of the world's most ancient cities swirled around the walls, but on
the inside, the calm sterility of an American subdivision prevailed.
... It was 130 degrees outside ... Inside the Green Zone,
air-conditioners chilled buildings to a crisp sixty-eight degrees."
The first USA administrator in Iraq, Lt.-General (Ret.)
Jay Garner, more open to meeting and listening to key Iraqi leaders and
ordinary folk, from the get-go was deliberately kept ignorant of policy
decisions by Washington. He was booted out for not adhering closely
enough to the CheneyBushRumsfeld line, especially because of his desire
to organize an early election and transfer power back to the Iraqis.
Neo-con Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld's point-man on post-war Iraq, expected
that "without a clear blueprint for the political transition, Garner
would turn to Chalabi and his band of exiles. Feith would get the
outcome he wanted without provoking a fight ahead of time with State and
the CIA, both of which regarded Chalabi as a fraud." (Note: Both
agencies, often along with the National Security Council, were
invariably frozen out of the informational loop by the Pentagon/White
House hardliners. What a way to run a war!)
The picture painted of Garner's replacement, L. Paul ("Jerry") Bremer,
is that of an imperious, micro-managing, ideological viceroy in the old
colonial tradition. Many of his aides were young GOP HardRightists, who
had little or no expertise in government at home or in nation-building
abroad. They were appointed because they knew somebody with conservative
clout or as a payoff for their work for the GOP or the BushCheney
This self-defeating patronage system led to such dangerous absurdities
as this: A 24-year-old GOP real-estate agent, with no training or
education in financial matters, was put in charge of resurrecting the
Baghdad Stock Exchange. Or: "Six of the gofers were assigned to manage
Iraq's $13 billion budget, though they had no previous
financial-management experience." No need to wonder how millions and
billions of U.S dollars went missing.
THE VICEROY OF OCCUPIED IRAQ
Clearly, as Chandrasekaran notes, Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Feith,
Wolfowitz and the others back in Washington were the overall policy
makers who disastrously took the U.S. into an unnecessary war and
occupation, but if there is a master of arrogance and stubborn
in-theater incompetency in the author's narrative, Bremer fits the bill.
Basically operating on his own, it was Bremer who made the early
decisions that guaranteed the rapid rise of the insurgency in Iraq: He
disbanded the Iraqi army, thus putting hundreds of thousands of young,
armed men out into the streets, jobless (unemployment ranged from
40-60%; "the USAID-Treasury document outlined no program to create
jobs."). He did little or nothing about the massive tortures and abuses
at Abu Ghraib and in other Iraqi prisons.
Bremer instituted a much too draconian anti-Baathification program,
which meant there were too few teachers to teach, too few civil servants
to run the ministries, and the Americans appointed to do so were
overworked and/or lacking the requisite skills, contacts, and ability to
speak Arabic. At least one appointed administrator was reduced to
begging for help from anyone out there on the internet.
Bremer accepted Rumsfeld's small-army concept until much too late and
then begged for more troops to be sent, only to be turned down without
comment (instead, private "contractors," such as Blackwater, were
employed, making up about 10% of the American force). He denied
contracts and jobs to Iraqis, and handed out no-bid contracts to large,
greedy American concerns like Bechtel, Halliburton, et al. He tried to
graft a democratic and free-market-capitalistic system overnight onto
the existing Iraqi social, economic and political structure. He had no
concept of who Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani was in the Iraqi power
structure and his commanding authority as a political/spiritual leader.
He decimated the Iraqi educational and medical-care systems. He never
really dealt with the looting issue and with guarding the abandoned ammo
dumps. He had MPs involved in civilian law-enforcement. He never was
able to provide the Iraqi population a consistent supply of electric
power or clean water ("The CPA seemed to be treating the problem of
restoring power as an afterthought"). And on and on.
THE GRAND DUCHY OF BREMER-STAN
Iraq became Bremer's own duchy and he ruled with an iron fist and in
near-total isolation. "He didn't share a draft [of his transition plan
to Iraqi sovereignty] with the State Department, the National Security
Council, or the CIA. The first time Colin Powell saw the plan,
Chandraserakan writes, was on the editorial pages of the Washington
Post, which published an op-ed by Bremer entitled 'Iraq's Plan to
"The viceroy was adamant that his plan was the best.
He rejected the idea of holding early elections, he said, because
voter rolls and elections laws didn't exist. But the real reason was
that he feared Baathists or religious extremists might triumph. ...
He continued to brush off Grand Ayatollah al-Sistanti's fatwa
stating that Iraq's constitution had to be written by elected
representatives. ... Inside the Emerald City, al-Sistanti was just
another old man in a black turban."
Bremer eventually gave in to the extent of forming a
Governing Council of Iraqi leaders, but he made sure they had no power.
He "viewed them as lackeys. ... frontmen, and he needed their imprimatur
on big decisions so it would appear that the Iraqis concurred with their
UTOPIAN GOALS CRASH INTO REALITY
The goals of the CPA were utopian, unrealistic, and, given its untrained
administrators, destined for failure. For example, an Office of Private
Sector Development was established, the mission being to "privatize all
of Iraq's state-owned enterprises within thirty days." Lunatic? Yes, but
these were the kinds of crackpot neo-con ideas energizing the CPA. When
the first director of that office was forced out for non-performance, a
new guy was moved in, "someone with no previous experience in promoting
free enterprise in a socialist economy. But he had connections: His
brother Ari Fleischer was Bush's press secretary."
Part of the envisioned privatization scheme was going to depend on the
CPA giving each family a debit card loaded with the cash value of all
the rations they were due. They neglected to notice that "nobody in Iraq
used credit cards. There were no automated teller machines. Phone
service and electrical power were unavailable for much of the day."
In short, the CPA was an ongoing disaster, run by bunglers who couldn't
shoot or think straight. And so, in 2004 expectations shifted. "What was
best for Iraq was no longer the standard. What was best for Washington
was the new calculus. ... The only election that mattered was the one in
November -- in the United States."
"WE WILL FIGHT FOR IRAQ, NOT AMERICA"
Just before Bremer departed for the States, after post-election
"sovereignty" was granted to the Iraqis, he signed a hundred orders.
"Many in the Emerald City assumed that if you wanted to change
something, you changed the law, just like in the United States. But Iraq
didn't work that way," especially since "laws promulgated under the
occupation were suspect." Iraqis just ignored the ones that didn't fit
their reality. (Actually, international law apparently makes it illegal
for an occupying power to impose post-occupation "laws" on the occupied
As for training up Iraqi police and army units: "The Americans
misunderstood us," said Major Rad Kadhim, the senior officer at the
Rafidain station. "We will fight for Iraq. We will not fight for [the
Even when the U.S. worked with local Iraqis in developing joint
projects, the Americans would invariably get it wrong. "A team from the
State University of New York at Stony Brook won a $4 million grant to
'modernize curricula in archeology' at four of Iraq's largest
universities -- schools where students were sitting on the floor because
they lacked desks and chairs. 'It was like going into a war zone and
saying, Oh, let's cure halitosis'."
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Could things have turned out more positively? Chandrasekaran quotes a
leading U.S. administrator: "We should have been less ambitious. Our
goal should have been to build a free, safe, and prosperous Iraq -- with
the emphasis on 'safe.' Democratic institutions could be developed over
time. Instead, we keep talking about democratic elections. If you asked
an ordinary Iraqi what they want, the first thing they would say
wouldn't be democracy or elections, it would be safety. They want to be
able to walk outside their homes at night."
"Where the CPA saw progress, Iraqis saw broken
promises. ... Only 15,000 Iraqis had been hired to work on
reconstruction projects funded with the Supplemental
[appropriation], rather than the 250,000 that had been touted.
Seventy percent of police officers on the street had not received
any CPA-funded training. ... More money had been devoted to
administration than all projects related to educations, human
rights, democracy, and governance combined."
"'The biggest mistake of the occupation,' [said a respected moderate
Iraqi leader] 'was the occupation itself.' ... Freed from the grip
of their dictator, the Iraqis believed that they should have been
free to chart their own destiny, to select their own interim
government, and to manage the reconstruction of their shattered
nation. ... Iraqis needed help -- good advice and ample resources --
from a support corps of well-meaning foreigners, not a full-scale
occupation with imperial Americans cloistered in a palace of the
tyrant, eating bacon and drinking beer, surrounded by Gurkhas and
"The compromise between their desire for self-rule and the absence
of a leader with broad appeal could have taken many forms, as the
State Department's Arabists pointed out over the months after the
invasion: a temporary governor appointed by the United Nations, an
interim ruling council, or even a big-tent meeting -- similar to the
'loya jirga' convened after the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan
-- to select a crop of national leaders. ... Would that have made a
difference? We'll never know for sure, but doing a better job of
governance and reconstruction almost certainly would have kept many
Iraqis from taking up arms against their new leaders and the
Americans. There still would have been an insurgency, led by zealots
who saw no room for compromise, but perhaps it would have been
smaller and more containable.
"'If this place succeeds,' a CPA friend told me before he left, 'it
will be in spite of what we did, not because of it'."
Chandrasekaran's book ends in mid-2005 with an epilogue
suggesting that things were even worse than they were before, as
civil-war slaughter broke out big time. And, in 2007, things are even
worse still. No minimalist "surge" of U.S. troops will be able to alter
the essential situation, especially given that the Sadrists essentially
have gone to ground until the U.S. leaves.
That day when the American troops leave can't come too soon, for all
Copyright 2007, by Bernard Weiner