Book details the bungling that bogged us down in Iraq
For the Appeal
What was life like for the Americans who remained in Baghdad after “multinational” (i.e. American) forces invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003? And how did the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) interact with the Iraqis it was supposed to be helping? Here’s how Chandrasekaran describes the scene at Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace one year after we liberated Iraq:
“In the back garden of the Republican Palace … bronzed young men with rippling muscles and tattooed forearms plunged into a resort-sized swimming pool. Others, clad in baggy trunks and wraparound sunglasses, lay sprawling on chaise lounges in the shadows of towering palms, munching Doritos and sipping iced tea. The pool was an oasis of calm in the Green Zone, the seven-square-mile American enclave in central Baghdad. The only disruption was the occasional whoomp-whoomp of a Black Hawk helicopter … ferrying casualties to the hospital down the street.”
That’s how the author describes life in the Green Zone, sort of an American never-never land in the midst of a war-torn foreign country. As a former diplomat who served in some Third World hellholes, I found Chandrasekaran’s take on the American misadventure in Iraq to be morbidly fascinating. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong as CPA “viceroy” (the author’s term) L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, a retired senior diplomat, and his military and civilian cohorts attempted to put Iraq back together after we invaded that unfortunate country.
This is a story of serial bungling and mismanagement by our government, from the White House right on down to the lowest-ranking U.S. bureaucrats in Iraq. Along the way, Chandrasekaran discloses massive fraud, waste and abuse involving millions of taxpayer dollars, and a cultural clash between American and Iraqi values and lifestyles that would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
While President Bush, Bremer and the Pentagon put out a steady stream of good news, the situation on the ground went from bad to worse. In the author’s opinion, Bremer wanted to remake Iraq in our image while bewildered Iraqis tried to understand what was happening to their country. Although Bremer was a career diplomat, he reported to then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and not to ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was marginalized right from the outset. Apparently, Rumsfeld and the White House didn’t want any advice from Powell or State Department Arabists about how to put Iraq on the path to freedom and democracy.
“When Bush tapped Bremer to be the viceroy,” Chandrasekaran writes, “Powell and others assumed that (Zalmay) Khalilzad would become Bremer’s top deputy” because the Afghan-born diplomat spoke Arabic and knew more about Iraq than anyone else in Washington. That didn’t happen, however, because “Bremer regarded Khalilzad as a potential threat – someone who knew more about the players and the country than he did, and could disagree with the viceroy’s agenda.” That’s just one of the major miscalculations the Bush administration has made in Iraq over the past several years. Later, the highly respected Khalilzad went on to become the first U.S. ambassador to Iraq and is now our envoy to the United Nations.
The author asserts that Bremer wanted to do things his way rather than listening to the Iraqi leaders he appointed to his 25-member advisory council, which had no authority to determine policy or to make substantive decisions. One of the first clashes between Bremer and the council was over what to do about the Iraqi Army. Here’s what happened: “Eleven days after he arrived in Iraq, Bremer issued CPA Order No. 2, which dissolved not just the Army, but the Air Force, the Navy, the Ministry of Defense and the Iraqi Intelligence Service. With the scrawl of his signature, he created legions of new enemies.” That’s a classic example of what the late Sen. J. William Fulbright called the “arrogance of power” in a best-selling book with that title.
CPA staffers were chosen on the basis of their loyalty to Bush and the Republican Party and not because of their knowledge of Iraq, Islam or the Middle East. The book tells the story of a 22-year-old congressional aide who suddenly found himself in charge of “customer services” for Halliburton, which won several lucrative no-bid contracts to provide food and other services to the U.S. military and the CPA. It’s probably just a coincidence that Vice President Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton before he became George W. Bush’s running mate in 2000.
Chandrasekaran’s book is a cautionary tale of good intentions gone bad and how reality interfered with the neo-conservative worldview that led to our invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. As I said upfront, it’s a “must read” for anyone who wants to know what went wrong in Iraq and why we’re bogged down in that war-torn country more than three years after the White House broke out the “mission accomplished” banners.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, was posted to Australia, Spain and Latin America during a 28-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service.