War Reporters – Imperial Life in the Emerald City

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Long before the Iraq Study Group issued their report on US strategy in Iraq, before Democrats won the House and Senate, and before Donald Rumsfeld resigned as Secretary of Defence, the Bush administration expressed supreme confidence in the how, where, when, what and why of its post-war strategy.

Yes, democracy is messy, as Rumsfeld (in)famously said in response to large-scale looting that took place after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein. At the time, though, the White House downplayed the chaos in the street while the conservative punditry accused the mainstream press of liberal bias for focusing on negative trends and developments in the aftermath of the war.

Enter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post reporter who entered Iraq months before the war and returned after the fall of Hussein. As Iraq bureau chief, he lived and worked in Baghdad from April 2003 to September 2004. His reflections and analysis of the immediate post-war period can be found in his recently released book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.

Imperial Life joins a growing number of titles such as Bob Woodward’s State of Denial: Bush at War, James Fallows’ Blind Into Baghdad: America’s War in Iraq, and Michael Gordon’s and Bernard E. Trainor’s Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq that string out a series of strategic blunders, political infighting and general miscalculations that have lead to what the Iraq Study Group calls a “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq.

In particular, Imperial Life chronicles the development of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the tenure of presidential viceroy L. Paul Bremer.

As Chandrasekaran describes it:

From April 2004 to June 2004, the CPA ran Iraq’s government — it enacted laws, printed currency, collected taxes, deployed police, and spent oil revenue. At its height, the CPA had more than 1,500 employees in Baghdad, most of the them American. They were a motley bunch: businessmen who were active in the Republican Party, retirees who wanted one last taste of adventure, diplomats who had studied Iraq for years, recent college graduates who had never had a full-time job, governement employees who wanted the 25 percent salary bonus paid for working in a war zone.

The CPA ran its operations from the Green Zone, a seven-square-mile enclave along the Tigris River originally created by Hussein. As Chandrasekaran tells it, the 14-foot high blast walls surrounding the enclave not only protected the inhabitants but created an impervious bubble — an Emerald City — separating those working on reconstruction from the reality of what was actually happening in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

Quite remarkably, many who worked in the Green Zone never left it despite making sweeping decisions that would affect the course of post-war Iraq. More importantly, many of those sweeping decisions weren’t made by Iraq, the Middle East, or reconstruction experts but instead were mandated by political considerations coming from Washington, DC.

Imperial Life walks us through this world, providing sympathetic portraits of old hands trying to get things right in the face of a politicized bureaucracy.

In this interview with ScribeMedia.Org, Chandrasekaran expands on his experience in Iraq, discusses the Iraqi journalists who became an important part of the Washington Post’s coverage, and pinpoints key moments where the Bush administration and its war planners erred in their post-war strategy.

To learn more about Chandrasekaran and his book, please visit www.rajivc.com.