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

StorySeptember 29, 2006
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Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor and former Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran has written a behind-the-scenes account of the Bush administration appointees who ran Iraq after the US invasion. Invoking the embattled ex-Director of FEMA, Chandrasekaran calls them “Michael Brown x100.” [includes rush transcript]

In Washington, a federal inspector testified before Congress on Thursday on how private contractors have failed in their efforts to rebuild Iraq. The inspector, Stuart Bowen, criticized three companies in particular: Parsons, Bechtel and the Halliburton subsidiary KBR. Bowen said that of the fourteen major projects built by Parsons in Iraq, 13 of them were substandard with construction deficiencies and other serious problems. At the police college in Baghdad, the plumbing done by Parsons was so poor that the pipes burst, dumping urine and fecal matter throughout the college’s buildings. Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman said: “This debacle is not just a waste of taxpayers funds, and it doesn’t just impact the reconstruction. It impedes the entire effort in Iraq. This is the lens in which the Iraqis will view America.”

Today we are going to take an in-depth look at the state of the Bush administration”s plans to rebuild Iraq. By his own count, our next guest spent more time in Iraq during the first fifteen months of US occupation than almost any other print reporter. He’s written a new book about that period. It’s a behind-the-scenes account of the US occupation authority that has run the country from Saddam Hussein’s old palatial grounds. The book is called “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.” It’s by Rajiv Chandrasekaran — he is the Assistant Managing Editor of the Washington Post and former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad.

  • Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Assistant Managing editor of the Washington Post. Former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad. His new book is “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’ll take a look at the state of the Bush administration’s plans to rebuild Iraq. By his own count, our next guest spent more time in Iraq during the first fifteen months of U.S. occupation than almost any other print reporter. He’s written a new book about that period. It’s a behind-the-scenes account for the US occupation authority that’s run the country from Saddam Hussein’s old palatial grounds. The book is called Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. It’s by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is the Assistant Managing Editor of the Washington Post, former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad. I spoke to him earlier this week from Salt Lake City and asked him to describe imperial life inside the emerald city.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: This is a book that attempts to shine a light on a whole other set of fiascos in the American effort to occupy Iraq. You know, we all know now about the disastrous consequences of failing to send enough troops there to stabilize Iraq after the U.S. invasion, the Pentagon’s failure to anticipate the growth of the insurgency.

But what I write about is the whole other litany of mistakes that were made by American civilians who were there, from Ambassador Paul Bremer on down. It’s a series of what I think are blood-curdling stories: the people who showed up in Iraq, a country with 40-50 percent unemployment, and said, 'Hey, this place needs a flat tax. It needs tariff reduction. It needs all sorts of other neoconservative economic solutions. It needs all of its government-run industries to be privatized'; the people who showed up and said, 'There are traffic jams here. We're going to fix that by giving them a new traffic law’; the people who showed up and said, 'They need new intellectual property laws. They need new laws governing the types of seeds their farmers can plant'; the sort of crazy micromanagement that took place there.

Meanwhile, the more important tasks of actually rebuilding the country, of trying to find sustainable ways to increase electricity generation, to rebuild shattered hospitals and schools, to provide clean drinking water. All of those vastly more important tasks were sort of relegated, because the folks who came there saw Iraq as a terrarium for a number of neoconservative policies that they were never able to implement here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Rajiv, before we talk about the individuals and what their expertise was or wasn’t in the areas they were in control of, you start off the book with a very devastating picture of the Green Zone, what’s going on inside, who’s there, just the images of the palaces and how they’re being used. Can you describe that for us?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Sure, Amy. The Green Zone was Baghdad’s “Little America.” This, of course, as many of your viewers and listeners know, is the American bubble in the center of Baghdad. It was the headquarters of the American Occupation Authority and still is home to the American embassy and many other U.S. government agencies that have operations in Iraq.

But I write about the really wacky world inside there. You know, this is a place — Iraq is a Muslim country, and what did they serve in the dining hall, the Halliburton food contractors, what did they serve? They served pork bacon for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, porkchops for dinner. There were many Iraqi Muslims that also ate there. They worked as translators and as janitors in the palace and other parts of the Green Zone, and they were subjected to eating food from the same buffet, even though they found the pork products also served there to be incredibly offensive. When they complained, Halliburton sort of brushed aside their concerns. Cultural sensitivity, well, you know, so what? It was more important to meet American needs, to serve them high-fat comfort food.

But it wasn’t just the food. There were no fewer than six bars set up there. There was a disco at the Al-Rashid Hotel. There were Bible study classes, salsa dancing classes, two Chinese restaurants, a café. Halliburton brought in scores of brand new Chevy Suburbans, which people would drive around on flat wide streets. They even had a radio station in there, Amy. 107.7 FM, Freedom Radio, which would mix classic rock and “rah-rah, we’re winning the war” messages.

It was so divorced from the world on the outside. As I write in the book, you know, when you’re inside the Green Zone, you couldn’t hear the muezzin’s call to prayer, you couldn’t smell the acrid smoke of a car bomb, you couldn’t hear the honking of traffic on the outside. It was like you were in a whole different world. It’s like you had blasted off from somewhere outside in Baghdad and wound up on Mars.

I mean, you go outside the walls and, you know, there were no traffic police out there, there were no traffic lights. There was rampant street crime. People were getting, at best, eight to ten hours of electricity a day. You walk inside the Green Zone, all the streets are orderly. People stick to the speed limit. There’s a generator that provides 24-hour-a-day power to the palace. The rooms are chilled to a crisp 68 degrees. Inside that bubble, it was like the calm sterility of an American subdivision prevailing.

AMY GOODMAN: So maybe the answer was just right inside there when Paul Bremer and others couldn’t figure out how to get electricity to the people outside. They worked out the system very well on the inside.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, they brought enough people and devoted enough resources to giving themselves power. And it was just a question of, were we going to devote enough resources and people to giving the Iraqi people the same sort of services that we were giving ourselves inside the Green Zone.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the workers inside? You describe a kind of chain-gang look.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, yes. I mean, the Iraqis, who were allowed inside, and mind you, an ordinary Iraqi just couldn’t enter the Green Zone. You either had to prove that you had a house there before the war or that you had a job with the American occupation government. You just — even though it was Iraqi soil, Iraqi people just couldn’t go in.

But those who did come in as workers, many of them were brought in at sort of very low-level support staff. Incidentally, they weren’t allowed in the kitchen, because the Americans were worried that the Iraqis would poison their food. But they were brought in as janitors, as gardeners. But they were, in many cases, accompanied by these American foremen, who would sort of lead the line, as the janitors were walking through the palace. I mean, to me, as I write in the book, it was reminiscent of a chain gang.

And it wasn’t just Iraqi workers. There were also many Indians and Pakistanis and other Asians, Filipinos, who were brought there by Halliburton subsidiaries to work. And I know you probably have discussed this issue at length in previous programs, about how some of those people have been treated. You know, what I do know is that they had a very Dickensian trailer camp set up for them in the Green Zone. Their subcontractor held onto their passports. They were also sort of treated as second-class citizens inside the Green Zone.

AMY GOODMAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in Baghdad. We will come back to him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. He continued to speak about the Bush administration’s appointees in Iraq, beginning with Paul Bremer.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: He went out there, and as I describe in the book, did not do a very good job of listening to the Iraqi people, of listening to what they wanted, what they needed. It was not as consultative as he should have been and was very, very ambitious. He felt that, you know, Iraq was a completely broken down country that needed to be rebuilt, essentially piece by piece. And, you know, a good analogy here is to think of Iraq as maybe a beat-up old car, and, of course, it wasn’t working very well. What the Iraqi people wanted was somebody to come in and help them change the spark plugs, pour a little engine oil on it and get it moving and keep moving forward and sort of make some repairs over time. Bremer’s approach was, ’We’re going to put this car on the blocks. We’re going to take the engine out, and we’re going to rebuild it bolt by bolt.’ And the Iraqi people didn’t want that.

They wanted to be partners in this process. They wanted to keep moving forward, and Bremer came in with this real imperial swagger and said, 'Hey look, we are going to be the occupying power here,' and initially he never even told them how long the United States would stay as the occupying power. And he then said, 'Look, we'll leave once you jump through all of these hoops, once you decide to form a group of people to draft a constitution and then you draft it, and then you have a referendum, and then you have elections.’ And it was this real onerous set of things that the Iraqis had to do before they could receive sovereignty. Ultimately, the White House found it to be untenable. But they judged it to be untenable not because these things, you know, actually were sort of being imposed on the Iraqis, but because it might result in a handover of sovereignty after the 2004 presidential elections, and clearly the folks in the White House didn’t want that.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Bernard Kerik, man who ultimately pled guilty in New York, the former police commissioner here?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: I try to — I paint, I think, what is a very devastating portrait of Bernie Kerik in the book. You know, Bernie was an American hero. He was the police commissioner in New York City during 9/11, but he showed up in Baghdad with a really important job: to rebuild, to retrain, to vet Iraq’s police forces. Now, in those weeks right after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, there was a team of experts from the U.S. Justice Department that showed up in Baghdad that went to Iraqi police stations, talked to people, and ultimately concluded that what Iraq needed was more than 6,000 foreign police advisers to help rebuild the police forces.

What did the White House do? It sent just one guy. It sent Bernie Kerik. And when Bernie arrived in Baghdad, his top priority was going on television and saying, 'Things are better than you think they are. Things are improving here.' He really was doing a lot of PR work. And then he would go off on very sort of showy overnight raids to try to bust up some kidnapping gangs, doing some sort of street police work, and he didn’t really do a lot of this in collaboration with the military police officers who were assigned to secure Baghdad. So there was always a lot of tension going on there between, you know, the people who were really responsible for security and what Bernie’s guys were doing.

But what this really meant, Amy, was that because he was up all night, during the daytime, when the important job of training and vetting the Iraqi police was to happen, he was off in his trailer resting. And, you know, we now can agree that the most important thing that American personnel should be doing in Iraq is helping to train Iraqi security forces to be self-sustaining, to be able to secure that country on its own and to vet and remove the bad apples. It’s something, you know, we’re finally starting to do now with focus and intensity. Well, we should have been doing that from the very beginning, and we lost several valuable, crucial months, because Bernie Kerik and some of the people that worked with him did not devote enough attention and resources to this really important job.

AMY GOODMAN: He was later considered for head — becoming head of Department of Homeland Security. Then he pleads guilty to receiving illegal gifts, is disgraced.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, you know, his career certainly has not been on an upswing since his return from Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: Rajiv, tell us about Jim Steele, the man who was hired as Paul Bremer’s Chief of Security Forces.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, you know, Jim Steele is a very shadowy guy, and it was hard to really understand what he was doing. He was brought in as a security adviser to Ambassador Bremer. He worked closely with Kerik. He often went on some of these overnight raids with him, and he never gave any media interviews. It was very difficult to ascertain what his role there really was. You know, those who have been, I think, following your reports over the years would probably recognize his name, because he did surface in the Iran-Contra investigations back in the 1980s.

AMY GOODMAN: Military adviser in El Salvador to, well, ultimately we’re talking death squads there.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes Amy. I did not go in and research his role back in the '80s with a lot of intensity, I was trying to just focus on what I could find out about him in Iraq, and I think what's interesting here in Iraq is that there wasn’t a whole lot of exposure given to his role in the occupation administration. It was a very sort of behind-the-scenes thing that I understand was partially arranged by Paul Wolfowitz, who was then the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, he went on — left Iraq and went on to work for Enron?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: He, I believe, worked for Enron pre-Iraq, because I think by the time he left Iraq, Enron had already collapsed.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about your pieces that come from the book that you have serialized in the Washington Post, particularly the ties to the GOP, trumping the know-how among staff sent to rebuild Iraq. Talk about Jim O’Beirne’s office at the Pentagon.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, I mean, Jim O’Beirne is a very influential player in all of this and a guy who really didn’t get a lot of attention during the period of the CPA. He holds a fairly obscure title. He is the White House liaison to the Pentagon, and he runs a small office whose job is to vet prospective political appointees for jobs in the Pentagon. When it came time to staff up the CPA, the occupation government in Baghdad, what he did was — he was essentially given the responsibility for helping to recruit people and vet them before going out there, and so instead of scouring the professional world, the private sector and government for the people with the most appropriate skills, what people who have worked in O’Beirne’s office and are familiar with it have told me is that he and his deputies really put a greater premium on political loyalty.

It wasn’t so much you had to have Arabic language skills or experience in the Middle East or expertise in post-conflict reconstruction. What you had to be was a loyal supporter of President Bush. In fact, people who were being selected to go out to Baghdad were asked things in pre-deployment interviews that, you know, would have gotten an employer in the private sector hauled into court. People were asked, “Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Are you a member of the Republican Party?” Two people even told me they were asked whether they supported Roe v. Wade.

Another young man told me that during his pre-deployment interview, one of O’Beirne’s deputies launched into this ten-minute soliloquy opposing abortion and supporting capital punishment. The young man felt compelled to sort of nod in agreement. But he told me later that he didn’t agree with what was being said, but he felt that he had to say he did if he wanted to go to Baghdad.

I also write in the book that one of O’Beirne’s deputies once sort of pointed to a young man’s resume and pronounced him a, quote/unquote, “ideal candidate to go to Baghdad.” The young man’s chief qualification? He had worked for the Republican Party during the recount in Florida in 2000.

AMY GOODMAN: Jay Hallen, sent to Iraq to set up a stock exchange, his experience?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Twenty-four years old, a smart young man, graduated from Yale University, but no finance background. You know, here was a guy who didn’t work on Wall Street, you know, was not a stockbroker, wasn’t an expert in that world. But he did apply for a job in the White House. He did have, you know — he was sort of on their radar screen. And so he was sent out to Baghdad and then told, ’You’ve got the job of reopening the stock exchange.’ And he became infected with the same ambition that so many of the young American loyalists who showed up there did. It wasn’t just, you know, getting Iraq back up on its feet. It was turning Iraq into just a model nation in that part of the world. It was, you know — they were going to build this shining city on the hill, this secular Jeffersonian democracy with the freest of free markets, and that was what they were coming to create.

So, you know, Jay Hallen didn’t just want to reopen the stock exchange as it existed before the war. He wanted to give them a whole new set of bylaws, a new board of directors, a new Securities and Exchange Commission, a computerized trading and settlement system. It was incredibly ambitious and, you know, I argue in the book, not quite sort of commensurate with what the Iraqi people wanted. Iraqi brokers and traders told me that, you know, they just wanted to get back to work. They were unemployed. Their exchange had been shut down. They just wanted to reopen the way they were, and then make changes in an evolutionary way. And that’s really emblematic of what the American occupation administration tried to do. Instead of seeking modest changes along the way, they decided they wanted to do everything in one fell swoop, this sort of big bang effort.

You know, Iraq’s government-owned factories were not very efficient. I think, you know, we can all agree on that, but the idea that an occupying power would come in and just sort of try to sell them off overnight is sort of absurd. You need to get those things back up and running. You need to get people employed. They need to be productive once again, and then you explore — and that, you know, according to the Hague Conventions which govern some of the laws of warfare, those decisions on selling off real assets of an occupied country, that decision has to be made by the people and the government of that country. An occupying power can’t do that.

But there was this view in some quarters of the CPA that, 'Well, we don't care about international law. We’re here to get Iraq up on its feet.’ They interpreted the U.N. resolution that gave them occupying authority as allowing them to engage in all of these vast and ambitious steps, including selling off assets. And it ultimately never happened because they came to realize that it was just an impossibility, that they were never going to make it happen, and the Iraqi — interim Iraqi leaders were staunchly opposed to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Rajiv, how did James Haveman come to oversee the rehabilitation of Iraq’s healthcare system?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Amy, it’s a fascinating story, and again, I try to detail this in the book. The first guy who was assigned to help rebuild Iraq’s health sector was named Skip Burkle. And Skip is physician. He has a Master’s degree in public health. He has four postgraduate degrees. He teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. He had worked in Kosovo, in Somalia and in Northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. He also was employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and a USAID colleague called him the single most talented post-conflict public health specialist in the U.S. government. But a few weeks after the fall of Saddam’s government, Mr. Burkle was informed by an email from a superior at USAID that he was being replaced. He was told that the White House wanted, quote/unquote, “a loyalist” in the job. And I write in the book that Burkle had a wall of degrees, but he didn’t have a picture with the President.

In his place was sent Jim Haveman. Jim Haveman does not have a medical degree. He was a social worker, and he was the former Director of Community Health in the State of Michigan. Prior to his stint in government, he had a little bit of international experience, but it was largely in the context of being a director for International Aid, a faith-based relief organization that promotes Christianity in the developing world in conjunction with development assistance. And prior to that, he headed up a large adoption agency in the State of Michigan that urges pregnant women not to have abortions.

Well, Haveman showed up, and his view was that, look, Iraq didn’t need a huge infusion of money to rebuild its hospitals, even though I and other people who have been to Iraqi hospitals have seen them to be thoroughly decrepit and really, you know, in need of an overhaul, and particularly with the violence that’s wracking that country today and the number of injured from insurgent attacks. You would think that really putting resources toward rebuilding emergency rooms would be a top priority.

Instead, Haveman devoted resources to other projects. One of them, as I detail in the book, was rewriting the list of drugs Iraq’s government would import for hospitals. Why did he choose to do this? Well, he had done it in Michigan, and he had saved millions of dollars for the state in Michigan by forcing Medicare providers to buy drugs off a formulary. So he thought this would make sense to do in Baghdad, and it would be a good first step before trying to eventually sell off the state agency that imports drugs. He was aghast at the notion that medical care was free in Iraq, and in fact even sought to impose something of a co-pay system for Iraqis before they visited doctors and hospitals.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you most shocked by, Rajiv, as you — sum up now as you wrote your book, as you spent your two years in Iraq, as you look today at what is happening there?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: You know, it’s the cumulative impact of all of these things. You know, it’s hard for me to point to one thing in this book, but when I look at them all, you know, the guys who showed up wanting to impose a flat tax; the guys who wanted to rewrite the traffic laws; Jim Haveman, who wanted to redo the prescription formulary; Bernie Kerik, who didn’t devote sufficient attention to training the police. When you look at all of this together, it just sort of blows the mind away. I mean, there was so much attention focused on the role of Michael Brown at FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I mean, the CPA was sort of Michael Brown times a hundred, and I feel like that just it’s a story that people haven’t been exposed to.

And once I started peeling back the layers in the reporting for this book, I was just sort of flabbergasted. And, you know, I hope to have conveyed some of that here in Imperial Life in the Emerald City, just the cumulative nature of this, and help people to understand some of the reasons for why we’re in the mess that we’re in today.

We had a very valuable window of opportunity there, Amy, in those first months after the war. We had goodwill among Iraqis. Had we marshaled the right resources for reconstruction and governance, we could have tried to leverage that public support into something that really got us moving forward and the creation of a more stable environment there, but instead we squandered that opportunity because we sent the wrong people there, we promoted the wrong policies and we’ve ultimately wound up with an — you know, with an awful mess in that country today.

AMY GOODMAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.

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