Chandrasekaran Interview, Part II
This is the second part of my interview with Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, concerning his book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in how we got to where we are in Iraq.
Cole: Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik in Baghdad sounds like a character from the Noir film “Sin City.” He was supposed to be overseeing the training of a new Iraqi police force, but seemed to want to go on mysterious busts instead. You did not say anything about the later scandals that have emerged concerning him. He pled guilty to taking tens of thousands of dollars from a firm with ties to organized crime. You often quote observers as saying that the tendency of the Bush administration to hire loyalist cronies for key tasks in Iraq produced mismatches of talent to task. But isn’t it the case that there was also a lot of sheer corruption, and that highly corrupt individuals were given responsibilities that they should not have been?
Chandrasekaran: I didn’t mention Kerik’s plea because that occurred after his time in Baghdad. For the purposes of narrative structure, I chose not to include events that happened after June 28, 2004, with the sole exception of the epilogue.
Yes, there was a mismatch of talent to task, particularly in the case of Kerik. And yes, there was a lot of corruption. But I did not uncover any evidence pointing to corrupt acts committed by Kerik while he was in Baghdad. As such, I did not — and still do not — want to suggest otherwise.
Cole: A good deal of your book is about how the Americans attempted to destroy the vestiges of Arab Socialism in Iraq, and how they failed miserably. What I could never understand was why they did not just immediately privatize the petroleum industry. Was it that Bremer needed the income and so became a rentier emir himself? You later suggest that just mentioning privatization got one factory head assassinated by guerrillas. Was such a project of privatization out of the question to begin with, or did Peter McPherson and Thomas Foley just mishandle the assignment?
Chandrasekaran: Privatization of the oil industry was a long-term goal of Bremer’s economic advisers, but the reasons for not doing so immediately after the fall of Saddam’s government had little to do with Bremer’s desire to dictate how oil revenue would be spent. (Even if a private firm was pumping the oil, the proceeds would still have flowed to the state, which, in this case, would have been Iraq’s occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority.) Bremer and his advisers concluded that trying to privatize the oil industry right away would have been too controversial, fueling fears that the United States was out to steal Iraq’s oil. As a consequence, they opted to focus on privatizing other state-owned businesses first. But, as we know, that didn’t happen either. Why? I believe there are two reasons. First, the CPA didn’t devote enough resources to the privatization effort. As I write in Chapter 7, just three people were devoted to the task of trying to privatize 150 state-owned factories.
‘Even more significant at the time was a practical challenge. There was no way [Glenn] Corliss, [Brad] Jackson, and [Tim] Carney could do it by themselves. Financial records would have to be scoured, offers posted and evaluated, financing arranged. When the trio met with a team of Germans to discuss how factories in the former East Germany had been privatized, the CPA team was told that the Germans had eight thousand people working on the project.
“How many do you guys have?” one of the Germans asked. “You’re looking at all of them,” Corliss responded.
The German laughed and asked again. “No, how many people work for you?”
“No, this is it. Three people,” Corliss said.
“Don’t bother starting,” the German said. ‘
Once the complexity of privatization became clear, Bremer’s economic advisers, among them Peter McPherson, opted for a different strategy. Instead of trying to help all the state-owned factories, McPherson wanted to devote resources to the healthiest. The others would wither away. He called the strategy “shrinkage.” He assumed that foreign firms would set up new, more efficient factories in Iraq to replace the shuttered state-owned plants. But which foreign firm wanted to invest in a country that didn’t have reliable electricity or basic security? During the summer of 2003, Baghdad’s airport wasn’t open to commercial flights; investors had to drive to Baghdad from Jordan, through the restive cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
Some people involved in the privatization effort contend the CPA’s mistake was not devoting enough resources to the task. Others maintain that privatization wasn’t something the CPA should have addressed. Such decisions, they argue, should have been left to a sovereign Iraqi government.
Cole: Your sources depicted American Civil Administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer as relatively passive in the drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law or interim constitution, in February of 2004, and you regard Faisal Istrabadi (now Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations for Iraq) and Salem Chalabi as its principal authors. But someone told me that Chalabi’s drafts were actually based on language suggested by Bremer behind the scenes. Also, Larry Diamond, the Stanford University political scientist sent to Iraq by Condi Rice, played a role in the drafting that I didn’t notice your mentioning. Is it possible that Bremer was quiet in the Interim Governing Council sessions discussing the TAL because he had already had a major say in the language behind the scenes via Chalabi and Diamond? That is, was this more of an American document than it might have appeared?
Chandrasekaran: Salem Chalabi and Faisal Istrabadi were the authors of the principal draft of the TAL. But that draft was extensively revised by members of the Governing Council and by the CPA. My understanding is that the Chalabi-Istrabadi draft was written by them, not the CPA, although elements of their constitutional philosophy were clearly in agreement with many at CPA. That said, Bremer and the CPA certainly influenced the final product. They did so in two ways: making revisions to the draft before the final negotiating session, and by working through allies on the Governing Council. So, yes, it was more of an American document than it appeared.
Cole: I see Sistani as perhaps more consistent than your informants, such as Adel Abdul Mahdi, seem to have portrayed him. His June 28, 2003, fatwa to Bremer on the need for drafters of the Iraqi constitution to be popularly elected was very clear about his embrace of the principles of popular sovereignty and one person, one vote. I don’t think there was ever any chance of his accepting the November 15, 2003, agreement or caucus voting or the elite system favored by Abdul Mahdi and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, all of which restricted the electorate in some way. Sistani would have struck them all down, since he had already made clear the basic principles that guided his thinking on this matter. Is it possible that neither the expatriate Shiites, who were used to the Iranian system, nor Bremer could really understand where Sistani was coming from?
Chandrasekaran: Of course, and I suggest that in the book. The CPA’s governance team and the expat Shiites never really understood Sistani. In conversations with CPA officials, the once-exiled Shiite political leaders sought to minimize Sistani’s stature because they didn’t want it to appear that they were beholden to an ayatollah. The CPA officials were pleased to hear that because they too didn’t want to have their political plan shaped by a cleric.
Cole: I was surprised, too, that you did not give more attention to the demonstrations he got up in mid-January 2004, which I believe were decisive in convincing the Bush administration to allow open elections with United Nations involvement. Did CPA interviewees allege the contrary?
Chandrasekaran: I’m not sure I agree here. Sistani wanted elections in the summer of 2004 to select an interim government. The Bush administration didn’t. Sistani, as you’ll recall, dropped his demand for early elections after U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said it would be impossible to hold balloting by the summer of 2004. After the November 15 agreement, the plan was always to hold elections by early 2005.
Cole: I had some questions about your account of the outbreak of the fighting between the Americans and the Mahdi Army in April-May of 2004. Your account stresses that Bremer was upset about scurrilous articles in the newspaper of young Shiite nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, leading him to close it. But my recollection is the al-Hawzah newspaper was mainly exercised in late March about the Israeli murder of the clerical guide of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, an old man in a wheelchair. Muqtada al-Sadr said that he was the right arm of Hamas in Iraq. I have long suspected, and have actually been told by one knowledgeable source, that Muqtada’s pro-Hamas stance disturbed the Neoconservatives in the Coalition Provisional Authority and was another impetus for the attempt to “kill or capture” him.
Chandrasekaran: I’m not aware of the pro-Hamas pieces in al-Hawza in late March. My reporting indicated that Bremer was upset by earlier stories in the newspaper about the CPA. What your source told you may well be true, but I have no personal knowledge of it.
Cole: You say that the Sadrists replied more forcefully to the closing of the newspaper than Bremer had expected, leading to an escalation of the conflict. But my recollection is that the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army did not attack the Americans and the police stations until *after* the US military began arresting Muqtada’s close aides. Moreover, the Spanish foreign minister, Jose Bono, maintained that Washington first asked the Spanish, some time before, to make the arrests, but Madrid declined because Spanish officers predicted major turmoil in Najaf province and they only had 1200 coalition troops there. Bono’s account suggests that the US arrest of key Sadrists was aggressive and pre-planned, not a reaction to the Sadrist response to the closing of the newspaper. How would you respond to this critique?
Chandrasekaran: You’re right that the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army did not attack the Americans and the police stations until after the U.S. military arrested Moqtada’s top aide. But tensions had increased significantly after Bremer ordered al-Hawza to be shut down. There were large demonstrations in Baghdad and it certainly angered Sadr’s supporters, making a violent reaction to the arrest more likely. It was the equivalent of pouring fuel on the tinder. The arrest of Yacoubi, however, was the spark.
As for the Spanish, the Pentagon had been trying for months to get the multi-national troops in central Iraq to be less passive in dealing with Sadr and his lieutenants.
Cole: You have painted a vivid first-hand portrait of the Coalition Provisional Authority and its many flaws and failures. Do you see long-term consequences of the mistakes made during the first year? Or was it just always unlikely that a modern Arab nationalist country such as Iraq would accept a US military occupation and cooperate with it?
Chandrasekaran: I don’t believe the mess we’re seeing now was inevitable. Had fewer bad decisions been made, and had the appropriate resources been brought to bear, Iraq would be a fundamentally different place, one that is a lot more stable and secure. I don’t believe we could have prevented an insurgency — there always would have been one, led by zealots who saw no room for compromise. There always would have been some degree of sectarian conflict. But it didn’t have to be this bad. It’s hard to remember now, but we did have a window of opportunity in the weeks and months immediately following the fall of Saddam’s government. But instead of listening to the Iraqi people, and marshaling the appropriate resources to reconstruct the country, the CPA squandered that opportunity by pursuing irrelevant policies and preventing Iraqi leaders from exercising any real governing authority.
Let me quote a bit from the last chapter of Imperial Life in the Emerald City:
‘Shortly before the handover of sovereignty in June 2004, I met [SCIRI political chief] Adel Abdel-Mahdi for breakfast in the front courtyard of his modest house. As we nibbled from a plate of dates and pastries, I asked him what the CPA’s biggest mistake had been. He didn’t hesitate. “The biggest mistake of the occupation,” he said, “was the occupation itself.”
He, of course, had wanted the United States to anoint exiled politicians as Iraq’s new rulers in April 2003. But his self interest aside, what he said was true. 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 Americans, not a full-scale occupation with imperial Americans cloistered in a palace of the tyrant, eating bacon and drinking beer, surrounded by Gurkhas and blast walls.
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. There certainly was a role for a tireless, charismatic American diplomat to shepherd the process. It could easily have been Bremer, with a different title and a shorter mandate, with a viable political plan and meaningful resources for reconstruction.
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.” ‘
Cole: Some policy-makers are talking seriously about a partition of Iraq along ethnic lines. One of the major experiments in partition of the twentieth century was that of India and Pakistan. Do you see any parallels? Are there dangers for Iraq that the Indo-Pak partition should tip us to?
Chandrasekaran: Partition in India was very, very bloody. If you try to split up Iraq to prevent a civil war, you could spark the very sort of broader sectarian conflict you’re trying to prevent.
If your readers have questions for me, or want to send me a comment, they can visit my Website, www.rajivc.com.