Interview With Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Interview with Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran spent a very great deal of time in Iraq, beginning in 2002 and then resuming after the war. His book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City is just out from Alfred Knopf. It is a challenging account of American missteps in Iraq, from the point of view of someone who was based in the “Red Zone” outside the palace complex from which the Americans ruled the country.

Below is part one of my interview with him, done by email.


Cole: You entitle your book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” and I think it is the first critical account of the American enterprise in Iraq to put “empire” front and center (and not in the apologetic Niall Ferguson sense, either). Would you be willing to expand on what you mean by “imperial” and why you think you chose that adjective when your colleagues spoke of squandered opportunities or used place names like “Assassin’s Gate?”

RC: When I observed how some Americans lived and behaved in the Green Zone, I was struck by the imperialist overtones: the Gurkhas guarding the palace, the CPA staffers bemoaning the slothful work habits of the natives, and there were the pork products in the dining hall, the alcohol-sodden nightspots. I’m not arguing that the United States has sought to be imperialist in Iraq — although others may have that view — but what I am saying is that some of the Americans who went to Baghdad for the CPA wound up acting, unintentionally or intentionally, in an imperialist way. And it wasn’t just how they were living. How to explain CPA health care adviser James Haveman’s decision to devote resources to reworking Iraq’s prescription formulary? (I detail this in Chapter 11.) Haveman’s had saved millions of dollars by forcing Medicaid providers in Michigan to buy prescription drugs off an approved list, known as a formulary. He figured the same thing could work in Iraq. It wasn’t about listening to what Iraqis wanted; in many cases, it was all about what the Americans, cloistered in the palace, thought the Iraqis needed.

In some cases, Iraqi experts disagreed with the CPA’s policies, but they were powerless to stop it. Let me quote from the end of Chapter 11: Once Haveman left, the Health Ministry reported that 40 percent of the 900 drugs it deemed essential were out of stock in hospitals. Of the 32 medicines used in public clinics for the management of chronic diseases, twenty-six were unavailable. The new health minister, Aladin Alwan, beseeched the United Nations for help, and he asked neighboring nations to share what they could. He sought to increase production at a state-run manufacturing plant in the city of Samarra. And he put the new formulary on hold. To him, it was a fool’s errand. “We didn’t need a new formulary. We needed drugs,” he said. “But the Americans did not understand that.”

Or, consider the views of Talib Tabatabai, the chairman of the board of governors of the Baghdad Stock Exchange. The project to reconstruct the exchange, as you know, was assigned to 24-year-old Jay Hallen, who had no previous experience in the securities industry. Instead of quickly reopening the market, he wanted make a raft of legal and structural changes so the exchange would operate more like an American one. When Tabatabai was asked what would have happened if Hallen hadn’t been assigned to reopen the exchange, he smiled. “We would have opened months earlier. He had grand ideas, but those ideas did not materialize,” Tabatabai said of Hallen. “Those CPA people reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia.”

Cole: You were in Iraq in 2002 through March before the war in 2003. I know it is like comparing apples and oranges, but can you characterize what it was like then in Baghdad compared to what it became later? Have any political, social or cultural patterns you saw in 2002 come back?

RC: Fear. Before the war, Iraqis were petrified that one wrong step would result in arrest and imprisonment. Today, as we all know so well, the Iraqis live under a very different sort of fear. In fact, many of the Iraqis I know well say they are far more afraid now than they ever were before the war. Back then, if you kept your mouth shut and your head down, you’d be fine. Now, danger lurks everywhere.

It’s difficult to compare other, important behaviors, such as religious identity. Before the war, Iraqis never made a big deal of sect. If you were a Shia, you didn’t tell your co-workers at the government ministry, “Hey, I’m going down to Najaf for a pilgrimage this weekend.” And if you were a Sunni, you didn’t make a big deal of it either. You didn’t want to draw attention that you were part of a 20 percent minority that was ruling the country.

That said, I could certainly sense a degree of tension below the surface, particularly when I traveled in the south. It was something that the CPA would have had to manage carefully. Instead, I believe they promoted policies, including the selection of members for the Governing Council, that sent the wrong signal to the Iraqis. From Chapter 9: Their [the CPA’s governance team’s] lack of experience led to a fundamental miscalculation. They tried to right Saddam’s wrongs by engaging in social engineering, favoring the once-oppressed Shiites and Kurds at the expense of the once-ruling Sunnis. It was the easy and obvious strategy, but it was fraught with danger. The Shiites and Kurds had political leaders who were known to the Bush administration; the Sunnis didn’t. The Shiites and the Kurds were the victims; they regarded the Sunnis as willing accessories to Saddam’s despotism. The result was a Governing Council that had strict quotas: thirteen Shiite Arabs, five Sunni Arabs, five Sunni Kurds, one Christian, and one Turkoman. To many Iraqis, who placed national identity over religious or ethnic affiliation, it looked like the Americans were adopting a version of the troubled confessional system in Lebanon that divided government posts among several religious groups. “We never saw each other as Sunnis or Shiites first. We were Iraqis first,” said my friend Saad Jawad, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “But the Americans changed all that. They made a point of categorizing people as Sunni or Shiite or Kurd.”

Cole: You represent Jay Garner as having a problem with the Wolfowitz-Feith plan of putting Chalabi in charge of Iraq. But they were in his reporting line so he would have had to do as they said. And, someone on his staff told me that as of April 29, he was committed to “turning the whole damn country over to Chalabi in six months.” Any way to reconcile these two accounts?

RC: As I write in the book, Wolfowitz and Feith never told Garner how to select the interim government. If they did that, they feared it would force a White House-level decision on the political transition that could backfire on them. Their hope, as described to me by people familiar with the process, was that Garner would naturally gravitate toward Chalabi and the other exiles because they would be the best organized Iraqis. Well, as we all know, that didn’t happen. Chalabi and his ilk weren’t all that organized, or well-regarded among the Iraqis. And Garner didn’t much like him either. But when Garner suggested to the press that Chalabi wasn’t his man, Feith read him the riot act, according to Garner. So, despite his dislike for Chalabi, Garner went forward with a plan that would have put Chalabi and other exiles in charge of an interim administration.

Cole: You make the important observation that the American CPA staff was not only isolated in the Green Zone, but that the Iraqis with whom they were in contact were “Green Zone” Iraqis who told them what they wanted to hear. Did anyone in the Green Zone have a realistic view of life in the Red Zone?

RC: Yes. There were several CPA staffers who did have a good idea of what life was like on the other side of the walls. Among them was John Agresto, the neoconservative who told me he felt “mugged by reality.” He would travel in Baghdad in a beat-up sedan, driven by an Iraqi, not Western guards. He wore his flak jacket under his shirt and suit coat. And he saw what Iraqi universities were really like — how they were gutted by looters and then taken over by religious fundamentalists. That’s why he became so depressed.

There was also Alex Dehgan, a smart biologist who was sent to Baghdad to work with Iraqi weapons scientists. He set up a science center outside the Green Zone. I detail his story in Chapter 14. It’s titled “Breaking the Rules.”

Because he refused to accept the Green Zone’s way of doing business, Dehgan not only managed to open the science center before the handover of sovereignty, but he created an institution that was immediately successful. The center, housed in a villa near Baghdad University, was far more lavish than anything else the CPA constructed. He purchased an enormous cherry-wood conference table and leather chairs and equipped the building with sophisticated computers and high-speed Internet access. The monthly stipends he offered scientists were several times greater than their government handouts. The scientists were highly educated and successful, and they had been doted upon by Saddam. Dehgan figured they needed a little tender, loving care. He allowed the Iraqis to hold their own meetings in the center to identify ways to help the country. He eventually asked Bremer to send a letter to Iraqi cabinet ministers inviting them to tap the center’s talent for free. Nobody was foisted upon a ministry; it was voluntary. “One of the biggest problems of Iraq was that we weren’t listening to the Iraqis, and that our presence in the room, just like perhaps Saddam’s presence in the room, was preventing people from thinking independently and taking the initiative,” Dehgan said later. “The key was not for us to be more involved, but for us to be less involved.” It was a lesson that others in the palace never learned.

Cole: You say that Bremer won you over in fifteen minutes. What I couldn’t understand were his qualifications to run a country, especially a Middle Eastern one. Ambassadors and heads of commissions don’t actually necessarily have managerial expertise. Wouldn’t we have wanted a former governor for this role? And shouldn’t his number 2 have been an Arabist? Then you discuss what a disaster his debaathification program was in the summer of 2003. Was that what first tipped you to the developing problems in CPA decision-making?

RC: Bremer also had extensive experience in the private sector: He was the managing director of Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm for a decade or so. I don’t think his problem was a lack of management experience — although there are legitimate questions to be raised about his management style — his problem was a lack of experience in the Middle East. That said, a former governor who has had more experience managing a large bureaucracy may have brought some very valuable skills to the job. But there was a view in the White House that, given the military-security-foreign policy elements of the job, the viceroy had to have some previous diplomatic or national security experience.

Yes, Bremer’s deputy all along should have been an Arabist. That finally happened in late 2003, when he hired Dick Jones, the former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait, as his number two.

The way the debaathification decision was implemented and the decision to disband the army were my first tip-offs that there was something dreadfully wrong with the CPA’s decision-making process. From my perspective in the Red Zone, it seemed like nobody in the Republican Palace had bothered to consult with Iraqis who were not former exiles. The CPA, headquartered in the Emerald City, seemed to think it knew what was best for Iraq. But it didn’t.

To be continued

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