In recent months a deluge of books regarding the war in Iraq have hit the shelves. Few, however, stand out for their impartiality and refusal to pass judgement. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is one of those books, offering a well-written and fascinating narrative of the Americans who came to Iraq after the war. Chandrasekaran identifies key mistakes made by the CPA and profiles some of the main figures, but also delves into the experiences of the lower-level staffers who made up the bulk of the CPA. This book is an important addition to the public's knowledge about America's place in Iraq.
Written from a first person perspective, the narrative is smooth and flowing, though it does take a while to pick up. Interspersed with the chapters on the CPA's efforts are vignettes on life inside the Green Zone. Some are amusing, some identify the political influences of the staffers, and many address some of the more bizarre decisions made. During the course of the narrative, the author identifies several problems that hindered the CPA's goal of remaking Iraq. First, little post-war planning was done by the DoD and Department of State, and when it came to plan, political tensions dominated. Second, Bremer's dismissal of the Iraqi Army created a ready-made force of trained, but unemployed soldiers who could have become the foundation of a new Iraqi Army and Police, but instead joined the religious militias or the insurgency. Third, those chosen to staff the CPA were often very young with little or no experience; many were chosen based on their political affiliations. Eager to go to Iraq out of patriotism and adventure, most only stayed 3-4 months, making it increasingly difficult to plan and execute the rebuilding program. Additionally, staffers were assigned elaborate tasks in fields that they had no experience in, such as a 24-year old with no experience in finance being selected to remake and rebuild the Baghdad Stock Exchange.
Another major problem was the existence of the Green Zone, which became a self-contained American city in the middle of Baghdad. Travel outside the Green Zone was infrequent or non-existent. For security reasons only personnel with the need to enter Baghdad could go, which is understandable from a security perspective. Ironically, reporters like Chandrasekaran lived outside the Green Zone and traveled without difficulty throughout Iraq. Without first hand knowledge of what was happening outside the Zone, the CPA had difficulty making successful policy decisions. Lots of ideas that sounded good on paper didn't work well outside the Zone. As one staffer is quoted, "they (the iraqis) just kept doing their thing, and we sort of played in our little, imaginary world over at the CPA." Finally, the CPA leadership believed that importing American economic, governmental, and financial systems and establishing them in Iraq was the best solution. As history has shown, however, our systems were ill-suited for Iraq.
Imperial Life is more about the author's observations on the lives and work of folks inside the Green Zone and how they impacted post-war Iraq than a detailed political and military history (of which dozens of titles exist). Chandrasekaran wisely leaves it to the reader to make personal judgements. He concentrates instead on what he saw and witnessed during his time in Baghdad, and it makes for a solid and relevant story. For more perspective on the CPA, pick up Rory Stewart's The Prince of the Marshes, a look at his time as a CPA provincial governer in Southern Iraq. Recommended.