Monday, August 20, 2007

Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

A treasure. So much so that I am not releasing it (through bookcrossing) but instead keeping it in my permanent collection.

In Imperial Life in the Emerald City I expected to read about the excesses in the "green zone" in Iraq, and those are certainly discussed here. But more than that this book takes us from the end of the original attack on Iraq to the end of Bremer's reign, introducing the characters heading up different parts of the occupation and describing what they tried to do and what they actually accomplished.

This book could have been called "How it all went so horribly wrong". There were times, when I was reading it, when I didn't want to turn another page, I didn't want to know where the lack of planning and direction took each leader in turn. The results were, without exception, awful.

Chandraskekaran, a NY Times editor now, was a middle east correspondent at the time he was working on this book. He was on the ground, talking to the players, and outside the green zone, observing Iraqi activity as well. I don't think you could say he provides a completely neutral view. It's impossible to be faced with obvious failure and not draw a few conclusions. But he does maintain an understated approach that is remarkably evenhanded. In addition to the overall impression that this occupation was poorly planned and insensibly carried out, the book gave me the sense that many of those working in the green zone honestly were trying to do right. Even Bremer, as micromanaging and despotic as he could be, wanted to "save" Iraq. Unfortunately, he failed to take the time to find out what really needed to be done, not just what would make a good media bite. He didn't listen well and he was as tunnel-visioned as Bush in his pursuit of his own version of victory.

Others were not so arrogant, but many were as uninformed and uninterested in learning anything about the Iraqi people. It was inevitable that no good could come of this effort under those circumstances.

There were a few leaders who actually got things done, but they tended to do so in spite of the provisional government and Bremer rather than because of them. I cannot sufficiently summarize how the administration of the occupation blocked one plan after another that would actually have gotten the electricity flowing again, people working again, roads functioning again. How the wrong decision was made again and again. I can't spell it out here but Chandraskekaran does an amazing job of it, detail by detail.

Immensely readable, well-researched, an incredible and important book.

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