Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran spoke at a near-capacity Campbell Hall last night, lecturing on his award-winning book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.
In his book, Chandrasekaran recounts the various missteps of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-installed transition government charged with administering post-invasion Iraq. Chandrasekaran also alleged that CPA was culturally insensitive toward Iraqi Muslims.
Chandrasekaran, who worked as the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Baghdad between April 2003 and Oct. 2004, opened his talk by conveying his hopes that Iraq will recover in spite of such challenges as a lack of troops and resources.
He said the CPA, through pride and incompetence, erred in rebuilding the country and left post-Saddam Iraq in a chaotic state. He said CPA employees were not chosen based on merit.
“What seemed to be most important to the White House was political loyalty,” Chandrasekaran said.
Chandrasekaran went on to disclose the information he obtained about the CPA’s employee selection process through his hundreds of interviews and reviews of internal documents. He said potential employees were asked partisan questions on topics such as their views on Roe v. Wade, capital punishment and whom they voted to elect for president in 2000. He said this process led to the selection of personnel under-qualified to perform the task of rebuilding Iraq.
“Most of the CPA staff had never worked outside the U.S,” Chandrasekaran said.
He then spoke of Frederick M. Burkle, a physician with degrees from four top universities including Harvard and Yale Universities, two bronze stars in the U.S. Navy and field experience with the Kurds in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. He said Burkle was designated to oversee healthcare in Iraq before the start of the war but was replaced and explicitly told by a senior official of the United States Agency for International Development that the White House wanted a loyalist on the job.
According to the author, Burkle’s replacement, James K. Haveman Jr., had a background that included running a Christian adoption agency that encouraged women not to have abortions.
Instead of focusing on rebuilding hospitals in Iraq, whose condition Chandrasekaran analogized to the eighth circle of hell, Haveman spent a large amount of time trying to privatize Iraq’s state-owned pharmaceutical firm.
During his lecture, Chandrasekaran described the areas surrounding Saddam Hussein’s former Baghdad palace, where the CPA worked to construct the country-within-a-country known as the Green Zone.
“Iraqi laws and customs didn’t apply inside the Green Zone,” Chandrasekaran said. “Cut off from wartime realities, the monumental task of reconstructing a devastated nation competes with the … distractions of Little America on the Tigris.”
Behind the walls of this enclave, he said CPA staff led a sheltered existence, complete with such luxuries as swimming pools, Chevy Suburbans, shopping malls, bars and a Halliburton-run carwash, which cleaned the fleet of SUVs every two weeks.
According to Chandrasekaran, many Muslim Iraqi translators and secretaries were subjected to CPA employees’ alleged cultural ignorance and forced to dine in a cafeteria which served bacon, cheeseburgers, sausage and pork chops.
“Unlike anywhere else in Baghdad, you could dine in the cafeteria in the Republican Palace for six months and never eat hummus, flatbread or a lamb kebab,” Chandrasekaran wrote in his book. “Most of [CPA’s Iraqi employees] were Muslims, and many were offended by the presence of pork.”
Chandrasekaran went on to describe how this combination of allegedly ignorant people in an insulated location proved inadequate in producing effective policy in Iraq. For instance, while the country suffered such serious problems as high unemployment and heavy traffic jams, some of the CPA’s top priorities were an anti-smoking campaign and tax code reform.
“My advice to any of you seeking tax relief – move to Baghdad,” Chandrasekaran said.
As far as the state of Iraq today, Chandrasekaran suggested increased federal style administration of Iraq’s territories as a possible solution, but stressed that Iraqi leaders would have to embrace this plan for themselves and that the Iraqi people want a democracy on their own terms.
According to a press release, Chandrasekaran has spent more time in Iraq on the ground than any other journalist, and his book has won the prestigious BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.
First-year political science major Tim Phan said he appreciated the depth of research that went into Chandrasekaran’s speech.
“He talked about a lot of interesting things from an insider’s perspective,” Phan said. “It’s amazing to learn about the little things that made this occupation go so wrong.”
At the end of his speech, Chandrasekaran made himself available for questions, commenting on such topics as country’s future stability, the conflict between moderates and extremists and the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.