Former Washington Post Baghdad Bureau Chief Chronicles Early U.S. Missteps in Iraq

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, whose book Imperial Life in the Emerald City paints a bleak portrait of U.S. administrative failures in wartime Iraq, told an Oct. 22 Soda Center audience that he initially had high hopes for the U.S. campaign when he became the Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief in the weeks after the 2003 invasion.

"I actually thought we could pull it off - a stable democracy on Iraqi terms and a functioning economy," Chandrasekaran told an audience of more than 400 people at an event sponsored by the Committee for Lectures, Art and Music and the Disney Forum.

"Today, the White House would be satisfied with anything short of civil war."

Chandrasekaran, a Moraga native who reported from Baghdad from April 2003 through September 2004, said the Bush administration often sent the wrong people to staff the U.S. Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) in Iraq, failed to appreciate conditions within the country and pursued policies that did not address Iraqis' most pressing needs.

In organizing the CPA, Chandrasekaran said, the White House was more concerned with installing Republican Party loyalists in Iraq than hiring people who could speak Arabic and had previous experience in the region. The vast majority of CPA staff members voted for George Bush in 2000, but fewer than half had ever traveled abroad, let alone worked in a war zone.

"You would have thought that they would have sent the best and the brightest," Chandrasekaran said, providing examples of Middle East and post-conflict experts who were turned away because of party affiliation. "But in many cases they only sent the loyal and the willing."

These personnel decisions ultimately resulted in policies that neglected the situation on the ground. For instance, the CPA developed a system designed to save money on prescription drugs, but did not ensure that basic drugs were available to Iraqi health care providers.

On the economic front, Chandrasekaran said the CPA fixated on rewriting the tax code and modernizing the stock exchange, but did little to alleviate the most serious economic problem facing the country: unemployment that affected 50 percent of Iraqis.

The disconnect between U.S. policy aspirations and Iraqi realities were compounded by the creation of a fortified seven-square-mile Green Zone in Baghdad, which Chandrasekaran called "a little America" and "the Emerald City."

Inside the Green Zone, CPA staff continued their standard routines with minimal disruption. Cafeterias served American food, generators provided nonstop air conditioning while most Iraqis were without electricity, and the bomb blasts and gunshots that kept Iraqis on edge rarely affected the U.S. compound.

"A Wild West-like lawlessness swirled around the walls of the Green Zone, but inside, it had the calm sterility of an American subdivision," Chandrasekaran noted.

Four and a half years after the U.S. invasion, Chandrasekaran noted that up to 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing their homes each month while militias have divided Baghdad into Sunni and Shia neighborhoods.

With an anticipated drawdown of U.S. troops in 2008, Chandrasekaran said the best way to preserve core goals in Iraq is to encourage a more federalist system of government that grants greater autonomy to Shia, Sunni and Kurdish groups concentrated in different areas of the country.

"This kind of federalist, states' rights approach offers the best hope of saving Iraq."

-- John Grennan
Office of College Communications