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FDL Book Salon: Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Week 1

If Catch-22 were a work of non-fiction, it would be Imperial Life in the Emerald City:

The CPA's Interior Ministry team shared a modest office in the palace with American advisers working with the Justice Ministry.  They often brought in Iraqi judges, along with interpreters, for meetings.

"Bob , who are these people?" Kerik asked Gifford one day. "Who the fuck are these people?"

"Oh, those are Iraqis," Gifford replied.

"What the fuck are they doing here?"

"Bernie, that's the reason we're here." 

The nature of war and military bureaucracy will always have an absurdist streak, but a war conducted by the fantasists and crooks spinning out of the nexus created by a commonality of interests between the neocons and the kleptocrats of the Bush administration exacerbates these tendencies by a magnitude of ten.  The book is delightfully entertaining and very well-written, hardly the weighty slog I anticipated given the subject matter, as the Washington Post's former Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran distills his experience in the country to a narrative of the destruction wrought in a campaign conducted by the venal and the blind. 

When asked on Friday about where the Government Reform Committee might begin its investigations, Henry Waxman said "the most difficult thing will be to pick and choose.”  Likewise, in trying to review the book the hardest thing to do is choose an entry point.  Hell, you could do a whole page on Bernie Kerik himself, who was sent to Iraq purportedly to overhaul the Iraqi police force but in truth to be the poster boy for a vanity war. He let it be known that he had to get this business over with quickly because Rudy Giulliani told him he couldn't say "no" to the President but he had many $10,000 a pop speaking engagements he had to get back to.  Kerik spent his tenure in Iraq going out on midnight raids that found him asleep during the day when he was supposed to be supervising the Interior Ministry.  He attached himself to the nearest sycophant, Ahmed Kadhim Ibrahim, and gave him power to command a unit that was accused of torturing nine jailed prostitutes with electrical shocks from hand-cranked Russian miliary field telephones.  

But Kerik is a minor player in the larger story, and Chandrasekaran tells his tale with a keen appreciation for the place where the lines of hubris, incompetence and ideological dunderheadism all intersect to create a disaster of epic proportions. I've already written about  Doug Feith's Office of Special Plans, and how they developied blueprints for post-war Iraq and then wouldn't show them to the man tasked with managing it, Jay Garner, hoping that without any support he would have no choice but to fall back into the arms of Ahmed Chalabi (which was Feith's objective but he didn't want to triggger a war with the State Department by openly advocating for it.) It's the kind of thinking that really set the stage for what was to come.

The phenomenally unpopular Chalabi reappears throughout the book, busying himself with presiding over the "De-Baathification" Commission, the committee whose job it was to implement the ideological objectives of the Bush administration to purge everyone from the government with the level of firka (low-ranking group member) and above.  These included 15,000 teachers who had been forced to join the party by the Ministry of Education, leaving some schools in Sunni dominated areas with just one or two teachers:

Three days after he arrived in Iraq, Bremer dispatched an aide to Jay Garner's office with a copy of the de-Baathification policy.  It was going to be the viceroy's first executive order.  He planned to issue it the next day.

Garner read it.  Holy Christ, he thought to himself. We can't do this.

He contacted the CIA station chief and asked him to meet him in front of Bremer's office right away. As Garner walked down the hall to the viceroy's suite, he ran into one of the State Department ambassadors and explained what was happening.

"We've got to put a stop to this one," Garner said.  "It's too hard, too harsh."

Garner and the station chief barged into Bremer's office.

"Jerry, this is too harsh," Garner said. "Let's get Rumsfeld on the phone and see if we can't soften it."

"Absolutely not," Bremer said.  "I'm going to issue this today."

Garner asked the station chief what would happen if the orders were issued.

"You're going to drive fifty thousand Baathists underground before nightfall," he said. "Don't do this."

The tales of Bremer's arrogance and his desire for unchecked control above all else are trumped only by his willingness to issue draconian edicts about matters he does not fullly understand.  But his de-Baathification of the government was a model of efficiency compared to the dissolution of the Iraqi army that put put between 250,000-300,000 military personnel on the street.  As Chandrasekaran tells the story, Bush had approved a plan to disband the Republican guard but retain the regular army.  The Central Command dispatched planes over Iraq to drop leaflets telling soldiers not to fight, to "stay home with their families" — which is exactly what they did as the American tanks rolled into Baghdad:

Despite the leaflets instructing them to go home, [civilian in charge of the Iraqi military Walter] Slocombe had expected Iraqi soldiers to stay in their garrisons.  Now he figured that calling them back would cause even more problems. The bases had been looted, so there was no place for them to live.  And he assumed that most  of the army's rank and file, who were Shiite conscripts, wouldn't want to come back anyway. If there had been proper barracks, only corrupt Sunni officers keen to retain their positions of authority would have returned.  As far as Slocombe and Feith were concerned, the Iraqi army had dissolved itself; formalizing the dissolution wouldn't contradict Bush's directive.


Eleven days after he arrived in Iraq, Bremer issued CPA order Number 2, which dissolved not just the army but the air force, the navy, the Ministry of Defense, and the Iraqi Intelligence Service.  With the scrawl of his signature, he created legions of new enemies.

Bremer eventually announced that army officers who were not senior Baathists would receive monthly stipends and a new army of 40,000 infantrymen would be formed to guard Iraq's borders, but it was too little too late:

In a land of honor and tradition, the viceroy had disrespected the old soldiers. I never ran into Omri again, but months later, I did see another former soldier who had been at the protest.

"What happened to everyone there?" I asked.  "Did they join the new army?"

He laughed.

"They're all insurgents now," he said.  "Bremer lost his chance." 

From the ideological litmus test of being against Roe v. Wade to the hiring of applicants for internships at the Heritage Foundation and putting them in charge of the country's $13 billion budget, the travesties created by mismanagement, arrogance and stupidity left the field wide open for corporate flim-flam men to come in and bleed the coffers of the US government dry with no-bid (or venally under-bid) contracts where no effort was spared to inflate costs and pass them on to American taxpayers.  Is anyone really surprised that Bechtel decided three days before the election that it didn't think it wanted to be in the Iraq business any more?  I'm sure the specter of the Waxman hearings is just as inviting to them as the thought of having Donald Rumsfeld sitting there answering Waxman's questions was to George Bush.  

If anyone is looking for a set of crib notes to the upcoming era of congressional oversight (that is if K-Street money isn't successful in getting Democrats to shut it down as they rail against "out of control liberals" in the service of Bechtel, Halliburton and others who most certainly don't want to pay the piper), Imperial Life in the Emerald City is a fine place to start.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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