Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Of all the books and articles I've read about the war in Iraq, this book left me the most discouraged and depressed. The author, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, had amazing access to CPA, Department of Defense, and State Department employees who worked in the Green Zone after the war. And the stories they tell him are just so horrible. There were so many mistakes made, so many opportunities to do real good wasted.

What was most disheartening was how people who actually knew what they were doing were frequently replaced by Republican party loyalists, junior staffers from congressional offices, or staff from the Department of Defense - the White House didn't want folks from State Department working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, no matter their level of expertise.

Of the many stories Chandrasekaran relates, two really upset me. The first involved the Iraqi stock market. A former stock broker who had joined the Army was initially tapped to get the stock market back in operation. He talked to the employees and the stock brokers and realized that all they needed to get back in business was a few chalk boards and some cell phones. He pitched the idea to the powers that were and was overruled. Some Republican loyalist was put in charge, and he decided that what Iraq needed was a new, efficient, modern, and non-corrupt stock market. He talked about computer systems and online networks - in a city that gets 12 hours of electricity a day, max - but nothing ever happened. Within a week of the CPA's handing over control of the country, the stock market, which had been closed during the whole occupation, was back in operation, under Iraqi control - using white-erase boards and cell phones. Years were wasted.

The other story was about the medical system. One medic got put in charge of the hospitals. He met with the hospital directors and asked what their critical needs were. They said power and medicines. So the guy managed to get big generators to every major hospital in Iraq. The doctors viewed him as a hero. But then the CPA put another Republican loyalist in charge. This guy was a former health plan administrator. He decided that the country's most crucial need was a new formulary for prescription medicine. Nevermind that most hospitals couldn't even get their hands on any drugs, let alone ones on the new formulary. You have to wonder how many people died while administrators argued about what medicines to include in the new plan.

Chandrasekaran doesn't indict all the men and women who went to Iraq. Most of the people there were doing the best they could under the most difficult of circumstances. He blames the the people in DC who were making the big decisions. They went into the war without any idea of what would happen next, and their lack of preparation showed. So many lives were lost; so much money was wasted. And for what, exactly?

I finished the book even angrier about the war and the current occupant of the White House than I was when I started. This book should be required reading for every person who thinks the war has been a success.

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