Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran




(Highly Recommended)




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Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, presents the incompetence, missed opportunities, and attention to the wrong minutiae during the first years of America’s involvement in Iraq under Paul Bremer’s leadership of the Coalition Provisional Authority. No matter what political stripes are on your sleeves, there are passages in this book that will disturb you. Chandrasekaran was The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Baghdad, and he watched all this evolve first hand. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 4, “Control Freak,” pp. 58-63:


Our motorcade roared away from the Republican Palace while most CPA staffers were still eating breakfast. In front were two tan Humvees, one with a fifty-caliber machine gun mounted on the roof, the other with a Mark-19 grenade launcher. Each had four soldiers armed with Mi6 rifles and nine-millimeter pistols. Two more Humvees outfitted the same way brought up the rear. In the middle rolled three GMC Suburbans. The first carried five men with arms as thick as a tank’s turret, all wearing tight black T-shirts, lightweight khaki trousers, and wraparound sunglasses. They were equipped with Secret Service—style earpieces, M4 automatic rifles, and Kevlar flak vests with ceramic plates strong enough to stop a bullet from an AK-47. They bore no insignia and kept their identification badges tucked into their flak vests. All of them were ex—Navy SEALs working for a private security contractor called Blackwater USA. They had but one job: protect the viceroy.

I rode with Jerry Bremer in the second Suburban, a custom-built, twelve-cylinder version of the popular American sport utility vehicle, with half-inch-thick bulletproof windows and steel-plated doors that could withstand even a rocket-propelled grenade. Bremer sat in the middle row, next to Dorothy Mazaka, the senior adviser for primary and secondary schools. Two Blackwater guards were up front. I was in the rear, with Bremer’s press adviser. The third Suburban contained three television cameramen and two still photographers meant to record Bremer’s foray out of the Green Zone.

Bremer was pressed and peppy. Every steel gray hair on his head was in place. He had awoken at five that morning to jog three miles in the palace garden. After showering and donning his uniform—a navy pinstripe suit with a pocket square, a crisp white shirt, a red tie, and tan combat boots—he dropped into the mess hall for a quick breakfast before going to his office to read the overnight cable traffic, the morning news clippings, and the day’s agenda. At eight, he met with his staff in one of Saddam’s gilded conference rooms. It was a no-nonsense affair. Participants were encouraged to make their points in thirty seconds or less. Decisions were made as swiftly.

Our first stop of the morning was at an elementary school in southwestern Baghdad. It was June 2003. Bremer had arrived less than a month earlier, and he was keen to demonstrate to Iraqis and Americans that he was no Jay Garner. The way to do that, Bremer and his advisers figured, was to be out and about, in front of the cameras, with the air of a head of state. There were daily photo opportunities and weekly press conferences. There were barnstorming visits across the country in his Black Hawk helicopter. A United Nations Security Council resolution had granted the United States broad occupation power, and President Bush had delegated much of that power to Bremer. He was the boss.

The school visit was another photo op, but it was also a chance to show Iraqis that the occupation authority cared about their needs. Iraqis value education more than almost anything else, and Bremer hoped that a pledge to help fix decrepit schools would persuade ambivalent Iraqis to support the CPA.

The school had two adjoining campuses built in a square, one for boys and the other for girls, with a courtyard in the middle. Mazaka had carefully selected the venue. Saddam’s government had stored weapons in one of the classrooms dur­ing the American shock-and-awe campaign. The headmistress of the girls’ campus supported the American invasion. There Was no electricity or running water in either campus. Students relieved themselves behind the building.

“Salaam alaikum,” Bremer said as he entered the courtyard. Peace be upon you.

Alaikum salaam,” the teachers replied. And upon you be peace.

The headmistress took Bremer on a tour of the girls’ cam­pus. Her 635 students had to be taught in two shifts because there were not enough desks. She showed Bremer several rooms with no lights, fans, or chalk for the blackboard. After the camera crews had finished filming, the CPA team churned out the sound bites.

“Engineers will visit in the next few weeks to work with you to rehabilitate the school,” Mazaka said.

“We are committed to helping you,” Bremer added.

Then we walked to the boys’ campus. Bremer strolled into a classroom of fifteen young boys, none of whom spoke English. The cameramen followed behind.

“We are working to be sure the school is completely reno­vated,” Bremer said. Curriculum revision was a “matter for Iraqis to decide,” but he promised that paeans to Saddam would be expunged. An interpreter was summoned. “What’s your favorite sport?” Bremer asked the kids. Soccer, one boy said. “Well, we’ll bring you some soccer balls in a few days,” Bremer said with a flourish. He turned to one of his aides. He said nothing, but his look conveyed the message. Get someone to get some soccer balls down here pronto!

By the time he walked out of the classroom, word had gotten out in the neighborhood that the viceroy was there. Hundreds of people crowded around the campus.

“Please help us,” one woman shouted in broken English as she gripped the arm of her son. “We are very worried about security. There are people kidnapping our children.”

“Security is a big problem,” another woman said. “We are scared.”

Bremer walked up to the women. “We understand your con­cerns,” he said. “We are working very hard to restore security. We’re arresting people every day.”

The women nodded, but the crowd didn’t give up. Several teachers joined in the questioning.

“Can we have security around the school during the exams?” one asked.

“We’ll talk to the military about that,” he said.

“Please, mister,” another teacher yelled. “We want to be

“We’re paying salaries as fast as we can,” he said.

Bremer’s guards hustled him back into the Suburban. “Good luck,” he said as the door closed.

Inshallah,” the headmistress replied.

As we sped off, I asked Bremer if, given the continuing loot­ing, he thought there were enough American troops in Bagh­dad. Bremer would later write in his book My Year in Iraq that in May 2003 he sent Rumsfeld a copy of a draft report by the Rand Corporation, a military-affiliated think tank, that esti­mated that five hundred thousand troops were needed to stabi­lize Iraq—more than three times the number of foreign forces then in the country. According to Bremer, Rumsfeld did not respond. Bremer also wrote that he raised his concerns with President Bush at a lunch that month, and again in June in a video link with a National Security Council meeting chaired by Bush. But Bremer never acknowledged these efforts when queried by journalists about force levels at the time.

“I think we’ve got as many soldiers as we need here right now,” he told me. The problem, in his view, was getting Iraqi police officers back on the job. Many still had not reported to their stations.

“You know, it’s Saddam who’s responsible for this problem,” he said. “He released tens of thousands of criminals from prison before the war.” But Bremer suggested that they alone were not responsible for the looting; it was a communal reac­tion to the repression. “When you get here and you see the rage and the pain on people’s faces, it’s very clear how very evil the old regime was.”

“What’s your top priority?” I asked.

Economic reform, he said. He had a three-step plan. The first was to restore electricity, water, and other basic services. The second was to put “liquidity in the hands of people”— reopening banks, offering loans, paying salaries. The third was to “corporatize and privatize state-owned enterprises,” and to “wean people from the idea the state supports everything.” Saddam’s government owned hundreds of factories. It sub­sidized the cost of gasoline, electricity, and fertilizer. Every family received monthly food rations. Bremer regarded all of that as unsustainable, as too socialist. “It’s going to be a very wrenching, painful process, as it was in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said.

“But won’t that be very complicated and controversial?” I asked. “Why not leave it up to the Iraqis?”

Bremer had come to Iraq to build not just a democracy but a free market. He insisted that economic reform and political reform were intertwined. “If we don’t get their economy right, no matter how fancy our political transformation, it won’t work,” he said.

As we talked, I was struck by his zeal to help the people of Iraq. While Washington remained focused on Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and the human rights abuses of his government, Bremer’s emphasis on the future was refresh­ing. I wondered if his aspirations would change once he heard from more Iraqis, or if he would demonstrate a missionary’s unshakable commitment to doctrine from the home country~ but those thoughts were soon eclipsed by the viceroy’s vision of a new Iraq. It sounded like he wanted America to be as ambitious in Iraq as it had been in Germany and Japan after World War II. After fifteen minutes of conversation, I found myself believing in Bremer.

By then, we had arrived at Baghdad University, a sprawling campus of fifty thousand students on the eastern side of the Tigris River. Bremer was there for a meeting with the deans. Like the elementary school teachers, they complained about security. They also griped about a Saddam-era regulation that prevented professors and deans from traveling abroad. Sad­dam had been afraid they’d never return. Bremer listened intently. This was something he could fix.

The next day, he issued Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 8.


Any statute, regulation, instruction or policy of the for­mer Iraqi government that imposes restrictions or proce­dures on faculty, employees or students of public universities, colleges or other institutions of higher education who desire to travel abroad for educational purposes is hereby rescinded.


As the viceroy, Bremer need only put down his signature to impose a new law, or to abolish an old one. He wasn’t required to consult with Iraqis or even seek their consent. “As long as we’re here, we are the occupying power,” he said as we drove back to the Green Zone. “It’s a very ugly word, but it’s true.”

As we pulled up to the palace, I asked Bremer if he saw him­self as another General Douglas MacArthur, the obsessive, all-powerful American ruler of Japan for three years after World War II.

“I’m not MacArthur,” he said as he exited the Suburban. “I’m not going to be anybody but myself.”


The turf battles and the dominance of ideologues in operating in Iraq are described in detail throughout Imperial Life in the Emerald City will bring tears to your eyes, as you realize how differently things could have been.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the February 2007 issue of Executive Times


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