Monday, March 10, 2008

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Perhaps Rajiv Chandrasekaran's key insight in his award-winning non-fiction book is that the dark comedy of Baghdad's Green Zone would in fact be the more lastingly interesting story than the tragic chaos and violence building up outside in the 'Red Zone'.

In other words, while other journalists used the mounting toll of dead bodies to throw into relief the upbeat statements made by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) run by 'Viceroy' L.Paul Bremer III, this senior reporter from the Washington Post chose instead to slowly unpick the internal pyschological drivers of America's imperialist folly.

The CPA existed within the the Green Zone life-support system, devised and managed by Halliburton and featuring many things unknown to Baghdad residents on the outside, such as uninterrupted power and water and eat-all-you-can, southern-style buffets. The teams of mostly young administrators working in this environment, by nature "earnest and parochial" were also generally under-resourced and under-qualified and prone to be deluded by their controlled existence in this 'bubble' into embarking on pet initiatives (like anti-smoking legislation) which were not exactly germane to the immediate problem of rebuilding a shattered nation.

After passing legislation on copyright law and genetically-modified organisms, the Neocons' fiscal experimentation included reducing the basic level of taxation on individuals and companies from 45% to 15% and removing all import taxes. As a result of the latter order, 500,000 cars flooded into Iraq from neighbouring countries and soon Iraq's refineries were unable to cope with all this demand for petrol. American soldiers that found themselves stuck in traffic jams in their Humvees weren't too chuffed about it either. But never mind. Soon someone had gone on the Internet and printed out the traffic code from the state of Maryland and important new rules (such as always keeping both hands on the steering wheel) were being imposed on bemused Iraqi motorists.

Chandrasekaran shows how many of the individuals given key posts of responsibility during the life of the CPA (April 2003-June 2004) had been picked because they said the right things about abortion and the 2000 Presidential election in their interviews. Half of them had needed to get their first passport in order to travel to Iraq. And where security was an issue "I used to be a SEAL" was often the magic, door opening phrase.

Now, whilst the Iraqis were indeed eager for American politics (which many associated with being able to do whatever they wanted) they were altogether less keen on American economics, which made a good many of them unemployed during the occupation, particularly former army members and workers in state industries. The Bremer-mandated process of de-BAATHification was also especially damaging as it left many corporations and academic institutions rudderless.

The Neocons were desperate to create a "robust private sector", but had to contend with the small obstacle of the Hague Convention (1899) which sought to deny occupying powers the right to dispose of other countries' assets as they see fit. Still, finding that the state-run banks had $2bn in deposits yet only $1bn in assets, the CPA decided to forgive the inter-company debts of state run enterprises, which had the effect of ruining some of the better ones and delivering a much undeserved windfall to others.

Unintended, unwanted consequences were the result of their efforts in the political sphere as well. The lack of a recent census meant that it was going to be hard to determine the exact regional representation in the planned new democratic congress, so Bremer cut through the problem and promulgated in CPA Order 96 that Iraq would be a single electoral constituency. This disadvantaged smaller local parties and empowered some of the more virulent nutjobby factions operating at national level. Chandrasekaran also reckons that American attempts at social engineering created divisions between ethnic groups which had never been felt so strongly before.

The end result was not the balanced, secular Jeffersonian democracy devoted to liberal economic principles that the Neocons had surely envisaged.

Yee haw is not a foreign policy - British army graffiti in Baghdad.

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