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July 7, 2008 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Emerald City

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2006).

You are restructuring a country in economic peril. Part of the restructuring requires a new stock exchange. You need to find someone to be in charge of this. Would you pick a 24-year-old man, with no experience in finance?

Well… The United States did.
Imperial Life in the Emerald City is a detailed account of the United States’ occupation of Iraq and its attempt to rebuild the country into the leading democracy of the Arab world. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s motive in writing this book is to explain why the occupation is going so drastically wrong. He provides many reasons for their varying failures, including the example above, but most significantly, he argues America was overambitious, that it acted without listening to the Iraqi people, and that those appointed to high ranking positions were chosen based on their Republican loyalty as opposed to their expertise and experience.

I found this book highly informative and accessible. I do, however, give this praise with a degree of qualification.

The book fares well as a journalist’s experience of Iraq. What Chandrasekaran demonstrates successfully was the real frustration and disillusionment felt by some within the Green Zone. It was surprising to read about the extent of the ideological drive to impose a particular kind of democratic capitalism: Chandrasekaran notes in chapter 16 that “[the Americans] act as if the aim is democracy simply.” It would seem the Americans were not interested in making life better for the Iraqi people in any real or practical sense, but rather wanted to create a new America in Arab lands.

A real weakness of the book is its lack of historical and cultural background to life in Iraq under Saddam’s rule; much of this was assumed. Considering that one of the book’s significant themes was to criticise the Americans as being no better for the Iraqis, I would have thought it appropriate to discuss what pre-war life was like. Throughout the book there were references to Americans behaving with “Saddam like” power. For example, the 24/7 power supply which pumped through the Green Zone, compared to the 9 hour per day struggle for the people of Baghdad; or the stark contrast in medical facilities; or the ease with which Bremer could create or change laws with the swiftness of a dictator’s hand – the list could go on. As a reader, I found myself asking, “Remind me, what was so bad about Saddam?” The contrast drawn is a highly emotive and controversial point. If the analogy was really meant to be made then it should have been given due consideration rather than sprinkling, throughout the book, leading juxtapositions designed to feed anti-American hysteria.

A key problem is that five years on, with so much happening since 2003, the book is already out of date. What it does offer is a snapshot of the occupation’s initial struggle over a two year period, long enough to provide good on-the-ground coverage of politics and policies but not long enough to provide the real depth and analysis that hindsight can bring.

If anyone wants to talk about what went wrong with the Iraq occupation with an air of authority, then Imperial Life in the Emerald City is the book to read. It is quick, easy, and informative, and may help furnish you with a wider arsenal for those future debates on foreign politics.


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