Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: How Early US Failures Created the Iraq of Today

It is Friday morning and Rajiv Chandrasekaran takes the stage. He pulls the microphone a little closer to his lips and welcomes the coffee-sipping audience of students, writers, activists.

“Iraqis believed they should have been free to determine their own destiny,” he said. “They were not a vanquished nation in need of overhaul at foreign hands.”

Chandrasekaran’s powerful address opened Iraq at the Crossroads: Protecting Refugees, Rescuing Our Allies, and Empowering Iraqi Law, hosted at Rutgers School of Law last Friday.

Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City and National Editor for The Washington Post, served as the newspaper’s bureau chief in Baghdad from April 2003 to October 2004. From the Green Zone—or “neoconservative terrarium” as he has called it—Chandrasekaran reported on what he soon recognized as a dismal US failure to implement an effective strategy for post-Saddam Iraq:
I was appalled by how we Americans were squandering our window of opportunity to build stability in Iraq. Instead of focusing principally on creating jobs, the economic advisers inside the Green Zone set about rewriting Iraq's tax code. They spent countless hours drafting laws to protect genetically modified seeds, copyrighted movies and even the designs of microchips, instead of devoting the necessary resources to increase electricity production or repair hospitals.
Chandrasekaran explained how the absence of sound, structured policy and misplaced priorities can be understood in three pieces:

Imperial Life in the Emerald CityFirst, PEOPLE. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which came to Baghdad after Saddam’s government fell, “sent the loyal and the willing.” When interviewed for positions by Pentagon officials, CPA hopefuls were asked questions like: “Are you a member of the Republican Party?” “What is your position on capital punishment?” and “How do you feel about Roe v. Wade?”

While fervent support of the Administration and a set of conservative, partisan values appeared necessary for employment with the CPA, international experience and knowledge of the Middle East were not— “More than half the CPA staff got their first passports to go to Iraq.”

Second, PLACE. Centered in Iraq’s Green Zone, members of the CPA had little or no immediate understanding of the chaos and ruin that was quickly befalling Iraq. Outside the Baghdad walls there was no clean or running water, looting and lawlessness erupted in the absence of government police forces, waste filled the streets, and Iraqi families took refuge in their homes waiting for the speedy delivery of democracy promised by President Bush.

Third, POLICY. Tax code reform took the top agenda seat while “New Deal-like policies” that would employ Iraqis to sweep the streets, maintain clean water systems, and restore electricity were not considered. Following the March 2003 intervention, looting, lawlessness, and traffic jams paralyzed the city as drivers sat in jammed intersections below Baghdad’s lifeless traffic lights. While the CPA was walled up in Baghdad’s Green Zone rewriting copyright laws, Iraqi civilians worried about the safety of their children and wondered how to educate their children at home now that schools were closing. Copyright infringement was probably not in the forefront of Iraqis’ minds.

Mr. Chandrasekaran explained that an understanding of post-invasion Iraq is crucial for understanding Iraq today. Without a plan for the months after Saddam was removed from power, the US government created many of the problems that have plagued the country after five years at war. Instead of working with pre-existing infrastructures of Iraq’s government, such as the city police forces and the military, the CPA and Washington elite insisted upon a complete overhaul. With unqualified leadership in Iraq, complete isolation within the fortifications of Baghdad’s Green Zone, and policies that failed to address the most critical and immediate concerns of the Iraqi people, the United States was signed up for a disorganized, violent and lengthy involvement from the very beginning.

In January Iraq will host provincial elections, an opportunity to elect new, more representative leaders, making Baghdad more directly accountable to Iraqi constituents. Unlike the last provincial elections in 2005, all of Iraq’s communities are expected to turn out in force, and Iraqi voters will have the opportunity to vote for individual candidates rather than faceless “party lists.”

Chandrasekaran suggested that as Baghdad’s government becomes one of the people, there will be more room to address the needs of Iraqis. Thanking the Rutgers students and community for addressing the urgent Iraqi humanitarian crisis, he said that peace and security can only be built with great focus on the needs of the Iraqi people.

*Hey there! If you have not yet joined the 14,000 Americans who have signed The Humanitarian Pledge, please do so today! Help us put the humanitarian needs of vulnerable Iraqis at the center of the U.S. policy debate on Iraq. You can also help us raise public awareness by sharing this one-page backgrounder about the crisis with your community.

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