Life in the Emerald City:

Posted: Sep 17, 2006 10:18 PM

  • Washington was abuzz over the weekend with the publication in the Washington Post of an excerpt from a new book, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor, Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

  • Chandrasekaran was the WashPost Baghdad bureau chief in 2003-2004, about the same time period I was poking around in Iraq.

  • Chandrasekaran's central theme seems to be: All that mattered in the early days following the fall of Saddam was that an employee of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had proved his or her loyally to George W. Bush.

  • To give you some idea of Chandrasekaran's point-of-view, another excerpt had been e-mailed to me on Friday which included, in its first graf, the notion that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was chock full of "naïve neocons."

  • "Oh, yeah," I thought. "This is going to be great."

  • A problem with excerpts is they are designed to help sell books. Same thing as an ad for a movie. But, too often the best lines are in the ad, and the other one hour, twenty nine minutes and thirty seconds of the film are eight dollars worth of crashing boredom.

  • Describing the life of a CPA employee, Chandrasekaran writes:
    "Many of them spent their days cloistered in the Green Zone, a walled-off enclave in central Baghdad with towering palms, posh villas, well-stocked bars and resort-size swimming pools."

  • The obvious implication being, while coalition military personnel were in constant danger of being injured or killed by ambush or IED, the "naïve neocons" of the CPA were lounging about in perfect luxurious safety, eating dates and pomegranates, sipping fine wines and taking an occasional refreshing dip in the "resort-sized swimming pool."

  • That is an appallingly unfair portrait.

  • The vast majority of CPA employees lived in trailers (two people per half, shared bathroom, running water a pleasant surprise), ate in the cafeteria (food by Kellogg, Brown & Root a subsidiary of Halliburton); worked in crowded, dusty outdated offices (even by Saddam standards); and went out into the Red Zone of Baghdad to do their jobs each and every day.

  • Two not particularly unique examples were two women named Leslie Arsht and Judy Van Rest. Leslie struggled to build up a working educational system; Judy worked out of the democracy-building office.

  • Leslie and Judy would often leave the Emerald City in the morning to do their work in Baghdad or beyond. They didn't leave in a convoy of armored vehicles surrounded by a phalanx of military or private security personnel.

  • They wore clothing which would not make them stand out on an Iraqi street (burkas are not the norm); scarves covering their heads, driving what I colorfully described as "brown 1957 Opels with rusted bullet holes" so as not to attract attention.

  • A guy I worked around with some regularity is named Jim Haveman. Haveman went to Baghdad to help (as the phrase goes) "stand up" the Health Ministry. Chandrasekaran describes Haveman as being unknown in the international health community,
    "most of his overseas trips were in his capacity as a director of International Aid, a faith-based relief organization that provided health care while promoting Christianity in the developing world."

  • But, Haveman had also been the Director of the Department of Public and Mental Health for the State of Michigan; not exactly the head of the Arabian Horse Association in terms of background, if you catch my drift.

  • Haveman is portrayed as a religious zealot unwilling to talk with, or listen to anyone. As I remember the story, Jim Haveman was so unqualified that the Health Ministry was the first Ministry to be ready to be handed back to full Iraqi control. In fact, Haveman was required to delay the hand-over to allow some other Ministries to catch up.

  • Leslie, Judy and Jim are about my age. They didn't need to be in Baghdad to burnish their résumés nor their reputations. They didn't go because they wanted a job in the Bush Administration. They went because they thought it was the right thing to do.

  • On the Secret Decoder Ring Page today: A link to the WashPost excerpt in question; the photo that the Post used of me as well as the full photo from which it was taken; plus a piece of an AP piece written in April of 2004 describing how I, too, was one of the Bush loyalists who went to Baghdad to earn big money and a high Administration position.