Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

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Imperial Life in the Emerald City Summary

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s nonfiction Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (2006) describes the walled-off enclave that acted as the headquarters for the US occupation of Iraq, and how far removed it was from the daily realities outside of its walls. Met with general acclaim upon publication, it was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Chandrasekaran, an assistant editor at The Washington Post, previously served as bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo, and Southeast Asia. He also covered the war in Afghanistan.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City is an impartial look at the Emerald City, the American stronghold that served as a US sanctuary in post-war Iraq. Chandrasekaran’s primary focus is on how the U.S. handled the post-invasion occupation as opposed to critiquing the moral rights and wrongs of invading in the first place. Although Chandrasekaran’s narrative is impartial, he does critically analyze the actions of the Coalition Provisional Authority working within the Green Zone of Baghdad.

The book is split into two parts. “Building the Bubble” focuses on the origins of the enclave and what it is designed to achieve. “Shattered Dreams” assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the rehabilitation project and lessons the US Armed Forces failed to learn from it. Chandrasekaran includes a map of the Green Zone to aid readers’ understanding.

In the prologue, Chandrasekaran sets out his aims for the book. He begins by describing a typical scene from life inside the walls, and how easy it is for Americans inside the Zone to fool themselves into believing that their plan is working. American rule in Iraq is coming to an end, and there’s a sense that everyone already has given up on maintaining order.

While troops inside the walls might think that everything is fine, those tasked with rehabilitating a broken Iraq from beyond the walls see a different story. Chandrasekaran gives both viewpoints equal attention throughout the narrative. However, it is clear from Chandrasekaran’s account that the rehabilitation period could have—and should have—been handled much better than it was.

The main problem within the walls of the Emerald City is simple: the daunting task of rehabilitating and rebuilding a nation competes with the distractions offered by a small-scale America flourishing inside the Zone. Being so far removed from the conflict and the danger makes it easy to forget that this is no paradise, but a stronghold set up for a serious and specific purpose. By the time the occupants realize they’ve grown complacent and indulgent, it’s too late.

Inside the Emerald City, soldiers and bureaucrats indulge in discos, alcohol, gambling, and movies, and they all drive posh cars. Meanwhile, the Iraqis they are supposed to be supporting are banned from entering the Emerald City as they are deemed a security risk. Any Iraqis allowed entry to the compound are in serving roles. The Americans are so wrapped up in their own idea of democracy, they’re not paying attention to what’s going on around them.

After examining hundreds of internal documents and interviewing numerous eye-witnesses, Chandrasekaran concludes that the problems with America’s influence on post-war Iraq are inevitable. Essentially, the American ideology is incompatible with what post-war Iraq needs—it is not possible to simply transplant US democracy into another country expecting it to function well.

After the war, there is a power vacuum in Iraq. Chandrasekaran explains that, while the Americans could have listened to the Iraqis, pursuing goals aligned with Iraqi interests, instead, they pursued their own ideas of what was important to Iraq—namely selling off government assets and flat tax rates. The American focus is entirely too narrow and very much misdirected.

Instead of restoring essential amenities, such as electricity, and repairing damaged buildings, the Americans within the Emerald City obsess over minor changes such as a new traffic code and patent protections. As Chandrasekaran explains, a post-war society needs to be rebuilt from the ground up—traffic codes are the least of its concerns. The US attempts to rebuild post-war Iraq show a failure to understand what it means to recover from deep, traumatic conflict.

At best, the US errors are unintentional. At worst, they are willfully misguided. However, staying true to his impartial narrative, Chandrasekaran simply presents examples of US shortcomings for readers to judge for themselves. For example, he reveals lesser-known problems such as Middle East experts being passed over for jobs in favor of loyal Republicans with no experience in the area, and the overwhelmingly underqualified staff expected to perform high-level jobs in Iraq.

Although the Emerald City served a useful purpose, it was not used to its fullest potential, possibly causing more harm than good—this is the conclusion drawn by Chandrasekaran and the point on which he leaves readers to reflect.