Saturday, December 29, 2007

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Review

Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book on the days of the CPA in Iraq has been heavily praised; showered with awards and links and stuff. So I was pretty keen to get a copy. Just think of the horrible guts that might be in there. Unfortunately, I can report that it is desperately overrated.

To kick off, if you read the newspapers closely during 2003-2005, or kept up with any worthwhile blogs in the same period, you'll know most of the factual material in the book and most of the anecdotes too. There is not very much new here, which is unsurprising because the whole sorry farrago of stupidity, disorientation, partisan hackery, corruption etc is by now quite well documented, especially due to the excellent work of SIGIR and various newspaper reporters.

Some of the stories are good - I didn't know the British camp in the Green Zone was called Ocean Cliffs by its inhabitants, because it was in an underground car park in a city in a flat desert, or that the Americans didn't understand why the Brits would want to park their caravans in an underground car park....until the mortars began coming over the wire. But that is trivial.

More seriously, Chandrasekaran's book primarily shows the degree to which so many people in US politics and the press are still struggling with the concept that the President might be wrong. Although he clearly believes it to be an indictment that will burst like a 107mm Chinese rocket, it doesn't pack much of a punch; he is far too weak on the assumptions so many people brought with them to Iraq. He is repeatedly reduced to pearl-clutching incomprehension by the notion that healthcare and education were free in pre-war Iraq (at least in theory). Like the CPA's Republican bagmen, contract hunters and securigoons, he finds it impossible to separate Iraq from his own assumptions about US politics and political economy. As part of the ill-thought-out healthcare effort, a team of experts from the "Defense Department Pharmacoeconomic Center" are called in; the fact the US military needs a staff of health economists to keep from being ripped off by their healthcare system should tell him something about who exactly can give lessons on national healthcare.

Further, his critique shows some curious cracks. After 172 pages on how the CPA failed to engage with Iraqis, to make use of Iraqi knowledge or resources, or to understand Iraqi realities, he remarks that the task of rehabilitating the electricity grid was "inexplicably handed off" to the selfsame Iraqi engineers he has just on the preceding page credited with restoring power after the 1991 war. Was that really so inexplicable? In fact, we know exactly how the electricity effort failed, thanks to the good people at IEEE Spectrum, who did a superb feature on how the American bigshot contract-hunters the CPA called in made a mess of the job by behaving as if Iraq was very much like the United States. The contrast with the telecoms reconstruction effort, which actually had to restore facilities the US bombed this time around, is shown up by another IEEE Spectrum report.

His choice of John Agresto, president of a small college in the US and sometime CPA education advisor, as an example of a "neoconservative mugged by reality" is wildly uncritical of the man's maunderings about "introducing the concept of academic freedom", which turns out to mean "encouraging the universities to suppress students with opinions he doesn't like", to say nothing of the fact he is just another political hack; he made his career working with Bill "casino boy" Bennett and Dick Cheney's wife at the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1980s, or to put it another way, bashing academics Ronald Reagan's staff didn't like. Agresto's remarks about the president of Dohuk University in Kurdistan ("more like the head of a New Jersey truckers' local than the founder and president of a major university", and this is a guy he liked) are - well, I'm not sure if they are more racist than snobbish or vice versa.

But like so many, Agresto has got out in time; he moved from the CPA into well-heeled retirement. Another university president whose role was an utter disaster, far worse than anything Agresto could cook up, has surprisingly managed to escape without too much damage to his reputation; and Chandrasekaran here does us all a service by dragging Peter McPherson, once Gerald Ford's head of appointments (working for Dick Cheney) and holder of a range of Reagan administration panjandrumships and now president of Michigan University, well and truly through the mud. You'll have to read the book to find out how badly he fucked up as the CPA's economics boss, but suffice it to say that he decided to reverse normal practice so that if the bank is in trouble, it was the depositor's problem, thus destroying the working capital of every firm in Iraq with a positive balance at the banks and wiping out the debts of every firm in Iraq with an overdraft. He did this in order to make the accounting easier and save $1bn; a billion here and a billion there and soon you're talking real money, indeed, but out of the $20bn of Iraqi oil revenues and $18.4bn in US taxpayers' cash the CPA ran through you would think that a billion to recapitalise the banks would have been easy to find.

He was convinced that a supply-side policy would not only be best in the long run, but would be the fastest way to create jobs in the short run as well; foreign direct investment would pour in to take advantage of privatisation. Of course, you can't privatise a corpse, and the difference between a business that is trading (even at a loss) and one that is not is the difference between a living person and a dozen stone of dogmeat. Even the accounting problems (due to looting) would have been easier to fix; get them trading and paying each other. Cash is king, right?

Fortunately, he was prevented from throwing an even more egregious cake-and-arse party; he wanted to abolish food rations and instead pay out cash, or perhaps issue special debit cards that would be automatically credited, in a country without cash points or credit-card merchant terminals or very much electricity. Yet another disaster was prevented by one Jim Otwell, a fireman from Buffalo, New York, who had arrived to help with the fire brigade but had eventually become the CPA labour advisor because he was a union convenor (a form of expertise scarcer in the Green Zone than anywhere else on earth). Otwell spotted that, as with UK child benefit, the food was supplied to the women for a reason; he further pointed out that even if only one per cent of recipients didn't get their money, that would still mean about 250,000 angry hungry people with AK47s.

I seem to have to make similar points about small percentages of really big numbers all the damn time...

But McPherson's militant stupidity was not to be put off by the prospect of perhaps having a quarter-million-strong armed mob pouring over the walls to eat him. Otwell had to enlist the British army hierarchy (John McColl at the time, I think) to exert influence on the US commander in Iraq to get the thing kiboshed, for which we may all be truly thankful. Involving food as it did, McPherson's policy had the greatest potential to kill of any of the CPA's ideas.

So, the CPA was a bunch of hopelessly ignorant rightwing hacks. Ya think? So how did this book, which is OK at best, get so much praise? Well, it had the good fortune to appear just as the notion that Iraq was not a good idea became authorised knowledge; I can think of no other explanation. I recommend and endorse Patrick Cockburn's The Occupation, which delivers far more facts, useful insights, and punch in considerably fewer pages.

1 comment:

witless chum said...

Apologies for the late pedantic comment. M. (for Melville, hehe) Peter McPherson was the (unlamented) President of Michigan State University, a large, public university in East Lansing, Michigan, that's decently easy to get into. I went there from '96-'01. There is no Michigan University, but there is a University of Michigan.

McPete's efforts to curb binge drinking among the MSU undergraduates (which were the signature policies of his administration from a student-eye view) would probably make an interesting comparison to his efforts in Iraq. (Policies were introduced that antagonized the natives and caused more damage than what they were intended to solve. The man caused beer riots, more or less)

The only wise thing McPete ever managed to do that I was aware of was to appear before the crowd at an (American) football game in 2002 accompanied by several soldiers back from Afghanistan. This forestalled a large percentage of the 70,000 on hand from booing and jeering McPete, as was the norm.

The man also chewed, but did not smoke, cheap cigars.

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