The Mayor has a Question

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FALLUJAH -- I was sure he would cancel the meeting. The night was intensely dusty. Blizzard-like conditions made driving hazardous, even at the single-digit speed limits posted in some areas around the Marine base. But the Mayor of Fallujah defied the elements, penetrated a gauntlet of security checkpoints, and showed up on base to talk with the Americans anyway. The ePRT members and one Marine gratefully set a table for him: water, Fanta, and individually wrapped Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, each secure and inviolate in a shield of plastic.

The ePRT -- the crew of American diplomats and development experts tasked with fixing Fallujah -- know the Mayor well, and were equally impressed at his resolve to meet. His determination turned out to be the result of one pressing issue. He had heard that the Marines had awarded contract to an Iraqi business that would destroy Camp Bahariya, the US base nearest the city. Bahariya abuts Camp Fallujah, which the Marines already vacated and turned over to the Iraqi security forces. The Mayor wanted to know if the contract could go not to this private company but to the city of Fallujah, or to anyone who would guarantee that the work of physically tearing the place up was done by Fallujah residents themselves. Give us jobs, "We hear there is a contract," the Mayor said. "We should use it employ people. We can possibly use it to, you know, influence security" -- by getting young proto-insurgents working, and thus extinguishing the terrorist instinct with that universal salve, hard cash.

The Mayor, I was told, had never kowtowed to the Americans, and indeed he seemed to have a bad attitude. The bad attitude made him an ideal partner, because when he felt disgust he showed it. I would have felt disgust too, if like the Mayor I had walked and driven through gusts of dust just to hear the response the ePRT and Marine representative had to offer.

"We anticipate one more contract for clean-up," the Marine said. He then described in detail, pitiless in his use of acronyms, the Everest of bureaucracy the Mayor would need to ascend to apply for that contract. "That contract will go to the MNF-West level and be put into JCCS like all the other contracts." The translator botched the job, and the JCCS (Joint Contingency Contract System, a Web-based program to register bids from contractors) came out as JCC (Joint Coordination Center, a building meant to be a hub for security and development). "Could we not make a special case," he asked, for security purposes? Short answer: not a chance. After two or three more acronyms the Mayor's patience dwindled to zero. While the Americans tried to recover, he picked dust-bunnies off his formerly white striped shirt, and within minutes he pronounced the meeting past its use.

What could have saved this encounter? It sounds awfully fatalistic to say that the answer is nothing, but I had the feeling of watching two incommensurate forces collide in an ugly way. The Marine had no authority to make an exception on contract of that size, nor would an exception have been in keeping with the desire for transparency for which the JCCS bureaucracy existed. And the Mayor appeared to think -- whatever his deeper intentions for that contract; perhaps he wanted it for himself -- that he had offered the Americans an unadulterated good, a way to let them leave Fallujah gracefully, with the city's residents docile for a few months later, and fond at least in their memories of a final paycheck from their occupiers.

If an interaction that simple has (in those three depressingly ubiquitous words) no easy solution, the many, many more complex ones are truly hopeless.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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