Interviews October 2004

Iraq's Walled City

William Langewiesche, the author of "The Green Zone," on the dangerous and ever-increasing isolation of the American presence in Baghdad

I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about the most salient aspects of the CPA culture.

The main factor is isolation. It's the unfortunate reality of the American presence in Iraq that there's a progression of increasing isolation. It's the kind of thing that seems to be inevitable at this stage in our history. The United States' number one priority is safety—the phrase that's used is "force protection," which is a term borrowed from the military.

We live in a society that puts safety first and holds people bureaucratically responsible for any breach of it—which is considered the greatest sin. Whether you're an Army officer or an administrator, if somebody gets injured on your watch in the Green Zone, there's hell to pay. There's hell to pay in Congress and there's hell to pay in the press. The fact that safety gets chosen over real operational needs is not a mark against anyone, but is a structural problem.

The U.S. made a very serious mistake in deciding to base its occupation in the middle of the city. Had the decision-makers been thinking clearly they would have realized that they were inevitably going to be forced into a defensive position because of this culture of force protection. They've put a huge chokehold on the middle of the city; they've made an arrogant display of the U.S. as an occupier; and they've displayed their fear in a very public way. Inevitably people began to take little potshots at us, and American officials had no choice but to build the wall higher and pull their people in. The inevitability of our own isolation there has been the story of the American presence.

It seems like that isolation has not declined with the transition from CPA control to the State Department.

No, although it had been hoped that it might. The CPA was strongly allied with the right-wing extreme of the Bush Administration. Those people made terrible mistakes in thinking about and looking at the world. And their approach led to this disastrous exercise in Iraq. As late as June 2004, at the end of the CPA's reign, it had been thought that the State Department might bring a different approach, because the State Department consists of more sophisticated people, who are more nuanced and subtle, and have more balanced views of the world. There was hope that their presence would mean more engagement—that they would say that we cannot continue to isolate ourselves, and that we must be more open to the Iraqi people and the international press, and that we must take risks and engage with Iraq.

But this has not happened. It was probably naïve to think it might. These forces of isolation are much larger than any individual. Even if the Bush Administration were thrown out and Kerry were elected, nothing would really change in that regard. The same emphasis on force protection very much existed under the Clinton administration. I think we need to understand this about ourselves, and to take it into account the next time we want to go out and do something in the world.

Given that our isolation is so complete, are we doing anything effective at all?

No, we're not. The daily newspaper accounts make that clear, and history will also show that the answer to that is no. It's amazing to me to hear people like Prime Minister Allawi talking to Congress or George Bush, and making bald assertions that are simply unfounded about progress. Its almost hallucinogenic, it's so disconnected from reality.

What good have we done in Iraq? If you're an Iraqi, and your number one agenda was to remove Saddam Hussein, then a lot of good has come out of it. But it hasn't proven to be a great and enduring gift. Maybe the American military presence is preventing some level of internecine violence; maybe the electrical system is better; maybe, in an ideal world, the Iraqis could use the system of laws we provided to launch a modern democratic society. But the world of Iraq is far from ideal and is disintegrating rapidly. And the reality is that, given the security situation right now, nothing is getting done on the ground. More people can drive cars. Maybe that's a good thing.

One positive thing that might come out of this is elections. It's still possible there will be elections of some kind. I'm very skeptical and pessimistic about the quality of those elections, and also, ultimately, about the meaning of it. It's likely that the elections will amount to little, and will not stop the county's slide into civil war. But it's possible they'll amount to a lot, so let's go for it. What have we got to lose?

I wanted to ask you about the comments made by both Allawi and Bush that there are successes in Iraq, but that the media simply isn't covering those successes. What do you make of that contention?

If anything, the press in Baghdad is not reporting how bad the situation really is. I've observed these daily newspaper reporters closely. Their sympathies are very much with the military. They like the GIs, and for good reason. The U.S. Army has performed really admirably in Iraq. The press realizes that it's been a fairly good performance in a very difficult situation. They're sympathetic toward the guys who are getting shot at right now, and who are doing the shooting. The idea that the press is somehow anti-military is wrong—they're basically pro-military. They're underreporting how grim it is. And the reason they're underreporting it is because it's highly repetitive. It's this constant "mortar, bomb, gunshot" story.

Overall, you seem to be pretty unimpressed by the people who worked in the CPA. But you make a point of singling out some exceptions—"stars," as you called them. What was some of the work these people were doing that impressed you?

The people who were impressive at the CPA were people who were personally impressive. They were smart, capable, well read, well traveled, competent—you name it. People who fully understood the failures of the system around them. But the irony is that you can be very smart, but if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time it doesn't do much good. That's not to take away from the people who were there. I have to admire the willingness of those people to be there. There were a lot of people who went for the wrong reasons. But these smart, competent people had other choices, and were choosing to go to Iraq, typically not for any increase in money—often for less money—and to sit in some boring trailer. They were the ones willing to climb onto this sinking ship, and continue to operate the machinery. Often they didn't know in advance what they were getting into. The smart people figured it out very fast. They realized the catastrophic proportions of the American presence in Iraq, and they didn't respond by saying, "Ok, I leave, I quit, I'm out of here." They stayed on and fought and tried to make things better.

Do you think that these people will leave any kind of legacy in Iraq?

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