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'm fairly low profile in my neighborhood. In the beginning, when I was first there, it was possible to go out a lot, and I did. I went to sidewalk cafés with Iraqis and walked the streets, both during the day and at night. But since May, that's been totally unsafe. You just can't do that. You can't go to restaurants, for example. I mean you can do it, but you have to think about for what reason and whether it's worth the risk. So in a way I live like a captive. I move through the city in the back of a little car, and try to keep as low a profile as possible.

Are there a lot of other Westerners still living in houses right now, or have most people moved into the hotels?

People are fortifying their houses more. There was a stage in the spring when a lot of people were leaving their houses and moving into hotels. But I think it's been fairly stable since then. People are increasingly armed and fortified.

You mentioned the restrictions on what you can do. Does that apply to Iraqis too?

No, not at all. They're concerned about random car blasts and things like that. But still at night, the sidewalk cafés are crowded and there's a strong nightlife. It's actually quite a lively and nice atmosphere—as long as you're not a Westerner. If you're an Iraqi you can mix easily, and it's quite decent. The restaurants are good and cheap, and people can afford to go to them, and they do.

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.

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