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

Are they're angrier with the civilian leadership than they were when you were in Bosnia?

Oh, of course. They weren't angry with the civilian leadership in Bosnia. They were angry with some of the force protection measures and some of the military leadership, because it was chicken shit. It was chicken shit that you couldn't have a beer and chicken shit that you had to wear a helmet when everybody else was walking bareheaded—that kind of stuff. But there was no problem with the civilian leadership in their minds. They didn't like Clinton, generally, but it wasn't because of Bosnia. In this case it's actually the civilian leadership of the Pentagon that bears the brunt of their scorn and really deep anger. About Bush, I don't even know. The conversation turns to Rumsfeld and the arrogance of that crowd. They're very aware of it. They're bearing the brunt of it. Of course, various officials will fly in and give little patronizing pep talks to the soldiers, as if the soldiers didn't know what was going on. You know, stuff like, "Taking the fight to the enemy, blah blah blah." These guys are perfectly capable of understanding that on their own.

How possible do you think it is that Iraq might eventually become the free-market democracy that people in the White House and the CPA were working for?

Those are two different things. A free market, I think, is very likely, because anarchy is the ultimate form of a free market. Iraq is very likely to slide into some anarchic conditions. It's not the kind of free market which large corporations thrive in, which is the White House's idea of a free market. It's the kind that shopkeepers, street hustlers and small entrepreneurs with courage do quite well in. As for large state enterprise, that's unpredictable. To the extent that Iraq falls apart as a state it's hard to imagine how the state enterprises could exist anymore. Oil, again, is a big question. Who owns the oil? How's it going to be exploited if Iraq disintegrates into chaos? As for democracy, there's very little sign that the country is moving in that direction.

What direction is the country moving in?

Well, if it's not moving in a truly anarchic direction then in some sort of dictatorial direction—a police state or something like that. It's impossible to say at this point. Corruption is really turning into a huge problem in the Allawi government. It's in no sense an open democratic society that's being born here.

Do you see any hope for the situation?

There probably is no salvation. I think the United States is going to be badly punished for this mistake. For the United States, salvation lies in learning from the mistake, in looking at it clearly and being honest about it. We need to avoid scapegoating people, and to recognize that we must not make such a mistake again, because we went fundamentally wrong here as a system.

Is there salvation for Iraq? All I can say is that time cures all. Iraq will almost certainly go through a long period of trouble. What it emerges as on the other side of that trouble is unknown and unknowable. My mind turns to Lebanon. I guess Lebanon is doing much better now. And for people in Lebanon, life is better. It's not exactly what it was before. It's not exactly a place to be envied or emulated, but it has found a kind of peace. Ultimately, no matter what happens to Iraq over the next five or ten years, there's going to be something else on the far side. Some kind of stability will emerge. Maybe it will no longer be Iraq. Maybe there will be two or three countries.

The terrible thing is that so many Iraqis are such extremely decent people. It's the curse of being born into a certain place at a certain time. We all ride our time in history. One of the big problems is the Americans believed that the fact that they're powerful and rich is an indication that they're right. They discount the happenstance of history. And the same waves that Americans ride to prosperity and power, other people ride to utter trouble in their lives, like the Iraqis. It's a sad thing. The one thing that many Americans in Iraq have discovered is that individual Iraqis are extremely competent people. They're just as competent as any American, and as sophisticated and subtle in their thinking. But that doesn't solve the problem.

You mentioned earlier the idea that salvation doesn't lie in electing Kerry in November.

That's true. But I would also say that what's happened in Iraq has been a colossal failure of presidential leadership. It's just mindboggling to anyone who's spending time in Iraq to conceive that any American back in the United States could possibly think that Iraq has been any kind of success.

Both the left and the right were involved in getting us into this. But the captain of the ship that has run aground must be relieved of his command. This is an absolutely crucial corrective action. The blunder of Iraq is absolutely serious enough to require his removal. I feel like I—like we all—have a political responsibility to do all we can at this stage to fight this guy out of the White House.

Have you become more politicized in the last few years? I sense that you talk more about politics than you used to.

Yes, I have—ever since 9/11. Because I think that the United States has reacted so poorly to it. I think the United States is looking at its end. I come from a German family. I know what it's like to be in a society that, in its genes, self-destructs. I know that our individual responsibility is not to be silent, but to go down having said, "This is wrong."

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