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
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As the June 28 transition to sovereignty in Iraq recedes farther into the past, it becomes more difficult to remember that before Prime Minister Allawi came calling on Congress, there was an American-led government in power, known as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Staffed with ideologues, eager young graduates, and those looking for a challenge, it was charged with running the country until such time as a handover of power could occur. CPA-run ministries (with Iraqi counterparts) addressed every conceivable social need, from education to irrigation.

The home base for these various government bureaus was a cordoned-off area in the middle of the Baghdad known as the Green Zone. Green grass, public buses, electricity, and American area codes rendered the zone a "little America" in the midst of Iraq. Just over the perimeter wall, on the other hand, was Baghdad, in all its anarchic chaos of lawless highways, car bombs, blackouts, mortar attacks and endless military convoys.

In his new cover story for The Atlantic, William Langewiesche who has lived outside the Green Zone in Baghdad off and on since March, describes the extent of the Americans' isolation in Iraq, and suggests that that isolation may have contributed as much to our failures there as did the well-documented lack of planning for postwar realities. In the beginning, Langewiesche recounts, Westerners ventured out of the Green Zone with some frequency, going to cafés, meeting with Iraqis, and even taking trips into the rest of the country. But as the occupation progressed, engagement with Iraq diminished as a priority, and safety became paramount.

The result, he explains, was a growing sense of division and hostility:

On the outside were the Arab Iraqis, who after decades of totalitarian rule were overwhelmingly insecure, distrustful, and opportunistic. On the inside were the Americans, who if anything were too secure—spoiled by wealth and national power, self-convinced, and softened by the promise and possibility of safe lives.

As Baghdad became increasingly dangerous for Americans, restrictions on movement outside the Green Zone grew. By spring, leaving the Green Zone was difficult, even if one had the desire to do so:

You were supposed to have a reason for going into Baghdad or beyond, and to travel only in multi-vehicle armored convoys with armed guards. In other words, you were supposed to mount an expedition. And why bother? A more prudent choice was to stay in the zone and require the Iraqis to come to you if for some rare reason you needed to deal with them face-to-face.

Having spent time with the military in Bosnia, and seen the deleterious effect of our country's commitment to ensuring the safety of its people above any other goal, Langewiesche suggests that there is something distinctly American about our self-defeating decision to so thoroughly isolate ourselves in Iraq. "In practice," he notes, "the CPA was a broad American construct, and for better or worse it functioned as a piece of ourselves."

William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for the Atlantic. His most recent book is The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime.

We spoke on September 24.

Elizabeth Shelburne


The way you live in Baghdad sounds very different from the way people in the Green Zone live. Can you describe what your life is like there—where your house is, how you found it, how you get food, what you do during the days?

Things are changing all the time in Baghdad. So almost anything I say about how things are will not be true in a week. This has been going on since the invasion—things are steadily getting worse, never better. The only non-Iraqi foreigners who are allowed to live in the Green Zone are either American government employees or contractors—the people who work for companies that have big contracts with the U.S. government. Independent businessmen and the press are not allowed to live in the Green zone. So I live the way other people who are not associated with the government live, which is out in the city.

When I first got there I lived in a hotel. But as the situation got worse, it became obvious to me that the security of the hotel was something of a joke. I wasn't much concerned about rocket attacks, because rockets don't make a very big hole. I mean, it has to be your unlucky day if one comes into your room. But I wasn't staying in one of the highly fortified hotels where much of the Western media lives. And it became clear to me that if anyone wanted to waltz into my hotel and mount an attack, they could do it with no problem. So I thought it would be wise to get out. Through connections I found a house in the city, which I rent. It's a fortified house and it's been further fortified by me and by The Atlantic. It's in a nondescript neighborhood that's neither upper class nor a slum. It's a mixed industrial-residential area on the other side of the river from the Green Zone. So far it's been good.

In the spring there were two rockets that fell into my street and blew out the doors and windows. But the house was clearly not targeted. There are rockets and mortars flying every night and the aim is poor. I can often hear firefights at night, sometimes quite close. Sometimes it's just a few shots; other times it's sustained exchanges. There are also mortars and bombs. You learn to distinguish between the various sounds—AK-47s pointed toward you, versus AK-47s pointed away from you, and mortars versus car bombs, which make a much bigger explosion.

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.

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?

Had they not been there I'm sure things would be much worse than they are. They shot down many of the really stupid proposals. They did leave some sort of hopeful legacy, at least in the short term, of the possibility of elections or of some kind of operational constitutional framework. If in the long term, they did not leave a legacy, that's not their fault. It's the power of history that will have overcome them.

As you prepare to head back to Baghdad, how worried are you about the recent abductions and beheadings of contractors from their homes?

I'm very worried about it. It would be foolish not to be worried about the danger and lack of safety in the streets. It's extremely dangerous to be in Iraq right now for a Westerner not in the Green Zone. Psychologically it's always been difficult coming in and going out. It's like the heat there; it takes about a week after you go in to get used to it again. I would hate to say I'm not worried and then get killed and have people say "What a dummy." I am worried about it, and I take every possible precaution, and it's a tense situation.

When you first went into Iraq, you didn't fly in. Didn't you come in overland?

Yeah, I came in through Turkey and overland from Kurdistan. At the time there was no way to fly in. Government people were coming in on C-130s from Kuwait, but for other people, it was very difficult to do. The road from Oman was extremely dangerous, so the safest way to get into the country was the long way, which was through Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish part of Turkey. The route was Istanbul to Diyarbakir, then from Diyarbakir by taxi to the Iraq border, and then by car or taxi south to Baghdad. Typically it was about a three-day trip from Europe.

Was it dangerous for you to be seen at that time? Were you able to sit up in the front seat, or were you hidden in the back?

When I first went in it was relatively safe. By the time I left, which was by the same route, it was getting really dangerous. Now it's really, really dangerous. Iraqis have no problem doing it. It's a little unsafe for them. But as a Westerner, in a non-convoy, non-militarized car—an individual car—you're taking very serious risks of being kidnapped. When I left the last time going north by that road I had a feeling that it was at the edge of what was an acceptable level of danger. I had some confrontations going north. There was a firefight that erupted to my right at one point, and there were some problems on the road, including exhortations to kill Americans. So it was tense. There were a lot of roadblocks. The roadblocks were frightening and still are because you really don't know whether they're set up by people who can be trusted. Even the new Iraqi security forces are not necessarily to be trusted. Betrayal is a constant concern.

So now I go the other way. Royal Jordanian is running these little flights that come in from Oman. There are at least two a day. They're very expensive, and they're packed with all these strange people, because the only people who want to go to Iraq these days are kind of strange. They're either mercenaries of one kind or another, security people, who seem to make up the majority, or they're hard-bitten journalist types. Sometimes they're government employees. The pilots are South Africans and they fly these beat up old Fokker 28s, these small jets. Everyone's luggage is heavy with body armor and stuff like that, and the planes can't carry it all, so they have to leave some of it behind and put it on other flights or truck it in. The funny thing about the flights is they have flight attendants—these pretty girls who act like we're going on vacation to the Caribbean or something. They're trying to be real, regular flight attendants, and they offer safety advice about putting on seat belts. But you're going to Baghdad, so why bother? They say, "We'd like to thank you for flying. Have a great day, the temperature is so and so degrees, have a wonderful stay in Baghdad. Thank you for your business; we know you have a choice in airlines." Actually, I don't think they say that. Anyway, there's this veneer of normality to that flight, and yet the fundamental thing is that it's completely abnormal.

It's a short flight and then you land and you're in this weird airport. It's a giant airport terminal in typical totalitarian style—very modern. And nothing's there. It's not served by many flights, just a couple little air-share charity charter flights and these Royal Jordanian planes. So you wander through this huge empty terminal, you go outside, and immediately you're in the pistol-carrying, automatic weapon-carrying world of Baghdad.

The airport, Baghdad international, is actually this huge military base. And it seems to me, and to many people, that it's where the coalition and the CPA and the State Department should have based themselves instead of in the middle of the city. It's a few miles to the west, and it would have been much less obtrusive and very secure.

So you're in the middle of this huge military base, and you have to take a bus to the edge of it, to a checkpoint—a very typical military checkpoint with Bradleys and tanks and soldiers all over the place. That's where you get your ride into town. You drive down this road; it's a divided road that goes into town by a highway. It's well known to be dangerous, because it's the country's main artery right now to the outside. So attacks happen there all the time.

How are the military guys you've met in Iraq different from the ones you profiled in your Bosnia piece?

They're the same people. I was writing about the Third Infantry Division in Bosnia, so these are literally the same people. With the difference that Iraq has turned into a nasty, deeply frustrating situation for the military. I think there's a feeling among many of the guys that they're being used as canon fodder by the American political system, which they are. They're put in a situation where they have to just sit there until someone shoots at them and then they can shoot back but they don't really know where to shoot back. It's a battlefield of confusion. There are exceptions to that, of course. There are the house-to-house searches—the Fallujah- and Sadr City-type stuff where it's more like a traditional fight with particularly nasty urban warfare. But for most of the guys that's not what Iraq is. Iraq is just sitting around for endless, endless months and basically waiting for somebody to take a shot at them. It's not exactly relaxing. As I say in the piece, once I strip all the equipment off of them they're the most human, ordinary, wonderful American guys—not particularly aggressively macho—and they often maintain a deep humanity. It's surprising how many have not been dehumanized by this experience. They think about Iraq and the United States, and about the American political structure. These guys are capable of quite sophisticated thought and they exercise it a lot. Strip the uniforms and the body armor away, engage in a real conversation, and you find lots of thoughtful, frustrated, often somewhat angry people.

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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