Friday, September 29, 2006

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’ll take a look at the state of the Bush administration’s plans to rebuild Iraq. By his own count, our next guest spent more time in Iraq during the first fifteen months of U.S. occupation than almost any other print reporter. He’s written a new book about that period. It’s a behind-the-scenes account for the US occupation authority that’s run the country from Saddam Hussein’s old palatial grounds. The book is called Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. It’s by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is the Assistant Managing Editor of the Washington Post, former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad. I spoke to him earlier this week from Salt Lake City and asked him to describe imperial life inside the emerald city.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: This is a book that attempts to shine a light on a whole other set of fiascos in the American effort to occupy Iraq. You know, we all know now about the disastrous consequences of failing to send enough troops there to stabilize Iraq after the U.S. invasion, the Pentagon's failure to anticipate the growth of the insurgency.

But what I write about is the whole other litany of mistakes that were made by American civilians who were there, from Ambassador Paul Bremer on down. It’s a series of what I think are blood-curdling stories: the people who showed up in Iraq, a country with 40-50 percent unemployment, and said, ‘Hey, this place needs a flat tax. It needs tariff reduction. It needs all sorts of other neoconservative economic solutions. It needs all of its government-run industries to be privatized’; the people who showed up and said, ‘There are traffic jams here. We’re going to fix that by giving them a new traffic law’; the people who showed up and said, ‘They need new intellectual property laws. They need new laws governing the types of seeds their farmers can plant’; the sort of crazy micromanagement that took place there.

Meanwhile, the more important tasks of actually rebuilding the country, of trying to find sustainable ways to increase electricity generation, to rebuild shattered hospitals and schools, to provide clean drinking water. All of those vastly more important tasks were sort of relegated, because the folks who came there saw Iraq as a terrarium for a number of neoconservative policies that they were never able to implement here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Rajiv, before we talk about the individuals and what their expertise was or wasn't in the areas they were in control of, you start off the book with a very devastating picture of the Green Zone, what’s going on inside, who’s there, just the images of the palaces and how they're being used. Can you describe that for us?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Sure, Amy. The Green Zone was Baghdad’s “Little America.” This, of course, as many of your viewers and listeners know, is the American bubble in the center of Baghdad. It was the headquarters of the American Occupation Authority and still is home to the American embassy and many other U.S. government agencies that have operations in Iraq.

But I write about the really wacky world inside there. You know, this is a place -- Iraq is a Muslim country, and what did they serve in the dining hall, the Halliburton food contractors, what did they serve? They served pork bacon for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, porkchops for dinner. There were many Iraqi Muslims that also ate there. They worked as translators and as janitors in the palace and other parts of the Green Zone, and they were subjected to eating food from the same buffet, even though they found the pork products also served there to be incredibly offensive. When they complained, Halliburton sort of brushed aside their concerns. Cultural sensitivity, well, you know, so what? It was more important to meet American needs, to serve them high-fat comfort food.

But it wasn’t just the food. There were no fewer than six bars set up there. There was a disco at the Al-Rashid Hotel. There were Bible study classes, salsa dancing classes, two Chinese restaurants, a café. Halliburton brought in scores of brand new Chevy Suburbans, which people would drive around on flat wide streets. They even had a radio station in there, Amy. 107.7 FM, Freedom Radio, which would mix classic rock and “rah-rah, we’re winning the war” messages.

AMY GOODMAN: Rajiv, how did James Haveman come to oversee the rehabilitation of Iraq's healthcare system?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Amy, it's a fascinating story, and again, I try to detail this in the book. The first guy who was assigned to help rebuild Iraq's health sector was named Skip Burkle. And Skip is physician. He has a Master's degree in public health. He has four postgraduate degrees. He teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. He had worked in Kosovo, in Somalia and in Northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. He also was employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and a USAID colleague called him the single most talented post-conflict public health specialist in the U.S. government. But a few weeks after the fall of Saddam's government, Mr. Burkle was informed by an email from a superior at USAID that he was being replaced. He was told that the White House wanted, quote/unquote, "a loyalist" in the job. And I write in the book that Burkle had a wall of degrees, but he didn't have a picture with the President.

In his place was sent Jim Haveman. Jim Haveman does not have a medical degree. He was a social worker, and he was the former Director of Community Health in the State of Michigan. Prior to his stint in government, he had a little bit of international experience, but it was largely in the context of being a director for International Aid, a faith-based relief organization that promotes Christianity in the developing world in conjunction with development assistance. And prior to that, he headed up a large adoption agency in the State of Michigan that urges pregnant women not to have abortions.

Well, Haveman showed up, and his view was that, look, Iraq didn’t need a huge infusion of money to rebuild its hospitals, even though I and other people who have been to Iraqi hospitals have seen them to be thoroughly decrepit and really, you know, in need of an overhaul, and particularly with the violence that’s wracking that country today and the number of injured from insurgent attacks. You would think that really putting resources toward rebuilding emergency rooms would be a top priority.

Instead, Haveman devoted resources to other projects. One of them, as I detail in the book, was rewriting the list of drugs Iraq's government would import for hospitals. Why did he choose to do this? Well, he had done it in Michigan, and he had saved millions of dollars for the state in Michigan by forcing Medicare providers to buy drugs off a formulary. So he thought this would make sense to do in Baghdad, and it would be a good first step before trying to eventually sell off the state agency that imports drugs. He was aghast at the notion that medical care was free in Iraq, and in fact even sought to impose something of a co-pay system for Iraqis before they visited doctors and hospitals

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