Copernicus of the Midnight Court recently described Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City as “stomach-churningly unsurprising”. I concur with the stomach-churning descrition, but, perhaps due to naivety on my part, I managed to be surprised now and then by just how badly organised the American (or “coalition”, if you will) occupation of Iraq turned out to be. Like the work of another fine American journalist, Mark Danner, Chandrasekaran’s book confirms all your worst fears within the first page or two, before getting down to the real business of showing you that things were far worse than you’d ever imagined.
It is not true to say that the Emerald City (Baghdad’s “Green Zone”) comes across as a place where nobody knows what they’re doing. Occasionally the reader is introduced to a well-meaning and well-qualified individual with multiple degrees, long experience in the public and private sector, experience in post-conflict situations, a good knowledge of the Middle East and perhaps even a smattering of Arabic. Chandrasekaran’s listing of such qualifications is soon recognised by the reader as a prelude to the shafting of this well-qualified staffer in favour of a more politically connected dimwit, or to a tortuous tale of a fool’s errand, in which our hero is asked to rebuild a nation with no staff, no money, and other bureaucrats actively working against him. As a rule of thumb, the more important the task and the more impressive the person doing it, the less interest, support or funding was forthcoming from higher up in the bureaucracy.
“Francis Hope’s mother once had a dream about [British Labour politician] Richard Crossman,” Alan Watkins recalled. “She was seated in a dentist’s chair and he, attired in a white coat, was about to attend to her teeth.
“‘Don’t be silly, Dick,’ she said. ‘You know you’re not a dentist.’ ‘I know I’m not, you fool,’ Crossman replied, ‘but I can work it out quite easily from first principles.’
What most struck me about this tragicomic nightmare was not the sheer corruption, though that is quite breathtaking its self, but the role played in the disaster by the corporate, management consultant ethos (needless to say the place was crawling with consultants). The management consultant mindset starts out from the proposition that management is a science. From there, it proceeds to the assumption that knowing anything about what your organisation is supposed to be doing is unnecessary. Thus the man tasked with setting up an entirely new third level system in Iraq justifies his complete ignorance of the country and his failure to remedy this ignorance by saying that he doesn’t want to come to Iraq with preconceptions. An open mind, or an empty one, same diff, right? On the staff of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) was a 24-year old who’d never had a job before. He was tasked with setting up a new stock exchange – a quixotic task in a country with no proper hospitals,undrinkable water and only sporadic electrical supplies. A contractor with no experience in the area was given millions of dollars to set up a national broadcaster. Former Republican Senate interns, many not yet graduated, were turning up for interviews in their one and only suit and being put in charge of millions of dollars of the budget, their CVs sight unseen.
Meanwhile, everyone in the Green Zone seemed to spend their time writing memos, creating spreadsheets and (especially) putting together powerpoint presentations. I worked in public sector management services myself for a few years, and the mood of industrious self-delusion amongst the staffers was not unfamiliar to me. Keep in close, avoid the big picture, and you can start to believe in it. Key Deliverables and Project Milestone Indicators can become almost tangible things. Pull the focus out a little, return one’s gaze to whatever is happening outside of your organisation’s own little Green Zone, and you remember, not without a certain sense of disillusionment, that the staff in your Carlow branch or the Achill Island sub-office don’t give a crap about Mission Statements or Core Competency Development. The temptation to scurry back to the emerald city and continue with another spreadsheet is understandable, and it’s not particularly difficult to do in most organizations. But when the missiles flying outside are real and not metaphorical, it takes a degree of denial bordering on insanity.