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April 7, 2008
Buying Off the Neighbors
Mood:  a-ok
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
The Green Zone was a temporary place. Most people passed through for short tours of only a few months, and only a handful lasted more than a year. Occasionally, a person would do a two-year tour, and a rare few seemed determined to see the war through to its end. These were the old-timers of the Green Zone. Old-timers had the best stories. They could tell stories of hundreds of Iraqis storming into the Green Zone and protesting in the streets, demanding that the Americans go home. They told stories of driving themselves through the Red Zone before the arrival of the mercenaries. Some of them actually had Iraqi friends whom they visited before the concrete blast wall encircled the Zone. Every one of them had a good story to tell, if someone would only stop to listen.

On a sunny May afternoon, while wandering through the food court at the Palace PX, I ran across an old-timer who had arrived in Iraq three months after the U.S. military captured Baghdad. He had come straight out of college and brought his heartfelt and headstrong determination to change Iraq. He worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in the Palace when he arrived, and eventually switched over to the U.S. Embassy once the Coalition Provisional Authority fizzled away. In the early days of the occupation, he had almost unlimited authority, though he slowly lost that power as the bureaucracy continued to grow in Baghdad and more and more senior foreign service officers began to rotate through the Zone. With each passing wave, this old-timer found himself pushed further and further down the ladder. When I met him, he stood on one of the lowest rungs and had decided it was time to go home.

He was enjoying a coffee from the Green Zone’s newly opened coffee and cappuccino bar, and I had just purchased a Chicken Royale from Burger King. I vaguely remembered seeing him at one of my parties, but he clearly remembered me. He cleared off the plastic lawn chair where he had placed his book bag and offered it up to me. I gladly took it and began to quickly eat my food. I let him do most of the talking, which he wanted to do, because he was leaving in a few weeks. He wanted to explain what he had seen and somehow come to terms with everything that had happened.

To him, the American power structure in the Zone was a blind and many-headed monster lumbering forward because it didn’t know where else to go. He told me about the sheer number of surreal experiences he’d had and how no one could control the occupation. He kept alluding to “crazy” and “unbelievable” stories. He mentioned some of the common rumors of the Green Zone, such as mercenaries being caught with suitcases full of money at the airport and newly minted Iraqi millionaires living in Amman, but none of that was new to me. I pressed him to give me something original.

He took a deep swig of his cappuccino and told me a story from the early days of the occupation, when the Coalition Provisional Authority had tried to recreate Iraq as a neocon vision of America. Things were going badly in late 2004. The Iraqis didn’t seem interested in America’s vision, and with each passing day, the country grew more and more violent. The bad guys had begun to attack American convoys and behead anyone they caught working with the Americans. Every day, insurgents were setting up mortars and rocket launchers across from the Palace and taking wild shots toward the Green Zone in hopes of killing a few Americans. The Westerners living in the Zone were reaching a break point. If they couldn’t save Iraq, at the very least they wanted to make sure they survived their tours.

To bring peace and stability to the Green Zone, the leaders of the occupation decided to issue grants to the communities surrounding the Palace in hopes of fostering economic growth. Publicly, they said that helping local Iraqi leaders committed to democracy would teach Iraqis that violence was not the answer. Privately, they hoped to buy off all the local leaders so they would side with the Americans and push out the insurgents who were shooting at the Palace. Officially, the grants would be awarded for schools, public utilities, and other high-minded projects, but the Americans would not ask a lot of questions. No one would go back and check on the progress of the projects funded by the grants.

When this man I met at the coffee shop went to pick up a briefcase holding $2 million that the Coalition Provisional Authority had set aside for the grant program, he decided to get a little bit more bang for his buck. He knew that although the Iraqi government had officially pegged the Iraqi dinar to the U.S. dollar, he could obtain a much more favorable exchange rate on the black market. Thus, he made some connections with local Iraqis who had connections to the darker underside of Baghdad. These shadowy Iraqis exchanged his $2 million for $2.2 million worth of Iraqi dinars, and he doled out the money to the Iraqi community leaders who lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the Palace.

When he returned to the controller’s office inside the Green Zone, the young man had a slight bead of perspiration rolling down his forehead. He had collected proper receipts and supporting documents to back up every penny of the $2.2 million, yet he knew that the controller would ask why there were receipts totaling $2.2 million for a $2.0 million disbursement. However, the controller had a much more surprising question. According to the official records, the U.S. government had only handed him $1 million. The young man argued with the controller, trying to explain what had happened, but the controller wouldn’t listen. In the end, the controller only accepted $1 million worth of receipts.

Sitting in front of the coffee and cappuccino shop nearly a year later, the young man had a dumbfounded look on his face. He could have been a millionaire, if he’d only known that the U.S. government didn’t know how to balance its checkbook.

Posted by alohafromtim at 1:23 PM EDT
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