10/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Great Text for Reformers

Anyone who believes that the United States can march into a country, topple its regime, and build a prosperous democracy, ought to read, study and read again Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The book is a very close-quarter account of the first year of the American administration of Iraq. It does not lay out any development theory or make sociological generalizations. It does much better. It provides a detailed account of the numerous mistakes the US made, one on top of the other.

Some are peculiar to the Bush administration and can be relatively readily corrected, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in any other place the US is engaged in "reconstruction." Others are much more endemic and congenital. Together they agitate against any notion that if the "richest nation in the world" just put its mind to it, it could economically and politically develop any country as different from the US as the nations at issue.

Before I proceed, it is important to understand the way the book works. It provides, back-to-back, scores of brief case studies and lets readers draw their own conclusions. Here is one that will have to stand for all the others: Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi health care system was in a dire state. Hospitals -- which were looted -- lacked the most basic medical equipment, they had no sterile instruments, and their pharmacies where bare. The Americans assigned the process of rehabilitation to the highly qualified Dr. Frederick Burkle, Jr., an expert in post-conflict health crises. But a week after Baghdad's liberation, he was replaced; the White House wanted a Republican "loyalist" to take the position. The replacement was James Haveman, Jr., a man a community health director from Michigan with no medical degree and no post-conflict experience.

In the time between Burkle's dismissal and Haveman's arrival, the job was handed Steve Browning, a Army Corps of Engineers specialist. He drew up a list of urgent priorities: clean drinking water, getting needed drug and medical supplies, and finding ways to ship them to hospitals. He ordered the purchase of new generators for every major hospital in Iraq.

When Haveman arrived, he set his own priorities. He approached health care in Iraq the way administrators do in America; he focused on preventative measures to reduce the need for hospital treatment, like starting an anti-smoking campaign, and dedicated almost all the Health Ministry funds renovating maternity hospitals and opening community clinics. None of this addressed Iraq's main public health challenge: injuries from insurgent attacks.

Every few pages in the book contain another such an account which makes you want to scream in disbelief and deep regret, although some of the idiocies are so extreme that they give the reader some comic relief -- as when the Iraqis got around absurd American orders by mistranslating them. Or when an American gained the cooperation of another recalcitrant American on the condition that he would be provided with a mirror so he could watch himself having sex with his Iraqi girl friend.

It is easier to correct mistakes -- if the US is going to engage in forced regime change in the first place -- and to try to develop a nation if one recruits staff that is qualified and experienced and not chosen -- as was the case in Iraq -- on the basis of the role they played in Bush election campaign and their commitment to fundamentalist religious values, especially opposition to abortion rights.

Never again should the US draw on a staff in which practically nobody speaks Arabic, and next to no one is familiar with the local culture and habits, or even understands the importance of such knowledge.

More difficult to correct is the fact that that various American agencies -- especially the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA -- regarded each other as competitors and interlopers, and would rather trip each other up than collaborate.

Above all, whatever help the US could have given to the economic and political development of Iraq and other such nations was undercut by the foolish notion that the US could fix everything, from changing the traffic laws to the stock exchange, from the way welfare was provided to the way cars were sold, all while hastily redoing the hospitals, schools, courts and everything else that moved. In short, the book's most important message is that we are best off promising much less, spinning off much less ambitious plans, and rebuilding our credibility by delivering for once more than what we promised.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at The George Washington University. For more discussion, see Security First (Yale 2007). To contact him, write