Sunday, May 11, 2008

Exit Strategy?

I have personally been shock and awed in the last few weeks by some incredulous plans for post-war Baghdad recently publish in the press. I’m not sure that the satirical newspaper the Onion could have come up with better headlines than these:

Disneyland’ Comes to Baghdad with Multi-Million Pound Entertainment Park"
US-backed plan sees shiny future for embattled Green Zone,
whose opening line goes a little something like this: “Forget the rocket attacks, concrete blast walls and lack of a sewer system. Now try to imagine luxury hotels, a shopping center and even condos in the heart of Baghdad.”

Now I have to admit I do not know much about the current situation in Iraq, but these plans are troubling for a couple of reasons. First, should the US even be involved in these types of development ventures to begin with? Perhaps we should be finding ways to enable the Iraqis to rebuild their city themselves through financial investment and aid. This seems both overly patronizing and opportunistic (but I guess the entire Iraq war seems that way, huh?). Something made very clear in the Disneyland article when Llewellyn Werner, the chairman of C3, the company developing the new amusement park, states that “Iraq to me is an open field. I have never in my life seen an opportunity with the potential that Iraq has with its skilled workforce and oil reserves.”

Secondly, it is disgusting to me that the US military’s urban planners are presenting these developer friendly, lack of vision, no talent, utterly banal urban plans as a potential future for Baghdad. If you want to send people an uplifting message about the future of Baghdad couldn’t you at least make it beautiful? I mean, if you are going to completely ignore the fact that this city has been under siege for five years, that there are serious infrastructure and community building issues to deal with, at least try to give them some hope. Instead you have some bad version of Universal City Walk. Heck, I’d love it if they had gotten Jon Jerde to do this plan—at least he would have done something with more vision. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but you know what I mean.

The problem to me, which is something that seems to come up on this page over and over again, I’m realizing, is that the plan does not even remotely respond to the problems of post-war inhabitation or Iraq’s traditional urban structure: the traditional forms of public space and the way people use public space. It does not attempt to relate itself to the traditional urban fabric of Baghdad, and it appears to disregard the local climatic and geographic context as well. And while I am not a proponent of mimicking existing conditions and am well aware of both the need and the difficulty of introducing new forms of urbanity in traditional cities, this plan does not seem to address either issue in any seriousness. It looks like an ex-pat friendly bar area for diplomats and their families to hang out in and avoid the reality of Iraq (much like the suburban villa communities we have here in Beijing). If the world really is flattening like Friedman suggests, one-size-fits-all strategies such as this are contributing to the cause.

Another disconcerting issue about the two articles is the constant reference to “influence”: don’t you think the Iraqi’s have had enough of US’ influence at this stage? But Navy Capt. Thomas Karnowski brings up the idea twice in the article on the Green Zone. First he states that "When you have $1 billion hanging out there and 1,000 employees lying around, you kind of want to know who your neighbors are. You want to influence what happens in your neighborhood over time.” Later he brings it up again: "Why do people build fences around their house? The intent is until such time as it's much safer around here, you want to be able to influence what goes on." This comes up again in the Disneyland article when Werner states “The people need this kind of positive influence. It’s going to have a huge psychological impact.” Why do have visions of Iraqis wondering around the Magic Kingdom with glazed eyes in a sugar-coated trance a la Clockwork Orange?

I recently found a very good blog by an Iraqi citizen known as Mohammed sharing his experiences of living in war torn Baghdad. I want to share a quote from Mohammed that sums up what I am trying to say in a much better way than I ever could:

My country is being destroyed in every possible way, corruption is wherever you turn your head, even the land of Iraq is suffering, everything beautiful in Iraq is being killed, Iraq is dying and most of them are watching him struggling death while they say to their selves "no, it's not, everything will be good, the future will be bright and everything will settle, sacrifices must be done…..blah blah blah" what more should we sacrifice? We sacrificed our land and soil, we sacrificed our dignity and we sacrificed our children, men and women, we sacrificed our homes and left it to thugs to steal it while we were forced to live as refugees, now it's the dream and the ultimate wish for the Iraqi to be a refugee in any country, we sacrificed our careers, we sacrificed our professors, scientists and doctors, we sacrificed everything, Iraqis lost everything and till this moment there is no real light at the end of the tunnel.

To end, I think I will finish with a quote from Air Force Lt. Col. Monte Harner about the plan for Baghdad. Although he meant it as a positive affirmation of the military’s proposal, I think it can also be read as a damning critique: "You have to stake a goal in the sand before you can begin to move toward it," he said. "Without a vision of what could be, you're just treading water."

PRC friendly links:
Last of the Iraqis
Disneyland Article

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