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Bringing a Turbulent Land Into Focus

Editor’s Note: The following is a review of In the Red Zone by Steven Vincent (Spence)
We’ve all heard of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified district in Baghdad where the American embassy is housed and all manner of diplomats, aid-workers and support-staffers live and go about their busy days, assuming the fortifications hold firm.

But what about everything outside the Green Zone’s perimeter? Our sense is that busy days in the Red Zone, as it is called, involve bombs and chaos, violence and fear. But is this portrait true? For a long time I was skeptical of the mainstream media’s reporting, suspecting that it was overly negative about what is going on in Iraq.

I decided to travel to Baghdad recently to see for myself. I met hardened diplomats in the vast government compound of the Green Zone who decline to leave it. And I talked to bitter journalists who languish in such Red Zone hotels as the Sheraton and the Al Hamra–outposts that are walled off and guarded like seraglios but with less exotic appeal. Even if you can afford $1,700 for body armor or $4,000 a day for a pair of security guards–and I could not–terrorist kidnappers, it is true, make the Red Zone an unreasonable peril to a visiting American.

Without Bodyguards

But that is not the whole picture. If media accounts of the dangers to Westerners are all too accurate, other media accounts–of everyday life in today’s Iraq–can’t be trusted. They aren’t necessarily false, just out of focus, disproportionate and incomplete–as if, by analogy, the life of a big American city could be captured by reciting the police blotter.

When I ran out of people who would come to see me at my hotel, I hightailed it up the scary freeway to the airport and came home. But Steven Vincent, the author of “In the Red Zone” (Spence, 240 pages, $27.95) and a free-lance reporter and art critic from New York, flew to Iraq twice, traveled about widely without bodyguards and reported at length. His book is in the great tradition of behind-the-scenes war reports, humanizing the participants of varying backgrounds and prominence–from taxi drivers to shop owners, from tribal leaders to mullahs, from Baathist sympathizers to pro-American policemen–and helping us to understand them in the context of their history, ordeals and dreams.

Mr. Vincent discovers that, regardless of the threats to foreigners, life is improving for the average Iraqi. We have heard of this, but he shows it. Instead of the war driving people into exile, as predicted by the peace party in the West, thousands of Iraqi refugees from Saddam’s days are returning home. They are opening shops and factories and building houses and apartments. Jobs are more and more abundant. More people are buying cars and appliances, crowding narrow streets and straining the capacities of the power grid.

In Shia-dominated Basra, in the south, Iraqis are reworking farms and revitalizing commercial centers after years of Baathist neglect. The economy, of course, also expresses the conditions of the moment. As Mr. Vincent observes, there is an energetic wartime black market. And he discovers “mafia-like gangs comprised of Iranians and Saudis…smuggling oil and dealing drugs.” Public transportation is mostly a riot of free-market taxi operators and street terminals (“garages”), where residents arrange intercity car and bus trips.

In recent days we have read, especially on the Internet, of as many as 156 political parties taking shape in Iraq. Perhaps the number is reliable: Mr. Vincent certainly shows plenty of Iraqis venturing out to organize themselves politically, whatever their security concerns. But he notes, too, that some “parties”–at least at the time of his visits some months ago–are fronts for petty criminals and fixers.

Condescending Visitors

But equally deceptive are the impressions of visiting Western groups, people embarking on what Mr. Vincent calls “pity tours”–singers, artists and activists who visit Baghdad to fret about human-rights violations today while expressing no interest in the infinitely greater crimes of the Saddam era.

The indigenous artists whom Mr. Vincent interviews find the pity tourists condescending, to say the least, and misguided. At the Shahbandar Cafe, near the old covered bazaar, Baghdad’s own bohemians tell him that they are thankful for the liberation of their country, even though some are humiliated that it was imposed rather than achieved by Iraqis themselves. Most admire the Americans. A painter named Essam Pasha Azizawy says of the U.S. servicemen he has met: “They called me ‘Sir’!…Do you know what it’s like for an Iraqi to hear someone in uniform call him ‘sir’?”

Mr. Vincent talks to women’s-rights organizers in Iraq who are surprised that they cannot get attention and support from women’s groups in the West. One local feminist (and socialist) finds herself shunned by an international women’s group–because, apparently, she embraced the American overthrow of Saddam. The more militant members of the Western left, writes Mr. Vincent, “rarely describe the U.S. liberations of Afghanistan and Iraq as pro-feminist.” Indeed, they seem “incapable of denouncing even the most egregious foreign customs or conceding that sometimes America has a better way.”

Sophisticated Citizens

One does wish that, in addition to presenting such compelling characters, Mr. Vincent had interviewed some of Iraq’s new Internet bloggers and broadcast personalities, and maybe more of Iraq’s emerging political candidates. One wishes as well that he had spared us the sentimental account of his flirtation with a young woman in Basra.

But overall “In the Red Zone” has a tonic effect, renewing our sense of Iraq and its citizens and reminding us that we have much more to learn about the intricacies of Iraq’s religious factions and tribes and about the layers of sophistication among its citizens. As the country approaches its first true elections, Mr. Vincent’s book shows us a people who still don’t fully understand democracy but who desperately want to acquire it. Your heart goes out to them.

Mr. Chapman, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, is president of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Wash.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.