• Inside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad

    June 20, 2014

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq

    As the U.S. “relocates” personnel (it’s not an “evacuation”) out of the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad, it is valuable to look at that one billion dollar monument to American hubris.

    Though likely tens of thousands of people have been inside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and a great many of them have scattered photos of the place across the social media landscape, actual official photos of the embassy have been limited to a handle of narrow views. The stated reason for all this is “security.”

    Of course a simple Google search will reveal many images; there even were 3-D model of the place online.

    Still, what has been missing is a really nice color shot of the lawn. We have that now, posted online by someone:



    There is a very interesting backstory to that nice lawn you see pictured above. If you’ve read my book about Iraq, We Meant Well, you may already know the story:

    The World’s Biggest Embassy (104 acres, 22 buildings, thousands of staff, a $116 million vehicle inventory), physically larger than the Vatican, was a sign of our commitment to Iraq, at least our commitment to excess. “Along with the Great Wall of China,” said the ambassador, Chris Hill at the time, “the Baghdad Embassy is one of those things you can see with the naked eye from outer space.” The newly-opened embassy was made up of large office buildings, the main one built around a four-story atrium, with overhead lights that resembled sails. If someone told us there was a Bath and Body Works in there, we would not have thought it odd. The embassy itself, including juicy cost overruns, cost the American taxpayer about one billion dollars.

    The World’s Biggest Embassy sat in, or perhaps defined, the Green Zone. Called the Emerald City by some, the Green Zone represented the World’s Largest Public Relations Failure. In the process of deposing Saddam, we placed our new seat of power right on top of his old one, just as the ancient Sumerians built their strongholds on top of fallen ones out in the desert. In addition to the new buildings, Saddam’s old palaces in the Zone were repurposed as offices, and Saddam’s old jails became our new jails. Conveniently for Iraqis, the overlords might have changed, but the address had not. The place you went to visit political prisoners who opposed Saddam was still the place you went to look for relatives who opposed the Americans.

    The new Embassy compound isolated American leadership at first physically, and, soon after, mentally as well. The air of otherworldliness started right with the design of the place. American architects had planned for the Embassy grounds to have all sorts of trees, grassy areas and outdoor benches; the original drawings made it look like a leafy college campus. For a place in the desert, the design could not have been more impractical. But in 2003, no projection into the future was too outlandish. One building at the compound was purpose-built to be the international school to educate the diplomats’ happy children who accompanied their parents on assignment. It was now used only for offices. Each embassy apartment offered a full-size American range, refrigerator, and dishwasher, as if staffers might someday take their families to shop at a future Baghdad Safeway like they do in Seoul or Brussels. In fact, all food was trucked in directly from Kuwait, along with American office supplies, souvenir mugs, and T-shirts (“My father was assigned to Embassy Baghdad and all I got was…”, “I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel”) and embassy staff were prohibited from buying anything to eat locally. The Embassy generated its own electricity, purified its own water from the nearby Tigris and processed its own sewage, hermetically sealed off from Iraq.

    The ambassador, who fancied himself a sportsman, ordered grass to grow on the large sandy area in front of the main Embassy building, a spot at one time designated as a helicopter landing zone, since relocated. Gardeners brought in tons of dirt and planted grass seed. A nearly endless amount of water was used, but despite clear orders to do so, the grass would not grow. Huge flocks of birds arrived. The birds had never seen so much seed on the ground in one place and ate passionately. No grass grew. The ambassador would not admit defeat. He ordered sod be imported into Kuwait, and then brought by armored convoy to the embassy. No one confessed to what it cost to import, but estimates varied between two and five million dollars. The sod was put down and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water were used to make it live in what was practically a crime against nature. Whole job positions existed to hydrate and tend the grass. No matter what Iraq and nature wanted, the American Embassy spent whatever it took to have green grass in the desert. Later full grown palm trees were trucked in and planted to line the grassy square.

    We made things in Iraq look the way we wanted them to look, water shortages throughout the rest of Iraq be dammed. The grass was the perfect allegory for the whole war.

    BONUS: Long-time friend of the blog Rich submitted this poem by Carl Sandburg as a coda to the green grass of the Baghdad Embassy:


    Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
    Shovel them under and let me work—
    I am the grass; I cover all.


    And pile them high at Gettysburg
    And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
    Shovel them under and let me work.
    Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

    What place is this?

    Where are we now?

    I am the grass.
    Let me work.




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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...

      1

      Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
      Shovel them under and let me work—

      I am the grass; I cover all.

      And pile them high at Gettysburg
      And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
      Shovel them under and let me work.

      Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

      What place is this?

      Where are we now?

      I am the grass.

      Let me work.

      06/20/14 12:35 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      2

      Think growing grass in the desert is weird, that’s nothing compared to today’s news:

      http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/middle-east/Iran-says-Obama-lacks-will-to-combat-terrorism-in-Iraq/articleshow/36889862.cms

      06/20/14 12:38 PM | Comment Link

    • john brown said...

      3

      Here’s a 2007 proposed solution to U.S. Embassy Baghdad: https://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/06/11/1803

      06/20/14 12:54 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...

      4

      From one of the linked sites..in 2007:

      quote”It may already be the last piece of ground (excepting those other bases) that the United States, surge or no, can actually claim to fully occupy and control in Iraq — and yet it already has something of the look of the Alamo (with amenities). Someday, perhaps, it will turn out to be the “White House” (though, in BDY’s sketches, its buildings look more like those prison-style schools being built in embattled American urban neighborhoods) for Moqtada al-Sadr, or some future Shiite Party, or a Sunni strongman, or a home for squatters. Who knows?”unquote

      Sunni strongman indeed. He might succeed yet. The new White House already built for Islamic State of Iraq. Shades of Vietnam coming soon.

      Well, it wouldn’t surprise me.

      06/20/14 2:45 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...

      5

      ps.. Holy mother of virtual insanity. That “Second Life” page is fucking weird. And yeah, that’s where the Iraq embassy belongs alright. Fits perfect.

      06/20/14 2:48 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...

      6

      ps 2.. Prior to reading all those links, I have to admit, I really didn’t know the depth of Bush’s psychosis. Nor the State Department. This redefines imperial impunity. What amazes me though is the this..

      “The ambassador, who fancied himself a sportsman, ordered grass to grow on the large sandy area in front of the main Embassy building, a spot at one time designated as a helicopter landing zone, since relocated. Gardeners brought in tons of dirt and planted grass seed. A nearly endless amount of water was used, but despite clear orders to do so, the grass would not grow. Huge flocks of birds arrived. The birds had never seen so much seed on the ground in one place and ate passionately. No grass grew.”

      Apparently it was already planned in advance by BDY architects. Expansive lawns.. in the middle of a desert. whudda thunk

      “Take a look, for instance, at the embassy’s “pool house,” as imagined by BDY. (There’s a lovely sketch of it at their site.) Note the palm trees dotted around it, the expansive lawns, and those tennis courts discretely in the background. For an American official not likely to leave the constricted, heavily fortified, four-mile square Green Zone during a year’s tour of duty, practicing his or her serve (on the taxpayer’s dollar) is undoubtedly no small thing.”

      Taxpayers indeed. Between two and five million dollars. For a lawn. In the middle of a fucking desert. Shades of the DUMBEST COUNTRY ON THE PLANET. BDY(the architects) must have laughed for a year. I wonder how much money THEY made? I did a search to find them on the web, but they’ve completely disappeared! Which is weird in itself..but this blew me away. Listed under Manta..

      http://www.manta.com/c/mtg4z6c/bdy-architects-p-c

      “Our records show it was established in 2010 and incorporated in Missouri. Current estimates show this company has an annual revenue of 62000 and employs a staff of approximately 1.”

      WTF????

      According to the article at TomDispatch.com

      “Soon after the appearance of Tom’s article, “[t]he images [of the planned embassy] were removed by Berger Devine Yaeger (BDY) Inc. shortly after the company was contacted by the State Department.”

      Well..apparently something else must have happened
      because they don’t exist anymore..at least on the net. I dunno, but I smell a rat.

      06/20/14 3:33 PM | Comment Link

    • Kylz Orda said...

      7

      How else is our ambassador in Iraq going to be useful? The grass must be made to grow, at all costs

      This ‘grass-roots’ fanaticism also took place at the same time State and other USG agencies were supposed to be involved in the Bush-Cheney scheme to link up Central Asia on some kind of utility and road grid. The reality fell pretty far short. As for Iraq, whatever were USAID and contractors doing also fell pretty far short since there is STILL difficulty in people obtaining the basic necessities like power and water. But at least our embassy in Baghdad’s lawn had a constant supply of water. It’s good we are so talented at nation-building

      06/20/14 5:22 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...

      8

      Kylz, your comments ended up in spam, that’s why they were delayed. Sorry.

      06/20/14 9:28 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...

      9

      Dear Peter – thank you

      06/20/14 9:59 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...

      10

      Peter said:

      “Kylz, your comments ended up in spam”

      Hey Peter, damn, this inequality shit is fucked up. I should at least be in the spam too. C’maaan..

      06/21/14 12:40 AM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...

      11

      Peter said”

      quote”Kylz, your comments ended up in spam,…”unquote

      Your Honor, I respectfully submit the prosecutor arrested and charged the wrong person. I also would like to enter into the record, the person Peter quotes..is actually KYZL..not KYLZ.

      :) for the record of course.

      shit. bartender..give me a Bud draft.

      06/21/14 12:48 AM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...

      12

      meanwhile, two Buds and a long day makes pitchfork an idiot. KYLZ it is. fuck. goodnight.

      06/21/14 12:54 AM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...

      13

      Dear Pitchfork — yes, of course it was ‘spam’ *wink, wink*

      As for the correct spelling of my name, shhhhh….let the NSA and friends work for their ‘weekly omelette’ to paraphrase Bertie Wooster

      06/21/14 4:05 AM | Comment Link

    • observer from within said...

      14

      In fact all US Embassies and staff and dependents live on US embassy “islands” where interactions with local people and the American community are furtive, occasional, and shallow. It’s a system doomed to fail and Iraq is just one of more bizarre and expensive examples. I was a PSC for 9 years with a US Embassy and was always astounded by the isolation of the embassy staff..mainly nice people but trapped in isolation. In spite of training in local languages contact with locals were confined to FSNS, service staff, and stilted host government contacts and other diplomats similarly isolated. Some former Peace Corps Volunteers were a welcome but rare exception. The typical daily schedule for embassy staff is depart embassy housing am, go to embassy, keep your bosses happy all day and read cables, and go back home to embassy housing, eat commissary imported American food, sleep, repeat cycle. Oh state department language training includes almost no cross cultural training and orientation at post is minimal to none. Sad.

      06/21/14 12:18 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...

      15

      Kyzl Orda said…

      quote”As for the correct spelling of my name,..”unquote

      WTF??? Your name was misspelled at the top of that post.. like this..

      “Kylz Orda said…”

      Doesn’t the comment software generate the “XXXXXX said” text automatically? It must..cause I never punch in my own. Which is weird..cause it “misspelled” your name..which caused Peter to copy it I guess..which then I saw, got confused, and then..looked again..and REALLY got confused.

      And now you post again and the software generates the correct(?) spelling…er..wait.. then you say…quote”As for the correct spelling of my name,..”unquote

      fuck. Bartender..let’s start with a double and a draft. That’ll take care of it. sheeezus. Getting old sucks. Now..about that NSA weekly omelette thing..????????????? wait..wait..I’m already confused enough. bye.

      06/21/14 1:05 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...

      16

      Dear Pitchfork, looks like *I* am the one who mispelled my name, lol

      06/21/14 1:39 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...

      17

      I DEMAND an investigation into Orda’s case. Who is to blame? How could this have happened? Where was Hillary as this unfolded?

      06/21/14 1:40 PM | Comment Link

    • Jhoover said...

      18

      wemeantwell said…
      I DEMAND an investigation into Orda’s case.

      But you should also asking for this crminal to be hold account of atrocities and terrorists act even against your follow Americans who was chosen and welcomed/rewarded to The White House!!

      Palm-in a step surprising observers what is happening in Iraq, the Iraqi television violates all the oppose of outgoing Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki as Dashi “داعشى”.
      Iraqi television classified political leaderships Tariq al-Hashimi, al-Nujayfi, and Al-Hatam, gripper and Rifai, that they support terrorism and work for the division of Iraq and intimidate Iraqis.
      commenting on this matter, Tariq al-Hashimi, vice-president of the Republic of Iraq, that it is not surprising that this profile of whom he called “the New Safavid in Baghdad,” he said.
      He added in an interview with Channel “event”: If the symptoms of the year, and young detainees.. If the defense of their honor and their beliefs, and their identity and may be regarded by the other party extremism and terrorism. The world must hear that Tariq al-Hashimi was the first terrorists” chair-so.
      However, : “Tariq al-Hashimi known for moderation and moderation, and defending the oppressed and marginalized, but the problem today you if you are an Arab Sunni in Iraq, you are accused of,” he said.
      “al-Maliki international terrorist”
      Al-Hashemi, asked by saying: who enter the car bombs in Iraq in during 1980s? … who targeted Iraqi Ministry of Information? Who bombed The Iraqi embassy in Beirut at dawn.. And who targeted the convoy of Emir of Kuwait, who was kidnapped aircraft.. “.
      He added: “Let the world as a whole. The al-Maliki international terrorist who lived his life since eighties of the last century to terrorism,” he said.
      http://www.nakhelnews.com/pages/snews.php?nid=33804

      06/21/14 7:59 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...

      19

      “wemeantwell said…
      17

      I DEMAND an investigation into Orda’s case. Who is to blame? How could this have happened? Where was Hillary as this unfolded?”

      If Mrs. Clinton as presidential-candidate-wannabe deigns to take such a question, likely she’d say as she did in that interview the other day about Benghazi, that she would want to know too but fortunately delegates such matters to the experts.

      For those who know what that means, nothing will happen:)

      06/22/14 12:21 AM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...

      20

      “Jhoover said…
      18

      ‘wemeantwell said…
      I DEMAND an investigation into Orda’s case.’

      But you should also asking for this crminal to be hold account of atrocities and terrorists act even against your follow Americans who was chosen and welcomed/rewarded to The White House!!”

      Dear JHoover – when you write ‘this criminal’, i hope you mean someone else, not me lol

      That article link from Al Mawsul was very interesting and has gotten very little coverage here in the US press. Surprise surprise (not really)

      It’s important then to get such information out on independent news sites and blogs like here, where people can read freely — nothing has been filtered out. Yeah, we have a similar problem with censorship in the major US newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times, but sounds like your official press in Iraq may be more lively than our own as far as getting info out there for people to read that’s not so ‘filtered’.

      It’s therefore important to read these kind of articles and more helpful if there’s a link to translate them to english. That’s a BIG problem — there’s alot of important info in Arabic media but gets lost because of translation (or lack of)

      Agreed there should be not just an investigation but an evaluation just how allies get ‘chosen’

      There was a report in media today (6/21) Sistani has called for new leadership for Iraq and for Maliki to be more ‘inclusive’ bringing Sunni and Kurds into the system. Is that going to mean some kind of change or is that for a foreign audience’s ears?

      Also, some names were mentioned as possible successors to AL Maliki – and Ahmed Chalabi was mentioned. Is that realistic? Personally, I kinda threw up in my mouth a little when I read that

      06/22/14 12:38 AM | Comment Link

    • 10 Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq Are a Terrible Idea | Peter Van Buren said...

      21

      […] noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy […]

      06/23/14 1:38 AM | Comment Link

    • 10 Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq Are a Terrible Idea | The News On Time said...

      22

      […] noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy […]

      06/23/14 1:40 AM | Comment Link

    • 10 Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq Are a Terrible Idea | Social Dashboard said...

      23

      […] noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy […]

      06/23/14 6:28 AM | Comment Link

    • 10 Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq Are a Terrible Idea | Omaha Sun Times said...

      24

      […] noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy […]

      06/23/14 11:39 AM | Comment Link

    • Ten Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq are a Terrible Idea | Ghosts of Tom Joad - Peter Van Buren said...

      25

      […] noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy […]

      06/23/14 11:49 AM | Comment Link

    • Send in the Drones (With Apologies to Stephen Sondheim) | Tom Engelhardt said...

      26

      […] in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order. A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for […]

      06/24/14 2:43 PM | Comment Link

    • Send in the Drones (With Apologies to Stephen Sondheim) — LiberalVoiceLiberalVoice — Your source for everything about liberals and progressives! — News and tweets about everything liberals and progressives said...

      27

      […] in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order. A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for […]

      06/24/14 2:48 PM | Comment Link

    • Michael Schwartz: The new oil wars in Iraq said...

      28

      […] in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order.  A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for […]

      06/24/14 6:43 PM | Comment Link

    • » Tomgram: Michael Schwartz, The New Oil Wars in Iraq Band of Rebels said...

      29

      […] in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order.  A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for […]

      06/24/14 7:00 PM | Comment Link

    • Flexible Reality said...

      30

      […] in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order. A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for […]

      06/24/14 7:28 PM | Comment Link

    • War for oil in Iraq again | Dear Kitty. Some blog said...

      31

      […] in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order.  A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for […]

      06/24/14 11:08 PM | Comment Link

    • Tomgram: Michael Schwartz, The New Oil Wars in Iraq | Mountain Finch Post said...

      32

      […] in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order.  A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for […]

      06/25/14 11:18 PM | Comment Link

    • Tomgram: Michael Schwartz, The New Oil Wars in Iraq | TomDispatch | Olduvaiblog said...

      33

      […] in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollarsymbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order.  A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for […]

      06/26/14 12:52 AM | Comment Link

    • Murali said...

      34

      Iraq’s political leraeds what us to stay there. then let ‘em for the service.Something like $1 million dollar to the family of every member of the U.S. military killed in addition to the cost of our army being there. A family of a criminal hoodlum justifiably killed by police gets more than that from a (usually) bankrupt American city. We are talking about our brave boys and girls in uniform, well trained, with expected life earnings well above $1M.I say charge the barbarians $10M per murdered soldier. Charge them fully-loaded cost of army (operational expenses plus R&D plus the rest).@Mead:@Kenny: You’d have a stronger case if they’d invited us over in the first place. What invitation has to do with the price of halal pork in Baghdad?Corrupt tribal rulers of Iraq Islamic democracy want protection against competing thugs.An entirely reasonable wish.We have some interests in that smelly pit of a nation.We can do what we need to do by withdrawing to Kurdistan, guarantying a de-facto independent state for Kurds and wearily watching the stinky region from there.With Turkey going Iran Islamic Republic route, it is only a matter of time (5 years) before US bases will have to be shut down there. Kurds are a tiny bit more advanced than their Muslim brethren around them and will be grateful for protection. Baghdad can revert to their preferred mode of living with a brutal dictator who on a clear day could see USAF bases in Kurdistan.In case if message is not received, a short 3 day bombing campaign would change dictator’s perceptions.

      07/12/14 1:18 AM | Comment Link

    • If at first you don’t succeed in Iraq, Surge, Surge again | The Great Debate said...

      35

      […] next prime minister, perhaps even Maliki again. Since 2006, the United States has maintained its largest embassy in Baghdad. All those diplomats have not accomplished much toward reconciliation. The […]

      07/17/14 2:41 PM | Comment Link

    • In Iraq, Meet the New Strategy — Same As the Old Strategy | The Contrary Perspective said...

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      […] next prime minister, perhaps even Maliki again. Since 2006, the United States has maintained its largest embassy in Baghdad. All those diplomats have not accomplished much toward reconciliation. The […]

      07/17/14 4:12 PM | Comment Link

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