• Inside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad

    June 20, 2014 // 36 Comments »

    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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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    Summer in DC: Why Your Government is Failing

    May 28, 2013 // 12 Comments »

    Remember the guy who said you should never watch how laws or sausages are made? Here is a typical summer scene on the subway (“Metro”) in lovely Washington DC to illustrate your government. Inside the Beltway, represent ya’ll!

    Male: Hey, you’re wearing pearls and a sweater in May on the Metro.

    Female: Oh, you’re wearing a blue button down and khaki slacks.

    Together: We should so talk!

    Female: My life goal is to look like Zooey Deschanel.

    Male: Mine is to live in Brooklyn. I don’t know where it is.

    Male: I am totally shallow and get all my opinions from web sites I accidentally end up on.

    Female: I only read web sites that mirror my own shallow thoughts and perpetuate myths I learned as an undergrad.

    Together: The only adjective I know is “amazing.”

    Male: GW?* (*George Washington University)

    Female: UVA? (*University of Virginia)

    Male: Oh my God, I got so drunk one time at a GW frat party!

    Female: Me too! I did like so many Jello shots and then posted photos of myself with my roommate on Facebook. We wore fake plastic moustaches and pretended to grope each other, for irony.

    Male: I randomly troll Facebook to look at such photos of girls I don’t know!

    Female: UVA is so cool. My brother’s neighbor played lacrosse there.

    Male: So you’re carrying around The Economist and not reading it?

    Female: How’d you know! You have briefs from think tanks you don’t read.

    Male: I am so busy drinking PBRs* and playing adult kickball and wearing heavy-rimmed black glasses like my Grandpa wore I don’t have any time to read. (*Pabst Blue Ribbon, drank ironically)

    Female: I also wear heavy-rimmed black glasses like my Grandpa. I used to do aerobics but then I switched to yoga because it is now cool and I got to buy new outfits.

    Together: We’re dedicated to remaining adolescents forever!

    Male: I vote for people Jon Stewart likes.

    Female: I over-pronounce Stephen Colbert’s name often!

    Male: So what do you do?

    Female: I work on the Hill. You?

    Male: I am the personal assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Communication and Outreach at the Department of… of… I forgot, but it’s near Metro Center. Something about the web or social media.

    Female: We should certainly hang out.

    Male. Totally. Georgetown for shots?

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    Rule No. 1: It is Poor Judgement to Talk About Fight Club

    April 18, 2012 // 44 Comments »

    What counts as poor judgement or lack of discretion these days such that Federal employment is no longer suitable? It is a good question, because the State Department is proposing to fire me in part for my “poor judgement” as shown, they say, by these two blog posts, about Hillary Clinton laughing at someone’s death and about Michelle Bachmann being, well, insane. Meanwhile, a State Department VIP apparently has had sex on an Embassy roof, captured on video, not that that matters.

    Now of course both the White House and Embassy Kabul on Twitter chortled over the deaths of other people, so we know that laughing about others’ deaths is not “poor judgement.” Point noted.

    We have learned that having posed for Playboy doesn’t count as poor judgement for a Foreign Service Officer. Point noted.

    And we can show that as the US Ambassador to Iraq dressing as JFK’s unsuccessful Secret Service bodyguard for a Halloween party as Baghdad burned around you apparently isn’t poor judgement. Even after photos are posted on a popular photo sharing spot. Point noted.

    We also know that drunken parties in Islamic war zones like Baghdad, or Afghanistan, are not considered poor judgement (and yes, two of three people dressed as women in the photo are not women). Point noted.

    And we know that being photographed partying in Colombia while the news is dominated by illicit Secret Service partying isn’t bad judgement, even if the media call attention to the issue with headlines like “Swillary” and “Is Hillary Clinton becoming an embarrassment as Secretary of State?” Given that I am a source of her stress, I guess I should be more charitable when Hillary needs a drink. Seriously, though, while “humanizing” Clinton to her fan base in the US, I wonder if the foreigners it is her job to influence see it as a positive image.

    So that leaves us with a final case to decide whether or not poor judgement is afoot.

    What if a video existed that showed a prominent State Department VIP on the roof of the Republican Palace in Baghdad receiving, um, pleasure of an oral nature from another State Department officer not his wife, or even his journalist mistress of the time? What if that video has been passed around among Marine Security Guards at the Embassy to the point where it is considered “viral” with many copies made? What if the Deputy Chief of Mission, hand in hand with the Diplomatic Security chief (RSO) at the time, decided that the whole thing needed to be swept under the rug and made to go away, at least until some blogger got a hold of it.

    Would that count as poor judgement? What if it was published during his oft-delayed Congressional hearings? Funny that State aggressively punishes some extramarital fooling around while ignoring other, er, well-documented cases.

    Or would the State Department once again excuse the act itself and instead punish the person who made the act public, claiming THAT was the example of poor judgement, the crime of not hiding State’s dirty laundry at a sensitive time?

    Remember Rule No. 1 of Fight Club at State: It is poor judgement to talk about Fight Club.

    (And before everyone gets all wound up over the photos posted, would you please first consider the point here, that judgement as contained in the acts pictured is the issue, not harvesting them from around the Internet where they already exist and reposting them here. For those too self-righteous to get it (oh, they’re colleagues ya’all!), the other point is that the State Department excuses all sorts of behavior when it wants to for people it likes or who are connected, and then hauls out the bully-bat of “poor judgement” when it is trying to stretch to justify firing someone they don’t like because of a blog. Thank you.)

    Also, Secret Service Agents abroad: always remember to pay your prostitutes to avoid undue hassle. Generous tips are encouraged; after all, they had to f*ck losers like you.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    New Ambassador to Iraq Done Little with Life But Iraq Mistakes

    March 28, 2012 // 10 Comments »

    Rule No. 1: When you find yourself in a hole, first thing to do is stop digging it deeper.

    So, with all the good news in Iraq these days (didn’t you see, Disney is buying up land for an oil-based water park), you’d think that some new thinking might be just the thing.

    Looking back on events since 2003 (looting, dissolution of civil society, disbanding the army and police, losing trillions of dollars, Sunni-Shia-Kurd slaughter, civil war, Stalingrad on the Tigris in Falluja, more civil war, Abu Ghraid, failed reconstruction, failed US base strategy, failed US elections strategy, failed US oil strategy, failed US Kurd reconciliation strategy, World’s Largest and Most Expensive White Elephant Embassy, Iran-sympathetic autocracy emerging, etc) it sure seems that the US has made its share of mistakes.

    So let’s look at the resume of the guy Obama wants as the new American Ambassador to this pile of failed foreign policy doo doo, Brett McGurk:

    After law school and clerking, McGurk was a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.

    Advisor to the last three US Ambassadors to Iraq: Jim Jeffries, Ryan Crocker, and Christopher Hill.

    National Security Council, director for Iraq and later as senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Lead negotiator for the 2008 US-Iraq security agreement that extended the U.S. troop presence there until the end of 2011 and leader of the failed negotiations in 2011 to extend the US troop presence in Iraq even longer.

    McGurk is 38 years old and has never done any job other than help fuck up Iraq on behalf of the United States. Dude only graduated in 1999. Despite essentially doing nothing but Iraq stuff his entire adult life, McGurk has also avoided learning any Arabic. You’d kind of think that maybe that wouldn’t be the resume for the next guy in charge of cleaning up some of his own mistakes, like maybe you’d want someone who had some… depth or experience or broad knowledge or understanding of something other than failure in that God-forsaken country. Normally when you are a hand maiden to failure you don’t get promoted, but then again, this is the State Department. This is almost as good as Harriet Miers.

    How could this possibly not work out?

    Oh yeah, a lot of Iraqis don’t like McGurk because he is seen as a toady for Prime Minister Malaki, our brother freedom fighter in Baghdad. “Many Iraqi players outside Maliki’s circle view McGurk as an advocate for the prime minister. That may not be a fair characterization, but the perceptions are there on the ground. There’s the possibility that this sentiment could undermine our perception of neutrality and therefore our ability to effectively mediate disputes between all Iraqi factions,” one expert said.

    Also, Gordon Gecko called and wants his hairstyle back. Party on, McGurk!

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    Talking Points for Explaining Chaos in Iraq

    January 30, 2012 // 2 Comments »


    To: All Media, Commentators and Pundits

    From: The Secretary

    Subject: Talking Points for Explaining Chaos in Iraq

    Thank you all for your patience since January 1, when PM Maliki turned 180 degrees from us/US and began unraveling Iraq. We were of course caught by surprise over these events, most of my staff being detailed away to host holiday parties, then Bill took my Blackberry to Davos by accident, and we switched to Chrome in the office and the printer wouldn’t work at first, but we now have your talking points formulated.

    I want also to thank Ambassador Chris Hill, who was in Baghdad 2009-2010 and oversaw our standing by dumb-founded while the Iranians put together the coalition we couldn’t that finally concluded the March 2010 elections in December. Chris was kind enough to give these new talking points a trial run a week ago in his barely published Op-Ed. Chris, thank you for your service.

    So here is the meme I expect all of you (bloggers too, not just MSM, we know who you are) to follow:

    The US did a great job under the Occupation, thanks to our troops, who cannot be criticized, but basically everything that happens after January 1 is the Iraqis’ own damn fault and most certainly not connected in any way with what the US did or failed to do in the preceding nine years.

    If you need the elevator speech version (I’m calling you out Fox!), just say: It is all the Iraqis’ fault.

    This line of reasoning has worked for us in the past, so it should be smooth sailing. For example, throughout the somnolent reconstruction period, whenever someone complained about how we did not restore the electrical grid, we showed some slides saying power generation was good, it was just that demand was up, blaming the Iraqis for the whole thing because they wanted to use refrigerators and lights.

    In addition to Chris’ effort, I have already started the ball rolling. On January 26, I noted that US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey has taken the lead in urging Iraqi politicians to settle their differences peacefully. I said “He is constantly… reaching out, meeting with, cajoling, pushing the players, starting with Prime Minister Maliki, not to blow this opportunity.”

    I told everyone that despite the downfall of Saddam Hussein which we freaking nailed, Iraqis’ “minds are not yet fully open to the potential for what this new opportunity can mean to them. At the end of the day, Iraq is now a democracy but they need to act like one.”

    Speaking of Ambassador Jeffrey, he also has this memo. Just the other day he told Gulf News “Iraq is a sovereign democratic country. We have no role as outsiders in the democratic process other than to observe and, if asked our opinion, we provide our opinion… We believe that Iraq remains the most democratic country in the Middle East.”

    Good, right? And you all need to be sure to work this line from Amb. Jeffrey into your pieces: “The attacks [in Iraq] are not a result of the political crisis as they are planned months in advance; they are very carefully put together by al Qaeda.”

    That’s pretty clear, yes? Despite 10 years, despite killing bin Laden and 74 al Qaeda No. 3’s, all violence is due to al Qaeda. As for the rest, we did our part by getting rid of Saddam, fast-forward past nine years of failed Occupation, Reconciliation and Reconstruction and then BANG! Iraq has to do it, not our problem. Like it never even happened, babies.

    I simply do not care to see any articles such as this. I specifically request that none of the following ever be spoken of again:

    –The oft-stated US major accomplishment of getting rid of Saddam was all over in 2003. We called it regime “change” but in reality it was just regime “destruction,” only the first half of the change thing.

    –The US invasion and failure of the reconstruction left Iraq in horrific condition, setting the stage for additional years of suffering. Such suffering fuels insurgency and lack of support for any central government. It is a poor legacy.

    –The utter lack of US planning for postwar occupation unleashed sectarian violence and enabled sectarian conflict that is playing out long after the US went home. The US is responsible for letting the genie out of the bottle.

    My thanks in advance to all of you for your work promoting this meme over the coming months. It would be especially helpful if your blogs and Op-Eds could be timed to publish right after massive suicide bombings in Iraq. Don’t worry if you miss one; like buses, there is always another one coming soon.

    Oh, and my staff promises we’ll have your talking points about how all world evil is caused by Iran out soon. Until then, either hold your stories or just blame things on Somali pirates.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq