Wednesday, January 21, 2009

US Embassy Baghdad: The largest and most expensive in the world

Commentary, Executive magazine

Opened in the midst of the slaughter in Gaza and the twilight of Bush’s presidency, the new American embassy in Baghdad garnered less coverage than when its astronomical budget was first publicised in 2005.
The opening was more than the completion of the largest and most expensive embassy in the world. It marked the day the US diplomatic corps moved out of Saddam Hussein’s former palace and handed it over to the Iraqi government, five days after US forces officially came under an Iraqi mandate on New Year’s day.
The move from one palace to what is essentially an even larger one is being eyed warily by many Iraqis, the embassy far grander – albeit minus the gold plated bathroom fixtures - than anything Hussein ever built during his nefarious reign.
It is on a level of Cold War era grandeur, similar in scope to the colossal project Nicolae Ceaucescu attempted in Bucharest, the centerpiece a palace the Romanian leader wanted to be seen from space.
The 104-acre embassy complex, which is the size of approximately 80 football fields, nearly turned into a similar white elephant as costs ballooned to $700 million and the project taking nearly two years longer than expected. In that time it became a symbol of the quagmire Iraq has become for the US, with no end in sight and costs spiralling upwards. But with the embassy finished and operational, it now represents the most prominent symbol of ‘fortress America’ today and, moreover, that America wants to stay in Iraq for longer than Barak Obama’s presidency will last.
As the International Crisis Group commented in 2006, “the presence of a massive US embassy co-located in the Green Zone with the Iraqi government is seen by Iraqis as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country.”
Visible from space and larger than the Vatican, the embassy draws historical comparisons to the Crusader castles of the middle ages. All that is missing is a crocodile infested moat around the walls.
But secure it certainly is nestled inside the “Green Zone,” with a 15ft thick perimeter wall to protect this city within a city that includes a power station, a water treatment plant, schools, restaurants, swimming pools and shopping area.

With an annual budget of $1.2 billion, the 5,550 Americans and Iraqis working at the embassy – half listed as security – are certainly not roughing it. The residence of the US ambassador to Iraq is 16,000 square feet, while the deputy chief of mission has a “cozy cottage” measuring 9,500 square feet.
Tough though a posting to Baghdad may be for the diplomats, State Department, FBI, and federal agents that are to work out of the embassy, it is far from the realties of the “red zone” that lies beyond the walls, of power cuts, broken sewage pipes and violence.
That the US needed a secure site is understandable, given the track record of attacks on US embassies. In Beirut, the Americans are in their third embassy in less than 30 years, while the former US embassy in Tehran stands as a memorial to the overthrow of the Shah, and resultantly the American presence in Iran, the walls covered in colorful murals depicting the US as an oppressor, imperialist and warmonger. As Ayatollah Khomeini said in December, 1979: “This place is not to be considered an embassy but rather a ‘spy center.’” Following the US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, the US had to resort to the somewhat farcical position of operating out of the Swiss embassy.
A drive past other embassies in the region indicates how seriously security is taken, with the Istanbul compound a veritable fortress, as is the one in Amman, with armored personnel carriers lined up outside and reportedly surface-to-air missiles within the sandstone complex.
But as Niccolo Machiavelli points out in the section on fortresses in that Bible of realpolitik, The Prince, “If they are beneficial in one direction, they are harmful in another.” Indeed, despite US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker saying at the launch that the new embassy is a testimony to America's commitment to a “long-term friendship with Iraq,” given the US role in the country over the past nearly six years it is hard to see the embassy as a symbol of friendship. And furthermore, with the embassy a fortress, it doesn’t exactly give off the impression of amiability. But that is the Catch-22 situation America has placed itself due to its foreign policy decisions over the years in the Middle East. At the same time as presenting itself as a beacon of hope, democracy and freedom to the world, to gain access is akin to entering a maximum-security prison.
As Machiavelli remarked: “So, all things considered, I commend those who erect fortresses and those who do not; and censure anyone who, putting his trust in fortresses, does not mind if he is hated by the people.”

PAUL COCHRANE is a Beirut-based journalist

Photos of the former US embassy in Tehran (by Paul Cochrane)