Occupying Iraq, State Department-Style
A Frat House With Guns in Baghdad
By Peter Van Buren
Way out on the edge of Forward Operating Base Hammer, where I lived for much of my year in Iraq as a Provincial Reconstruction Team leader for the U.S. Department of State, there were several small hills, lumps of raised dirt on the otherwise frying-pan-flat desert. These were "tells," ancient garbage dumps and fallen buildings.
Thousands of years ago, people in the region used sun-dried bricks to build homes and walls. Those bricks had a lifespan of about 20 years before they began to crumble, at which point locals just built anew atop the old foundation. Do that for a while, and soon enough your buildings are sitting on a small hill.
At night, the tell area was very dark, as we avoided artificial light in order not to give passing insurgents easy targets. In that darkness, you could imagine the earliest inhabitants of what was now our base looking at the night sky and be reminded that we were not the first to move into Iraq from afar. It was also a promise across time that someday someone would undoubtedly sit atop our own ruins and wonder whatever happened to the Americans.
From that ancient debris field, recall the almost forgotten run-up to the American invasion, the now-ridiculous threats about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, Secretary of State Colin Powell lying away his own and America's prestige at the U.N., those "Mission-Accomplished" days when the Marines tore down Saddam's statue and conquered Baghdad, the darker times as civil society imploded and Iraq devolved into civil war, the endless rounds of purple fingers for stage-managed elections that meant little, the Surge and the ugly stalemate that followed, fading to gray as President George W. Bush negotiated a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and the seeming end of his dreams of a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.
Now, with less than seven months left until that withdrawal moment, Washington debates whether to honor the agreement, or -- if only we can get the Iraqi government to ask us to stay -- to leave a decent-sized contingent of soldiers occupying some of the massive bases the Pentagon built hoping for permanent occupancy.
To the extent that any attention is paid to Iraq here in Snooki's America, the debate over whether eight years of war entitles the U.S. military to some kind of Iraqi squatter's rights is the story that will undoubtedly get most of the press in the coming months.
How This Won't End
Even if the troops do finally leave, the question is: Will that actually bring the U.S. occupation of Iraq to a close? During the invasion of 2003, a younger David Petraeus famously asked a reporter: "Tell me how this ends."
Dave, it may not actually end. After all, as of October 1, 2011, full responsibility for the U.S. presence in Iraq will officially be transferred from the military to the Department of State. In other words, as Washington imagines it, the occupation won't really end at all, even if the landlords are switched.
And the State Department hasn't exactly been thinking small when it comes to its future "footprint" on Iraqi soil. The U.S. mission in Baghdad remains the world's largest embassy, built on a tract of land about the size of the Vatican and visible from space. It cost just $736 million to build -- or was it $1 billion, depending on how you count the post-construction upgrades and fixes?
In its post-"withdrawal" plans, the State Department expects to have 17,000 personnel in Iraq at some 15 sites. If those plans go as expected, 5,500 of them will be mercenaries, hired to shoot-to-kill Iraqis as needed, to maintain security. Of the remaining 11,500, most will be in support roles of one sort or another, with only a couple of hundred in traditional diplomatic jobs. This is not unusual in wartime situations. The military, for example, typically fields about seven support soldiers for every "shooter." In other words, the occupation run by a heavily militarized State Department will simply continue in a new, truncated form -- unless Congress refuses to pay for it.
It would better serve America's interests to have an embassy sized to the message we now need to send to the Middle East, and it shouldn't be one of boastful conquest.
A Place to Call Home
After initially setting up shop in a selection of Saddam Hussein's Disneyesque palaces (in one of the dumbest PR moves of all time), plans were made to build an embassy worthy of the over-the-top optimism and bravado that characterized the invasion itself. Though officially photos of the inside of the Embassy compound are not allowed for "security" reasons, a quick Google search under "U.S. Embassy Baghdad" turns up plenty, including some of the early architectural renderings of the future gargantuan compound. (Historical minifact: back in 2007, TomDispatch first broke the story that the architect's version of the embassy's secret interior was displayed all pink and naked online.)
The blind optimism of that moment was best embodied in the international school building stuck in one corner of the embassy compound. Though a fierce civil-war-cum-insurgency was then raging in Iraq, the idea was that, soon enough, diplomatic families would be assigned to Baghdad, just as they were to Paris or Seoul, and naturally the kids would need a school. It may seem silly now, but few doubted it then.