Katy Burns: A ghost of an embassy, the end of a delusion
We’re going back into Iraq. The most war-averse president we’ve elected in at least a generation is recommitting American troops to the apparently never-ending war in that benighted country.
Oh, we’re calling them “military advisers,” not combat troops. That’s what my husband’s West Point roommate was labeled when he was sent to Vietnam in 1964. The label didn’t stop him from dying there, and it didn’t stop real combat troops from being sent – and, for 58,000, dying – there later.
President Obama gravely assured the American people he would be on guard against “mission creep,” and no doubt he meant it. And certainly the situation in Iraq – the startling collapse of that country’s army in the face of aggression, the country’s descent into a vicious secular civil war – is alarming.
But we’ve been here before, both literally and figuratively. And it hasn’t always ended well.
Given the complexity of the situation in Iraq and its warring interests, our intervention is unlikely to make a significant difference without profound reform on the part of the current ruling party, which few expect to happen. The pressure on the president to go further has already begun and will only grow.
Predictably, much of it is from the usual suspects, the ones who beat the drums of war so fervently in the years leading up to 2003, when we first chose to invade Iraq to depose its tyrannical dictator. Our incursion would be short. It would be easy. It would be war on the cheap – after all, Iraq was overflowing with profitable oil. We would be hailed as liberators. Iraq was a country of peace-lovers who’d never known a minute of sectarian strife. What could go wrong?
I don’t think that “delusional” is too strong a word to describe many of the beliefs voiced at the time.
One of the most-repeated delusions was that by invading a significant section the ancient land of Mesopotamia we would be “sowing the seeds of democracy.” It was a conceit repeated over and over by the war’s architects. Those seeds would flourish through the entire Middle East. To steal an apt phrase from Mao Zedong, we’d in effect be letting “a hundred flowers bloom.” And of course we would have to tend to those flowers that would be springing up throughout the newly empowered region. Having brought so much democracy into bloom, we’d have to cultivate it. Right?
Thus, the embassy. The amazing – some might say crazy – American embassy, chock full of eager regional flower tenders, that arose in Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris River, obliterating 104 acres of parkland.
It was – is – the largest and most expensive embassy complex of any nation ever. It has been compared in size with Vatican City. Our embassy in China, the second-largest U.S. embassy, is only one-tenth the size of the Iraq fortress, which is a mile and a half long, comprised of at least 16 buildings and surrounded by 9-foot high, blast-resistant walls.
It would be the nerve center, it was said, for cultivating that democracy busily blooming throughout the region.
We began it in 2005 – well after our delusions of instant democracy should have died, but such notions can linger irrationally in believers’ minds.
It took more than three years and a reported $750 million-plus to build. And in 2012, the budget included an additional $100 million for a massive upgrade.
The embassy compound, it’s reported, includes hundreds of apartments in six complexes for embassy personnel and luxury homes for high-ranking diplomats. It has a power plant and water and waste treatment facilities. It was designed to include a movie theater, a shopping center, a gymnasium, a school, tennis courts and a full maintenance staff. It also has, of course, its own designated security force.
The entire complex was designed to be the most secure, most fortified ever built. And from photos, I’d say, one of the ugliest as well.
In late 2008, Americans began moving into the new U.S. embassy.
After its formal opening in 2009, upward of 15,000 people, including 2,000 diplomats, worked there.
In 2012, after our military withdrawal from Iraq, there was a major reduction in embassy staff. But there are even now at least 5,000 Americans holding down that odd fort.
Just last week, as the fast-moving and brutal revolt against Iraq’s central government spread, President Obama sent a contingent of some 250 Marines to add additional protection to the U.S. embassy. Plans to evacuate its personnel if necessary were being considered.
Talk about a short, not-so-sweet story! Symbolic, I think, of our whole Iraqi misadventure.
I’d like to think there’s a grand lesson here about hubris, or at least about wishful thinking. But I’m not sure there is. At least not a lesson we’re willing to learn.
In his remarks on his plans to send military advisers to Iraq, President Obama stressed how vital it is for the region and for the world that the worst elements of those opposing the Iraq government be prevented from establishing a rogue, terrorist state in the country. Few would disagree.
But in explaining his decision to increase American involvement, the president also said that we “want to make sure that we are vindicating the enormous effort and sacrifice that was made by our troops.” It is an understandable sentiment, but I think a dangerous one. I remember well that vindicating America’s sacrifices in blood and treasure was used more than once as a reason for continuing our presence in Vietnam – and no doubt it’s been cited in justifying countless other wars through history.
Here’s the thing about war. Throughout the ages it has been a story of both victory and loss, sometimes terrible loss. Over and over, objectives are reached only with horrific bloody sacrifice. And then they are lost all over again.
It’s why war is – or should be – only a last resort. Let’s hope our anti-war president remembers that.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)