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Katy Burns: A ghost of an embassy, the end of a delusion

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is shown here while under construction in 2007.

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is shown here while under construction in 2007.

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.)

Legacy Comments24

Twenty-three years ago, a lot of us wondered why Bush 41 and Jim Baker decided not to go all the way to Baghdad. Now we understand just how smart they were.

Let's hope he does not listen to you or the tripe you wrote here. Obama's response to a terrorist force is a candy ass response.

"Tripe" and "candy ass." Ah, we can always count on you to elevate the discussion and to give us the benefit of your extensive knowledge and experience in foreign and military affairs. We are blessed.

Well, the tripe part is not up for discussion, the majority of readers find the copy and paste talking points to be just that, "tripe". As for "candy ass", that is exactly what Obama has done. You have Sunni extremists going after the duly elected government and a President of the greatest nation on Earth saying: "can't you guys just get along". Sounds like Rodney King to me. We could obliterate the extremist force as they advance on Baghdad. Yes there is religious strife in the region between two different sects but only one side right now is beheading the other side, raping and killing children.

Obama and Hillary are responsible for this debacle - they are clueless and could not read the writing on the wall. They talk a good talk but manage Foreign Policy like a 5th grade history student. "Question: If Iraq Did NOT Have WMD, Then Why Is Media Reporting Today ISIS Has Taken Over WMD Facilities in Iraq ?" HEADLINE: The World Continues to Confound Our Clueless President" If you do not know the predictions on the price of oil if Iraq folds then you area LIDV. Question to the readers.... how much money did ISIS get when they stormed their most recent bank. Do you know how much money they now have - Do they have a stockpiles of USA Made weapons?

You're deliberately confusing the issue--as usual, since clarity and coherence in posting have never suited your claims. ISIS has taken over an old and outdated chemical weapons facility. Equating these chemical weapons to the nuclear "WMDs" that the Bush Administration falsely claimed Saddam had (Rice's "smoking gun" of a "mushroom cloud") and used to justify our invasion of Iraq is at the least disingenuous, and intentionally muddies the issues at hand--for partisan purposes. It was Bush and Co who broke Iraq--recall Powell's Pottery Barn rules, and no amount of renewed American blood and treasure will put that piece of pottery back together. It will take a united effort by 2 or more of the factions (Shia, Sunni, Kurdish) working together to create a new Iraq from the rubble of our disastrous misadventure. But you sh

Wrong. Chemical weapons are WMD. Period. Treasure? That no longer exists. It has been redistributed.

"Redistributed"? And you're the one with the chutzpah claiming the moral high ground here?! We've spent $3 trillion on two wars ill-advised wars since 9/11. And you have the temerity to equate that money wasted on waging war with what this nation has modestly spent struggling to restore some semblance of a decent society to our own nation in the face of more than THREE decades of "redistribution" from the bottom to the top. And you compound your false equivalence by advocating the waging of yet more war( "we could obliterate") in that benighted region. There are no words to describe such "thinking" that could make it past moderation.

And as for the WMD issue--get real. If Bush et al had said: "We're going after Saddam because he's got chemical weapons, a scourge we must eliminate from the face of the earth", he would have been laughed out of the halls of Congress and the U.N.. They deliberately raised the specter of nuclear weapons--despite being told beforehand by U.N. inspectors that the Iraqi nuclear program was defunct by then. And we had earlier given Saddam a green light to use chemical weapons, or at least looked the other way, when he used them against Iran, so we were very familiar with the scope of the "threat" posed by Saddam.

In fact, the Reagan administration gave Saddam the technology and chemical weapons stocks he needed to get started.–Iraq_war

Chemical weapons are WMD, Saddam used them, bottom line. The discussion is over. 97% of conservatives agree.

You're playing fast and loose with the truth. Your "bottom line is a deliberately misleading distortion of the facts. Claims that because small amounts of old chemical weapons caches have been found in Iraq from time to time vindicate Bush administration lies that Iraq possessed WMDs are a stretch, to say the least. Those claim ignores the fact that the Bush administration repeatedly raised the specter of a nuclear-armed Iraq to push for an attack and invasion of that nation. “WMD diehards [such as yourself] will likely find some comfort in these newly-WikiLeaked documents. Skeptics will note that these relatively small WMD stockpiles were hardly the kind of grave danger that the Bush administration presented in the run-up to the war.” Nothing in the years since has altered the accuracy of the findings of the Duelfer report: "Saddam ended his nuclear program in 1991. ISG found no evidence of concerted efforts to restart the program, and Iraq’s ability to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program progressively decayed after 1991. • Iraq destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile in 1991, and only a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions were discovered by the ISG. • Saddam's regime abandoned its biological weapons program and its ambition to obtain advanced biological weapons in 1995. While it could have re-established an elementary BW program within weeks, ISG discovered no indications it was pursuing such a course." “In 2002 President Bush and his administration made a number of claims about Saddam Hussein's potential nuclear capacity, allegations that culminated in a statement in the president's State of the Union speech on January 29, 2003.  Throughout the build-up to the war with Iraq, the administration consistently conflated biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons [just as the Carpers here continue to do] as "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD).  As horrible as chemical and biological weapons are, they pale in comparison with the potential destructiveness of nuclear weapons.  As Kenneth M. Pollack, a proponent of war with Iraq put it, "A successful attack with VX could kill thousands; with a BW agent, tens of thousands; and with a nuclear weapon, hundreds of thousands or even millions" (Pollack, 179).  In addition, chemical and biological weapons are difficult to maintain and deliver effectively. [14] The claim that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program and was potentially "less than a year" away from possessing nuclear weapons was a powerful argument that deposing Saddam Hussein was important for U.S. national security.  Even those who thought that Saddam could be deterred from using chemical and biological weapons (as he had been in 1991) might be persuaded that an attack was necessary if they were convinced that Saddam was closing in on a nuclear weapons capability. [15]   Thus the claim of Saddam's nuclear capacity was one of the strongest argument that President Bush could make for war with Iraq.”

Bruce, Please pardon my huckleberry sensiblity, but I see the invasion of Iraq in simpler terms. GHWB/Bush#41 kicked Iraq's butt via Kuwait in Desert Storm/1991...but he didn't get Saddam. That was the only criticism of his admin in that "war". Here comes GWB/Bush#43, who made it Priority One to finish the job, and clear Daddy's name. The end would justify the means. But wait...Scott Ritter is screaming it from the mountaintops that there are no WMDs in Iraq. What's a good son to do, now? Oh, here comes "9-11"; that's the ticket! Thank you, very much.

I think you're right about 9/11, it gave us carte blanche to go after whomever we wanted. We trusted our leaders to make wise decisions in the aftermath of the attack. What we got was an open-ended war on anything and everything--our still on-going "War on Terror". Before 9/11, it was clear the neo-cons in charge of foreign policy in the administration wanted to finish the job they believed Bush 1 had left undone, and were trying to figure out a way to go back. Their fevered dream involved imagining that an Iraq free of Saddam could become a democratic, free market model for the rest of the middle east. With most of the media having abandoned its essential skeptical/watchdog role after 9/11, the rush to invasion became inevitable. We know how well things have worked out since.

Chemical weapons are WMD, period. End of discussion. It is settled. 97% of all conservatives agree that chemical weapons are WMD. Thank you. Rant and rave on.

Translation: "Don't confuse me with facts."

The debate is over. 97% of scientists agree, chemical weapons are WMD. Fact: Saddam used them on the Kurds. This is settled history.

200 word limit, eh??

Not if you are a progressive. Progressives are allowed to rant on and on and seldom are moderated. If not, keep your response short. Fearless, you are only allowed three words and one question mark. You are using up space where others can go on and on and copy and paste. What is wrong with you Fearless?

You must be mistaken the most recent poll of thinking people determined that that your poll was made up. Discussion over, how convenient and typical. Can't debate based on facts so we make up a poll and say that's that. For someone who claims to have a history degree, I fear any actual knowledge has atrophied. Whether you like Katy Burns is not the point, this letter raises valid points.

The ONLY way we can get out of this horrible economic mess is for business to step up. They don't trust our current leader and they won't step up and spend and help the economy. You think that I should be "moderated" because I have a different world view.

The media you speak so highly of, is now your source? That's rich. As for the veracity of siad reports, this so called Facility was an abandoned, rusted out former facility that I am sure the CIA helped Iraq build during our "enemy of our enemy (Iran) is our friend" period where we empowered Saddam in the first place.

Yes yes yes!

No no no!

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