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Inside the World's Largest Embassy

Welcome to the Vatican-sized US Embassy in Baghdad, home to a $2 million dead lawn and the world's worst bar scene.

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Editor's note: In 2009, Peter Van Buren, a two-decade veteran of the Foreign Service, volunteered to go to Iraq. Drawn by "the nexus of honor, duty, terrorism, and my oldest daughter's college tuition," he signed on as the head of an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team, part of a "civilian surge" to rebuild the country and pave the way for the withdrawal of American combat troops. He'd joined the biggest nation-building exercise in history, a still-unfinished $63-billion effort that Van Buren compares to "past[ing] together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck." Van Buren's acerbic new memoir, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, recounts his two years as an official feather-paster in a country that's become an afterthought to most Americans.

Even before he hit the ground, Van Buren found that the State Department's efforts to stabilize Iraq were as haphazard and unrealistic as the initial military effort to invade the country. In his acknowledgments, Van Buren singles out former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, "who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned us there." Not surprisingly, Van Buren, who still works for the State Department, has ruffled some feathers at Foggy Bottom. "The State Department…is like a Mafia family: one doesn't talk about family matters outside the family," he told Publisher's Weekly. "When a colleague learns about my book, the first question is always 'Are you in trouble?' I am afraid the answer is yes." Van Buren says the department has been investigating him and that his boss delivered a threatening message from an unnamed superior, "just like in a gangster movie." 

Though Van Buren spent much of his time in Iraq in the field, in the excerpt below, he recalls life inside Baghdad's Green Zone, home to an immense, surreal US Embassy and "the world's worst bar scene."

The World's Biggest Embassy (104 acres, 22 buildings, thousands of staff members, a $116 million vehicle inventory), physically larger than the Vatican, was a sign of our commitment, at least our commitment to excess. "Along with the Great Wall of China," said the ambassador, "it's 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 had told us there was a Bath & Body Works in there, we would not have thought it odd.

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.

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The new embassy compound isolated American leadership at first physically and soon 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 them 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 for the happy children who would accompany their diplomat 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 Sadr City 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 members 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.

Welcome to the Green Zone: Kjirstin/FlickrWelcome to the Green Zone, now stay off the grass Kjirstin/FlickrThe 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. Never having seen so much seed on the ground in one place, they 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 the country be damned. The grass was the perfect allegory for the whole war.

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