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.
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.