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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 5:00 AM EDT

The efforts were not wasted, as the ambassador organized an embassy lacrosse team to gambol on the lawn. At one point the official Web site featured photos of young Iraqis receiving a donation of Major League Baseball equipment on the turf. The event was a special program the ambassador was personally involved with, because he believed in "sports diplomacy." Once he invited Iraq's only baseball team to his residence for some drills. He wore a replica of a Japanese-born Major League star's jersey, making the point that baseball, although invented in America, was an international sport (which is why the World Series includes only American teams and potentially a Canadian one). "Baseball is like democracy," he liked to say, "you cannot impose it. People should learn it and accept it." A previous sports diplomacy program donated hundreds of soccer balls to Iraq, each colorfully decorated with flags of the world. No one would play with the balls, because they included the flag of Saudi Arabia, which has a Koranic verse on it, and you cannot put your foot to a Koranic verse. Luckily, the balls were made in China, where they already knew not to include the Israeli flag, as it would have been awkward if we'd had to ask.

A sports diplomacy program donated hundreds of soccer balls, each  decorated with flags of the world. No one would
play with them because they included the flag
of Saudi Arabia, which has a Koranic verse
on it.

Most of the State people at the embassy were not me or my kin. While the various job specialties in the military (mortar plate carrier and helicopter pilot, cook and General) were united by a single uniform, a common service affiliation, and an esprit de corps, the State Department was more of a confederation, where lines were rarely crossed. If my kind were strip malls, the people here were Galleria.

The traditional diplomat was a big part of the organization and provided most of the upper management. While diversity played its role, this group was still mostly male, pale, and Yale in orientation if not in actual appearance. They were the deep thinkers, the plotters, the negotiators, the report writers. These folks, the ones the media always refer to as attending receptions wearing striped pants (striped pants went out of style with Hoover although many State officers have hung on to bow ties, seersucker, and men's hats), were content in their Iraq assignments, as their work involved staying in the embassy and sending important memos to one another and to Washington, nipping out occasionally for chats with ex-expat Iraqis imported and perhaps even test-tube-bred by us for such purposes. Upper management types created their own reality and walled it off from the rest of the country. Army joke: How does the embassy keep an eye on events in Iraq? From the roof.

Coming into the embassy from the field was one of the more stressful things you could do in Iraq, made worse if you drifted into Baghdaddy's, the embassy bar. You began to understand why embassy policy forbade photography at after-work events once you learned that the most important characteristic of Baghdaddy's was that booze was cheap. You bought a punch card for 20 dollars and drank and drank, as all the bartenders were volunteers from the embassy community and free drinks, heavy pours, and loose accounting were the norm. The serious drinkers rolled in right at 8:00 p.m. to start on two dollar shots of vodka, grain, or maybe kerosene. These were the older, former alpha males of the community, no longer able to attract mates and shorn of their once proud plumage, who just wanted to get drunk rapidly with purpose. Eight o'clock was like the VFW hall on a pale Wednesday afternoon—if you were there, you were there to drink, and if you were drinking, you wanted to get shitfaced. If you wanted to talk to anyone, you'd drunk-dial your ex-wife.

Architect's rendering of US Embassy before its constructionArchitect's rendering of new US Embassy before its construction

The next phylum slid in around 10, the 20-to-30-year-old embassy staffers. They all knew one another and liked to dance and have a good time, basking in their youth and coolness and self-importance. Baghdaddy's was not Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, but with a popped collar on a pink polo shirt, a mixed drink in a Day-Glo color, and sunglasses indoors, there was no reason why it couldn't be undergrad glory days all over again. Life in Iraq was no more real for these people than it was for anyone else dragging slowly through a one-year tour, but it was better dressed.

Things started to turn seriously sad around 11:00 p.m. Older women drifted through the door in twos and threes, with the occasional grim single. They eased on strappy sandals to take advantage of the embassy's 800 to 1 ratio of men to women. The odd dance between the older females and the game 30-year-old undergrads would be pathetically interrupted by the stirrings of the now drunken former alphas, clumsily trying to make conversation while pushing aside the young challenger bulls from the kill site. Natural selection was not a pretty sight.

The world's worst bar scene ended when the overhead fluorescents jerked on at midnight, trapping the unsuccessful hunters in the glare. Quick words were exchanged on the dance floor in desperate attempts to seal a deal, while the serious boozers retreated to preaching from their stools and a final drink. Back in the room, late-night TV offered little solace, with an Islam Gigante Lebanese dancing show interrupted by nearly constant commercials for a Middle Eastern product called Pif Paf. Like an elderly widow who avoids dining with other aging women, knowing loneliness shared is only loneliness multiplied, Baghdaddy's made everyone grow apart, while maintaining the illusion of bringing them together.

Excerpted from We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by Peter Van Buren (Metropolitan Books)

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