Empire’s Architecture

Should it ever be finished, the U.S. embassy in Iraq will stand as a colossal monument to the Bush administration’s failures

Allen McDuffee

The U.S. embassy in Iraq stands unfinished in Baghdad.

Panic shot through the State Department and White House earlier this summer when the American architecture firm Berger Devine Yaeger posted computer-generated images and layout of the forthcoming U.S. embassy in Baghdad on its website. Ostensibly concerned with security, government officials urgently acted to remove graphics to avoid aiding potential insurgents in their plots to disrupt the embassy’s progress. 

The real fear, however, may have been that the disclosure would draw public and congressional attention to everything that’s gone wrong with the embassy. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how insurgents could be any more disruptive to the embassy’s existence than those who are building it. Allegations of mismanaged funds, shoddy workmanship, kickback schemes, exploitative labor practices, ill-gotten contracts, blocked investigations, trafficked humans and covered-up deaths have plagued the construction of the world’s largest embassy. 

The planned 104-acre, 21-building compound on the Tigris River will include two office buildings, six apartment buildings, a pool, a gym, a movie theater and a food court. The embassy will be supported by its own power and water treatment plants – probably wise in a country that has, on average, one hour to four hours of electricity daily, and where 70 percent of the population lacks clean drinking water. 

The White House originally requested $1.3 billion to build the compound, but Congress allocated $592 million for the project in 2005. It was a hefty sum given that the United States didn’t pay a cent to Iraq for the four-square-mile stretch of land in Baghdad’s Green Zone, roughly the size of Vatican City. By comparison, the United States paid $22 million for land that was less than one-tenth that size for a planned new embassy in Beirut, which will now no longer be built because of security concerns over its proximity to a Hezbollah stronghold. 

Nevertheless, the nearly $600 million wasn’t enough for the embassy in Iraq. According to documentation provided to Congress by the State Department, an additional $144 million is needed for completion and the embassy may cost as much as $1 billion each year to operate.

First Kuwaiti, then the world

Initially scheduled for completion in January 2007, the embassy’s opening was delayed until June, then September, and now will occur on a yet-to-be-announced date sometime well into 2008, with no public explanation for the continued postponements. According to Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq construction, security is the No. 1 factor that impedes progress.” But on Oct. 5, the Associated Press reported that an anonymous source affiliated with the project said that the main problems were related to the embassy’s physical plant, including its electrical system.

Serial delays seem indicative of the pervasive ineptitude of the contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, which has been embroiled in controversy. First Kuwaiti – which has been in operation a little more than 10 years and is relatively inexperienced working on projects of this magnitude and extensive security specifications – was not the lowest bidder on the contract. To the surprise of its competitors, First Kuwaiti won the contract with a proposal of $60 million to $80 million more than the next highest bidders, some with as much as 25 years experience. 

The State Department maintains that First Kuwaiti – a major subcontractor for Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), the former Halliburton subsidiary accused of overcharging the U.S. government in Iraq – was selected through a competitive bidding process. But the Department of Justice and Congress are investigating allegations and reviewing documentation that implicates First Kuwaiti Managing Partner Wadih El Absi has obtained several subcontracts by promising $200,000 in kickbacks to Halliburton’s former subcontracts manager. These allegations raise serious questions about whether First Kuwaiti should have been allowed to continue bidding for contracts. However, this has not stopped El Absi, who is now lobbying Washington for the contract to build the new embassy in Saudi Arabia.

Despite recommendations from the Senate subcommittee on state, foreign operations and related programs to involve Iraqis in the project, 900 non-Iraqi foreign workers – some from the Philippines, Nepal and Bangladesh – are providing the labor on the embassy under First Kuwaiti’s supervision for as little as $300 each month. As reported in February 2006 by David Phinney in CorpWatch, the California-based corporate watchdog organization, these laborers work 12-hour days, often seven days a week, performing tasks considered unsuitable for U.S. war fighters.”

What’s more, Phinney collected multiple accounts that implicate First Kuwaiti in numerous violations of American contractor law, such as trailers packed with 20 or more people, poor quality food, water drawn from the polluted Tigris River when bottled water ran out and inadequate healthcare facilities.

Deceptive hiring practices are also a recurring theme. Many laborers and American observers have said that workers were told they were going to Kuwait or Dubai, only to discover mid-flight or upon arrival that Baghdad was the plane’s destination, according to CorpWatch. (It is unclear whether First Kuwaiti or the recruiting firms in the laborers’ home countries initiated this bait-and-switch tactic.) Additionally, workers were promised days off, shorter work days, higher pay and better living conditions. Nearly all workers paid recruitment fees to agencies that typically ranged from one month to three months of salary to get the work, and many of them will need to work a year before breaking even, amounting to indentured servitude. 

Attorneys Andrew Kline and Michael J. Frank in the Justice Department’s civil rights division have begun to investigate allegations of labor trafficking, contacting former First Kuwaiti employees and others involved in the project for interviews and documents. 

The Cookie’ crumbles

Congress has only recently begun to pursue the problems associated with the embassy, but it has been with great rigor. 

In an Oct. 4 letter sent to Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, demanded an explanation for what was holding up the project. These delays and deficiencies undermine the security and living standards of the almost 1,000 foreign service officers and other embassy staff that will be housed at the Baghdad embassy,” he wrote. Why was the committee assured as late as August that the embassy would open on time when these obviously significant defects existed?” 

On Sept. 18, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote a 14-page letter to Howard Cookie” Krongard, inspector general at the State Department, requesting Krongard’s cooperation with an investigation into allegations regarding his conduct. Waxman stated in the letter, Since your testimony at the committee’s hearing on July 26, 2007, current and former employees of the Office of Inspector General have contacted my staff with allegations that you interfered with on-going investigations to protect the State Department and the White House from political embarrassment.” 

Waxman cited many allegations against Krongard. Among them are: refusing to send investigators to Iraq and Afghanistan to examine wasteful management and fraud relating to the $3.6 billion awarded in State Department contracts (yet still concluding no fraud present); preventing investigators from cooperating with a Justice Department investigation into the U.S. embassy; preventing investigators from cooperating with a Justice Department investigation into allegations that a large private security contractor was smuggling weapons into Iraq; censoring sections of reports on the security of embassies so that vulnerabilities would not be disclosed to Congress; and rejecting audits from State Department financial statements that documented accounting concerns and refusing to publish them until points critical of the department were removed. 

Waxman further noted that State employees under Krongard’s supervision have described a dysfunctional office environment in which you routinely berate and belittle personnel, show contempt for the abilities of career governmental professionals, and cause staff to fear coming to work.” The result has been an office unable to fulfill its duties because of such high turnover, with some divisions operating with as little as one-third of the necessary staff. 

Before Krongard could respond, Waxman wrote another letter 10 days later about an exceptionally serious matter: reports that your senior staff has threatened officials that you could fire them if they cooperate with the Committee’s investigation into your conduct.” 

On Oct. 9, Waxman also wrote directly to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, questioning why the State Department would rely on First Kuwaiti, given its reputation. The bribery incidents, which occurred well before the contract award, implicate the company’s managing partner in an illegal kickback scheme. DCAA’s [Defense Contract Audit Agency] audit, which was released just months before the selection of First Kuwaiti, raises red flags about the company’s performance and billing practices.”

Waxman’s letter requested a response from Rice within 10 days. She failed to reply before her appearance in front of the committee on Oct. 25, during which her evasive answers to questions left committee members visibly disatisfied. 

As for Krongard, his problems may have just begun. (Editor’s Note: Krongard resigned shortly after this issue went to press.) On Nov. 14, he recused himself from the two biggest probes into the State Department – the Blackwater scandal and the embassy project in Baghdad – after House Democrats confronted him with evidence of conflict of interest, particularly related to his brother’s role as an adviser to the private security firm Blackwater. It is also possible he perjured himself on this issue, since he initially insisted his brother had no involvement with Blackwater. Waxman’s committee is continuing to assess Krongard’s performance. (A hearing scheduled for Dec. 3 had been indefinitely postponed as In These Times went to press.)

Washington’s praetorian guard 

The internal problems of the embassy are as mind-boggling as those plaguing its construction. On Oct. 7, the Washington Post reported that embassy construction has been complicated by a dispute between Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and James L. Golden – the top Washington-based official charged with project oversight. Golden, managing director of the Emergency Projects Coordinating Office, has been barred from Iraq by Crocker for allegedly disobeying embassy orders during an investigation of a worker’s death. Specifically, he is suspected of altering or destroying evidence in the case. According to the Posts anonymous source, When confronted by embassy officials, he allegedly told them he worked for Washington, not the embassy. Crocker then banished him from the country.”

Golden, a contract employee, is no stranger to being unwanted by an embassy. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut denied him the normally standard country clearance” when he was attempting to enter the country to work on the new embassy plan in Beirut. 

Golden hasn’t been Crocker’s only personnel problem. On May 1, Crocker requested a diplomatic surge to match the military one. In a cable to Rice, he wrote, Simply put, we cannot do the nation’s most important work if we do not have the department’s best people.” 

The Washington Posts Glenn Kessler reported that Crocker insisted the cable was not intended as criticism of Rice or the embassy’s staff. Backpedaling, he said, I need more people, and that’s the thing, not that the people who are here shouldn’t be here or couldn’t do it.” Regardless of the confusing and contradictory statements, and despite 1,000 American and 4,000 non-American employees, Crocker’s call is being heeded. So far, political officers have been increased from 15 to 26, and economic officers from nine to 21.

The potential deficiencies of staffing did not occur without warning, however. A March 2005 report by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General had warned that the talent pool of Foreign Service officers was becoming increasingly scarce” and that an increasing number of eligible Foreign Service officers are also likely to be influenced more by financial rewards and family considerations than by less tangible considerations.” 

Almost three years later, Crocker is still reiterating those concerns, which came to a head at an Oct. 31 town hall meeting among U.S. diplomats, who were facing the threat of either serving in Baghdad or losing their jobs. One participant, who identified himself as a 36-year foreign service veteran, told the Associated Press that he viewed service in Iraq as a potential death sentence,” and under these conditions, any other embassy in the world would be closed by now.” Within a few weeks and under considerable pressure, enough volunteers stepped forward to fill the Baghdad tour duties for this cycle.

The organizational chart of the embassy provided in early versions of a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report from 2005 resembled a multinational corporation more than a normal 50-person embassy. Aside from typical – but more populated – State Department offices, other governmental agencies will have offices at the embassy, including the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, Labor and Transportation. Strangely, given the American interest in oil and security, the Department of Energy and the Secret Service have not requested office space. More recent versions of CRS reports on the embassy have omitted the chart.

The most revealing aspect of the chart, however, was not its size but its power structure. It places the U.S. Commander of the Multinational Force-Iraq as equal in stature to the ambassador. According to the text of the CRS report, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq has full authority for the American presence in Iraq with two exceptions: One, military and security matters, which are under the authority of Gen. Petraeus, the commander of the Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I). And two, staff working for international organizations. 

In areas where diplomacy, military and/​or security activities overlap, the ambassador and the U.S. commander continue cooperating to provide co-equal authority regarding what’s best for America and its interests in Iraq.” 

This new orgnizational structure codified the post-9/11 concern that the Department of Defense has taken over diplomatic roles formerly held by the State Department. There is little doubt that military will trump diplomacy every time they collide. 

In the May 1 memo, Crocker also suggested that the overly restrictive” security rules that the diplomats must work under are hampering them because they cannot, for example, meet with officials in other cities. He requested authority to operate under less inhibitive military standards. 

Ultimately, for Crocker, the question is whether we are a department and a service at War. If we are, we need to organize and prioritize in a way that reflects this, something we have not done thus far.”

Empire’s cornerstone

The grandiose embassy, with all its problems, highlights the United States’ ambiguous role in Iraq – its imperial ambitions, as well as the shortcomings to such delusions of grandeur. 

Jane C. Loeffler, author of The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies, points out that it is difficult to imagine diplomatic relations with a country given the circumstances. Diplomacy isn’t the sort of work that can be done by remote control. Instead, it takes direct contact to build good will for the United States and promote democratic values.” 

Alongside more than a dozen permanent military bases in Iraq, the U.S. government is building this permanent symbol of empire by imperial design. With only 275 Iraqi parliamentarians and an Iraqi cabinet of less than 40 ministers, American embassy employees outnumber those who ostensibly govern the Iraqi people by more than three to one. This being the case, it’s hard to believe the United States is interested in diplomacy, promoting democracy or even full sovereignty.

During a May 2007 hearing, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said to Condoleezza Rice: Having said over and over again that we don’t want to be seen as an occupying force in Iraq, we’re building the largest embassy that we have. … And it just seems to grow and grow and grow. Can we just review who we really need and send the rest of the people home?”

Leahy was partially right. The United States doesn’t want to be seen as an occupying force. But that doesn’t mean occupation isn’t what the United States desires. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization, argues that the Iraqi government is both neighbored and dwarfed by the embassy, which is seen by Iraqis as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country.” Indeed, Iraqis have nicknamed the compound George W.’s Palace.”

If architecture reflects the society that creates it,” Loeffler says, the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad makes a devastating comment about America’s global outlook.”

Allen McDuffee writes about politics and policy. He blogs and hosts a podcast at governmentality and is currently working on a book about the influence of think tanks in Washington.
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