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Palace Fit for a Viceroy


Heavy security, large-scale architecture, and riverfront real estate–these hallmarks of diplomatic compounds are evident in such locations as the UN Headquarters in New York. But imagine that the UN took up six times its current space, ballooning to 104 acres. Instead of the roughly six city blocks adjacent to the East River the UN currently sits on, it would stretch a third of the way across Manhattan, from 1st Avenue to 5th Avenue, taking up every block in that span between 42nd and 48th Streets.

Someone would cry foul. If not real estate developers, then certainly citizens who felt the UN’s overwhelming presence unnecessary might be upset. Thankfully for New Yorkers, a compound of this grand scale is being built not in Manhattan but far away–actually, right in the heart of downtown Baghdad.

Enter the Green Zone, home to the nearly-complete new US embassy for Iraq. Readers might recall that three weeks ago the architects of the new embassy, of the firm Berger Devine Yaeger, mistakenly posted secret plans for the compound on their website. The Huffington Post ran the story, as did many other media outlets.

The massive new US embassy will sit within the bounds of the Green Zone, directly adjacent to the Tigris River. Those who saw the leaked memo from Ambassador Crocker to Condoleeza Rice, which emphasized inadequate staffing problems in addition to limited Arabic capabilities among the resident DoS staff, will be relieved to know that the new embassy will have plenty of space for more staff. It will contain 20 structures, housing for 380 families (this author wonders: who’s really going to take their family to Baghdad these days?), luxury facilities like a nightclub and a swimming pool, and 15 foot thick outer walls, all at a cost of $592 million. A veritable “fortress of democracy,” you might say.

Domestic political sentiments about the US military presence in Iraq have waxed and waned, and it appears now that an eventual withdrawal of most US troops is inevitable. However, the massive physical and financial investment that the new embassy represents indicates that America is not leaving Iraq for good anytime soon.

Consider State Department spokesman Justin Higgins’s view on the matter:

As far as the size goes … both the President and the Secretary of State have said that we are committed to rebuilding Iraq and to restoring the economy and to stabilizing the security. The size of the embassy is in keeping with the goals of we have set for Iraq.” Perhaps the location of the embassy – the Green Zone is inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis – says something about exactly what those goals are.

So “size matters,” in the perspective of the State Department. There are legitimate needs for security at any U.S. facility in Iraq; moreover, it’s desirable for America to maintain some kind of diplomatic presence in Baghdad long after U.S. troops leave. Yet a massive fortified compound within an even bigger restricted American area smacks of an imperial presence. 104 acres says a whole lot more than plain old diplomatic presence, and a whole lot less than respect for Iraq’s sovereignty. An 8,000 man mission implies constant, far-reaching, direct involvement in Iraq’s domestic affairs for years to come. The U.S. will want to help Iraqis continue to build their nation. Perhaps, though, there are subtler ways to retain that capability than forcing Iraqi officials to come begging to a monstrous, palm tree-lined palace fit for a Caesar on the banks of the Tiber–I mean, Tigris.

Evan Magruder contributed to this post.

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