Occupying Iraq, State Department–Style
You and Whose Army?
A fortress needs guards, and an occupier needs shock troops. The State Department's army will be divided into two parts: those who guard fixed facilities like the embassy and those who protect diplomats as they scurry about trying to corral the mad Iraqis running the country.
For static security, a company named SOC will guard the embassy facilities for up to $973 million over five years. That deflowered old warhorse Blackwater, under yet another dummy corporate name (Xe), will also get a piece of action, and of the money pie.
SOC will undoubtedly follow the current security company’s lead and employ almost exclusively Ugandans and Peruvians transported to Iraq for that purpose. For the same reasons Mexicans cut American lawns and Hondurans clean American hotel rooms, embassy guards come from poverty-stricken countries and get paid accordingly—about $600 a month. Their US supervisors, on the other hand, pull down $20,000 of your tax dollars monthly. Many of the Ugandan and Peruvian guards got their jobs through nasty intermediaries (“pimps,” “slavers”), who take back most of their meager salaries to repay “recruitment costs,” leaving many guards as little more than indentured servants.
Long-time merc group Triple Canopy will provide protection outside the embassy fortress, reputedly for $1.5 billion over a five-year span. The overall goal is for State to have its own private army in Iraq: those 5,500 hired guns, almost two full brigades worth of them. The Army guards Fort Knox with fewer soldiers; my Forward Operating Base made due with less then 400 troops and I slept comfortably.
The past mayhem caused by contracted security is well known, with massacres in public squares, drunken murders in the Green Zone, and the like. Think of the mercs as what the Army might be like without its NCOs and officers: a frat house with guns.
Most of them are Americans, though with a few exotic Brits and shady South Africans thrown in. They love 5.11 clothing and favor fingerless leather gloves. Think biker gang or Insane Clown Posse fan boys.
Popular is a clean-shaven head, no moustache but a spiky goatee teased straight out. You know the look from late-night convenience store beer runs. They walk around like Yosemite Sam, arms out as if their very biceps prevented them from standing straight. They’re bullies of course, flirting inappropriately with women and posturing around men. Count on them to wear the most expensive Oakley sunglasses and the most unnecessary gear (gold man-bracelets, tactical hair gel). Think: Jersey Shore rejects.
Aggressive tattoos on all exposed skin seem a prerequisite for membership in Club Merc, especially wavy inked patterns around the biceps and on the neck. They all let on that they were once SEALS, Green Berets, SAS, or Legion of Doom members, but of course they “can’t talk about it.” They’re not likely to disclose last names and tend to go by nicknames like Bulldog, Spider, Red Bull, Wolverine, or Smitty.
If arrogance was contagious they’d all be sneezing. All Aryan, all dudely, and now all that stands between those thousands of State Department personnel and Iraq. Oh yes: the seersuckered and bow-tied diplomats are supposed to supervise the mercs and keep them on the right diplomatic path, kind of like expecting the chess club to run herd on the football team.
With the US Army departing in whole or in part by year’s end, most of the array of Army air assets State used will need to be replaced. A recently released State Department Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) “Report on Department of State Planning for the Transition to a Civilian-led Mission in Iraq Performance Evaluation” explains that our diplomats will, in the future, have their own little Air America in Iraq, a fleet of forty-six aircraft, including:
* Twenty medium-lift S-61 helicopters (essentially Black Hawks, possibly armed)
* Eighteen light-lift UH-1N helicopters (new models of ‘Nam era Hueys, possibly armed)
* Three light observation MD-530 helicopters (Little Birds, armed, for quick response strike teams… er, um, observation duties)
* Five Dash 8 fixed-wing aircraft (fifty-passenger capacity to move personnel into the “theater” from Jordan)
The OIG report also notes that State will need to construct landing zones, maintenance hangars, operation buildings, and air traffic control towers, along with an independent aviation logistics system for maintenance and fueling. And yes, the diplomats are supposed to supervise this, too, the goal being to prevent an Iraqi from being gunned down from an attack helo with diplomatic license plates. What could go wrong?
At this point, has cost started to cross your mind? Well, some 74% of embassy Baghdad’s operating costs will be going to “security.” State requested $2.7 billion from Congress for its Iraq operations in FY 2011, but got only $2.3 billion from a budget-minded Capitol Hill. Facing the possibility of being all alone in a dangerous universe in FY 2012, the Department has requested $6.3 billion for Iraq. Congress has yet to decide what to do. To put these figures in perspective, the State Department total operating budget for this year is only about $14 billion (the cost of running the place, absent the foreign aid money), so $6.3 billion for one more year in Iraq is a genuine chunk of change.
How Does It End?
Which only leaves the question of why.
Pick your forum—TomDispatch readers at a kegger, Fox news pundits following the Palin bus, high school students preparing to take SATs, unemployed factory workers in a food-stamp line—and ask if any group of Americans (not living in official Washington) would conclude that Iraq was our most important foreign policy priority, and so deserving of our largest embassy with the largest staff and largest budget on the planet.
Does Iraq threaten US security? Does it control a resource we demand? (Yes, it’s got lots of oil underground, but produces remarkably little of the stuff.) Is Iraq enmeshed in some international coalition we need to butter up? Any evil dictators or WMDs around? Does Iraq hold trillions in US debt? Anything? Anyone? Bueller?
Eight disastrous years after we invaded, it is sad but altogether true that Iraq does not matter much in the end. It is a terrible thing that we poured 4,459 American lives and trillions of dollars into the war, and without irony oversaw the deaths of at least 100 thousand, and probably hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis in the name of freedom. Yet we are left with only one argument for transferring our occupation duties from the Department of Defense to the Department of State: something vague about our “investment in blood and treasure.”
Think of this as the Vegas model of foreign policy: keep the suckers at the table throwing good money after bad. Leaving aside the idea that “blood and treasure” sounds like a line from Pirates of the Caribbean, one must ask: What accomplishment are we protecting?
The war’s initial aim was to stop those weapons of mass destruction from being used against us. There were none, so check that off the list. Then it was to get rid of Saddam. He was hanged in 2006, so cross off that one. A little late in the game we became preoccupied with ensuring an Iraq that was “free.” And we’ve had a bunch of elections and there is a government of sorts in place to prove it, so that one’s gotta go, too.
What follows won’t be “investment,” just more waste. The occupation of Iraq, centered around that engorged embassy, is now the equivalent of a self-licking ice cream cone, useful only to itself.
Changing the occupying force from an exhausted US Army that labored away for years at a low-grade version of diplomacy (drinking endless cups of Iraqi tea) to a newly militarized Department of State will not free us from the cul-de-sac we find ourselves in. While nothing will erase the stain of the invasion, were we to really leave when we promised to leave, the United States might have a passing shot at launching a new narrative in a Middle East already on edge over the Arab Spring.
Embassies are, at the end of the day, symbols. Sustaining our massive one in Iraq, with its ever-lengthening logistics and security train, simply emphasizes our failure there and our stubborn inability to admit that we were wrong. When a country becomes too dangerous for diplomacy, like Libya, we temporarily close our embassy. When a country becomes dangerous, but US interests are still at stake, as in Yemen, we withdraw all but essential personnel. Similarly, in Baghdad, what’s needed is a modest-sized embassy staffed not by thousands but by scores—that is, only the limited number of people necessary to make the point that it is no longer an extension of a failed occupation.
Nothing can change the past in the Middle East, but withdrawing the troops on schedule and downsizing our embassy radically to emphasize that we are no longer in the business of claiming more space for the American empire might very well help change the future.