Home The Washington Diplomat January 2012

State Takes Over for Military in Iraq — And Takes on Its Biggest Test

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With roughly 32 million people, Iraq ranks 38th in global population. And based on its 2010 GDP of $113.7 billion, the Iraqi economy is only the 63rd most important in the world; the economies of Belarus, Ecuador and Slovakia are all bigger.

Yet Iraq already boasts the largest embassy on Earth. The U.S. mission in the middle of Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone covers 104 acres, making it roughly the size of the Vatican.

And never mind the pending departure of U.S. troops by the end of the year. As the last of the remaining 40,000 troops stream out of Iraq this month, the American diplomatic presence in Iraq is about to ramp up dramatically, with the State Department soon to employ more than 16,000 people across the country (though not all will be U.S. citizens and many will be security and support staff for the diplomats).

For the State Department, Iraq marks a historic transfer of power from the U.S. military to the U.S. Foreign Service in what is still essentially a war zone — a critical test of whether diplomacy can stand on par with defense in American foreign policy.

Yet this unprecedented transfer of power is already raising troubling questions. The idea of elevating the State Department's relevance sounds good in theory, but is the diplomatic bureaucracy really capable of taking on responsibilities in a war-torn country from highly trained U.S. military forces that have already been on the ground for years? Will security conditions simply confine diplomats to their bases, unable to interact with the Iraqi people? And will the gigantic diplomatic presence in Iraq suck money and resources from the cash-strapped State Department, shortchanging American diplomacy in other important areas of the world, from Africa to Asia?

In addition to the sprawling city-within-a-city compound in Baghdad, Basra, Iraq's oil-rich southern port, will be home to one of the largest U.S. consulates in the world, with a workforce of 1,200 — making it bigger than most embassies. Most of them will be security contractors and civilian officials from State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. It'll also house personnel from the Office of Security Cooperation, which supervises security training and lucrative weapons sales to Baghdad.

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Photo: U.S. State Department
John Dunham of a Provincial Reconstruction Team, left, meets with the director general for agriculture in Salah Ad Din outside of Tikrit, Iraq, in 2009. In December 2011, the State Department will formally take over responsibility from the U.S. military in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the U.S. consulate in Erbil, a relatively quiet city in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, will be even larger. According to the National Journal, it'll have the largest concentration of American men and women in Iraq outside the embassy itself, with at least 1,400 staffers, including more than 100 troops.

Is all this overkill, not to mention a diplomatic debacle waiting to happen (imagine the headlines if a high-ranking U.S. official is injured or killed, or if one of their security contractors creates an international incident). Or is it the minimum price to pay for maintaining an American footprint in a nation where the military has waged an eight-year campaign, at a cost of more than 4,400 American lives, by some estimates more than 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, and hundreds of billions of dollars, an amount that's nearing the trillion-dollar bracket?

The State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often touts its ability to do more for less. State officials note that as the military drew down in Iraq this year, the overall Pentagon savings for 2011 was roughly $45 billion from 2010 levels, while the State Department's war-related expenses rose by less than $4 billion. Clinton has pointed out that every business owner she knows would gladly invest $4 to save $41.

But can State even afford to shoulder that amount? Foggy Bottom's annual spending of roughly $50 billion in recent years is dwarfed by the Pentagon's budget, with a proposed defense base budget for the 2012 fiscal year of around $530 billion (with another $100 billion-plus for the Afghan and Iraq wars). Yet State is set to take a disproportionate hit in the upcoming round of government spending cuts, with the House looking to slash 18 percent from State's 2012 funding bill. Clinton has warned the House Foreign Affairs Committee that planned budget cuts would be "devastating" to her agency.

"Savings squeezed from the State Department and foreign aid — which together are less than a tenth of the basic Pentagon budget — would be a tiny share of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. Yet the effects would be hugely damaging to American foreign policy," wrote veteran diplomatic correspondent Carol Giacomo in an Oct. 8 opinion piece in the New York Times. "Washington needs resources to support new democracy movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. This is also a critical time in Iraq and Afghanistan, where demands for diplomatic resources are growing. National security has always depended on more than military strength. We need diplomats to anticipate problems and find non-military solutions. The drive to cut diplomatic resources and foreign aid seriously harms our ability to do just that."

Yet by the same token, as the National Journal's Yochi J. Dreazen writes, "the ongoing expansion of the diplomatic facilities [in Iraq] — including two smaller outposts in Mosul and Kirkuk — is deeply controversial in Washington, where many lawmakers have questioned whether it makes sense for the U.S. to devote such an enormous percentage of the State Department's total budget to one country."

Steve Kashkett — former head of the American Foreign Service Association — complained at Clinton's first town hall meeting as secretary of state that Iraq will drain State's already dwindling coffers, taking people away "from all of our other diplomatic missions around the world, which have been left understaffed and with staffing gaps."

In fiscal 2012, the State Department has requested $8.7 billion for its Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan operations, including $5.2 billion for Iraq, which would indeed eat up a disproportionate share of its global operations budget. Just consider that the entire U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) saw its fiscal 2012 request dropped from $1.5 billion to $900 million by the House panel. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has also said the State Department could spend $25 billion to $30 billion in Iraq over the next five years.

But James Jeffrey, Washington's current envoy in Baghdad, has insisted that the United States cannot abandon Iraq during this long-awaited transition. In February, the ambassador testified on Capitol Hill that "to not finish the job now creates substantial risks of what some people call a Charlie Wilson's war moment in Iraq, with both the resurgence of al-Qaeda and the empowering of other problematic regional players."

Edward "Skip" Gnehm, a retired Foreign Service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and Jordan, agrees that "the investment we've made in Iraq since 2003 really necessitates a substantial American presence. Iraq will continue to face a lot of pressures, and many of the factions within Iraq will look to the United States" for guidance.

At the same time, Gnehm says he doesn't envy Jeffrey and what he's up against in Iraq. "Jeffrey is a very competent professional. If anyone can do it, he can," Gnehm told The Washington Diplomat. But managing such a monstrosity will be a "horrific job" because the embassy is so large, everything will have to be delegated to managers and section heads.

In addition, he predicted, working there will be quite unpleasant, given that diplomats generally look forward to traveling around a country, meeting local people and exchanging ideas — not being trapped within the walls of a fortified compound, consigned to writing internal reports and feeling frustrated and afraid to venture outside.

"What I'm alarmed about is that the State Department is being severely cut, as are other government agencies," added Gnehm, who now teaches a course on diplomacy at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

"We have a very delicate, difficult and complex situation in Iraq, but the price tag is minute compared to what's been expended by the Defense Department. State is going to be judged and blamed for all sorts of faults and negative consequences, when in fact we won't be in the position to influence events as we were before."

As a result, said Gnehm, the U.S. mission in Iraq will no longer have the resources to engage in soft power diplomacy, student exchange programs, commercial opportunities and other things he says "would keep the economic and social situation in Iraq moving forward in a positive direction."

Ned Parker, the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees.

"There are definitely Iraqis who are open to American culture, who want what America has to offer in terms of developing Iraq's economy and its education system," he said. "They hunger for these things. But others resent the U.S. presence. I don't think Iraq has really worked out what it wants from the Americans."

To that end, Parker pointed out that while Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for the most part seeks close ties with the United States, Muqtada al-Sadr — the Shiite Islamic cleric who exerts a great deal of political influence in Iraq despite his lack of any official government position —has issued statements labeling the hulking U.S. Embassy and its consulates an occupying force.

"America has to ask itself what type of relationship it wants with Iraq," said Parker, former Baghdad bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. "Does it want to move Iraq on a path toward a democratic government accountable to its citizens, one that provides its citizens with transparency and a fair judiciary? And if Iraq does want America's help, how do the two sides go about achieving that? Because frankly, troop presence alone was never going to achieve that. If the United States is going to help Iraq, then it needs to find effective ways to provide soft power."

But for America's diplomats to provide that soft power, it's going to require a whole lot of hard power to protect them. The security requirements in Iraq are so stringent that 160 active-duty military officers will be needed just to guard the Baghdad complex; experts say it could ultimately range as high as 500 troops. In addition, the embassy and its consulates will require armored vehicles, helicopters and other expenses not normally associated with embassies; all told, this means thousands of paramilitary security contractors. (Thousands of U.S. troops also still remain in the region. As a hedge against the sharp pullout of soldiers after the U.S. and Iraqi governments couldn't come to an agreement on whether some U.S. forces should remain in the country after December, the Obama administration is significantly bolstering the military presence in neighboring Kuwait.)

Staffers under the authority of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq will double from 8,000 to 16,000, with one State Department official recently telling the Huffington Post's senior Washington correspondent Dan Froomkin that about 10 percent of the total would be in the form of core programmatic staff, 10 percent management and aviation, 30 percent life support contractors and 50 percent security.

All of those figures add up to a private army, leaving diplomats either insulated within their compounds, or surrounded by a security entourage whenever they go out, impeding their contact with normal Iraqis on the street. Many observers also worry the enormous embassy itself will give average Iraqis, who still face constant struggles, from unemployment to ongoing violence, the impression that America's intervention is just entering a new phase of occupation.

Looking at the imposing embassy, which cost $750 million to build and is the size of 94 football fields, Iraqis may see more hubris than humility. Within the blast-resistant walls surrounding the complex that most Iraqis will never see is the embassy itself, 20 other buildings, a swimming pool, a gym, commercial facilities, a power station, a water-treatment plant and a 17,000-square-foot commissary. The world's largest diplomatic mission even has outdoor water-misters to keep people cool in the blazing Baghdad heat, reported the Huffington Post's Froomkin.

It's so big that it makes the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan — which cost more than $500 million and has 1,200 employees — small by comparison. Other unusually large U.S. embassies are located in Beijing, Berlin and, curiously, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

There is a precedent for this building boom: During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was one of the largest American diplomatic missions anywhere — though the new behemoth in Baghdad clearly sets a world record.

Indeed, Peter Van Buren, a career Foreign Service employee who's just released the book "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People," says the message America is sending is: "We're still here and we're still running the show."

Indeed, Gnehm said Washington has its priorities all wrong, funding big buildings at the expense of the small-scale programs that can have a tangible impact on the ground.

"In the grandiose plans that were on the table a year or two ago, there were some well thought-out soft power programs that were going to sustain America's influence by supporting those elements of Iraqi society that wanted to move in the direction we thought it should go. We assumed that Iraq, with its oil revenues, would have funds to pay for those projects," he said.

However, "as Congress shaves the budget and cuts funds for the State Department, it's made it impossible to undertake these programs at the levels we need to have a positive impact. I just fear a setup for failure here — that in a year or two, something terrible could happen, and you'll have members of Congress saying, 'Why didn't the State Department do this or that?' And no one will take responsibility for the fact that the budget was cut."

Indeed, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, in a particularly blunt federal audit, said the State Department is not yet ready to take over Iraqi police training from the Pentagon. National Journal reports that the watchdog agency said Foggy Bottom "had not adequately assessed Iraq's needs, and had no detailed plans, benchmarks to measure progress, or ways to track costs." Some 80 percent of the magazine's readers who responded to an online poll agreed that the State Department wouldn't be ready to assume control of the dangerous Iraq mission with only a handful of U.S. troops remaining in the country.

But Khairi Abaza, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, isn't quite as pessimistic.

"In an ideal world, most segments of the Iraqi population would like to see an Iraq free of any foreign troops. But the reality on the ground calls for the presence of some foreign — mainly U.S. — troops, to train and support the Iraqi forces," he said. "Even so, Iraq will not go back to a Saddam-style dictatorship. Considering the trauma of the mid-2000s, I think they are more or less immune to such a major confrontation."

Abaza, an Egyptian, said he's upbeat about the future of democracy in Iraq, for two reasons.

"First, the Iraqi people are tired of the violence, and they're ready to move on," he said. "Secondly, there are so many different sects, religions and ethnic groups in Iraq, that it's only through some sort of democratic process that they can all work together. The U.S. withdrawal will force all the politicians to find a consensus. If they fail to do so, they are well aware that Iraq can descend into a civil war."

Abaza also downplayed concerns that the monstrous U.S. Embassy in the heart of Baghdad will breed resentment among average Iraqis.

"I don't think that's such a big issue. For many years, Cairo had the largest U.S. embassy in the world, and some Egyptians took pride in that, because it showed how important Egypt was. So maybe the Iraqis will look at it this way," he said. "The key is for the Iraqi government to be seen as autonomous and independent — and not appear like a puppet of the Americans."


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 17, 2014

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