The Associated Press covered U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry’s announcement that a $511 million contract had been awarded to Caddell Construction, one of America’s “largest construction and engineering groups,” for a massive expansion of the U.S. embassy in Kabul. According to the ambassador, that embassy is already “the largest… in the world with more than 1,100 brave and dedicated civilians… from 16 agencies and working next to their military counterparts in 30 provinces,” and yet it seems it’s still not large enough.
A few other things in his announcement caught my eye. Construction of the new “permanent offices and housing” for embassy personnel is not to be completed until sometime in 2014, approximately three years after President Obama’s July 2011 Afghan drawdown is set to begin, and that $511 million is part of a $790 million bill to U.S. taxpayers that will include expansion work on consular facilities in the Afghan cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat.
Jo Comerford and the number-crunchers at the National Priorities Project have offered TomDispatch a hand in putting that $790 million outlay into an American context: “$790 million is more than ten times the money the federal government allotted for the State Energy Program in FY2011. It’s nearly five times the total amount allocated for the National Endowment for the Arts (threatened to be completely eliminated by the incoming Congress). If that sum were applied instead to job creation in the United States, in new hires it would yield more than 22,000 teachers, 15,000 healthcare workers, and employ more than 13,000 in the burgeoning clean energy industry.”
One night in May 2007, I was nattering on at the dinner table about reports of a monstrous new U.S. embassy being constructed in Baghdad, so big that it put former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s grandiose Disneyesque palaces to shame. On 104 acres of land in the heart of the Iraqi capital (always referred to in news reports as almost the size of Vatican City), it was slated to cost $590 million. (Predictable cost overruns and delays — see F-35 above — would, in the end, bring that figure to at least $740 million, while the cost of running the place yearly is now estimated at $1.5 billion.)
Back then, more than half a billion dollars was impressive enough, even for a compound that was to have its own self-contained electricity-generation, water-purification, and sewage systems in a city lacking most of the above, not to speak of its own antimissile defense systems, and 20 all-new blast-resistant buildings including restaurants, a recreation center, and other amenities. It was to be by far the largest, most heavily fortified embassy on the planet with a “diplomatic” staff of 1,000 (a number that has only grown since).
My wife listened to my description of this future colossus, which bore no relation to anything ever previously called an “embassy,” and then, out of the blue, said, “I wonder who the architect is?” Strangely, I hadn’t even considered that such a mega-citadel might actually have an architect.
Somewhere between horrified and grimly amused, I wrote a piece at TomDispatch, entitled “The Mother Ship Lands in Baghdad” and, via a link to the BDY drawings, offered readers a little “blast-resistant spin” through Bush’s colossus. From the beginning, I grasped that this wasn’t an embassy in any normal sense and I understood as well something of what it was. Here’s the way I put it at the time:
“As an outpost, this vast compound reeks of one thing: imperial impunity. It was never meant to be an embassy from a democracy that had liberated an oppressed land. From the first thought, the first sketch, it was to be the sort of imperial control center suitable for the planet’s sole ‘hyperpower,’ dropped into the middle of the oil heartlands of the globe. It was to be Washington’s dream and Kansas City’s idea of a palace fit for an embattled American proconsul — or a khan.”
Embassies the size of pyramids are still being built; military bases to stagger the imagination continue to be constructed; and nowhere, not even in Iraq, is it clear that Washington is committed to packing up its tents, abandoning its billion-dollar monuments, and coming home.
In the U.S., it’s clearly going to be paralysis and stagnation all the way, but in Peshawar and Mazar-i-sharif, not to speak of the greater Persian Gulf region, we remain the spendthrifts of war, perfectly willing, for instance, to ship fuel across staggering distances and unimaginably long supply lines at $400 a gallon to Afghanistan to further crank up an energy-heavy conflict. Here in the United States, police are being laid off. In Afghanistan, we are paying to enroll thousands and thousands of them and train them in ever greater numbers. In the U.S., roads crumble; in Afghanistan, support for road-building is still on the agenda.
At home, it’s peace all the way to the unemployment line, because peace, in our American world, increasingly seems to mean economic disaster. In the Greater Middle East, it’s war to the horizon, all war all the time, and creeping escalation all the way around.
It looks and feels like the never-ending story, and yet, of course, the imperium is visibly fraying, while the burden of distant wars grows ever heavier. Those “embassies” are being built for the long haul, but a decade or two down the line, I wouldn’t want to put my money on what exactly they will represent, or what they could possibly hope to control.
This is the kind of information and insight that is simply not presented in any mass media platform in this country today. As for the American republic, at this rate, just stick a fork in it. It’s done.