The Colossus of Baghdad
Wonders of the Imperial World
By Tom Engelhardt
Of the seven wonders of the ancient Mediterranean world, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Colossus of Rhodes, four were destroyed by earthquakes, two by fire. Only the Great Pyramid of Giza today remains.
We no longer know who built those fabled monuments to the grandiosity of kings, pharaohs, and gods; nowadays, at least, it’s easier to identify the various wonders of our world with their architects. Maya Lin, for instance, spun the moving black marble Vietnam Memorial from her remarkable brain for the veterans of that war; Frank Gehry dreamt up his visionary titanium-covered museum in Bilbao, Spain, for the Guggenheim; and the architectural firm of BDY (Berger Devine Yaeger), previously responsible for the Sprint Corporation’s world headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas; the Visitation Church in Kansas City, Missouri; and Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in North Kansas City, Missouri, turns out to have designed the biggest wonder of all — an embassy large enough to embody the Bush administration’s vision of an American-reordered Middle East. We’re talking, of course, about the still-uncompleted American embassy, the largest on the planet, being constructed on a 104-acre stretch of land in the heart of Baghdad’s embattled Green Zone, now regularly under mortar fire. As Patrick Lenahan, Senior Architect and Project Manager at BDY, has put it (according to the firm’s website): “We understand how to involve the client most effectively as we direct our resources to make our client’s vision a reality.”
And what a vision it was! What a reality it’s turned out to be!
Who can forget the grandiose architecture of pre-Bush-administration Baghdad: Saddam Hussein’s mighty vision of kitsch Orientalism melting into terror, based on which, in those last years of his rule, he reconstructed parts of the Iraqi capital? He ensured that what was soon to become the Green Zone would be dotted with overheated, Disneyesque, Arabian-Nights palaces by the score, filled with every luxury imaginable in a country whose population was growing increasingly desperate under the weight of UN sanctions. Who can forget those vast, sculpted hands, “The Hands of Victory,” supposedly modeled on Saddam’s own, holding 12-story-high giant crossed swords (over piles of Iranian helmets) on a vast Baghdad parade ground? Meant to commemorate a triumph over Iran that the despot never actually achieved, they still sit there, partially dismantled and a monument to folly; while, as Jane Arraf has written, Saddam’s actual hands,”the hands that wrote the orders for the war against Iran and the destruction of Iraqi villages, the hands handcuffed behind his back as he went to trial and then was led to his execution are moldering under ground.”
It is worth remembering that, when the American commanders whose troops had just taken Baghdad, wanted their victory photo snapped, they memorably seated themselves, grinning happily, behind a marble table in one of those captured palaces; that American soldiers and newly arrived officials marveled at the former tyrant’s exotic symbols of power; that they swam in Saddam’s pools, fed rare antelopes from his son Uday’s private zoo to its lions (and elsewhere shot his herd of gazelles and ate them themselves); and, when in need of someplace to set up an American embassy, the newly arrived occupation officials chose — are you surprised? — one of his former dream palaces. They found nothing strange in the symbolism of this (though it was carefully noted by Baghdadis), even as they swore they were bringing liberation and democracy to Saddam’s benighted land.
And then, as the Iraqi capital’s landscape became ever more dangerous, as an insurgency gained traction while the administration’s dreams of a redesigned American Middle East remained as strong as ever, its officials evidently concluded that even one of Saddam’s palaces, roomy enough for a dictator interested in the control of a single country (or the odd neighboring state), wasn’t faintly big enough, or safe enough, or modern enough for the representatives of the planet’s New Rome.
Hence, Missouri’s BDY. That midwestern firm’s designers can now be classified as architects to the wildest imperial dreamers and schemers of our time. And the company seems proud of it. You can go to its website and take a little tour in sketch form, a blast-resistant spin, through its Bush-inspired wonder, its particular colossus of the modern world. Imagine this: At $592 million, its proudest boast is that, unlike almost any other American construction project in that country, it is coming in on budget and on time. Of course, with a 30% increase in staffing size since Congress approved the project two years ago, it is now estimated that being “represented” in Baghdad will cost a staggering $1.2 billion per year. No wonder, with a crew of perhaps 1,000 officials assigned to it and a supporting staff (from food service workers to Marine guards and private security contractors) of several thousand more.
When the BDY-designed embassy opens in September (undoubtedly to the sound of mortar fire), its facilities will lack the gold-plated faucets installed in some of Saddam’s palaces and villas (and those of his sons), but they won’t lack for the amenities that Americans consider part and parcel of the good life, even in a “hardship” post. Take a look, for instance, at the embassy’s “pool house,” as imagined by BDY. (There’s a lovely sketch of it at their site.) Note the palm trees dotted around it, the expansive lawns, and those tennis courts discretely in the background. For an American official not likely to leave the constricted, heavily fortified, four-mile square Green Zone during a year’s tour of duty, practicing his or her serve (on the taxpayer’s dollar) is undoubtedly no small thing.
Admittedly, it may be hard to take that refreshing dip or catch a few sets of tennis in Baghdad’s heat if the present order for all U.S. personnel in the Green Zone to wear flak jackets and helmets at all times remains in effect — or if, as in the present palace/embassy, the pool (and ping-pong tables) are declared, thanks to increasing mortar and missile attacks, temporarily “off limits.” In that case, more time will probably be spent in the massive, largely windowless-looking Recreation Center, one of over 20 blast-resistant buildings BDY has planned. Perhaps this will house the promised embassy cinema. (Pirates of the Middle East, anyone?) Perhaps hours will be wiled away in the no less massive-looking, low-slung Post Exchange/Community Center, or in the promised commissary, the “retail and shopping areas,” the restaurants, or even, so the BDY website assures us, the “schools” (though it’s a difficult to imagine the State Department allowing children at this particular post).
And don’t forget the “fire station” (mentioned but not shown by BDY), surely so handy once the first rockets hit. Small warning: If you are among the officials about to staff this post, keep in mind that the PX and commissary might be slightly understocked. The Washington Post recently reported that “virtually every bite and sip consumed [in the embassy] is imported from the United States, entering Iraq via Kuwait in huge truck convoys that bring fresh and processed food, including a full range of Baskin-Robbins ice cream flavors, every seven to 10 days.” Recently, there has been a “Theater-Wide Delay in Food Deliveries,” due to unexplained convoy problems. Even the yogurt supplies have been running low.
But those of you visiting our new embassy via BDY’s website have no such worries. So get that container of Baskin-Robbins from the freezer and take another moment to consider this new wonder of our world with its own self-contained electricity-generation, water-purification, and sewage systems in a city lacking most of the above. When you look at the plans for it, you have to wonder: Can it, in any meaningful sense, be considered an embassy? And if so, an embassy to whom?
The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books terms it a “base” like our other vast, multibillion dollar permanent bases in Iraq. It is also a headquarters. But what a head! What quarters! It is neither town, nor quite city-state, but it could be considered a citadel, with its own anti-missile defenses, inside the increasingly breachable citadel of the Green Zone. It may already be the last piece of ground (excepting those other bases) that the United States, surge or no, can actually claim to fully occupy and control in Iraq — and yet it already has something of the look of the Alamo (with amenities). Someday, perhaps, it will turn out to be the “White House” (though, in BDY’s sketches, its buildings look more like those prison-style schools being built in embattled American urban neighborhoods) for Moqtada al-Sadr, or some future Shiite Party, or a Sunni strongman, or a home for squatters. Who knows?
What we know is that such an embassy is remarkably outsized for Iraq. Even as a headquarters for a vast, secret set of operations in that chaotic land, it doesn’t quite add up. After all, our military headquarters in Iraq is already at Camp Victory on the outskirts of Baghdad. We can certainly assume — though no one in our mainstream media world would think to say such a thing — that this new embassy will house a rousing set of CIA (and probably Pentagon) intelligence operations for the country and region, and will be a massive hive for American spooks of all sorts. But whatever its specific functions, it might best be described as the imperial Mother Ship dropping into Baghdad.
Amazingly, despite complaints from Congress, the present U.S. ambassador is stumped when it comes to cutting down on that planned staff of his — every one more essential than the last — and the State Department is actually lobbying Congress for an extra $50 million to construct yet more “blast-resistant housing” on the vast site. Maybe this is what the “build and hold” strategy, pushed by many counterinsurgency types, really means. We’ll simply plan in Washington, design in Kansas City, build through a Kuwaiti construction firm using cheap imported labor, and try to keep building out forever from our “embassy” in Baghad.
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.
When completed, it will indeed be the perfect folly, as well as the perfect embassy, for a country that finds it absolutely normal to build vast base-worlds across the planet; that considers it just a regular day’s work to send its aircraft carrier “strike forces” and various battleships through the Straits of Hormuz in daylight as a visible warning to a “neighboring” regional power; whose Central Intelligence Agency operatives feel free to organize and launch Baluchi tribal warriors from Pakistan into the Baluchi areas of Iran to commit acts of terror and mayhem; whose commander-in-chief President can sign a “nonlethal presidential finding” that commits our nation to a “soft power” version of the economic destabilization of Iran, involving, according to ABC News, “a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran’s currency and international financial transactions”; whose Vice President can appear on the deck of the USS John C. Stennis to address a “rally for the troops,” while that aircraft carrier is on station in the Persian Gulf, readying itself to pass through those Straits and can insist to the world: “With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we’re sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike. We’ll keep the sea lanes open. We’ll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats. We’ll disrupt attacks on our own forces…. And we’ll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region”; whose military men can refer to Iraqi insurgents as “anti-Iraqi forces”; members of whose Congressional opposition can offer plans for the dismemberment of Iraq into three or more parts; and all of whose movers and shakers, participating in the Washington Consensus, can agree that one “benchmark” the Iraqi government, also locked inside the Green Zone, must fulfill is signing off on an oil law designed in Washington and meant to turn the energy clock in the Middle East back several decades; but why go on.
To recognize such imperial impunity and its symbols for what they are, all you really need to do is try to reverse any of these examples. In most cases, that’s essentially inconceivable. Imagine any country building the equivalent Mother Ship “embassy” on the equivalent of two-thirds of the Washington Mall; or sailing its warships into the Gulf of Mexico and putting its second-in-command aboard the flagship of the fleet to insist on keeping the sea lanes “open”; or sending Caribbean terrorists into Florida to blow up local buses and police stations; or signing a “finding” to economically destabilize the American government; or planning the future shape of our country from a foreign capital. But you get the idea. Most of these actions, if aimed against the United States, would be treated as tantamount to acts of war and dealt with accordingly in this country, with unbelievable hue and cry.
When it’s a matter of other countries halfway across the planet, however, Americans largely consider such things, even if revealed in the news, at worst tactical errors or miscalculations. The imperial mindset goes deep. It also thinks unbearably well of itself and so, naturally, wants to memorialize itself, to give itself the surroundings that only the great, the super, the hyper deserves.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” inspired by the arrival in London in 1816 of an enormous statue of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, comes to mind:
“I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
In Baghdad, Saddam’s giant hands are already on the road to ruin. Still going up in New York and Baghdad are two half-billion dollar-plus monuments to the Bush imperial moment. A 9/11 memorial so grotesquely expensive that, when completed, it will be a reminder only of a time, already long past, when we could imagine ourselves as the Greatest Victims on the planet; and in Baghdad’s Green Zone, a monument to the Bush administration’s conviction that we were also destined to be the Greatest Dominators this world, and history, had ever seen.
From both these monuments, someday — and in the case of the embassy in Baghdad that day may not be so very distant — those lone and level sands will undoubtedly stretch far, far away.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt