The Mother of All Embassies
All men are liable to error; and most men are, in many points, by
passion or interest, under temptation to it.
- John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding
I got it partly right. I also got it partly wrong. That's the plight of the pundit who is forced to rely on information he obtains from such unreliable sources as newspapers and the internet which, in turn, obtain the information from the United States government, a sometimes reliable, but more often, unreliable, source of information.
It was with unbridled enthusiasm that I greeted the news more than a year ago that the mother of all U.S. embassies being built in Baghdad was not only opening on time but within budget. I was right when I described it as the Mother of All Embassies. This embassy sits on 104 acres right in the middle of Baghdad. It can accommodate 1000 workers within the walls of the embassy. The ambassador's residence is 16,000 square feet and the deputy ambassador's residence is 9000 square feet in size. I observed that, unlike ordinary Iraqis, embassy personnel would never suffer from lack of water or electricity since it is completely self-sufficient. (According to an October 2008 survey by the Iraqi Health Ministry, at the present time one-third of the water in Baghdad is not potable and 17 percent of the piped water nationwide is not potable.)
When that was written the embassy was scheduled to open in September and the especially gratifying news was that not only was it opening on time but it had been built on budget. That was newsworthy because it was practically the only construction project undertaken during the occupation of Iraq that was either built on time or on budget. (In February 2007 Congress was informed that $10 billion had been wasted on reconstruction projects in Iraq. Although that seems like a lot, when one realizes that close to $2 billion per week is being spent there $10 billion doesn't seem like so much money.) The author's enthusiasm was, as might have been expected given the history of how things work in Iraq, unwarranted. The embassy was not completed in June and did not open in September. In the intervening two months all kinds of things were discovered.
According to a report in the Washington Post on March 20, 5 months after the scheduled opening date, a group of high ranking U.S. officials flew to Iraq to meet with First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting to try to understand why this writer was wrong when he said the embassy was opening on time and on budget in September 2007. That was not how the question was framed, however. The question was why was it costing more and why was the opening delayed. The answer was quite simple. According to the Post the construction had been placed on a fast track program and the way to help it get built fast was to keep State Department inspectors out of the loop. That was an ingenious ploy since everyone knows that inspectors of building projects frequently find deficiencies in the projects they are inspecting and those findings of necessity slow things up. If there are no inspections, deficiencies are not an impediment to swift completion. In the case of the embassy, however, eventually the inspectors arrived and the project was not finished on schedule. Instead of being completed in the summer of 2007 the certificate of acceptance and completion was issued on April 14, 2008. The cost was $144 million over budget. So much for this columnist's congratulatory piece in June of 2007.
The embassy is still not officially open, but Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, hosted a party on the Wednesday morning after the election to celebrate the occasion of the election. One of the guests was Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister. He said: "The size of this embassy and the number of employees who will occupy it are a sign of the American government's commitment to democracy in Iraq." He got the bit about the size right. The embassy is as big as the Vatican.
Ambassador Crocker welcomed the 250 guests saying: "We've just been through America's 56th presidential election. . . . this represents 44 peaceful transfers of power from one head-of-state to another." That was a really nice thing to say and those reassuring words, coupled with being spoken in the majestic hall of the new embassy, probably made everybody feel really good. Ambassador Crocker probably didn't mean to, but he inadvertently concluded his remarks with a really depressing note. He said: "[I]n America we have just one president at a time. That president today is George Bush, and he will be our president for the next two-and-a-half months." My guess is that put a real damper on the party.