A Harsh American Footprint

As a ceremonial and social event, the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was an unqualified success. The sun shone on a cool winter day. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani expressed his gratitude for America's sacrifices to drive a despot from his homeland and Ambassador Ryan Crocker pledged his country's continuing support. But the facility itself seemed to dwarf even these grand festivities.

This was my first good inside look at America's largest-ever embassy complex. I'm a mere layman when it comes to architecture, but the place struck me as dismal and defeatist. Maybe I'm missing something, like a new trend in rectangles, sharp corners and cheap metal sheeting. There are plenty other fortresslike embassies, some of which have caused debate in the past. But they at least tried to add an architectural flourish or two. This embassy, visible from large swaths of the capital, evokes rigidity and fear. Many compare it to a prison.

Though badly battered and dilapidated, Baghdad is something of an architectural showcase. Local designers are known for putting modern twists on traditional Arab imagery--pointy arches, trellised balconies and colonnades. Famous European and U.S. designers, drawn by the regime's oil money in the 1950s to the '70s, built graceful, avant-garde stadiums, universities and government ministries.

The new embassy is a collection of more than 20 boxy buildings in burnt orange and beige, plopped down on about 100 acres of walled land by the Tigris River. One of the largest office buildings has gray, bladelike horizontal metal sunscreens on the top half supported on naked girders. It's like the venting on some industrial furnace or maybe the world's largest, meanest cheese grater. Or a giant, multiedged razor. I kept my distance.

An adjacent building fights the sun with screens and antennae; added on utility rooms clutter the rooftop. Couldn't there have been any highlights or bordering in the stucco work? Couldn't some ambition be exercised to show that America cared about adding a worthy landmark to the Iraqi cityscape?

This project's sad history has been a reflection of America's struggles in Iraq since the beginning. The Green Zone complex rose under a conspicuous canopy of cranes while the war's violence prohibited Iraqi construction around the capital. The work was completed nearly a year late and, according to reports, more than $140 million over the original budget of about $600 million. Journalist David Phinney reported on CorpWatch.org in 2006 that Americans who worked on the project saw the Middle Eastern contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, endanger and abuse its foreign workers (a State Department inspector found no such problems). State Department officials routinely denied that the work was falling behind.

There were some basic flaws in the original plan. The embassy is too small to house the diplomatic and military staff who need to work there, so many of the more than 600 one-bedroom apartments have been converted into double-occupancy units. Though it is fortified by long, tall walls and cameras, it sits across the street from a huge Green Zone apartment complex where tenants can look down on their new neighbors. Reporters have been refused tours, but you can cross the river and photograph the complex from any number of balconies and public hotels.

Whatever flaws there may have been in the conception and construction, the ultimate fate of the complex depends on American actions in the future. U.S. officials like to point to the mission's enormity as a proof of America's commitment to Iraq. Talabani called it a symbol of the "affinity between the Iraqi and American people." In truth, it's still merely a promise. Just before the Stars and Stripes was raised, adding some needed color to the surrounding earth tones, Ambassador Crocker noted that ongoing transfers of power from the United States to Iraq signal "a new era." If the Americans who work in these buildings avoid the mistakes made by those building it--wishful thinking, disregard for their surroundings--people won't think it's so ugly.