George Washington Offers Advice on the American Embassy in Iraq

In the November 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, William Langewiesche’s The Mega-Bunker of Baghdad offers a fascinating and sobering look at the new American embassy in Iraq—an embassy into which he writes, “American officials and their many camp followers are fleeing”:

The compound, which will be completed by late fall, is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world—a walled expanse the size of Vatican City, containing 21 reinforced buildings on a 104-acre site along the Tigris River, enclosed within an extension of the Green Zone which stretches toward the airport road. The new embassy cost $600 million to build and is expected to cost another $1.2 billion a year to run.

Langewiesche offers a needed historical perspective. Until the federal income tax was passed, our ability to fund a massive overseas presence was limited:

America didn’t use to be like this. Traditionally it was so indifferent to setting up embassies that after its first 134 years of existence, in 1910, it owned diplomatic properties in only five countries abroad—Morocco, Turkey, Siam, China, and Japan. The United States did not have an income tax at that time. Perhaps as a result, American envoys on public expense occupied rented quarters to keep the costs down. In 1913 the first national income tax was imposed, at rates between 1 and 7 percent, with room for growth in the future. Congress gradually relaxed its squeeze on the State Department’s budget.

Toward the end of his essay Langewiesche asks:

What on earth is going on? We have built a fortified America in the middle of a hostile city, peopled it with a thousand officials from every agency of government, and provided them with a budget to hire thousands of contractors to take up the slack. Half of this collective is involved in self-defense. The other half is so isolated from Iraq that, when it is not dispensing funds into the Iraqi ether, it is engaged in nothing more productive than sustaining itself.

What indeed is going on? It is fashionable to dismiss advice offered by the founding fathers as irrelevant for our times. Yet consider the timeless advice offered by George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address:

Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.

…Nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.

What advice could be more relevant? Washington advises, “have with them as little political connection as possible” and yet we have built a sprawling fortress on 104 acres that will cost 1.2 billion dollars a year to run.

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4 Responses to George Washington Offers Advice on the American Embassy in Iraq

  1. Elvis says:

    Funny thing, but George Washington also stated, in his farewell address of 1796, “As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. … avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts…”

    Credit gives you options. Debt limits your enterprise; reduces your initiative. As for the instant enterprise — explain it to me like I’m a 6 year old — how is spending $600M on an island nobody wants to go to with an operating expense of $1.2B/year an asset, an investment?

  2. Thanks for your comments Elvis.

    Indeed, an interventionist foreign policy and fiscal imprudence are strongly connected.

  3. louparis says:

    I lived and worked in Baghdad before the 1967 War and came back later to complete my work in 1968 and 69. Before the 67 war the American embassy had a staff of 30 odd people. Our local intelligence was greater because the embassy had several staff fluent in Arabic and they had a good network aming the Iraqi business comunity. I had early warning of the two military coups that took place in 1968: through the Belgian embassy taking care of American interests, assisted by several intelligence agents placed throughout the country. The situation in Iraq in 1968-69 is authentically portrayed in the Lou paris Novel “Death Raft on the Tigris.”
    If this monstrous new embassy is to be used for more than normal diplomatic functions, it is scary to speculate on what non-diplomatic operations will be harbored there.

  4. Lou,

    Thank you for sharing your expertise.

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