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Read It and Weep: The Depressing and Expensive Legacy Of Empire's Hubris In Iraq

If we were to really leave when we promised to leave, the U.S. might have a passing shot at launching a new narrative in a Middle East already on edge over the Arab Spring.
 
 
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Way out on the edge of  Forward Operating Base Hammer, where I lived for much of my year in Iraq as a Provincial Reconstruction Team leader for the U.S. Department of State, there were several small hills, lumps of raised dirt on the otherwise frying-pan-flat desert. These were “tells,” ancient garbage dumps and fallen buildings.

Thousands of years ago, people in the region used sun-dried bricks to build homes and walls. Those bricks had a lifespan of about 20 years before they began to crumble, at which point locals just built anew atop the old foundation. Do that for a while, and soon enough your buildings are sitting on a small hill.

At night, the tell area was very dark, as we avoided artificial light in order not to give passing insurgents easy targets.  In that darkness, you could imagine the earliest inhabitants of what was now our base looking at the night sky and be reminded that we were not the first to move into Iraq from afar.  It was also a promise across time that someday someone would undoubtedly sit atop our own ruins and wonder whatever happened to the Americans.

From that ancient debris field, recall the almost forgotten run-up to the American invasion, the  now-ridiculous threats about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Secretary of State Colin Powell  lying away his own and America’s prestige at the U.N., those "Mission-Accomplished" days when the Marines  tore down Saddam’s statue and conquered Baghdad, the darker times as civil society imploded and Iraq devolved into civil war, the endless rounds of  purple fingers for stage-managed elections that meant little, the Surge and the ugly stalemate that followed, fading to gray as President George W. Bush negotiated a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and the seeming end of his dreams of a  Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.

Now, with less than seven months left until that withdrawal moment, Washington debates  whether to honor the agreement, or -- if only we can get the Iraqi government to ask us to stay -- to leave a decent-sized contingent of soldiers occupying some of the massive bases the Pentagon built hoping for permanent occupancy.

To the extent that any attention is paid to Iraq here in  Snooki’s America, the debate over whether eight years of war entitles the U.S. military to some kind of Iraqi  squatter’s rights is the story that will undoubtedly get most of the press in the coming months.

How This Won’t End

Even if the troops do finally leave, the question is: Will that actually bring the U.S. occupation of Iraq to a close? During the invasion of 2003, a younger David Petraeus  famously asked a reporter: “Tell me how this ends.”

Dave, it may not actually end. After all, as of October 1, 2011, full responsibility for the U.S. presence in Iraq will officially be transferred from the military to the Department of State.  In other words, as Washington imagines it, the occupation  won’t really end at all, even if the landlords are switched.

And the State Department hasn’t exactly been thinking small when it comes to its future “footprint” on Iraqi soil.  The U.S. mission in Baghdad remains the world’s largest embassy, built on a tract of land about the size of the Vatican and visible from space. It cost just  $736 million to build -- or was it $1 billion, depending on how you count the post-construction  upgrades and fixes?

 
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