How Much Embassy Is Too Much?


By Elizabeth Williamson

Washington Post
March 2, 2007

Mention the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to Lawrence Eagleburger and he explodes. "I defy anyone to tell me how you can use that many people. It is nuts . . . it's insane and it's counterproductive . . . and it won't work," says the Republican former secretary of state and member of the Iraq Study Group. "I've been around the State Department long enough to know you can't run an outfit like that."

The nerve center of Iraq reconstruction efforts, housed in an ornate former Saddam Hussein palace with soaring ceilings and its own espresso bar, the embassy in Baghdad is one of the largest foreign missions ever operated by the State Department. Its complexity and expense, some say, hampers reconstruction efforts and drains cash from diplomatic efforts worldwide. According to a State Department count, about 1,000 federal employees report to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, not including hundreds of private contractors. State Department personnel are assigned to roughly half the slots in Baghdad, and the rest are reserved for an array of agencies, including about 90 from the Justice Department, 20 from the Department of Homeland Security, and four each from the Commerce Department and the Transportation Department. They are needed, officials say, to rebuild transit and mail services, to assist small businesses, to advise politicians and peasants.

The mission's closely guarded budget is a source of controversy at State, and across the federal government. At $923 million for the 2006 fiscal year, the budget was 20 times that of the Beijing embassy's that year, according to the State Department. More than two-thirds of the money pays for security. Salaries for about 600 staff from other federal agencies are not included in that figure, nor are some expenses. "Maintaining an oversized mega-embassy in Baghdad is draining personnel and resources away from every other U.S. embassy around the world, and all for what?" said a senior State Department official, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Travel outside the Green Zone requires a security entourage and involves weeks of organization. The embassy is seen as a key target for violence, which, along with fear of reprisals, makes many Iraqis afraid to visit. Consequently, Americans who work there see relatively few of the people they are there to help. "Diplomats, in order to carry out their mission, need to be able to get out regularly and move about freely to cultivate professional relationships with a broad cross-section of contacts in local government and society," said Steve Kashkett, State Department vice president for the American Foreign Service Association, the department's labor union and professional association. "If security conditions prevent them from doing so, it raises legitimate questions about the usefulness of a heavily staffed embassy." "Just because we can't travel as freely as in a European capital doesn't mean we can't do our job," said a State Department official who declined to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak for the record.

The teeming embassy masks a desperate need for civilians to aid the reconstruction effort. To lure more, federal employees are offered 70 percent more than their base salaries for Iraq service, plus overtime, or special premiums for working long hours, according to the Office of Personnel Management. It is possible for senior employees to earn more than the secretary of state, who makes $186,600 a year. Kashkett said 1,700 diplomats have stepped up for Iraq service since 2003 -- about 20 percent of those eligible to go. The State Department has discussed drafting personnel. The blunt view, from Eagleburger: "We're throwing people and money at something without estimating what the culture demands. It's hubris."

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