The New York Times is reporting that the United States is planning to cut its staff by as much as half at its 16,000-person strong embassy in Baghdad.
The $750 million embassy building is the largest of its kind in the world and the Times adds that a major cut in staffing just two months after American troops withdrew from the country signals a “declining American influence.”
The Times adds that an embassy of that size was established because the country thought it could guide Iraq through its new democracy. But the embassy staffers are stuck inside the building because of security concerns and how much influence it could have is under question. The embassy costs $6 billion annually to run.
“The swift realization among some top officials that the diplomatic build-up may have been ill-advised represents a remarkable pivot for the State Department, in that officials spent more than a year planning the expansion and that many of the thousands of additional personnel have only recently arrived. Michael W. McClellan, the embassy spokesman, said in a statement, ‘over the last year and continuing this year the Department of State and the Embassy in Baghdad have been considering ways to appropriately reduce the size of the U.S. mission in Iraq, primarily by decreasing the number of contractors needed to support the embassy’s operations.’
“Mr. McClellan said the number of diplomats — currently about 2,000 — is also, ‘subject to adjustment as appropriate.’
“To make the cuts, he said the embassy, ‘is hiring Iraqi staff and sourcing more goods and services to the local economy.’
Back in December, Al Jazeera ran a story that explored the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They spoke to James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and asked him what that kind of massive spending gets the U.S.
“Influence is a hard thing to put your finger on, obviously,” Jeffrey told Al Jazeera. “But what it does is provide a whole variety of services, equipment and assistance to the Iraqi government.”
One of the big issues that the Al Jazeera story bats around is that most of the money spent on the embassy isn’t on diplomats, but on security for them.
The Times story today as well as the Al Jazeera story from December mention a program run by the embassy, which trains Iraqi police officers. The program cost $1 billion last year and will cost about $500 million this year. Al Jazeera noted that an audit found there’s no way to know whether the program is working.
All of those things, reports the Times, led to skepticism and eventually the decision to downsize.