Monday, September 14, 2009

The Green Zone -- No Longer "The Bubble"

by Mort Malkin

The Green Zone -- No Longer "The Bubble"

The Pentagon under the B-C (Bush-Cheney) administration, warned Hans Blick and Mohamed ElBaradei to remove all the UN inspectors because the US Airforce and Navy were about to bomb the smithereens out of Iraq. In the “shock and awe” planning, the military was careful to avoid two locations on the target charts: the Ministry of Oil and Saddam’s Republican Palace. The Ministry of Oil had all the records of existing oil wells and locations of likely oil deposits identified by Iraqi geologists. After all, why were we invading Iraq? Saddam’s Palace — with the subsequent addition of a swimming pool, restaurants, and a couple of oases where liquor could flow freely — was slated for the US Embassy and surrounding Green Zone.

And so, it came to be. After US tanks and other armor rolled through and occupied Iraq, a four square mile Green Zone was set up as an American city within Baghdad. Housed there were thousands of soldiers, contractors, administrators, and an aberrant diplomat or two. As the occupation continued, solid walls replaced the barbed wire, and the seeming safety begat the Lock & Load Bar, the CIA Bar, the grand Baghdad Country Club Restaurant, and a libertine lifestyle. Life in the Green Zone went from monotony to ever better parties. The insurgents added to the excitement with periodic rocket attacks, but the rockets’ red glare did not deter serious revelers who attended the rooftop parties at the Olive House, complete with wet T-shirt competitions. The excesses of the Green Zone, then known as the “The Bubble,” became too much of an embarrassment for the new Secretary of Defense, William Gates. A few of the beyond-the-pale watering holes were closed down in 2007, right after his appointment.

In the early months of 2009, the Obama administration reacted to the American public’s ennui with the war in Iraq by promising to withdraw American forces. The Iraqis heard the pledge — they have 5,000 year old memories — and reminded the new guys in Washington of their promise. So, Obama proceeded to withdraw the troops (out of the cities to their nearby bases) and to hand over control of the Green Zone to the Iraqi police. Now, even official US vehicles must wear Iraqi license plates, or else. The Blackwater and Triple Canopy guards and Embassy staff cannot rely on their badges — they are no longer exempt from questioning and inspection. The ignominy. A female diplomat with a low cut neckline and a blue embassy badge was suddenly looked on as a potential terrorist rather than as someone to liven a cocktail party. A veteran US diplomat complained “The Green Zone used to be fun.” Embassy staffers are left to just dream about the good old days at the now shuttered Baghdad Country Club.

The seriousness of the Iraqis in running the diplomatic zone of their own country with no fooling around must be contagious. The deputy chief of the US Embassy recently instituted stringent guidelines for his staff. It is said that violations will be punished by a smack on the knuckles with a thick document. And, what of the Blackwater contractors? Who will tell them to behave? Maybe Moqtada al Sadr and the Mahdi Army.

Gadfly welcomes the Iraqi government to the discipline of statecraft and wishes them well. They would be wise, though, not to discard every last vestige of the American character that seems to alternate between trigger quickly and party animal. A sense of humor, even a touch of parody in the right place, can break stalemates in negotiations to produce cease fires and then, permanent peace. For training, Gadfly recommends a couple of viewings of the Marx Brothers film, “Duck Soup.” Also, you would do well to recruit a few of Iraq’s best comics to join the diplomatic staff. Such Special Envoys would surely bring a spirit of fun to the table, maybe a little creativity, too. You can use the Iraqi sense of history to entice them, reminding them of the holy city of Nippur where trade agreements and peace treaties were signed in the fourth millennium BCE. Nippur, with this 5,000 year old tradition, could become a world center for peace. Geneva has been a little lax of late.

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