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Form Follows Dysfunction: The Enduring Legacy of a Strategic Failure

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UNITED STATES EMBASSY IN BAGHDAD
John Moore via Getty Images

The great Chicago architect and author who helped shepherd the Modernist movement in design on the shoulders of his rigorous classical education, Louis Sullivan, declared famously in an 1896 essay, " ...form ever follows function and this is the law. Form does not change where function does not change."

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With this lasting manifesto in mind, it is worth looking at the sad and ironical legacy of the United States Embassy in Baghdad, commissioned at the halcyon height of America's multi- trillion dollar regime nation-building experiment in Iraq. It turns out the converse of Sullivan's principle retains equal currency; a purposeful folly is now fixed in stone for as far into the future as any can foresee.

While a bedrock neoconservative prophecy, evangelized after 9/11 by the Georgetown whisperings of self-serving, pro-invasion Ahmed Chalabi and his make-believe expertise, did succeed at spawning the Arab Spring and its broad, accelerating geopolitical turmoil, it failed completely by applying a naïve and ignorant bravado to the fantastical goal of exporting Jeffersonian democracy in one fell swoop. It turns out stuff happens; an American quest of good intentions could not overcome fifteen hundred years of sectarian schisms kept in check only by successive colonial dominion and homegrown tyranny.

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With the last personification of such American-bred dysfunction removed with the end -- at long last -- of the clownish mediocrity of Iran-sympathizer, Nouri al-Malaki, what remains besides the national debt and the duly ennobled example of those lost and wounded along with their families who shouldered the burden while the rest of us got tax cuts, is the diplomatic complex of no architectural equivalent in modern times.

Larger in area than Vatican City, the United States secured one hundred and four acres inside the renowned Green Zone, now rebranded as the International Zone,

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and hired the Kansas-based firm of Berger Devine Yaeger (now perhaps serendipitously called just Yaeger for unrelated business reasons) to design a sealed off city of 22 buildings with a completely separated infrastructure which opened in 2008 at an estimated cost of $750,000,000. The original resident target was 20,000, now dwindled to about 5,500, of which at least 4,000 are contractors and service personnel despite the fact that in a mere four years in 2012 Obama and a compliant Congress allocated another $100 million for unspecified "upgrades." Kept away by severe State Department travel warnings not to mention common sense, tourists and business seekers are absent. That means virtually every American left in the dissolving nation stays put inside what finally is a high-class refugee camp where instead of tented cots, every resident gets a well-appointed suite.

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By no fault of the design team, any attempt at architectural distinction seems compromised by security demands and a grandiose nod to the regional Seljuq vernacular meant at least tacitly to crown a thinly-disguised vice-regal intent. That the previous embassy, emptied in 1967 after the Six Day War, was by the great Spanish American architect, Josep Lluís Sert, designed as a cool and welcoming oasis, makes the recent outcome sadder still. Sert's formal goal of 50 years ago to express America's freedom-loving, non-sectarianism, and joyful optimism has no place in diplomatic function today.

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Besides some failed emblem of American exceptionalism shining brightly abroad, it seems reasonable to conclude that national security and its according intelligence tools were and remain the principle role for such a massive presence abroad. The fact a few weeks ago that within a matter of days, one third of Iraq could be swallowed up by a terrorist regime of unprecedented scale and depraved turpitude met only by a retreating army surrendering US -provided weapons and cash

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in its hasty wake suggests that the dysfunction housed here is even worse than first feared. The "dead-enders" prevail yet again. Just what do our public servants do inside the biggest diplomatic outpost in the history of the world?

With a nation now poised in a best case scenario to remain at least a federation of states divided according to sectarian allegiances and values (as then Senator Biden so presciently called for more than a decade ago) let's hope the embassy and its professional staff can assist in easing that path forward this time not with patronizing imposition but guiding cooperation.

Otherwise, this embassy complex will be nothing more than a future Ozymanidas. As Shelley wrote prophetically, "Nothing beside remains; around the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away." It is a reminder of how the built trace outlasts all the ideas that conjured it in the first place. Architecture gets the last word.

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