Saturday, December 27, 2008
Friday, December 26, 2008
But, really, nothing is simple in Iraq. This country has forever been dominated by strongmen, whether a monarch or a thug (Hussein). Democracy and sharing power are difficult concepts for them to understand, much less implement. Our elections process in the US is difficult, ugly, and often bitter, and we've been doing it for over 200 years. If an Iraqi politician talked about his rival like American politicians do, he's liable to get shot. (Actually, they do talk about rivals like that, and they do get shot. Or bombed.)
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to consolidate his power. Nothing unusual in that, really, all politicians in charge do that. He's getting a pretty strong and growing push-back from all sides of the political spectrum: Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia alike. Evidently what's saving him right now is that there's no obvious replacement. But they're working on it.
I overheard a couple of very experienced guys talking the other day. One said that, in the "old days", he could just tell the Iraqis to do this or do that. Now he has to suggest. And he couldn't be too direct, either: "maybe it would be a good idea if you considered this other option ..."
All of which sounds encouraging to me. It appears to be a normal political process being worked through by some politically savvy people who've never really had to do this sort of thing before. Our role should be to let them do it, with maybe some words of advice here and there. The sooner they can handle their own politics, the sooner we can get out.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Here's one of Phil's tee shots. Our goal is to hit the tree on the right. I managed to hit both trees on my second shot.
Our DFAC staff made a HUGE cake for everybody's Christmas.
While they were at it, they made this gingerbread house, too.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Things change quickly around here.
Right now we've got two people from my office down in Basrah. We've been building a children's hospital down there for the past couple of years. It'll specialize in cancer cases. Think of it as the Iraqi version of St. Jude Hospital in Memphis. Construction is wrapping up and it'll start serving patients in six months or so. My office partners are at a conference to decide a number of issues to ensure the hospital is completed, staffed, equipped, and opened on schedule.
What's annoying to me is that, with Iraqi provincial elections coming up next month, we (the US) are not getting credit among the general population for efforts like this hospital. Nobody wants to be seen as being a friend of the US. We're spending $34M on the first children's hospital in the country, and it is physically dangerous for Americans to be seen in its vicinity. Meanwhile, Iranian influence in the same region is growing. The reason is that southern Iraq is predominately Shia, like Iran. Iran sends Shia pilgrims to holy sites in Iraq, while Iraqi markets (especially in the south) are becoming dominated by Iranian-supplied stuff. Despite thousands of years of historic strife between Iraq, Iran, and their predecessors, the Iranians have a pretty good PR effort going and are being seen as the good guys. We're being seen as the occupiers, therefore the bad guys.
So if the Iranians are the good guys, where are the hospitals that they're building? Where are the schools? How much effort did they put into rebuilding the Basrah Airport? What did they do to get the port of Umm Qasr reopened? How many electrical power plants did they build? What are they doing to help the Iraqis boost their oil exports? I think you know the answer.
We did a helluva lot to get the infrastructure of this country back (somewhat) on its feet again, even during the civil war. Now Iraq is sorta tottering along on its own two feet. Their ministries have been re-established ... they're often dysfunctional, but they're there. They have money coming in and some in the bank. So if they really wanted some of these things we're building for them, they could hire their own contractors. (Or they could lean on their "friends" the Iranians ... let's see how much support they provide.)
US funds for reconstruction in Iraq are rapidly coming to an end. I say, it's time. There's still a lot of money available in a number of different funding pots, but I'd rather see it spent on American roads, saving American jobs, than in a country that doesn't want our support anymore.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Monday, December 15, 2008
I'm still fighting jet lag from my trip, but it isn't nearly as bad as it was when I first arrived. My sleep schedule is more or less on the right track. I hit the rack the other night and woke up refreshed and raring to go ... until I saw that the clock by my bed said it was 1:30. I was able to get back to sleep with the aid of a Melatonin tablet. These things seem to work pretty well for me ... since they're a natural chemical, they're a lot better for the body than some prescription sleeping pills.
The weather here is very cool: around 30 in the morning and around 60 in the afternoon. Jacket weather. But it's still very sunny and as long as the wind's not blowing, it's pleasant outside. I went for a jog at the new Embassy compound yesterday and it wasn't bad at all. However, it seemed like everywhere I tried to go, there was something blocking my way. Cranes were putting up T-walls, roads were blocked off, some truck was delivering new containers of supplies. Very annoying to me, the jogger. But it's all part of the effort to get everybody out of the old Palace and into their new offices by the end of the year.
Since the 2003 invasion, the Republican Palace has been first the headquarters for the American effort in Iraq and then the official U.S. Embassy. Our new Embassy is about a mile west of the Palace. Offices are closing up in the old Palace left and right and moving to the new Embassy, to Union III (which is a base right across the street from the Embassy), or out to Victory Base at the airport. So with the office moves and with many people heading out on Christmas leave, this place is rapidly turning into a ghost town. It's eerie to be walking through a formerly bustling place (like the Green Bean coffee shop) and see nobody in there. It's like walking through Grand Central Station and seeing only five people. We can walk into the palace DFAC for dinner and have a choice of seating, where a month ago, we'd have been fighting for a spot. A few more weeks, though, and almost everybody will be gone, the DFAC will be closed, and the only ones left will be the construction crews who will prepare the place to be turned back over to the Iraqis.
And does anybody besides me see the irony in the fact that the U.S. Embassy has been in the "Republican" Palace for the past five years?
Sunday, December 14, 2008
My job is involved in reconstruction, and I deal with SIGIR on a fairly regular basis, so I'm always interested in what they have to say. (Note that I have a link to the SIGIR site in my sidebar). So as soon as I spotted this report, I dove right into it. Most of you won't unless you're a policy wonk. As noted, it's over 500 frickin' pages.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
The auto industry bailout took center stage in the media starting a couple of weeks ago. GM and Chrysler are next to bankrupt, while Ford can hold on a while longer. I saw polls that indicated people are pretty tired of bailouts and didn't support another one for carmakers, but at the same time, there's a lot of fear that if GM and Chrysler go under, with their hundreds of thousands of jobs, then the rest of the economy won't be far behind. Yesterday, the Senate Republicans killed the auto bailout bill. Today, the White House says it may tap into the Wall Street bailout fund to support the automakers. I gotta rant about this.
There's a ton of blame to go around, of course. GM and Chrysler have been management disasters on wheels for a couple of decades now. They focused on providing flashy trucks and SUV's that had mediocre quality (or worse) but were profitable, while pretty much ceding the car market to the imports. Ford, at least, has been working on its quality for a couple of decades, so although their designs may not be world-class, their quality is, which goes a long way toward explaining why they're not in as bad shape as GM and Chrysler.
The recession hits carmakers pretty hard, as it always does. People in fear of losing their jobs aren't going to go out and spend $25-50K for a new set of wheels. Even Honda and Toyota are hurting. But they (and Ford) seemed to understand years ago that someday the gravy train would end and they positioned themselves for it. GM and Chrysler didn't. Bad on their (high-paid) management.
But I don't think we can let them go under right now, either, which is what the Senate Republicans advocate. The loss of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of jobs would very probably push us from a recession into a depression. That was the logic that the Administration and Congress used to support the Wall Street $700B bailout, which was rushed through without much debate. The problem is that the $700B was a purely arbitrary figure. It wasn't supported by any research or anything, it was just a great big number used to put fear into the general population. And it worked. Now, however, we've got a figure of $34B that the auto industry needs and it's supported by facts. And with the Senate Republicans refusing any more bailouts, I think it's reasonable to take the money from the Wall Street funds.
And if the banks object, well, screw them. They're the bastards that got us into this in the first place. We've already pumped $335B of taxpayer money into their coffers with the specific intent of keeping the credit markets open and functioning. And what's the big problem with our automakers? Credit. The banks won't give it to them. Or anybody, for that matter - witness the debacle in Illinois recently, where Bank of America essentially shut down a window manufacturer by refusing to extend their credit. So if we're giving the banks money to pump into the credit market, and they're not doing it, where the hell is it going? Besides bank executives' bonuses, I mean.
So I say, take the money for the automakers from the Wall Street bailout funds. Use it to save jobs. The automakers need to stop putting out crap like Hummers and start making better cars that people want to buy. And they need to streamline/slim down their bloated bureaucracies, too. While we're at it, the UAW needs to bend a bit. The UAW refused to negotiate to help the American automakers become more competitive, which tells me that they're perfectly willing to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. So screw them. If I'm sending my tax dollars to help them keep their jobs, they've gotta do their part, too.
You know, if it wasn't for the auto execs, the UAW, and Congress, we might have a viable automobile industry.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Saturday, December 06, 2008
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Friday, November 28, 2008
This was at the Baghdad airport ... some T-walls to the left, looking across the field to the tower in the distance ...
Soldiers heading home had parked themselves outside the terminal, using the "duck and cover" bunkers for shade.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
- My wife, who puts up with a lot from me, and gives back even more ...
- My two dogs, Soozee and Indy ...
- My sister, her husband, and their three outstanding kids ...
- Rick and Julie and my grandson Jackson ...
- My cousin and aunt in Baltimore ...
- All our friends around the world: here in the Asheville area, in Baghdad, in San Diego, all around the United States and around the world ... (if you're a friend, I value you) ...
- Our lovely little house in the country ...
- A new President who will make the changes we need ...
- A country that debates its differences and changes the reins of power in a peaceful way ...
- An economy that, despite the current recession, is still the strongest in the world ...
And after being in Baghdad for a while, there are other things to appreciate:
- Electricity that's on 24/7 ...
- No real threat from armed groups, extremists, bombs, mortars, or machine guns ...
- No T-walls or concertina wire surrounding our houses ...
- No guard towers with armed guards at every place of business ...
- No need to move around in armored vehicles ...
- Plenty of clean, treated water ...
- Waste water that doesn't drain straight into the river ...
- Stores that carry things you would actually want to buy ...
- The freedom to go to any of those stores you choose ...
Our life in the United States is the envy of the world, for good reason. So on this American holiday, give thanks for all we have, and think about those people, military and civilian, who are somewhere out in the world doing everything they can so we can enjoy these freedoms.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
For a while there, though, I didn't think I'd make it. Just after writing the "Sittin' at Sather" post, I tootled over to the passenger terminal for check-in. The guy asked me for my orders and passport, which I handed over to him. "These aren't your orders. I need your originals."
What? They certainly were the orders, written up by the admin unit, telling me to go back to Washington, and when, along with all the accounting data.
"Nope. I need your original orders. The ones that ordered you to Iraq."
Oh shit. I don't have those. They're in my room. Which is locked. And back at the NEC. Meaning there is no way to get back to the NEC, get the orders, and back out to the airport today. "Well, final call will be in two and a half hours. If you get the orders by then, you can fly."
I hightailed it back over to the Sully compound and got on the computer. Nope, I didn't have the orders stashed anywhere in my Yahoo email files. I called my office and they dug through my computer files. Nope, not there, either. One of my officemates headed over to the NEC to see if she could get the guy at the front desk to let her into my room. Another contacted our Human Resources office, but they were in a meeting.
Meanwhile, time was ticking away and there wasn't anything else I could do except wait. I paced back and forth outside, cell phone in hand, trying to will it to ring with good news. I got on the internet in pursuit of futile hairbrained ideas. I tried to call various offices at the Embassy to no avail. I tried to come up with alternative plans. I tried to come up with a way to explain it all to Janis.
Finally the phone rang. One of my officemates had just emailed me a copy of my orders, which he got from the HR office that had been in a meeting. I raced back to the computer and it hadn't arrived yet, so I sat there punching the "check mail" button every 10 seconds until it appeared. Then I printed off several copies and took off for the passenger terminal. I got there with five minutes to spare. "Yep, these are good. You're on the flight."
I was so keyed up that it was impossible to sit down and relax. We were called up for processing a few minutes later, which really meant that we passed through the metal detectors and into another waiting room for for another half-hour wait. Then we were marched out to the C-17. After getting settled and watching several pallets of stuff get loaded on, we taxied out and took off. We were on our way! I finally relaxed.
The flight to Kuwait took about an hour. We were marched over to the passenger processing center, which consists of two very large tents filled with desks for processing the various types of people who come through there. State Department, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, AAFES, civilian, DoD contractor, you name it, there's a desk in there somewhere for them. Then on to another equally large tent next door for more processing. And more waiting. Then those of us who were State Department people were bundled into a Suburban and driven over to a hotel at the civilian airport.
The drive took maybe a half hour, but it was almost culture shock for me. In comparison to Iraq, Kuwait is a bustling modern economy. They had streetlights that actually worked. Electricity. Except for the gates to the base, there weren't any guardposts. The roads were smooth and in good condition. You didn't have to keep an eye on the guy in the next car to see if he was armed or maybe a suicide bomber. No T-walls. No concertina wire. There were department stores that were open and filled with stuff. Gas stations. When we walked into the hotel, I just started laughing because it was so ... normal. Which, at that time, was extraordinary.
I got with another guy who was heading home and we went to one of the restaurants in the hotel. It was an American-style steakhouse. We had some outstanding steaks served up by some very cute Korean girls dressed up as American cowgirls: tight jeans, red/white checked shirts, boots, and cowboy hats. Quite a hoot.
Later we all piled into another Suburban (they like Suburbans over there) and were driven to the airport. We must've been screened four times before we finally got on the plane. I was caught trying to smuggle a pair of manicure scissors into the United States. I'm such a terrorist. We took off a bit late, sometime well after 1 am Kuwaiti time, for the 13-hour flight to Dulles. I dozed some of the way ... "sleep" for me is impossible on an airplane ... read a book, walked around, and tried to doze some more.
Finally we landed at Dulles early in the morning. I went in to the State Department for a consultation meeting, which fortunately didn't take long. Then, with time to kill, I went over to my favorite place in all of Washington: the National Gallery of Art, to get a good art fix. In the afternoon, I made my way back out to Dulles. I caught my flight to Charlotte, changed planes, and finally arrived in Asheville about 8:30 at night. Janis was waiting for me at the gate. I can't tell you how good it was to see her again! We drove home and our two little dogs, Soozee and Indy, about had a conniption fit when I walked in the door. I was finally home - 40 hours after leaving Baghdad.
There's more to post. I have some sketches and some thoughts about Iraq and other stuff, but enough's enough for now. It's great to be home, even if it is only for two weeks. Then it'll be back to the grind again for another few months. But I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for the extraordinary efforts of my officemates back in Baghdad. I'm greatly in their debt.
It's dinner time now ... and it's NOT at the DFAC!
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Sather is the military side of Baghdad International Airport (or BIAP). It has the look and feel of a temporary installation that's perpetually under construction. Everything here is short-term: the buildings are all pre-fab trailers or containerized units, T-walls surround everything, power comes from generator units, and the water is trucked in and stored in big white tanks with POTABLE WATER painted all over the side.
I mentioned generators. They run 24/7. Iraq is a place where, if you want something, you better bring it. You want electricity? Bring a generator. You want potable water? Truck it in. You want sewage? Build a septic system. Septic systems don't make a lotta noise, and neither do potable water tanks (except when the truck comes to refill it), but generators do. Imagine every house and store in your neighborhood having its own diesel truck parked next to it and running full bore all day, every day, and you begin to get an idea of the noise level here.
Then there are the aircraft. Sather is a very busy place. Blackhawk helicopters, C-130's, smaller passenger planes, Apache attack helicopters, C-17's, and who knows what else are constantly coming in and out. The compound that I stayed at last night is right across the street from the military passenger terminal. Even though we're surrounded by T-walls which cut down the noise a lot, I was still treated to the constant (I mean constant) sound of various types of aircraft coming and going.
But still, I'm off work. This compound is a great way to decompress from the daily grind. There's nothing to do here except watch TV and read magazines about things you don't care about in the slightest. There's a Green Beans coffee place (think Starbucks in a trailer), and a Subway (why?), and a mini-mart, and that's about all there is to see and do.
Now I'm off to the passenger terminal to get manifested onto my flight. Then there will be several more hours of sitting around waiting before they load us up sometime this afternoon.
Might have to hit Green Bean one more time ...
Saturday, November 22, 2008
The past couple of days were hectic, which has been the norm lately. I've been trying to get things settled down in my area of responsibility so that others in my office can cover me while I'm gone. You may as well try to control the weather. We had a bit of a crisis pop up yesterday about a proposed project and I wound up spending hours running around trying to find out what was really happening and why and who did it. Turned out that one person had thought that it would be good to add what he thought was a small task to the project, so he copied some words to that effect from another project and pasted them in. Only the words he used required a massive effort and would've brought the project to its knees. It would be like trying to get a Mazda Miata to pull a loaded 18-wheel trailer. Ooops. So is it fixed? I dunno - I got the fix in motion and then had to pass it off to my officemates and head out. Here ya go, guys - I'll see you in December!
So I grabbed my vest and helmet and bags and hoofed it over to Landing Zone Washington. This is the helo area across the street from the Embassy. I checked in and sat down on the wooden bench outside to wait for the call. Military flights don't even try to stick to a published schedule like civilian ones do. They tell you to show up at a particular time, and then you might wait ten minutes or you might wait ten hours. I was fortunate: it was only about an hour before the woman came around asking "where ya goin'?" I told her "BIAP" (Baghdad International Airport) and she said "git yer stuff and git movin'". I was part of a group that was put onto two Army Blackhawk helicopters that were churning away on the pad. We barely had time to climb up (with our bags more or less on our laps) before the blades dug in and we lifted off.
I wound up sitting in the "hurricane seat". I think everybody ought to have that experience. The hurricane seat is in the back row, facing forward, next to the door. Which was open. Actually, it might have been completely removed. So the person facing forward gets the full rotor blast and air blast, as well as the visual thrill of looking STRAIGHT DOWN on kids playing soccer in the street about 500 feet below with absolutely nothing in between us except 500 feet of air. It's quite the thrill. I took a bunch of pictures and will post some once I can get them onto a computer.
So we arrived at the military side of the airport about noon. I checked in to the Department of State's compound, had lunch, and have been decompressing ever since. This is a pretty good compound: nice clean hooches for us travellers ("hooches" are small prefab trailer-style living quarters), another hooch with computers (guess where I am right now), and another stocked with a bunch of La-Z Boy recliners and a big-screen TV, and the DFAC next door. A bunch of us just got done watching "Twister" with Helen Hunt ... gotta be one of the worst movies ever made ... but when you're racked back in a recliner and your blood has congealed and you're half dozing, who cares? But when they switched over to Fox News, that drove me out.
Tomorrow I get on some kinda military plane (probably a C-17) and fly to Kuwait, then get on a United flight direct to Dulles. On Monday, I'll go visit with some State Department people and then head to Asheville in the evening. I'll be in my own home on Monday night. I can't wait!
Thursday, November 20, 2008
There’s also an analysis of it here:
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Friday, November 14, 2008
Last night, our Director gave me what I think is a compliment. She was talking about how, in this entire organization of around 80 people, there are only two or three people who could write things that she could work with. She's notorious for heavily editing things that go up the chain (hey, it's got her signature on it, so it better read the way she wants it to read). And my stuff is certainly not immune to her editing. So although she didn't say anything about my writing, the fact that I keep getting tasked to write IM's on things I know nothing about tells me that I'm in her small, select group of favored writers.
Myabe i ned to frget how 2 rite ...
I'm heading back to Asheville here in just over a week for my first R&R trip. I'll be home over the Thanksgiving holiday and return in early December. We'll be moving our office to the New Embassy Compound (NEC) at that time and I want to be here when it happens. If I'm not, I'll probably return to find my desk is in a broom closet in the corner or something. I learned a long time ago, when things are in turmoil, you better be there, to protect your own interests if nothing else!
The move is a big deal. The military and US government are reducing their "footprints" in the city and turning as many buildings and plots of land as possible back to the Iraqis. So the Palace, home to the Embassy since 2003, will be returned to the Iraqis soon, meaning everybody here has to go somewhere else. And we have to do it by the end of the year. So there is a lot of construction going on at the NEC as they get ready for offices and people arriving there daily. There's a lot of scurrying around as people pack up all their stuff and get ready to shift to their new digs. And there are a lot of people wandering around looking for offices that used to be here in the Palace and now are ... well, who the hell knows?
Maybe it's time to write an IM to the Ambassador about that ...
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
The upside to all this, of course, is that they can and do commute to work these days. That's a far cry from where they were a year or so ago.
They just don't all make it home at night.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
The Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, is the agreement between the United States and the different countries that our military people go to. We have SOFAs with almost all the civilized world. These agreements cover the legal status of military members in those countries. Most of them are pretty much alike. In many cases, the countries will want to take a fairly hands-off approach and let our military justice system handle any problem children, unless something egregious happens to a local national. The SOFA will cover what our military people can and cannot do in the country, under what situations the military rule will prevail and which ones the local or national laws will cover. It'll cover what kind of documentation military members need to get in and out of the country (usually just the ID cards if under orders). It'll even cover how mail to APO's and FPO's will be treated.
Now, the invasion of Iraq may have been dumber than dirt, but Bush ensured that he had at least a fig leaf of legal cover, and that was the UN mandate that said he could use military force in Iraq if he chose. That mandate expires at midnight on December 31. After that, American forces have no legal cover at all in Iraq. No UN mandate, no SOFA, no nuttin'. Which means that a servicemember walking down the street can be hauled off and thrown in a crappy slammer and our government has no authority to do anything about it.
American and Iraqi negotiators have been working on a SOFA agreement since spring. It's been a painful process, but they finally came to an agreement a while back and sent it off to their respective governments for ratification. It passed muster with the American government, but not the Iraqis. Why? Well, negotiation is a Way Of Life here. Nothing is ever "finally" nailed down. The moment you sign an agreement, that just means you've started the next round. And when an Iraqi politician is presented with a "fully negotiated" agreement, he is not going to sign it unless and until he gets his own words in there somewhere. So there were lots of new demands suddenly thrown into the mix.
The details of what these demands were are being pretty closely held, but some that have appeared in print include:
- The Iraqis want to be able to open and inspect all our mail.
- They want servicemembers who commit crimes (no real definition of what a "crime" is) to be subject to the Iraqi judicial and penal system. Their judicial system doesn't really exist, and as for the penal, have you ever seen a photo of an Iraqi prison?
- Private security forces, like the ones that protect my sorry ass when I have to go out to one of our projects, would be subject to Iraqi law, not American.
The chances of getting a SOFA agreement before the UN mandate expires are pretty slim. The Iraqi Council of Representatives is only going to meet for a short while in between now and the end of the year, and they haven't passed their budget yet. (Sounds like ours, doesn't it?). And the two sides are still pretty far apart, at least in their public statements. (Just because I'm working in the US Embassy in Baghdad does not mean that I know what the hell is going on ... anybody with unfettered access to the Internet probably knows more).
So what happens if there's no SOFA? Well, General Odierno has been pretty clear. If there's no SOFA, then American forces will pull back into their bases, shutter the gates, hunker down, and wait until there is one. Which poses lots of problems for us. I tell ya, I'm NOT going out the gate if I don't feel like I have cover out there. The International Zone, for example, will cease to exist. We'll just be a bunch of US walled enclaves in downtown Baghdad, and I don't see how we'll get freely from one base to the other. There are lots of implications for the Iraqis, too. General Odierno spelled them out in a 3-page memo. (Again, he didn't send me a copy ... the nerve ...) One example: as of January 1, there will be no air traffic controllers in Iraq. None. It's all done by the US military. There will be no training of Iraqi forces. There will be no backup when they go on raids against Al Qaeda. Our reconstruction projects will shut down. The list was serious enough to cause a lot of Iraqi politicians to stop and re-think.
Fortunately, just since the election, there has been a change in the Iraqi's tone regarding negotiations. They seem to think that Obama won't try to strong-arm them like Bush did, so they're more willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. So maybe the SOFA will actually pass. We'll see. If it doesn't, well, I'll be in for some very interesting times.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Here's a video that they produced:
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Monday, November 03, 2008
But still, I'll be glad when the election is over. When I go to the gym, the TVs are all turned to one of the news networks, and it's pretty certain that they'll have some talking head pointing to a color-coded map of the US (always missing Alaska and Hawaii, for some reason ... along with Puerto Rico and Guam ...) and yabbering away about how McCain has to win this state or Obama has to win that one. Which is pretty much what he said the day before, and almost completely contradictory to the analyst on the next station who sees it in an entirely different way.
And it seems like there are only two candidates in the race: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. I don't see anything about Joe Biden, which is okay with me since he's not the main attraction. And I see only a little more about John McCain. Instead, it's all Obama on one side and Palin on the other. Last time I checked, she wasn't at the head of the ticket. She can run on her own in four years, and hopefully she'll get her ass handed to her on a silver platter. The woman has no business heading up anybody's party, unless it's a soccer league beer bash in Alaska.
But all that will end after tomorrow. I can't wait. So do your civic duty: go vote, if you haven't already.
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Today the embassy had a exhibit of work from local Iraqi artists. Work came in from quite a few of them. Most of the pieces, as you can see, were 2D (paintings and some prints), while there were also a few small bronze sculptures. A good crowd showed up and sales were strong. Actually, sales were better than I've ever seen at our River District Artists Studio Stroll in Asheville. Maybe the RDA'ers need to bring their stuff over here ....
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
This room on the top floor of the palace contains - well, it contained - a full-size pool. You can see a corner of it in the lower right side of the picture.
Exploring a place like this gave me a lot of very different feelings, often simultaneously. I felt a lot of curiosity, wondering what was around the next corner. There was awe at what a bomb can do to a building. And I admit, there was a bit of voyeurism, too: peeking into Saddam's rooms and seeing places he never intended any American to see.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Since we're Embassy staff, we go out in an Embassy convoy. These are run by Blackwater. Yes, it's that Blackwater, the one the press has pilloried so much in the past. Frankly, I love these guys. I have found them to be very smart, experienced, and professional individuals. Many of them are ex-soldiers who saw some of the worst of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as civilian security forces, their mission isn't to go smash down doors, it's to make sure that people like me get into and out of places we need to go, safely and with a minimum of fuss and bother. The press likes to portray them as loose cannons. I've found them to be, without exception, very level-headed and unflappable. Exactly the kind of guys you want on your side if it ever gets ugly.
We went out in a convoy of several armored SUV's. There were lots of security measures in effect that I won't talk about, but suffice to say, I felt very safe. Still, as we got to the checkpoint that marks the boundary between the International Zone and the Red Zone, the tension in our truck suddenly went up. All of us put on our helmets - we were already wearing our vests - and our heads started swiveling. Security convoys do not flow with traffic because that's dangerous: that's how somebody with a bomb can get right up next to you. So we dominate traffic. That's the only way to describe it. We own the road and everybody else will wait. Maybe it seems arrogant if you're looking at it from the outside, but if you're on the inside, you realize that you have, in effect, a great big TARGET painted on your vehicle, and you have to take aggressive action to make that target hard to hit.
The press doesn't move this way. They take the other option: going low-profile and trying to be as invisible as possible. They use old beat-up Toyotas with the Bondo flaking off the sides, or taxicabs with local Iraqi drivers. So when they get caught in the traffic backups that convoys like mine cause, they gripe about it in print.
The project we went out to visit is a multi-million-dollar construction of a building in downtown Baghdad. Your tax dollars are paying for it, courtesy of Congressional largesse circa 2004 called the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund, or IRRF. IRRF allocated about $20B (that's billion with a big B) for projects intended to rebuild some critical parts of Iraq's infrastructure and kick-start the economy. This particular construction is an important part of that. Unfortunately, it's been plagued with all kinds of delays and is one of our biggest headaches.
Building anything in Iraq is infinitely more difficult than it is in the States. For one thing, there are always people around who'd like nothing better than to blow it up and kill everybody associated with it. Sometimes they try. Then there's the difference between the American way of doing business and the Iraqi way. That's the subject of another post. Hell, it's the subject of a book. Or a whole series of books, plus a few hands-on immersion seminars. The phrase "Americans are from Mars, Iraqis are from Zarkon IV" might give you an idea. Bottom line: we do business and project management in very different ways.
We do the actual construction in very different ways, too. While I'm not an architect or construction expert by any stretch of the imagination, even I can see things that wouldn't pass muster in the States. Or most anywhere else, for that matter. At this particular site, I was ecstatic to see rows of cinderblock laid in reasonably straight lines - it was quite different from the last site I visited!
I took my camera and sketch pad with me on the trip. I'll try to get a few images up on the blog in the next day or so. But I didn't do much sightseeing. There are too many people out there risking their lives to protect dorky little me, and I'm not about to put them to a moment's more risk than I have to. So when we move, we move quickly, and about all I can do is snap pictures out the window and hope to get something interesting. We'll soon see if I did.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
I have an exciting day ahead of me. I get to participate in the "Cost to Complete" meeting this afternoon. This is a really stimulating 3+ hours where we sit in a room with no windows and pore over spreadsheets with all kinds of figures about current projects and their progress and how much money will be spent on them. It's like being strapped in a chair and having your fingernails slowly pulled out, one by one. Last month I was a back-bencher in this meeting and got a serious case of whiplash from nodding off. Today, I get to sit at the table as a participant. The hard part will be in pretending to be interested while squelching my urge for inappropriate wisecracks.
And you thought it was all fun and games here. Not!!
Now it's noon, a few hours after the above post, and we're having a full-fledged thunderstorm. Lightning and thunder about every minute or two, pouring down rain. Amazing. And the interesting thing, for me at least, is that the air still smells dusty. It's like the rain just kicked up all the dust. I stood there at the window, enjoying the view, until a lightning struck a short distance away and I scurried back to my cubbyhole.
Monday, October 20, 2008
I got my official photographer's card today, so now I can officially take photos around the Embassy. Not that the lack of a card has stopped me before, but now I can whip out my Official Photographer card and impress the hell out of anybody that asks. Unfortunately, they don't want me to photograph things like the security guards, the bullet pock-marks, the sandbagged sentry posts, or the big T-walls, which of course are exactly the things I want to photograph. So I will probably will anyway. I'm such a rebel.
Surprise, surprise: the Embassy doesn't have an Official Artist card. It seems like I'm the first "artist" to ever talk to them. It doesn't surprise me: most artists have zero appreciation for authority figures and just go out and draw and paint whatever they want, anyway, regardless of what The Man says. Here, I might point out, The Man carries a loaded M16 and is authorized to use it.
But The Man's rules only apply on Embassy grounds. Outside the gate, it's Iraqi territory, and the security people let me know that Embassy rules don't apply out there. (Actually, nobody's rules apply out there!) So I'll take my paper and go find neat things out in the International Zone to go draw. And, hopefully, not get shot by other people's security guards.
Actually, to set your mind at ease, the International Zone is safe. It's the NRA's dream town. Everybody rides around in armored cars, all the military vehicles are bristling with 50-cal machine guns, every other person is armed with an assault rifle or at least a pistol (even the joggers), there are T-walls and concertina wire everywhere, and assault helicopters and jet fighters and Predators buzz around overhead 24 hours a day. Can you imagine a more perfect place to live?
The weather (since you asked) is pretty perfect these days. Lows around 68, highs around 95 ... in other words, about 25 degrees cooler than when I arrived just a few short weeks ago. We've had a couple of days where it clouded up and we actually got a few drops of rain on the windshield ... which, in Baghdad terms, is a torrential downpour. But most days it's dry. Very. Dry. And a bit dusty ... except on days when it's really dusty, in which case we wear those little surgical masks in an attempt to keep as much dust as possible out of our lungs.
Club-Baghdad-on-the-Tigris. Make it your next vacation spot!