Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gary Hansmann, Artist, RIP

I just found out that my friend Gary Hansmann passed away on December 22.  Gary was an artist.  He was big, explosive, impulsive, loud, obnoxious, and generous.  Gary would agree wholeheartedly with all but that last.  He was a Individual (with a capital "I") in a world that didn't necessarily appreciate individuals.  Gary loved fine art, fine drinks, fine food, Paris, cats, and friends.

I learned etching from Gary.  He taught me, not only the techniques, but also the mental approach.  Art, good art, is not something you just throw off.  You come at it like a priest comes to church.  You give it your all and you make it as good as you can.  Expression is important, because without expression it is nothing.  But technique is important, too: technique is the sum knowledge of all the other master artists who have gone before you.  And if you're not willing to give it your all in either expression or technique, then get the hell out of here because you're wasting everybody else's time.

Gary and I swapped emails shortly before I came out here to Baghdad.  He was pissed at me.  He thought I was abandoning my art, my principles, for money.  That was not the case, but Gary was never one to hold his feelings back, and I never expected anything less from him.  And I always valued his thoughts.

The obituary says that Gary died choosing "scotch over chemotherapy and still beating the estimate by nearly four months."  That's classic Gary.  "The hell with the doctors, I'm going out the way I want."

If you're an artist, raise a glass to Gary.  One of our own, one of our finest, has passed on.

Hardships of Life in the International Zone

Yeah, life can be tough in the IZ.  How tough, you ask?  Well, an Embassy veteran sent my roommate a T-shirt today that lists the top 18 things that get us down.  He showed it to me while I was putting together the previous post.  I thought that you, my dear reader, would need to know this.  Note that the list was obviously put together by somebody of the fair sex.  And for those of you who are IZ vets yourselves, you'll certainly remember these experiences:
18.  The cleaning staff never puts things back the way you like them in the bathroom.
17.  Karaoke is only offered once a week.
16.  When cable TV is out, no Fashion TV.
15.  No drinking while armed.
14.  The cafe barristas put too much nutmeg in your latte.
13.  Manicures and pedicures are only available at lunch and after 1900.
12.  Lobster dinner is only offered once a week.
11.  Have you ever tried to eat lobster with plastic utensils?
10.  It takes a week to get your cashmere sweaters dry cleaned.
9.  Slow internet service in the trailer affects the speed of your online shopping.  
8.  Can't find your car in the parking lot.  (Yes, you have that problem in the States, but imagine a situation where the entire parking lot is filled with the same model SUV's ...)
7.  The PX shelves are empty ... again ...
6.  The dining facility offers only potato wedges, no French fries.
5.  Cell phone coverage is poor in the Embassy coffee shop.
4.  Can't find a "lay-flat" lounge chair at Liberty Pool, only a semi-recliner.
3.  KBR repairman interrupts your mid-day nap to fix the cable TV.
2.  No Baskin-Robbins due to convoy delay.
And the number 1 hardship of life in the IZ:
1.  I went to war and a garrison broke out!

Watercolor Sketches

I haven't posted any sketches or watercolors in a while, have I?  Time to fix that.  I did these three watercolors prior to heading out on R&R last month.

IZ Lamp Post

North Wing of the Palace

Here's what you get if all the stuff that's happening in Iraq ever happens in the U.S.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Iraqi Political Analysis

The New York Times has an interesting article on what's going on in Iraqi politics at the moment. Offices in the Embassy have been closely following these developments. Why would we care about internal politics in a dysfunctional 3rd world nation? Because our withdrawal is closely tied to it. The better they get, the quicker we leave. It's that simple.

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

Merry Christmas!

Hey, Christmas in Baghdad, what could be better?

Phil and I played a round of "golf" this morning, here on the new Embassy compound.  How do you like our fairways?

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

Christmas Eve

It's been a sorta-busy week for me.  Work-wise, things have really slowed down.  To a crawl, actually.  Loads of people are gone for R&R over the holidays, so there isn't a whole heckuva lot to do.  But our big thing was the move.  Our office was one of the last to move from the old Palace over to the New Embassy Compound.  We finally did it yesterday.  

Prep work took a lotta time.  We had to go through all our old files, some of which dated back to the old Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).  Which, in terms of our current situation, is ancient history.  There were files that had to be archived, files (as few as possible) that are still relevant and were to be moved, and the vast majority that feel into the Old Useless Crap category and were to be shredded.

My stuff was pretty easy.  I have almost nothing in the way of paper files since most of it is electronic.  (I have a huge collection of emails, though ... just 'cause ya never know ...)  So my packing took all of five minutes, and that included taping up the box.  And since we've been shredding stuff for weeks, we had very little paper remaining to shred or move.  So I went out to see if I could help anybody else and wound up shredding stuff for the front office.  I was there for four hours and seemed like I barely made a dent in it, even though I filled up seven huge garbage bags with shred.  (And this was for the same office that had been telling us for weeks that we should plan ahead and shred early and often ... yeah, sure).  Yesterday was The Big Move.  Of course, it moved like all other Big things: s-l-o-w-l-y.  Didn't get completed until late last night.

One of the holdups was that all the boxes going into the new building had to be X-rayed.  We had been told "NO ELECTRONICS", meaning no cell phones, calculators, iPods, headphones, or anything else of that nature.  So what did they find once they started x-raying?  Cell phones, calculators, iPods, headphones, and all sorts of other things of that nature.  Yeah, buddy, we sure know how to follow directions!  But then the security guys went overboard.  Now, I can understand the bit about electronics: anytime you have chips and so forth, you have the potential for security compromises.  But they were confiscating batteries and Christmas lights, too.  What, I ask you, kind of security threat is posed by a Duracell coppertop AA battery?  

But we're in our new digs.  Quite a change from the old place.  There, we were scattered in rooms all over the Palace.  Two or three here, maybe four over there, and way down the hall were a few more.  Now we're all in one big room.  We don't even have proper cubicles.  We have "cubicles lite": basically a small desk with a computer, some drawers, and waist-high dividers just around the desk only.  The building is regular office-modern, meaning it has no soul whatsoever.  Bland is an understatement.  One thing you could say for the old Palace: it had plenty of character.  Most of it was really cheesy character, but it jumped into "cheesy" in the biggest way possible, so there was always something interesting to look at.  Even if it was just to say "good Lord, what were they thinking??"

But now it's Christmas eve.  It's a day off for us.  Not that there's a whole helluva lot to do.  But it's a nice day, temperatures in the upper 60's, clearing (it's been pretty gloomy the past few days), and it's nice to have a chance to just walk around with nothing much to do.  I went for a jog earlier and that might be the highlight of the day.  That, and getting out all my email Christmas cards.

So have yourself a very merry Christmas!  I'm looking forward to another day of doing nothing tomorrow!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Army-Navy Game Results

One of my co-workers found this video on YouTube and it's too good not to share ...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Quiet Sunday Morning

The title of this entry sounds like a normal American weekend, doesn't it? Except in the Middle East, the "weekend" is on Friday and Saturday. Sunday is like our Monday. Are you confused yet? It messes me up all the time. So here it is, on a Sunday morning, which is really supposed to be like Monday, and there's nuthin' goin' on. Nothin'. This is Christmas week and many people have gone home for an R&R. And most offices have moved from the old Palace to the new Embassy compound. So right now, it's pretty dead around here. When I rode the bus in to work, there were six people on three buses. A month ago, they'd have been packed.

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

Slide Presentation

I recently made up a quick'n'dirty slide presentation of a small selection of my paintings and posted it on slideshare. You know I've been in the business world when I start making PowerPoint presentations of my artwork! Anyway, here it is - let me know what you think.
Paintings by Skip Rohde
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: art paintings)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday Update

President Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq yesterday. I found out about it from looking at the CNN web site in early afternoon. Apparently he came by the Embassy last evening, as the security forces locked down the facility. I stayed here in the office and avoided the trouble, but some people were caught in their vehicles for several hours.

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

Iraq Reconstruction

The New York Times had an article today about Iraq reconstruction.  Titled "Official History Spotlights Iraq Rebuilding Blunders", the article discusses an as-yet-unpublished Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) report that covers the entire reconstruction history, starting in 2001.  Which, as you may remember, is long before Bush started talking publicly about military action against Iraq.  The article itself is a bit disjointed, but it contains some teaser quotes that are interesting.  Much more interesting is the fact that they have the full report available online as a pdf download.  Or you can read it right there on the web page.  But since it's 508 pages long, you better make yourself comfortable.

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.  

I've only gotten a little way into it, but am already seeing some very damning information.  Not about reconstruction, but about the Bush administration, specifically that idiot Rumsfeld, and how much of this mess we're in now is directly attributable to him.  And this SIGIR report is from a guy who's a Republican political appointee!  However, it is not a political hack job.  The information in here is carefully researched and based on interviews with the people involved, including Colin Powell, Rumsfeld, his aides, Ryan Crocker (the ambassador to Iraq), and hundreds of others.  And it's based on their papers and notes, all very well footnoted.  In fact, I spoke this evening with one of the people involved in putting this report together - it was a 2-year-plus effort.  In other words, it's as accurate as humanely possible, and it will become a staple for Iraq War researchers for years to come.

The same cannot be said for the Times' article.  The writers went for sensationalism at the expense of accuracy.  The article starts off with the inflammatory statement that calls the reconstruction effort a "$100 billion failure".  Now, excuse me, but that's completely out of line.  Yes, it was poorly planned (actually, not really "planned" at all), subject to political intrigues, delayed by violence, suffered considerable waste, chaotic, and often not in line with reality.  However, even SIGIR realizes that there has been a lot of good stuff done.

Take, for example, the Sadr City R3 water treatment plant.  This plant cost US taxpayers a bundle (about $66M), but it is online now and providing water for almost 200,000 people in the Sadr City slums.  That doesn't sound like failure to me and it didn't to SIGIR when they did a report on it recently.  We've built over 130 primary health care clinics.  We've built a ton of schools, courthouses, humane prison facilities, sewage treatment plants, electrical power stations, electrical substations, roads, bridges, airport facilities, hospitals, you name it, we've probably built it.  We built a security system around their oil export lines that paid for itself in less than a week.  I'd say the large majority of projects that we funded are currently being used for what they were intended.

As the SIGIR report notes, the Republican-led Congress voted overwhelmingly to throw vast sums of money at Iraq for reconstruction, even though there was no coherent plan for how it would be used.  The money went to military and civilian officials who were dumped into the deep end and had to make it up as they went along.  They had to use their own experience, skills, and judgement to figure out what projects were most needed and then get them done.  And once projects were started, the vast majority were completed.  By SIGIR's own figures, only a small percentage (less than 20%) of projects were terminated for any reason: bombings, the security situation, incompetent contractors, whatever.  And this in a country that was undergoing a civil war the whole time.  

Yes, SIGIR and GAO and others can go back and find all kinds of fault with the way these projects were done.  There's plenty of blame to go around and they're still finding it.  That's their job.  But even SIGIR doesn't call the Iraq reconstruction effort a $100 billion failure".  It's not.  My predecessors did a helluva job with in very trying circumstances with no master plan to guide them.  They invented it and made it work.  And that's the American way, isn't it?

The New York Times writers owe the military and civilians who accomplished this remarkable feat a great big apology.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bailout Blues

One of the things I noticed while back in the States was that there is a palpable feeling of fear about the economy. Those of us over here are pretty much insulated from that. Yeah, we read the news, but we're so busy getting Iraq back on its feet that most of us don't focus on America. But at home, everybody is immersed in the American economy, and when it's sick, everybody is sick.

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

Back in Baghdad

Playtime is over and I'm back in Baghdad.  My R&R was great.  Janis and I had a wonderful relaxing time, mostly visiting with friends, getting some little stuff done, and doing a lot of nothing.  Can't think of a better way to spend a couple of weeks.  I didn't update the blog since nobody wants to read about how I lay on the couch sleeping through a football game.  But now it's back to work.

I left Asheville on Tuesday afternoon.  It wasn't as hard on either Janis or me as it was the first time.  Maybe we're getting used to it ... at least she wasn't saying "get on the damn airplane, already!"  The flight to Charlotte was bumpy but short.  Had a couple of hours' layover in Charlotte, so I grabbed a chicken caesar salad from the barbecue place but it didn't sit very well later on ... nothing major, just a slight feeling of "I'm still here and I'm not going anywhere soon ..."  The flight to Dulles was uneventful.  I was a bit worried since Dulles can sometimes be a bear to get around in and I had a short time to get to the next gate, but my incoming flight arrived just down the hall from the outgoing one and I had plenty of time.  Then it was 12 hours on the United flight from Dulles to Kuwait.  Ugh.  The bright spot?  I had an aisle seat in the center, and the only other person in the row had the other aisle seat.  So with lots of empty seats next to me, I was able to get horizontal and pretend to sleep for about three hours.

The State Department makes it as easy as possible to transit Kuwait.  We arrived about 6 pm and, after clearing customs, were met by some guys who whisked us off to the hotel,  where State has a suite where we can sit in La-Z-Boys and watch TV or surf the net or whatever.  Then at 2:30 in the morning, we were loaded onto a bus and taken out to the military base, where our handlers processed us through customs again, collected our bags, and got us manifested onto the military flight.  We finished up at around 5 a.m. and had just enough time to grab something from the McDonald's trailer before being loaded on the bus to go out to the plane.  More sitting around waiting, and then we were off.  I like C-17's - they're roomy and (for a cargo plane) relatively comfortable, and they're reliable to boot, unlike my experiences with C-5's.  

Anyway, we arrived in Baghdad in mid-morning and it was cold.  Yes, cold.  Low 30's.  We were processed through the arrival system, got manifested onto the helo for the ride in to the IZ, collected our bags, and then had a couple of hours to kill.  I grabbed a crappy cuppa coffee but since I'd been up for basically two days I needed it.  Finally we were crammed into the blue State Department helos and had that wonderful, bouncy, noisy, COLD, but fun ride into town.  We settled down at Landing Zone Washington and I hoofed it across the street to the Palace and my office.  I was home again.

Baghdad had some interesting things happen while I was gone.  For one thing, it got a lot colder, as I noted earlier.  But it also had one helluva rainstorm that included some serious hail.  Can you believe it, hail in Iraq?  Yup.  I saw the pictures.  Not only that, but it rained so hard that it flooded the basement of the Palace, did some damage to a few other buildings, and created a bunch of sinkholes around the NEC.  Some storm!

Work-wise, a lot happened, but then, a lot hasn't changed.  I'm trying to get caught up on today's situation.  Some things that were hot three weeks ago seem to have just gone away, while things that were going just fine have turned to shit.  In other words, everything's normal.  
I've got a lot of other things to write about, but not tonight.  I got a lotta questions about how I see things going in Iraq today and I'll try to answer them.  And I got an interesting questionto answer  about what I found surprising about life at home, after being over here for a while.  But that'll all have to wait til next time.  I've got some serious sleep to catch up on!

Saturday, December 06, 2008


While I've been enjoying R&R here at home, President-elect Obama has been busy getting ready for his tenure in the White House.  He has picked his economic team, then his national security team, and now he's picking them in ones and twos.  Earlier this week, he picked former Governor Bill Richardson to be the Secretary of Commerce.  This evening's news is that he's going to tap retired General Eric Shinseki as head of the VA.  

I gotta say, I have been extremely impressed with both the quality of the people he's been picking, and how he has been presenting them.  The press has been talking a lot about how these are all strong-willed people, not "yes-men", and for once the press is right.  Today's selection of Shinseki shows just how different things will be under Obama than they were under Bush.  Shinseki was the Chief of Staff of the Army in early 2003, during the buildup to the war, and he testified to Congress that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to secure the country.  That was NOT what Bush & Co. wanted to hear, and Shinseki was immediately forced out.  Now Obama is naming him to head the Veteran's Administration.  Not only is he hiring somebody who has followed his conscience and not toed the party line, but he's putting an accomplished veteran (one who was wounded in combat, no less) in charge of the organization that's supposed to take care of our vets.  Bush chose party hacks for most jobs, but Obama is going for proven abilities.  What a difference.

I have a personal stake in Obama's choice for Attorney General.  Eric Holder was the judge who granted my divorce way back when he was a judge in DC.  He struck me as a very sharp guy then, and he still does.

All the rest are equally good.  Robert Gates has been a superb Secretary of Defense.  Hillary Clinton will be an excellent Secretary of State, so long as her husband can keep his mouth shut.  General Jim Jones, the new National Security Advisor, is another outstanding choice.  

What was just as impressive to me, besides the quality of the nominees, was how he presented them: as members of the economics team, or members of the national security team.  This is important.  From the get-go, these strong-willed people are buying in to the concept of working together.  In the Bush administration, everybody pretty much went their own separate ways and didn't play well together ... witness Gen. Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld.  And Bush didn't appreciate anything that went counter to his (or Cheney's) preconceived notions.  But Obama has no fear of that.

When it works, it's a wonderful experience.  Years ago, when I was the Executive Officer at NSGA Misawa, we had some very strong-willed department heads and senior enlisted.  Frankly, I enjoyed staff meetings when there was a lot of rather ... ummm ... "animated" discussion about whatever topic was at hand.  Those men and women were not afraid of speaking their minds and were very articulate about what they believed.  I remember one time in particular where something came across my desk that required a decision.  There were good reasons for going any one of several different ways.  I called a staff meeting, described the situation to them, and asked for their thoughts.  It was like throwing a big ol' bone to a pack of very well-reasoned dogs.  Everybody had an opinion, and since their background experiences were all different, their opinions were different.  I had a great time being the moderator of that discussion.  They finally came to a recommendation and the CO and I adopted it.  Obama might get to do that on a daily basis.  

There's also the possibility that it could all spin out of control.  But I draw a comparison to sports teams.  The best ones have a lot of "difficult" members, but the coach gets them to work together, channel their energies, and focus on something that's greater than their own selves.  That's a common thread in almost all championship-winning teams, at any level, and in any sport, from high school football to NASCAR to the New York Yankees.  

And face it: we need a championship-winning administration right about now.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

War Photographer

I just discovered a superb war photographer.  His name is Zoriah, and he has been working in Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and other hot spots around the world.  Take a look at his website and also his blog.  These pictures are stunning.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Web Site Update

Over the past couple of months, I've posted the occasional sketch here in this blog.  Today, I added a section to my web site that collects some of the sketches into one place.  I'll keep the web site updated with new sketches as well as watercolors.  Let me know what you think of them.

Friday, November 28, 2008

More Sketches

Here are a few of my sketches made during my epic journey from Baghdad to Kuwait.
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.

Nothin' much to do on a C-17 flight except snooze.

The great thing about sleeping soldiers is that they hold still for sketchy artists like me.

Here's the inside of the cargo plane, looking forward.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving and I have a lot to be thankful for:
- 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

Home Again

It's so good to be home again! The trip back had its stresses and strains, but it's over with. I'm back with all my three wimmin-folk - Janis and our two dogs, Soozee and Indy.

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


I told you about the helo trip from the International Zone out to the Baghdad Airport.  Here are some photos from that trip.

This was looking out the door of the helo.  

In my post, I noted that the door was open ... or that it was removed entirely.  This'll give you an idea of how close we were sitting to the edge.

Helos always travel in groups.  Here's our partner.

Your intrepid correspondent in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) regalia, sitting next to the helo door.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sittin' at Sather

Sather Air Force Base is noisy.

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

Now For A Little R&R

Yep, you read that right. I'm on R&R. Where else can you get a 2 1/2-week vacation after just 3 months on the job? Must be the federal service ...

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

US-Iraq Security Agreement

Although the Administration has not released the contents of the new security agreement with Iraq, the McClatchy News Service (which I’d never heard of until recently) obtained an Arabic version and had it translated. You can read it here:

There’s also an analysis of it here:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

And You Thought Diplomacy Meant Dealing With Foreigners

My job has certainly been keeping me busy lately.  Which is a good thing, I guess.  When I started here, they had me doing a review of all the ongoing projects that were funded by the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund, or IRRF.  This is a $50B fund that Congress set up to help rebuild the country.  We've done a lot of projects with that money.  Most of them are done, but we still have quite a few that are ongoing.  Some will continue into 2010.  Anyway, my job was to look at all the projects and identify the ones that were our problem children.  It took me about a month, but now we have a pretty good handle on it.  I update the list periodically and see what's changed.  Usually not much, especially for the problems.

But now that the review is done, my job has morphed into something else.  I'm a liaison between the Embassy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  These are the guys who actually build the projects that we fund.  They have the expertise in engineering and construction and contracting that the State Department doesn't.  My job now is to make sure that what the Embassy wants is communicated to the Corps of Engineers, and also that the Corps is getting the information it needs to do the job.  They are not the same thing.  Basically, I keep looking for the holes in the information flow going both ways and try to fill it.  

It's a rewarding job sometimes, and sometimes it's frustrating.  I work with a lot of strong-willed Type A hard-chargers (the kind of people who would volunteer to go to someplace like Iraq in the first place).  They can get pretty passionate about whatever position it is that they've taken.  And so when I'm trying to find out something from, say, people in the Embassy, I'll get a very energetic well-reasoned well-spun story that contains about half the facts.  Then I'll go over to the Corp's compound and get an equally energetic well-reasoned well-spun story that contains a different set of half the facts.  The two sets usually overlap to some small degree, but often I'll find that they both omit another group of facts that's critical to understanding the full story.

It's kinda like negotiating between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

So while I tear my hair out in frustration sometimes, I can also point to some progress.  We've got some programs moving that had been stalled.  I'm getting answers to both groups about things that have not been answered before.  The end result will be good projects that will make a difference to the Iraqi people.  And I can live with that.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sights and Sounds

This MRAP was over by the Exchange this afternoon and I took the opportunity to do a sketch of it.  I don't know what it is about these trucks, but I get a huge kick out of drawing them.  Unlike civilian vehicles, these things are not "styled" at all, everything is functional, and since its function is bizarre, so is the shape.  So there is no shortage of interesting shapes to play with, and to get it to look right, you have to really look at it.

Several times today I made it a point to stop and listen.  I'm normally a visual guy, so it was intriguing to focus on a different sense.  Here are some of the sounds from Baghdad today:
- Chirping of little birds chasing each other around a tree.
- Sudden barrage of fire from the firing range down the street.  Then, just as suddenly, silence.
- Horn beeps from the car traffic.
- Thumping of the helicopters passing overhead.
- Quiet chatter of the guards at the gate.
- Diesel rumble of heavy armored vehicles.
- Clicking of pistols being cleared at every entry point to a building.
- Faint high-speed engine noise from generators at the Iraqi houses on the other side of the wall.
- Plop-plop-plop of joggers going by.
- Pleading of the young Iraqi boys trying to sell pirated DVDs or Saddam-era souvenir dinar.
- Heavy rumble and shriek of the big steel gates opening and closing.
- Squawk of a siren from a VIP convoy.
- Drone of the muezzins doing the call-to-prayer over the speakers at the mosque.
- Howling of dogs at the muezzins.
- A jet fighter circling lazily high overhead.
- The CLUMP of my door closing behind me.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Morning

My eyeballs have been pretty much burned up by looking at my computer screen all week. I kept getting tasked with writing Information Memorandums (IM's) to go up to the Ambassador, as well as writing responses to various high-level letters, and editing/coordinating a new set of guidelines with another organization. Writing stuff is an integral part of the job, but this week has been ridiculous. Particularly since I knew virtually nothing about the things I had to write the papers and letters for.

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

A Trip to Victory Base

I hope you remembered your favorite veteran today.  I had to work.  Not that it's such a big deal here.  I mean, what else is there to do?  Go hang out at the mall?  I went out to Victory Base for a meeting.

That sounds pretty simple, but it isn't.  Victory Base is out at the airport, maybe ten miles away, and getting there means traveling through the Red Zone.  Since you can't just hop in your car and drive, even if your car is an armored Excursion, you have to go in a military convoy.  They run several times a day.  I signed myself up for the out-and-back trip several days ago.  This morning, I put on my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment, meaning my body armor and my helmet), grabbed my shoulder bag with notebook and sketchpad, and headed for the rhino station.

Our convoy pulled in right on schedule.  It consisted of several large MRAPs and two Rhinos.  As I've noted before, the MRAPs are big and evil trucks, with 50-caliber gun turrets sticking out the top.  The Rhinos are essentially buses that look like motorhomes from a Mad Max movie.  I was busy sketching a Rhino when the call came to load up.  We were soon at the last gate before the Red Zone and the Rhino crew told everybody to set their weapons to "amber" condition.  The young lady sitting next to me, a civilian in body armor carrying a really stylish purse, calmly slapped a loaded magazine into an automatic pistol that I didn't know she had.  

A convoy like ours is an intimidating thing.  Imagine that you're tootling along on your way in to work and you look in your mirror and see some mean-ass monster truck bearing down on you with a machine gun aimed right at your rear window.  What are you gonna do?  Yup: you make an immediate, uncontrolled dive to the median or sidewalk or anywhere else that's not in front of that damn truck.  Roads magically clear out in front of us.  When I went out in that Blackwater convoy a few weeks ago, we had military and Iraqi policemen stop traffic for us.  MRAPs and Rhinos don't need any help.

Victory Base proved to be interesting.  It's huge, for one thing: it completely encircles the Baghdad airport.  And since it's American-controlled, it feels very much like America.  We stopped by the BX.  There was a Subway, and a Cinnabon, and Taco Bell.  Okay, so they were in prefab trailers instead of your typical stores, but still.  And the BX was almost like one at home.  It actually had a variety of things that I would consider buying.  Quite a step up from the one in the IZ, which is really more like a Mini-Mart with a rather strange collection of goods.  

I had a long meeting with an organization that's building a lot of our projects.  Good people, all of them.  Then it was time to head back and catch the Rhino back to the IZ.  Our trip back was a bit quicker than the morning one.  We got home with no trouble at all.

Time to post some new sketches:

Here's one of our guards at a post by the Embassy.

A palm tree in front of the Palace ...

The view from my seat inside the Rhino on the afternoon run today.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Baghdad Commute

Back on Oct 27, I wrote about a trip I made with a Blackwater convoy through Baghdad traffic. Last week, the BBC posted an article on their web site called Viewpoint: Bad case of Baghdadophobia. It's about life in Baghdad as an Iraqi, and specifically about commuting to work. I asked an Iraqi in that I work with if it was accurate, and she said it certainly was. Go take a look. And compare it to my experience as described in my posting. While you're at it, compare it to your commuting experience.

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

On the SOFA

No, I'm not talking about the sofa in your living room. I'm talking about something called the Status of Forces Agreement. Most people have never heard of it. Military people are aware of it, often only vaguely. But here in Iraq, it's at the top of the list of things the Ambassador and General Odierno are interested in.

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

Studio Stroll

My artist homies in Asheville are having the River District Studio Stroll this weekend. This is a big to-do where all the artists in the District (currently over 100) open their studios to the public. You can wander into the studios of painters, potters, musicians, glass blowers, woodworkers, sculptors, fabric artists, photographers, you name it, somebody's doing it. So if you're in Asheville this weekend, go Strolling.

Here's a video that they produced:

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A New President-Elect

The election is FINALLY over and Obama has won.  I'm as happy about that as I can be.  We need a new direction and a change from the Walking Disaster Area that is our current President.  

Since Iraq is 8 hours ahead of East Coast time, I got to miss almost all the talking heads that you had to put up with last night.  I turned on CNN this morning at 6 when I got up, and there was Anderson Cooper talking to a hologram of Will.I.Am.  I thought, what the hell can a hologram of an entertainer tell me about politics? Not a damn thing.  I hit the "off" button.  The blank screen is much more stimulating than Anderson Cooper.

I turned the TV on again an hour later and heard Wolf Blitzer make the announcement that CNN projected Obama as the winner.  What a way to start your day out!  I hit the "off" button again before Wolf could call up a hologram of Bart Simpson to tell us what it all meant.

Another hour later and I was at the Embassy getting my morning cappuccino.  They'd set up a screen and projector to show the election returns.  Obama was about to come out, so I stayed and watched his stirring, powerful speech.  The guy is one of the best orators I've ever heard.  His soaring rhetoric is such a wonderful contrast to the current Bumbler-In-Chief.  In some ways he reminds me of the way Clinton in his early days could get a crowd stirred, only Obama does it much better.

But winning the race and running the country are two very different things.  Obama has shown that he's smart, a good listener, and a quick learner.  He'll need all those traits with all the messes we're facing.  Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, a global economy in the pits, the worst deficits in history, a climate in crisis, our health care system a disaster, and who knows what trouble brewing that'll pop in the next six months.  Well, Barack, you wanted the job, you got it.

One thing that all Presidents have to learn at some point is that they will make decisions that will kill people.  Whether it's by deciding one way or another, or not deciding, some people will die because of what our President does.  Bill Clinton learned that in Somalia, and the lessons he learned affected the way we ran military operations in Bosnia.  George Bush Sr. learned it in World War II, and that affected how he ran Desert Storm.  Bush the Lesser ... well, some people are just a little slower than the rest of us.  

Obama hasn't faced that test yet.  I think he's got the steel in his backbone and the intelligence to handle it.  He's been very cautious so far, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  I'm pretty confident that when the shit hits the fan, he won't sit there with a deer-in-the-headlights look.  But it's coming, one way or another, because it's part of the job.  

But until then, let's celebrate.  This Ship of State's setting a new course!  

Monday, November 03, 2008


This is an armored humvee out in front of the Embassy.  In a previous post, I said something about getting an "Official Photographer" badge and how it might impress the hell out of somebody.  Well, it did.  While doing this drawing, I had an Air Force officer wienie come up and demand to know if I had authorization to draw this.  I whipped out my Official Photographer card.  He was duly impressed and left me alone.  

Here's a typical guard post in the International Zone: some tent on a corner, a clearing barrel (where soldiers ensure their weapons aren't loaded), a couple of checklists, a cooler of drinks and snacks, and a bored guard.  Really bored.

Election Eve

I was asked recently what I thought of all the campaign stuff that was going on. My response was that I feel pretty much disassociated with the election. And the NASCAR chase. And the football season, and Saturday Night Live, and all the movies vying for Oscar nominations. All the "pop culture" stuff that consumes so much of everybody's time is irrelevant here. Yes, we get most of the sports events and a lot of TV shows and pirated DVDs of the latest movies within a few weeks of their release in theaters. But I was never all that excited about that kinda stuff anyway. Being here, several thousand miles and eight time zones away, just pushes it farther off my radar screen.

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

Iraqi Art Show

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 ....

The Iraqi art world, like everything else, was hit pretty hard by Saddam's regime and then by the insurgency.  Saddam's thugs were much like any thugs in power: they barely tolerated artists at best, and terrorized them unmercifully at worst.  However, the art world managed to survive as artists figured out ways to continue working while not attracting too much attention from the authorities.  Things were very different during the insurgency.  The hard-liners didn't tolerate art of any stripe that didn't agree with their extremely narrow view of Islam.  Way too many artists were killed or driven out of the country.  A few have remained, and some of the best of them participated in the Embassy show.

I met and talked with two of them.  Both were very gracious individuals, and both are very good at what they do.  Both are abstract artists as well ... here they're called "plastic" artists, which took me a bit of time to adjust to.  Actually, most of the painters in the show were "plastic" artists ... there was only a little representational or figurative work.  

So we talked for a while and compared thoughts about art and art-making.  We took what seemed like a couple dozen photos of each other - the interpreter took some of the three of us, somebody else took pictures of the three of us and the interpreter, each of the artists took pictures of each of us and the interpreter ... you get the idea.  I think Iraqis like pictures as much as the Japanese do, and almost as much as my daughter-in-law does.  

But I will not post any of those pictures on this blog, nor will I tell you who I talked to.  These two artists are taking a risk by associating with Americans.  There are still a lot of extremists here who can, and do, track down people who work with Americans and threaten or kill them.

Someday, though ...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In The (Wife's) Palace

Saddam Hussein had palaces all over Baghdad. One of them, belonging to one of his wives, is here in the International Zone. It was heavily damaged during the war. Subsequently, it was used by different Coalition troops as both office space and berthing areas. Now it's being turned back over to the Iraqis. A group of us got a chance today to go inside, and here are a few photos of what we found.

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

Site Visit

A group of us went out into the Red Zone the other day to visit one of our "problem" construction sites. This was the first time I've been outside the International Zone on the ground. It's quite a bit different from flying over it in a helo.

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

Saturday's Musings

It's Saturday morning. Outside, the sky is pretty gloomy-looking. A big wind kicked up yesterday afternoon, which usually means that the next day will be socked in with dust. That hasn't happened yet, but the weather guessers are saying it will this afternoon. Meanwhile, the sky is gray and they're calling for a bit of (gasp) rain. Well, we'll see.

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

More This 'n' That

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!