The Wages of Empire or the Definition of Insanity?

Is it surprising or just obvious that our decisions to overthrow regimes and assume responsibility for their successors comes with a large and often wasted investment and a legacy of enmity? Imperial palaces that cost a mint but are underused and may be torn down? Local populations that are unhappy with our presence and policies?

The wastes of empire are once again made clear by two recent reports. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported on July 8 that the Army had spent $34 million to construct, in Kandahar, a 64,000 sq. ft. regional command headquarters for 1,200-1,500 military personnel that it no longer needed.

In fact, according to SIGAR, as early as May 2013 (two months after asking for the money), the Marines, whose division headquarters was to have used the building, determined it no longer needed it and asked for the project to be stopped. The Army went right on building it. Now they have to decide whether to tear it down or turn it over to the Afghans (with more renovation costs).

The State Department, however, makes the Army look like a fiscal piker. As the U.S. military occupied Iraq and planned for a lengthy presence, State designed and built the largest U.S. embassy anywhere in the world, at a minimal cost of $750 million dollars. The building includes a huge dining facility, a six-lane swimming pool, workout rooms and a basketball court, as well as living quarters. The major diplomatic facilities we have in Iraq, including the embassy, occupy 350 acres.

According to the State Department's Inspector General, as revealed by diplomacy blogger Diplopundit, the building was originally intended to house 11,500 people. In January 2014, there will be less than half that in the facility -- easier access to those swimming lanes.

And the residents will want to stay indoors, too, because the streets of Baghdad are still not safe. It costs nearly $50 million to keep the staff safe, according to the IG. Or they could just fly, using the embassy's airline, artfully known as "Embassy Air," which costs $128 million a year to operate. And if injured, we spend $85 million a year on hospitals and health facilities throughout Iraq to support them. But don't get in trouble with the locals; less than half the consular staff speaks Arabic, making communications difficult.

Overall, the IG says, the United States allocated more than $3 billion in FY 2012 to fund our diplomatic presence in Iraq and, among other things, administer another $1.3 billion in assistance.

Inevitably, the expansion of our military and diplomatic activities over the past decade, especially in these two countries, has drawn fire, literally. The insurgency and IED attacks against the military are well known. Those against our diplomats are less public.

According to the other significant report, from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at State and aptly entitled "Significant Attacks Against U.S. Diplomatic Facilities and Personnel, 1998-2012" there have been 265 "significant attacks" against U.S. diplomatic facilities since 1998.

Maybe that's a lot; maybe that's a little. No, it's a lot, because the rate is growing. Grouped in five year periods, the rate has gone from about 9 a year over the first five years, to nearly 17 a year over the next five, to an average of 27 attacks a year between 2008 and 2012.

Moreover, so many of the attacks in the last four years have been against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that the Diplomatic Service counted them all as one attack in the data. So If you count the 41 Baghdad embassy attacks in 2009, the 50 in 2010, the 35 in 2011, and the 41 in 2012 (the year after our forces were all gone), the average number of attacks worldwide over the past five years is more than double -- 60, not 27. And over half of the 298 attacks over those five years were against that white elephant in Baghdad.

Ah, well, you say, the wages of trying to keep global peace and stability. Maybe we should keep doing these things until we get it right. Surprisingly, Iraq Special Inspector General Stuart Bowen, who has been a merciless critic of wasteful spending in Iraq, and Amb. John Herbst, the director of the Center for Complex Operations of the National Defense University, seem to want to encourage such behavior.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 9, they called for the United States to create an entirely new, separate agency to handle major reconstruction operations. Set aside whether we, or any occupying power, has the capacity to reconstruct and govern another country. Sounds like the definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over thinking the outcome will change.

Maybe we need to think about whether it is wise to continue down this expensive and wasteful road.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Sheathed Sword

Just What Is the Military Ready For?

I feel so much better now. I was growing worried about the readiness of our military forces under sequestration. After all, as Secretary Hagel told Congress last week, the Air Force has been standing down squadrons, the Navy is keeping ships in the dock, and the Army has stopped some training cycles.

Maybe this readiness worry was getting to people, and maybe action is needed to take care of it. Maybe Loren Thompson is right, as he wrote this week, that "if defense sequestration stays on track, U.S. forces could be defeated in future wars, and more warfighters than necessary might die. Maybe thousands."

I have been writing for a year that DOD had more flexibility than other agencies to move its money around to survive the sequester -- those "meat axe cuts" that were doing in our national security. While sequestration is not pretty, it is not "doomsday."

DOD has all this flexibility because it has things other departments do not have -- operational accounts (Operations and Maintenance) in which the money can be moved from one activity to another and a war spending account (Overseas Contingency Operations) that was 75 percent operations money and completely fungible with non-war operations accounts.

And, above all, DOD has the ability to reprogram funds. As long as the reprogramming stays in the general category for which it was appropriated by Congress, DOD doesn't even have to ask congressional permission to move it around. And when it needs permission, it asks -- more than $9 billion worth of ask when it sent up the reprogramming request late this spring.

All this flexibility could have been used to enhance, yes, readiness. So Congress -- or rather the committee chairs and ranking members of the armed services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees -- took a look, and liked what they saw, and approved the reprogramming request.

And, by golly, readiness is on the mend. Well, a certain kind of readiness, anyway: the readiness to market the military services to the American public. You see, those Air Force squadrons are still not flying. But, as the Washington Times reported, the PR fleet has started flying again -- the Air Force Thunderbirds will be in the air, just in time for the remaining summer air shows.

It warms my heart to learn this. Parents and kids who love air shows will love it; even I love it. But what, pray tell, does flying the Thunderbirds have to do with the readiness crisis the services are screaming about? Does PR readiness really trump actual readiness? Somebody up there has not got his or her priorities straight, or, perhaps, the readiness crisis is overblown, short-term, and the military will survive.

Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera