Advice to a Young Builder in Tough Times: Imperial Opportunities Abound
I know. Times are tough. Here, in the United States, the bottom’s threatening to blow out of the housing market. Here, construction companies are laying off employees and builders are wondering where their next jobs are likely to come from. But there’s still hope that can be summed up in this bit of advice: Go East (or West), young builder, but leave the country.
After all, elsewhere on the planet Americans are still building up a storm. Why just recently, a desperate State Department requested — and received permission — from the Iraqi government to keep a full contingent of 2,000 non-Iraqi construction workers (admittedly, impoverished Third Worlders, evidently stowed away under less than lovely conditions) in Baghdad to finish work on the mother of all embassies. We’re talking about a U.S. embassy compound under construction these last years that’s meant to hold 1,000 diplomats, spies, and military types (as well as untold numbers of private security guards, service workers, and heaven knows who else). It will operate in the Iraqi capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone as if it were our first lunar colony. According to William Langewiesche, writing in Vanity Fair, it will contain “its own power generators, water wells, drinking-water treatment plant, sewage plant, fire station, irrigation system, Internet uplink, secure intranet, telephone center (Virginia area code), cell-phone network (New York area code), mail service, fuel depot, food and supply warehouses, vehicle-repair garage, and workshops.”
As yet, the 21-building, nearly Vatican-sized “embassy” remains unfinished and significantly behind schedule. That’s what happens, of course, when you insist on redesigning your food court to serve not just lunch, but three meals a day and…. oh, yes…. to be bomb-, mortar-, and missile-proof at the cost of an extra $27.9 million. Some of the embassy’s wiring systems have already blown a fuse; its 252 guard trailers have filled with formaldehyde fumes, and “during a recent test of the embassy sprinkler system, ‘everything blew up.'” (A bit worrisome, should a well-aimed mortar start a fire.) And to add insult to injury, the project is now $144 million over the nearly $600 million budget Congress granted it (and, when fully operational, is expected to cost another $1.2 billion a year to run). A State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, rejecting charges of inadequate oversight, offered the following clarification of the embassy’s present financial situation: “It is not a cost overrun. It is an additional contract requirement.” It’s true, as well, that the construction contract was long ago farmed out to local Middle Eastern talent — First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting was made prime contractor. So it’s probably too late for you…
The Sky’s the Limit in Iraq
But, young builder, don’t despair. When it comes to American construction projects in Iraq, the sky’s really the limit. Just recently, National Public Radio’s Defense Correspondent Guy Raz spent some time at Balad Air Base about 70 kilometers north of Baghdad. As Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reported, back in 2006, Balad is essentially an “American small town,” so big that it has neighborhoods and bus routes — and its air traffic rivals Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
According to Raz, the base now houses 30,000 American troops as well as perhaps another 10,000 private contractors. It has well-fortified Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Subway fast-food outlets, two PXs that are as big as K-Marts, and actual sidewalks (which — note, young contractor — someone had to build). Billions of dollars have reportedly gone into Balad, one of at least five “mega-bases” the Bush administration has built in that country (not counting the embassy, which is functionally another base) — and, Raz tells us, “billions of dollars are being spent on upgrades.”
But it’s his more general description of the base that should set your heart pitter-pattering, young builder. After all, if you grab just a bit of this construction activity, you’ve got a gig that could extend years into the future. Why just the other day, former Centcom Commander Gen. John Abizaid, the man who dubbed the President’s Global War on Terror “the Long War,” suggested that American troops could well be stationed in the Middle East half-a-century from now. (“[W]e shouldn’t assume for even a minute that in the next 25 to 50 years the American military might be able to come home, relax and take it easy.”)
Of Balad, Raz writes:
“The base is one giant construction project, with new roads, sidewalks, and structures going up across this 16-square-mile fortress in the center of Iraq, all with an eye toward the next few decades… At the base, the sounds of construction and the hum of generators seem to follow visitors everywhere. Seen from the sky at night, the base resembles Las Vegas: While the surrounding Iraqi villages get about 10 hours of electricity a day, the lights never go out at Balad Air Base.”
I don’t want you to think, though, that Balad is the only other major work opportunity in Iraq. Consider, for instance, al-Asad Air Base, another of our billion-dollar mega-bases. This one’s off in Iraq’s western desert. When the President “visited” Iraq in early September, this was where he landed — and a bevy of journalists hit the base with him (a base, mind you, that is supposed to have a 19-mile perimeter!) and managed to describe next to nothing about it to the rest of us. Fortunately, a corporal in the U.S. Marine Reserves (and sometime writer for the Weekly Standard and National Review), Matt Sanchez has been traveling Iraq, embedded with U.S. troops, and recently offered a rare, vivid description.
Al-Asad, he tells us, is known among Americans as “Camp Cupcake” (“a military base where you can have all the ice cream you want, swim in an air-conditioned indoor pool, drink caf lattes at 3 a.m. and even take yoga courses in the gym”). At present, according to Sanchez, it holds 17,000 people (“most of whom don’t even work for the military”) and evidently has its own Starbucks. Arriving there from rougher lodgings, he found it a disorienting experience.
“With sidewalks, clean paved roads and working street lamps (a combination not common in Iraqi cities), there are times when I felt I was in a small city in Arizona instead of the Sunni Triangle. Al Asad is the only place I know of in Anbar province where drivers get speeding tickets and vehicles are towed for bad parking.”
And don’t forget the traditional “steak and lobster” Thursday meals at the mess hall or the “Ugandans” — African private security personnel — who generally man checkpoints around the base. And, young builder, just take note: Someone built all this and the building hasn’t stopped yet.
I know… I know… Construction on these giant bases has largely gone to crony corporations connected to the Bush administration and it’s undoubtedly pretty hard for a young contractor to find a way into the Iraq construction boom. (Iraqis, mind you, have had the same problem!) I mean, I see your point. How does a small construction company like yours get in on the subcontracting ground floor in a place like Iraq? Well, all I can say is: Take heart. After all, bases are springing up in Iraq all the time. Consider, for instance, the delightfully named “Combat Outpost Shocker.” It’s only seven provocative kilometers from the Iranian border and it’s a nothing, really. A mere bagatelle of a forward base, meant to block what the Bush administration claims is a flow of deadly Iranian weaponry. It went up almost overnight for chump change on a $5 million contract. And it’s such a modest “camp,” perfect for a novice imperial builder to get involved with — sized for just 100 troops from the Republic of Georgia (on-loan to the ever-shrinking Coalition of the Willing), about 70 American soldiers, and a few U.S. Border Patrol agents (who, it seems, can be assigned to any border on the planet, not just our two official territorial demarcation lines). It’s so small it won’t even have an air strip for fixed-wing aircraft, a requisite for any larger base.
In late September, when news of Combat Outpost Shocker suddenly came out in the Wall Street Journal, it caused a tiny media ripple (though blink and you would have missed it). After all, it seemed like one more in-your-face gesture at the Iranians on the noble road to preventing “World War III.” Far more noteworthy from your point of view, though, is something no one here in the States ever discusses: The Pentagon can evidently build bases just about anywhere it pleases. It seems not to have even bothered to consult Iraqi government officials before announcing that Combat Outpost Shocker was well underway, or perhaps Congress either. But that’s pretty much the latitude you get when you’re the “Defense Department” for most of a planet; when you already have 737 or 850 or even 1,000 bases and installations of one sort or another outside the U.S.; when your global properties stretch from Germany, Romania, the island of Diego Garcia, and Kyrgyzstan to South Korea, Guam, and Australia and you’re still eyeing the few blank spots on that map like, say Africa.
Keep an eye on Africa, by the way. It could be the next boom continent for base construction. The Bush administration just recently set up Africom, a new global command to cover that land mass. It may be the last such command formed — unless, someday, Russiacom and Chinacom prove to be available. The Pentagon is now reportedly searching Africa for spots to position what they like to call “lily pads,” which are basically small, relatively Spartan bases that won’t be so noticeable (or generate local ill-will and resistance so readily). Right now, about all the U.S. has is a “lily pad” at Djibouti on the horn of Africa, but stay tuned.
Of course, we’re still just scratching the very surface of opportunity here. All you need is a well-connected corporation that will throw a few imperial crumbs your way. I mean, how about the $53.4 million contract that went to ITT Federal Services International Corporation of Colorado Springs, Colorado — Aren’t you located somewhere near there, anyway? — for “Base Operations and Security Services at Camp As Sayliyah” in the emirate of Qatar, to be completed by 2012. I bet there’s some construction work up for grabs there! Or just imagine picking up the odd cannoli from those $23.4 million contracts to build new “grocery stores” for our bases in Livorno, Italy or Chievres, Belgium. (The old ones were just so cramped!). Of course, the Pentagon threw those at local European firms, which you have to do every now and then. You know, allies and all that.
But how about Afghanistan? It’s a honey of a place for you — another of those lands American planners don’t see us leaving any time soon. Not a lot of local firms there to throw good American construction contracts at and, from a building point of view, here’s the good news for you: Things are going really, really badly in Afghanistan — which means our troop strength just keeps rising. It’s now at 25,000 and, of course, we have to put them somewhere. As a result, the old Soviet base we took over in 2001, Bagram Air Base, is about to grow by a third. Where there were once only 3,000 American troops on the base, there are now 13,000 and more to come. So new runways, new barracks, you name it. It’s going to be like a construction horn of plenty.
Offshore Prisons: A Specialty Area
Here’s another small suggestion: As a young builder with a future abroad, you might consider specializing and one super area is offshore prisons. Of course, you’d have to be paying exceedingly close attention to the inside pages of a range of newspapers to have any idea just how flush this area really is — and, given the subprime mortgage crisis, I suspect you’ve had other things on your mind. So, let me just bring you up to speed. The Iraqi inmate population at American prisons has been rising like yeast and construction crews have been hustling to catch up. Camp Cropper, inside our mega-base Camp Victory at the edge of Baghdad, has, for instance, undergone constant upgrades. It started out as a bunch of tents, but, by 2006, was a $60 million state-of-the-art prison — and it’s been expanding ever since. In April 2007, for example, the military was soliciting bids for “construction projects” at the camp valued at up to $5 million. Perfect, no?
Dusty Camp Bucca, in the south of Iraq, was a poor cousin until recently. But — fine news all around — about $110 million dollars is about to be poured into expanding its overcrowded quarters for a detainee population that should soon leap from 20,000 to 30,000. The work will include “retrofitting 13 existing compounds to add concrete pads to prevent tunneling, better segregation areas, and better shower and latrine facilities,” as well as “15 new guard towers, three medical units and work on two ‘supermax’ compounds with the highest levels of security.”
If, on the other hand, a bit of that Bagram Air Base work were to fall your way, then keep your eye on our extensive prison network in Afghanistan where, for instance, Pul-i-Charki prison is rumored to be on the verge of a major expansion, possibly into the new Guantanamo. By the way, don’t overlook Guantanamo itself. That crown jewel of our offshore prisons is now a hive of construction activity. Don’t even worry about the $10—$12 million that’s already being spent to create a semi-permanent “tent city” on an unused runway there in which the U.S. military plans to hold war-crimes trials for some of the prison’s detainees; focus instead on the $16.5 million camp that’s going to be built elsewhere on the base to house up to “10,000 Caribbean migrants” — just in case, assumedly, something happens in post-Castro Cuba. And that may only be a detention appetizer. The main course could be a $110 million-dollar contract to build a second “compound” that would hold 35,000 more of those “migrants.”
And keep in mind that, as a young builder, if you have the slightest yen to see the world, then this planet is potentially your oyster — or penguin. Ingratiate yourself with the right folks and there’s really just about nowhere you couldn’t go for the U.S. military, not even Antarctica. The Navy’s been building a scientific outpost on that great, icy continent since the 1950s. By now, McMurdo Station has more than 60 buildings — and it’s getting warmer! So count on those numbers to rise…
Flying Below the Imperial Radar
Keep in mind that we’re really talking tip-of-the-iceberg here; just what can be gleaned, which isn’t much, about American base construction abroad from a media that doesn’t attach any importance to the subject.
Still, it’s obvious that our imperial busy beavers remain tirelessly at work — and you could be one of them. A few other countries have the odd base or two abroad, but here’s a stat to be proud of: It’s estimated that 95% of all foreign bases on this planet are ours! That’s no small boast. Just consider Okinawa, a Japanese island smaller than the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The United States has 38 bases there that cover 19% of the island’s prime real estate. That has to be a record.
If this is news to you, I’m not surprised. Here’s the strange thing: We Americans garrison the globe in a way no people has ever done — not the ancient Romans with their garrisons stretched from North Africa to distant Britain; not even the nineteenth century British with their far-flung naval coaling stations. Our garrisons around the world are our versions of “gunboat diplomacy” and colonialism all wrapped in one. They are functionally our modus operandi on the planet. Everyone out there knows about them, but few Americans are particularly aware of them.
Staggering billions, for instance, have gone into those state-of-the-art mega-bases in Iraq, and scores of smaller ones, since Baghdad fell in April 2003. They are presences, facts on the ground of the first order. No matter what anyone was saying in Washington at any moment, they spoke of permanence, of a desire to be in Iraq forever and a day; and yet the Iraq debate in the mainstream these last years has taken place almost without serious mention of them. You can turn on your TV and watch American journalists, standing somewhere in Camp Victory, report on other subjects. But when has one ever taken you on a simple tour of that mega-base?
The fact is: In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, our garrisons regularly slip beneath the American radar. Think of it, perhaps, as a way to have our cake and eat it too. We manage to be an imperial presence on the planet without ever quite having to be reminded that we are part of an empire, an identification which rubs against the American grain.
Being American functionally means never having to say you’re sorry. I only mention this, by the way, because, if you take my advice, you stand to make loads of money, but you’ll slip below the radar too.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, The End of Victory Culture, and most recently, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His blog is The Notion.