Why Teaching American Foreign Policy Is the Best Job Ever

Every once in a while someone asks me if I ever get bored teaching the same courses over and over and over and over again. Now, one answer I give is that I teach enough different courses so that the material seems new when I pick it up again. But another answer is that for ...

Every once in a while someone asks me if I ever get bored teaching the same courses over and over and over and over again. Now, one answer I give is that I teach enough different courses so that the material seems new when I pick it up again. But another answer is that for some courses, what makes my subject area so awesome is watching my students' reactions. Here's the sanitized version:

My students never believe me when I tell them the myriad ways the United States nearly launched nuclear weapons by accident during the Cuban missile crisis. My students never believe me when I tell them that Ronald Reagan sent an inscribed Bible and a cake shaped like a key to Iran as a way to release American hostages held in Lebanon. My students really do turn white as a sheet when I talk about the eurozone crisis.

Every once in a while someone asks me if I ever get bored teaching the same courses over and over and over and over again. Now, one answer I give is that I teach enough different courses so that the material seems new when I pick it up again. But another answer is that for some courses, what makes my subject area so awesome is watching my students’ reactions. Here’s the sanitized version:

My students never believe me when I tell them the myriad ways the United States nearly launched nuclear weapons by accident during the Cuban missile crisis. My students never believe me when I tell them that Ronald Reagan sent an inscribed Bible and a cake shaped like a key to Iran as a way to release American hostages held in Lebanon. My students really do turn white as a sheet when I talk about the eurozone crisis.

I bring this up because, thanks to the Washington Post‘s Rajiv Chandrasekaran, I have a new story to tell about how bureaucratic politics and outsourcing can have some perverse effects in foreign policy:

The U.S. military has erected a 64,000-square-foot headquarters building on the dusty moonscape of southwestern Afghanistan that comes with all the tools to wage a modern war. A vast operations center with tiered seating. A briefing theater. Spacious offices. Fancy chairs. Powerful air conditioning.

Everything, that is, except troops.

The windowless, two-story structure, which is larger than a football field, was completed this year at a cost of $34 million. But the military has no plans to ever use it. Commanders in the area, who insisted three years ago that they did not need the building, now are in the process of withdrawing forces and see no reason to move into the new facility.

For many senior officers, the unused headquarters has come to symbolize the staggering cost of Pentagon mismanagement: As American troops pack up to return home, U.S.-funded contractors are placing the finishing touches on projects that are no longer required or pulling the plug after investing millions of dollars.

In Kandahar province, the U.S. military recently completed a $45 million facility to repair armored vehicles and other complex pieces of equipment. The space is now being used as a staging ground to sort through equipment that is being shipped out of the country.

In northern Afghanistan, the State Department last year abandoned plans to occupy a large building it had intended to use as a consulate. After spending more than $80 million and signing a 10-year lease, officials determined the facility was too vulnerable to attacks.

Read the whole thing — but my favorite part is what’s gonna happen to the new headquarters building in the southwest:

The military, which has opened a formal investigation into the decisions that led to the contract, is considering two options for the building: demolishing it or giving it to the Afghan army. Although the handoff sounds appealing, U.S. officials doubt the Afghans will be able to sustain the structure. It has complex heating and air-conditioning systems that demand significant amounts of electricity, which, in turn, require costly fuel purchases for generators. The building is wired for 110-volt appliances, not the 220-volt equipment used by Afghans. And, the officials note, the U.S. military recently built a new headquarters building on the Afghan base that adjoins Leatherneck.

“Both alternatives for how to resolve this issue are troubling,” Sopko said.

Based on his conversations with military officials, he said one of the options now seems to be gaining traction: “The building will probably be demolished.”

Seriously, this is s**t you can’t make up.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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