Saturday, September 08, 2007

Fortress America? The New U.S. Embassy in Iraq

The September/October issue of Foreign Policy has a very interesting article on the new U.S. diplomatic embassy in Iraq. The author, Jane C. Loeffler, notes that while this is the most well-protected embassy installation ever designed and built, can we actually practice diplomacy in such a fortress?

For security reasons, many details about the embassy’s design and construction must remain classified. But the broad outline of its layout says a lot about one of America’s most important architectural projects. Located in Baghdad’s 4-square-mile Green Zone, the embassy will occupy 104 acres. It will be six times larger than the U.N. complex in New York and more than 10 times the size of the new U.S. Embassy being built in Beijing, which at 10 acres is America’s second-largest mission. The Baghdad compound will be entirely self-sufficient, with no need to rely on the Iraqis for services of any kind. The embassy has its own electricity plant, fresh water and sewage treatment facilities, storage warehouses, and maintenance shops. The embassy is composed of more than 20 buildings, including six apartment complexes with 619 one-bedroom units. Two office blocks will accomodate about 1,000 employees. High-ranking diplomats will enjoy well-appointed private residences. Once inside the compound, Americans will have almost no reason to leave. It will have a shopping market, food court, movie theater, beauty salon, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, a school, and an American Club for social gatherings. To protect it all, the embassy is reportedly surrounded by a wall at least 9 feet high—and it has its own defense force. The U.S. Congress has appropriated $592 million for the embassy’s construction, though some estimates put the expected building costs much higher. Once built, it could cost as much as $1 billion a year to run. Charles E. Williams, who directs the State Department’s Overseas Buildings Operations, proudly refers to it as “the largest U.S. mission ever built.”

But, the idea of an embassy this huge, this costly, and this isolated from events taking place outside its walls is not necessarily a cause for celebration. Traditionally, at least, embassies were designed to further interaction with the community in which they were built. Diplomats visited the offices of local government officials, shopped at local businesses, took their suits to the neighborhood dry cleaner, socialized with community leaders, and mixed with the general public. Diplomacy is not the sort of work that can be done by remote control. It takes direct contact to build goodwill for the United States and promote democratic values. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the United States to maintain its 250-plus diplomatic posts around the world. The embassy in Baghdad, however, appears to represent a sea change in U.S. diplomacy. Although U.S. diplomats will technically be “in Iraq,” they may as well be in Washington. Judging by the embassy’s design, planners were thinking more in terms of a frontier outpost than a facility engaged with its community. “The embassy,” says Edward L. Peck, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, “is going to have a thousand people hunkered behind sandbags. I don’t know how you conduct diplomacy in that way.”

It is tempting to think that the Baghdad compound must be an anomaly, a special circumstance dictated by events on the ground in Iraq. But, while it is larger in scope than other U.S. embassies opening around the world, it is hardly unique. Since al Qaeda bombed the American missions in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the State Department has been aggressively replacing obsolete or vulnerable embassies with ones designed under a program it calls Standard Embassy Design. The program mandates look-alike embassies, not the boldly individual designs built during the Cold War, when architecture played an important ideological role and U.S. embassies were functionally and architecturally open. The United States opened 14 newly built embassies last year alone, and long-range plans call for 76 more, including 12 to be completed this year. The result will be a radical redesign of the diplomatic landscape—not only in Baghdad, but in Bamako, Belmopan, Cape Town, Dushanbe, Kabul, Lomé, and elsewhere.

If architecture reflects the society that creates it, the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad makes a devastating comment about America’s global outlook. Although the U.S. government regularly proclaims confidence in Iraq’s democratic future, the United States has designed an embassy that conveys no confidence in Iraqis and little hope for their future. Instead, the United States has built a fortress capable of sustaining a massive, long-term presence in the face of continued
I think Loeffler raises important points about how the new facility elucidates a larger bunker mentality at work in the foreign service, and American national security more broadly.

Still, while the scope of massive protection built into the mission might indeed make a larger statement about American society, at the immediate level of protection for American personnel, I don't know if we as a country would have it any other way. We're committed to our Iraq project, and the most barbarian attacks on our infrastructure there will have a hard time dislodging us from consolidating some semblance of democratic order in the country.

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