Man, I remember when Vanity Fair was a silly magazine, one part fashion and two parts pretentious culture. Now... well, it's still a silly magazine, but about every third issue has a good-to-excellent article on politics or current affairs.
As with many oddities of contemporary American culture, this can probably be attributed to the aging of the Baby Boomers. They're just too damn old to walk around with Rolling Stone magazine any more. But Vanity Fair has ads for really expensive clothes inside, so it's OK.
Anyway. This special bonus post was inspired by this recent VF article on the monster US embassy in Baghdad. The story of that embassy is fascinating -- it's going to cost $600 million, will be the size of Vatican City, and will contain its own power generators, water wells, drinking-water treatment plant, sewage plant, fire station, Internet uplink, telephone center (Virginia area code), cell-phone network (New York area code), mail service, fuel depot, food and supply warehouses, vehicle-repair garage, swimming pool, movie theater, and food court -- but that wasn't the part of the article that really grabbed my attention. No, I was fascinated by the discussion modern US embassies generally, and why they -- in a word -- suck.
Long quotes below the fold.
The story stars with the Cold War:
This was the era of the great diplomatic expansion, when no country was deemed too small or unimportant to merit American attention. The United States embarked on a huge embassy-construction program. The Soviets did, too. The Soviet Embassies were heavy neoclassical things, thousand-year temples built of stone and meant to impress people with the permanence of an insecure state. The new U.S. facilities by contrast were showcases for modernist design, airy structures drawn up in steel and glass, full of light, and accessible to the streets. They were meant to represent a country that [was] generous, open, and progressive, and to some degree they succeeded—for instance by simultaneously offering access to libraries that were largely uncensored, dispensing visas and money, and arranging for cultural exchanges.
I'm old enough to remember when most US embassies were like that. Security was a guard outside. Embassy staff were easily accessible. In 1986, in Ceausescu's Romania, my mother talked her way into the US Embassy in Bucharest, basically because she was bored. She and I spent an evening hanging out and chatting with junior FSOs and marines. That so could not happen today.
Of course, this was something of a fool's paradise:
High-ranking envoys were assassinated by terrorists in Guatemala City in 1968, Khartoum in 1973, Nicosia in 1974, Beirut in 1976, and Kabul in 1979. Also in 1979 came the hostage-taking at the embassy in Tehran, when the host government itself participated in the violation... In April 1983 it was Beirut again: a van loaded with explosives detonated under the embassy portico, collapsing the front half of the building and killing 63 people. Seventeen of the dead were Americans, of whom eight worked for the C.I.A. The embassy was moved to a more secure location, where nonetheless another truck bomb was exploded, in September 1984, with the loss of 22 lives. These were not isolated events. During the 10 years following the loss of Saigon, in 1975, there had been by some estimates nearly 240 attacks or attempted attacks against U.S. diplomats and their facilities worldwide.
So the age of terrorism had arrived, and US embassies were big, obvious and easy targets. What to do?
The State Department set up a panel to study the question of security. It was chaired by a retired admiral named Bobby Inman, who had headed the National Security Agency and been second-in-command at the C.I.A. Ask a security question and you'll get a security answer: in June 1985 the panel issued a report that called predictably for the wholesale and radical fortification of roughly half of the 262 U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas. Modest security improvements were already being made, with the shatterproofing of windows and the sealing of doors, as well as the installation of steel fences, potted-plant vehicle barricades, surveillance cameras, and checkpoints in embassy lobbies. Inman's report went much further, recommending the relocation of embassies and consulates into high-walled compounds, to be built like bunker complexes in remote areas on the outskirts of towns.
The program was approved and funded by Congress, but it got off to a slow start and had trouble gathering speed. No one joins the foreign service wanting to hunker down in bunkers overseas. The first Inman compound was completed in Mogadishu in 1989, only to be evacuated by helicopter in 1991 as angry gunmen came over the walls and slaughtered the abandoned Somali staff and their families. A half-dozen other compounds were built to better effect—at enormous cost to American taxpayers—but by the late 1990s construction was proceeding at the rate of merely one compound a year. Eager to open new facilities in the former Soviet states, the State Department began putting as much effort into avoiding the Inman standards as into complying with them.
So, as recently as ten years ago, most US embassies were still the old, unsafe but relatively easy to access kind. If you travelled abroad much back then, you might have seen them. Remember them well, because from here on out they live only in memory:
On August 7, 1998, however, al-Qaeda drivers bombed the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing 301 people and wounding about 5,000 more. Both embassies were enlightened center-city designs, and neither had been significantly fortified. Twelve Americans lay dead, as did 39 of the U.S. government's African employees... In 1999 [came] a scathing report, criticizing "the collective failure of the U.S. government" (read Foggy Bottom), and insisting again on the standards that had been set by Inman 14 years earlier. [The report] demanded that safety now be placed before other concerns—whether architectural or diplomatic. The logic was clear, but the message was about means over mission. A chastised State Department vowed to take security seriously this time. When Colin Powell seized the reins in 2001, he gutted and renamed the agency's facilities office (now called Overseas Buildings Operations, or O.B.O.), and in early 2001 brought in a retired Army Corps of Engineers major general named Charles Williams to accelerate and discipline an ambitious $14 billion construction program. The main goal was to build 140 fortified compounds within 10 years. Soon afterward came the attacks of September 11, adding further urgency to the plans.
140 compounds within 10 years may sound like a lot, but they're more than halfway through. The US now has new-style "secure" embassies in over 80 countries, including such hotspots as Macedonia, Equatorial Guinea, Croatia, and Mali. A new one opens every month or so. By the middle of the next decade, pretty much every US embassy everywhere in the world will be "hardened".
So what are these new embassies like? The article gives a sketch:
The key lies in offering a single standardized model, the New Embassy Compound, or nec, which is centered around a building with an atrium, and is available in three sizes—small, medium, and large... variations are superficial and amount to differences in the footprints, landscaping, and color schemes. Architectural critics deplore the uniformity, as if the State Department should still be showcasing brave new work... NECs cost between $35 million and $100 million apiece. [The one here in Yerevan cost $80 million.] By current government standards that means they are cheap.
These embassies are the artifacts of fear. They are located away from city centers, wrapped in perimeter walls, set back from the streets, and guarded by Marines. On average they encompass 10 acres. [22 acres here in Yerevan.] Their reception areas are isolated frontline structures where the security checks are done. These armored chambers are designed not just to repel mobs, as in the past, but to contain individual killers and the blast from their bombs. Visitors who pass muster may be let through, but only to proceed directly to their destinations under escort, and while displaying a badge warning that the escort is required. That badge is the chain with which visitors are leashed...
So true. Who is, and who is not, entitled to a badge has been a major PITA issue here in Yerevan. For instance, as the head of a project, I get a badge. It's a yellow badge (meaning I can go some places and not others) and it does not have an "E" (which means I can't escort any non-badge person). But my component managers don't get badges, and neither does my wife. So, I can go to the Embassy commissary and buy Cocoa Krispies for the boys, but Claudia can't; and if I want to bring one of my managers to talk to our clients at USAID, I have to call a day in advance to get him clearance.
That sounds trivial, and maybe it is, but it has an effect. The badges separate the expat community into two groups: those who can get into the Embassy and those who can't. The badge-holders can use the commissary, book exchange, barber shop and playground. They have easy access to various social events that the non-holders can attend only with difficulty, if at all. The result is to put a rift through the little American community: embassy people and non, Us and Them. Maybe no big deal in the great scheme of things, but it makes a big difference in our daily lives.
So what are the embassies like inside?
The bathrooms are strangely graffiti-free... Metaphorically, the same is true of all the interiors, with their immaculate atriums and conference rooms, their artificial light, their pristine blastproof hallways hung with pre-approved art. The occupants sit at their desks hooked up to computers. They display pictures of their families on foreign holidays: skiing in the Alps last year, or swimming in Bali, or standing outside an African lodge. These are the perks of an overseas job. Meanwhile, the embassy clocks show the passage of time, spinning twice around with every duty day gone by. Is it night yet? The windows are heavy-paned slivers set high in the walls. Is it hot outside, is it cold? The natural air is filtered and conditioned before it is allowed in.
That's slightly hyperbolic, but it's true enough. It's a hermetically sealed little world. And the fact that it's physically apart from the city -- the Yerevan embassy is a mile outside of town, en route to the airport -- means that most employees spend their whole day at the embassy. Nobody goes out to lunch (there's a pretty good cafeteria) or runs down the street for a quick meeting in a coffee shop. Pretty much everyone is on the compound grounds from 9 am to 6 pm, without ever stepping out into the rest of the country.
There's another wrinkle, which the article doesn't mention. State Department policy wants all US representatives -- not just diplomats, but aid personnel -- to be inside the embassy compounds. This makes some sense... after all, there's not much sense in protecting one group (the foreign service) while letting another stay downtown in a big fat target. So USAID offices, which used to be separate in most places, are now found inside the embassy. Does this affect USAID's ability to do its job? This post is long enough already.
There's much more to be said on this topic, but here's the key thing: pretty much all US embassies, from here on out, are going to be NECs. They'll be outside the center of town, somewhat isolated, and rather hard to get into. That's the wave of the future, and it's going to be true for a long time to come.