They're Supersizing the Baghdad Embassy. Big Mistake
By John H. Brown
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page B03
"This embassy is going to have a thousand people hunkered behind sandbags. I don't know how you conduct diplomacy in that way."
-- Edward L. Peck, U.S. ambassador
to Iraq, 1977-80; quoted
in the Boston Globe, June 26
One of the better known secrets of the U.S. Foreign Service is the amount of dead time it imposes on its officers. Dead time waiting for congressional delegations to arrive at the airport. Dead time attending overlong meetings to coordinate embassy activities. Dead time handling the advance teams sent to posts by the White House to arrange for presidential visits. Dead time dealing with a ludicrously complicated personnel system in Washington.
Lots and lots of dead time, which keeps Foreign Service officers (FSOs) from doing what taxpayers pay many of them to do while abroad: observe the society around them, keep in touch with its most important elements, provide fresh information and ideas for formulating policy, and negotiate with the host government on bilateral or multilateral issues.
Despite all stated good intentions, the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad promises to be the mother of all dead-time factories, no matter how hard FSOs there try to do their jobs. Based on more than 20 years of experience in the Foreign Service, including tours of duty at six embassies, I see half a dozen ways in which the size of the American mission in Iraq -- which will cost up to an estimated $1 billion to operate in 2005, not including any initial construction costs of the embassy's permanent quarters -- will complicate if not undermine the work of the 190 FSOs who will be assigned to it.
First is the embassy's sheer size. Definitive numbers are hard to get, but it is expected by year's end that the embassy will be home to nearly 1,000 Americans from 10 U.S. government agencies, as well as an estimated 600 Iraqi employees, making it one of the largest U.S. missions in the world. With so many bodies around, it'll be difficult to determine exactly who does what, and an inordinate amount of time will be spent deciding on assignments and responsibilities. Turf wars, so typical of the foreign policy bureaucracy in Washington, will be the rule, with every agency looking out for its interests (not to mention the tensions among employees of the same organizations striving to "grab a piece of the action" and make a good impression on their superiors).
Second, the tour of duty for FSOs in Iraq lasts only one year, which includes a (probably necessary) vacation every three months and a trip home twice a year. How much real work can an FSO accomplish in one year? It is a rule of thumb in the Foreign Service that it takes several months, at least, for a new officer to get accustomed to a new posting, no matter how much "training" he or she has had in Washington before departure. By the time embassy employees in Baghdad fully realize where they are and how to do their jobs effectively, it will be time for them to pack up and leave.
Third, given the rush to staff the mission, it is doubtful that many FSOs at the new embassy, no matter how dedicated they are to flag and country, will be adequately prepared to deal with and observe Iraqi society (if and when they are able to escape from the supposedly secure Green Zone, also known as Emerald City, where the embassy will be located). How many of the Americans at the mission will speak the local languages? How many will be able to read the Iraqi press? With rapid turnover and frequent trips "out," how many will be able to establish relationships with Iraqis that can lead to meaningful discussions of the crush of bilateral issues, let alone possible solutions? FSOs will have to depend on the Iraqis working at the embassy to understand what is going on in the wide world outside their sandbagged fortress. But any experienced FSO will tell you that depending on the insight of local employees, no matter how dedicated and reliable, is not sufficient. FSOs must get at the information themselves to be effective.
Fourth, the perilous security situation means that the embassy will have great difficulty carrying out one of its most important functions -- implementing public diplomacy programs, such as media projects and cultural presentations, in an effort to win over local hearts and minds. These activities require constant, open contact with host country audiences, but given the rampant hostility toward Americans in Iraq -- and an insurgency throughout the country -- such programs will prove to be a challenging, if not impossible, task. And how many Iraqi citizens will actually be allowed to enter an American fortress-embassy intent on securing itself from terrorists and (as the military refers to them) the "bad guys"?
Fifth, the Baghdad embassy will be constantly visited by VIPs and agency heads from Washington. FSOs will be on the receiving end, arranging the logistics for these visits. Cables, e-mails and phone conversations on what the chief of bureau X from the State Department or USAID should do in Emerald City will devour long hours during the work day (and beyond). It will be Americans talking to Americans to prepare visits by Americans, with Iraqi employees probably assigned the task of organizing more local arrangements (if there are any, given security concerns). Meanwhile, for the Americans inside the embassy, Iraq will just about not exist.
Finally, and this is a very important point, an essential part of the American presence in Iraq -- the military, which is already entrenched in parts of the country -- will not be under the embassy's supervision. In practical terms, this means that the FSOs will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find out what their military colleagues are up to. This will especially be the case in handling the media, where the embassy's public affairs section will have to assure that the military's statements square with U.S. policy and with what the ambassador is saying. In broader terms, it will mean that the embassy and the military will have their own agendas, leading to potential confusion among Iraqis (and the international community) as to what exactly the United States is up to.
All of these obstacles raise a fundamental question: Why should the nascent embassy in Iraq be so large in the first place? Are hundreds of Americans holed up in the Green Zone really a way to assist the "New Iraq"? Couldn't a smaller and leaner operation -- better prepared and trained -- do a more efficient job? And wouldn't a more modest-size embassy communicate an important message that the Bush administration is supposedly trying to bring home to the new Iraqi government and the local population: that the fate of their country is in their hands, not in those of their present occupiers?
There used to be a joke in the days of the Cold War: that the Soviets were proud to have the biggest microchip in the world. I hope that an updated version of that joke won't be told about our oversize embassy in Baghdad.
John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, compiles the daily Public Diplomacy Press Review, available free from email@example.com.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Bigger than ever: The U.S. embassy in Iraq, which opened on June 30 after a 13-year hiatus, will be one of the largest anywhere.
(Nikola Solic -- AP)