Get Out Of Our Garrisons

By Richard Feinberg
Thursday, May 24, 2007

With threats to American power growing stronger and American prestige slipping around the world, our professional Foreign Service officers are more crucial than ever. Unfortunately, our approach to their security is making it almost impossible for many of them to do their jobs. Marooned in fortress-like embassies, cut off from the societies where they should be gathering intelligence and spreading American values, too many of them might as well be surveying the landscape from offices in Washington.

U.S. embassies are increasingly becoming like medieval fortresses -- remote, foreboding, impenetrable. Perched on suburban hilltops safely distant from more dangerous urban centers, they sit behind layers of high-security fences, reinforced concrete walls, thick glass windows and squads of armed guards.

American diplomats are sent abroad to gather information on politics and cultures so officials in Washington can make decisions based on the best intelligence available. But too many diplomats are forced to live in security bubbles, trapped in gated communities, transported in armored vehicles and prohibited from traveling into districts deemed unsafe by beefy embassy security officers. Even the junior officer with a taste for adventure may have few chances to get out from behind bulletproof glass.

Embassies have a second vital function: to disseminate American ideas and values. But what impressions of the American sense of self are created by garrison embassies? Far from suggesting confidence, good will, tolerance and democracy, high walls and wide moats suggest fear, discrimination and militarism.

In Caracas, Venezuela, the new U.S. Embassy sits astride a steep suburban hillside, with a stunning, panoramic view of the sprawling city. But its diplomats are removed from the headquarters of private business, community organizations and media outlets that the United States must influence if it is to counter the anti-American government of President Hugo Chávez. Few mingle with Chávistas, making it all but impossible for our government to understand the nature of his appeal and authority.

In Managua, Nicaragua, a stark, massive embassy compound will open later this year. Breaking with tradition, the ambassador will sleep within the seven-building complex. Partly for security reasons, our development assistance programs -- previously located elsewhere so that Nicaraguans did not perceive U.S. aid as merely a tool of influence -- will also huddle within. It is hard to imagine the poor and humble feeling welcome there.

In violent cities, draconian security measures may be necessary. Diplomats in Baghdad inhabit the famous Green Zone, which generally shields them from car bombs and suicide bombers, even as U.S. intelligence has suffered from these separations. But this solution to extreme threats hardly seems warranted in most capitals. Yet in calm cities, from Singapore to Santiago, garrison embassy compounds are becoming the rule as strict security measures are standardized throughout the world.

Many security measures predated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and even the 1998 bombing of our embassies in East Africa. After the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, new embassies began to take on the fortress architecture, and tightened security was prioritized over diplomatic function. Certainly, when danger is demonstrable, smart security upgrades are warranted; security measures can partially be compensated for by attractive landscaping, and the loss of physical accessibility can be partially replaced by interactive Web sites. But in most places, the fortress embassies are overkill.

Yes, it's a dangerous world, but so is policing our own cities, and we do not suggest that police officers remain barricaded behind their precinct walls. Just the opposite: We now instruct law enforcement officers to walk the streets in their communities, believing that this is the best long-term approach to improving relations with citizens and, ultimately, reducing risk to the officers themselves.

Nor will it ever be possible to eliminate risk for overseas assignments, and attempts to do so become ever more expensive and self-defeating. The only foolproof way to eliminate risk to our diplomats is to bring them home. Better to restore a more considered balance between absolute security and diplomatic effectiveness -- and for the nation to recognize that diplomats, no less than soldiers, accept a degree of risk when they enlist.

The next time a U.S. diplomat is slain abroad, as will inevitably occur, the secretary of state should proclaim, without apology:

"Our professional diplomats are soldiers in the 21st-century battles for information and ideas. They embody our nation's identity and values. In their service to our country, every day in every major city of the world, they bravely place themselves in harm's way. We will not let our enemies win by driving us into self-isolation. Those valiant diplomats that fall in the line of duty do so with glory, for honor and the homeland."

The writer, a professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego, served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company