26 May 2006. Thanks to A.

The Weekly Standard

American Fortresses

It's hard to carry out our foreign policy from behind thick concrete walls.

by Andrew Natsios

05/22/2006, Volume 011, Issue 34

LAST DECEMBER, I DEDICATED the Agency for International Development's new building in the Green Zone in Baghdad. The facility houses a staff of 150, who run AID's $5.2 billion program of aid to Iraq. The building has no windows, the outside doors are as thick as the doors of a bank vault, and the walls and ceilings are constructed of several feet of reinforced concrete: a fortress virtually invulnerable to an insurgent attack. It sits in a compound surrounded by high concrete walls, barbed wire, and advanced security technology of every kind.

The kind view would be that this structure expresses America's intention to remain in the country over the long haul to help the Iraqis build a functioning democracy. Unquestionably, however, it also represents a conundrum for American diplomacy in hot spots around the world: How are the conduct of diplomacy and delivery of foreign assistance possible in the face of forbidding security measures that separate official Americans from the societies in which they serve?

The problem did not begin with Iraq or Afghanistan. For Americans at home, 9/11 was the defining event of the post-Cold War era, but for the 65,000 official Americans living abroad and working in 230 embassies and consulates and AID missions, the defining event took place three years earlier, on August 7, 1998. On that day, two al Qaeda operatives used car bombs to blow up the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing 220 people and injuring more than 4,000. Twelve American and 40 Kenyan and Tanzanian employees of the U.S. government were among the dead. The attacks set in motion a new approach to securing U.S. government facilities and personnel that has had profound and unintended consequences for America's ability to conduct the war against terror.

In the weeks following the embassy attacks, the Clinton administration made two decisions of historic significance for American diplomacy. First, Admiral William Crowe, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked to lead an investigation of why the embassies had been so vulnerable. And second, it was decided to "right-size" the official U.S. presence abroad, a euphemism for reducing the American footprint in light of the increasing security risks.

Not unexpectedly, the Crowe Commission sharply criticized "the collective failure of the U.S. government over the past decade" to protect American embassies from terrorist attack. Earlier, after the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, another retired admiral, Bobby Ray Inman, led a commission that established new standards for embassy construction. But little funding had been provided, and even when it was, the Inman standards had frequently been waived. That ended with the embassy bombings in Africa. After 9/11, the focus on security at embassies intensified again. The world was indeed growing more dangerous.

The 1998 bombings, the Crowe report, and the attacks on 9/11 gradually increased the authority of the State Department's regional security officers by changing the incentive structure within embassies around security issues. The State Department's Diplomatic Security Service--the second largest bureau, with 34,000 employees including foreign hires--grew as the threat increased. Concerned that they might be blamed for failing to anticipate other incidents, regional security officers became increasingly cautious about allowing official Americans to move around freely outside embassies, and they tightened procedures for outsiders seeking to enter. Ambassadors themselves grew less and less willing to overrule their security officers out of concern that if an incident occurred they would be held responsible. The divisive politics of the Beltway, where security incidents become instant fodder for editorials, congressional hearings, campaign ads, and political recriminations, accelerated this perverse dynamic.

Midlevel diplomats and aid officers who were supposed to spend their days interacting with the societies in which they served were more handicapped by the new security measures than ambassadors and AID mission directors, who usually had security details at their command. For aid officers who previously had done much of their work in the countryside, this meant fewer and fewer opportunities to build the relationships with local leaders and communities that underpin development work and ensure that U.S.-funded projects respond to local needs. It meant less chance to see firsthand what was happening in out-of-the-way regions, and to adapt programs to changing local realities.

After the 1998 bombings, the office responsible for building embassies was criticized for its failure to follow the Inman standards and its inability to finish its work quickly. When Colin Powell became secretary of state he took several steps to fix this dysfunctional office. He secured a large increase in his budget for security, and he named retired Major General Chuck Williams to run the security bureau. Under Williams's disciplined direction, design and construction were standardized, and the volume of construction was increased. During the Cold War, AID missions typically had been separate from embassies and were not secured to handle classified materials. Local people could come and go relatively easily. Now, AID, along with other agencies that had had separate buildings, was ordered to move into the newly secured embassy compounds.

However skilled the architects, the buildings they designed had to conform to the Inman standards. The new embassies are all along the lines of the AID building in Baghdad. They have massive walls and small windows with thick shatterproof glass, and are set far back from the street. New perimeter walls--solid, high, and bomb-resistant--have replaced the elegant wrought-iron fences around the old mansions that housed our diplomats when a more genteel diplomacy was practiced. The new embassies and residences, even when their design is elegant, resemble the fortresses of medieval Europe, built to protect their inhabitants from marauding warlords and bandits. They project the image not of an America that is open to the host country, but of one that is closed, suspicious, and defensive.

The Government Accountability Office and the State Department have described "right-sizing" as an effort not to reduce the U.S. presence abroad, but simply to eliminate redundancies and save taxpayer dollars. Congress has been clearer about its intent: Security comes first, and the official American presence abroad should be reduced. Even before 9/11, Secretary Powell temporarily reversed this downsizing, but much of the subsequent growth has been in diplomatic security and consular affairs, which are by their nature defensive functions: Their jobs are to defend and protect rather than engage and convince.

And then came the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Swift military victories in both countries were followed by insurgencies. In the early phase of the wars, insurgents focused on American and allied troops, but as time passed and they sustained heavy casualties in their attacks on military targets, they shifted tactics and began targeting AID and other civilians in order to cripple reconstruction. As the insurgencies grew more lethal and casualties mounted, security has become an abiding preoccupation of much of the official American civilian presence and is gobbling up an increasing portion of the reconstruction budgets.

Despite the expenditure of millions of dollars to protect them, nearly 150 AID-funded workers with NGOs and contractors or on university staffs were killed in action in Afghanistan (83) and Iraq (63) between 2002 and 2005--more casualties than in the previous 30 years combined. During the same period, only two Americans on the State Department staff and none on the AID staff were killed, a testament to the effectiveness of safeguards put in place by the Diplomatic Security Service.

The problem is the nonmonetary cost of this nearly casualty-free record. The security measures in Iraq and Afghanistan can only be described as draconian. AID and State Department officers privately admit these embassy compounds are virtual prisons. Officers are permitted off the grounds only for official meetings in preapproved locations, visitors are discouraged by rigorous screening procedures, and most public places and events are off limits. The resulting isolation has contributed more to morale problems than the insurgencies, since it leaves officers unable to develop the relationships with local people they need to effectively pursue American objectives.

The situation is most extreme in Iraq, where official Americans are permitted to travel outside their working compounds--even inside the Green Zone--only if the trips are planned three days in advance, and then only with a security detail usually composed of a large contingent of retired commandos from Western militaries hired at great cost from private security contractors. Inevitably, the number of Americans leaving the compounds has dropped. Partner organizations, both Iraqi and American-based, began asking AID staff not to visit them in their offices outside the Green Zone because the large security details were drawing the attention of the insurgents. At the same time, the number of Iraqis and partner organizations visiting USAID officers in their compound, never very high, also dropped month after month. The high walls, the barbed wire, the heavy weapons at each corner, the high casualty rates of Iraqis waiting at checkpoints to get into the Green Zone, and the onerous screening procedures were an obvious discouragement. Afghanistan is little better.

This has hampered the reconstruction process in both countries ever so subtly. Reconstruction and development are not principally about building physical structures, but about building institutions, reforming policies, and transferring values and technology. To do it successfully, USAID officers must interact regularly with officials in government ministries, with professors in their universities, members of professional associations, leaders of businesses and religious institutions, and with local NGOs. At its core, it is about building trust and shared commitments.

It is daily interactions with local people and the personal trust they lead to that allow aid officers to guide change and encourage reform-minded officials. These relationships are often more important than any program. In Iraq and Afghanistan, these interactions are now limited to telephone calls and emails--if that, for some believe even these contacts compromise their security given the porous nature of electronic communications. To get out from under the security restrictions in Kabul and Baghdad, the U.S. government has started placing a few officers in small provincial offices, but they represent a tiny portion of resources and are themselves hobbled by security restrictions.

As the security situation has deteriorated, the foreign media working in Iraq have faced the same security conundrum. Increasingly, they resolve it by doing their "reporting" without ever leaving their hotels. In Baghdad, they hire Iraqi reporters as stringers, who risk their lives every day to get stories too dangerous for Americans. This reporting reflects a Baghdad-centric view of what is happening in the country. Reporters who have taken the risk and traveled widely, sometimes embedded in U.S. military units, seem to present a different Iraq in their stories.

While some argue that Iraq and Afghanistan are anomalies, the pattern is being repeated less dramatically in embassies around the developing world, where the war against terror will be won or lost. The American presence abroad is being constrained just when it should be dramatically expanded. The danger is that security will become the mission, rather than a necessary means to a larger end. Many diplomats and aid officers believe this mutation has already occurred--that we have tied our own hands in the achievement of our national objectives. That we may be doing so unnecessarily is suggested by the fact that, in places like Afghanistan and Sudan, American government workers are far more isolated than their counterparts in other Western embassies and in NGOs.

Victory in the war against terror will not be achieved because we have adequately protected our embassies and our AID missions and their employees. The victory we seek requires communicating ideas, values, and world views. It requires sending "troops" of many different kinds to the front lines, not downsizing our diplomacy or our reconstruction and development aid. The war is now being fought from behind the walls of fortresses that are going up all around the world to represent America. It is not unheard of for a political campaign, or a military battle, or a diplomatic fight to be successfully fought and won from a defensive position. But it is rare indeed.

The defensive, zero-risk diplomacy symbolized by our fortress embassies and traceable back at least to 1998 is self-defeating, however necessary it may have seemed to those who promoted it. Happily, it is not going unchallenged. In fact, a vision of an entirely different diplomacy has been articulated at the highest levels of the Bush administration and is already in the early stages of implementation. It is a development that should be supported and encouraged.

In a little-noticed speech at Georgetown University on January 18, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice outlined what she called "transformational diplomacy." Its purpose, she said, is to advance the extraordinarily ambitious project set forth in the president's 2005 inaugural address, when he said: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

This new diplomacy--the work of a generation, Rice said--requires, among other things, redeploying many U.S. diplomats from Europe and Washington to countries like China, India, Nigeria, and Lebanon, given that the threat to the nation's vital interests has moved from the European theater to the Third World, the preferred haven for many of the extra-state forces threatening the United States. It will involve sending single officers out of embassies to small, low-key regional offices called American Presence Posts to interact regularly with civil society, something tried with considerable success in Indonesia and Egypt by Powell's State Department. A greater emphasis will be placed on regional approaches to public diplomacy, and on rapid response teams like those AID already uses for disaster relief. Our best foreign-language speakers will be "forward deployed" and encouraged to appear on live TV in their host countries. The Internet will be put to imaginative use to engage previously unreached audiences. The changes and the fresh thinking come not a moment too soon.

Still unknown is how fiercely the bureaucratic systems of the State Department will resist this shift, and whether the perverse security dynamic in our embassies can be reversed. What is certain is that a zero-risk mentality is not a war-winning mentality. Unless we allow for a tolerable level of managed risk--even risk to life and limb--neither our diplomats nor our aid missions can do the work for which they exist, at a time when their contribution is more needed than ever.

Andrew Natsios is professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University and former administrator of USAID (2001-06).

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