William Langewiesche / Vanity Fair – 2007-12-03 23:01:33
(November 2007) — When the new American Embassy in Baghdad entered the planning stage, more than three years ago, US officials inside the Green Zone were still insisting that great progress was being made in the construction of a new Iraq. I remember a surreal press conference in which a US spokesman named Dan Senor, full of governmental conceits, described the marvelous developments he personally had observed during a recent sortie (under heavy escort) into the city. His idea now was to set the press straight on realities outside the Green Zone gates.
Senor was well groomed and precocious, fresh into the world, and he had acquired a taste for appearing on TV. The assembled reporters were, by contrast, a disheveled and unwashed lot, but they included serious people of deep experience, many of whom lived fully exposed to Iraq, and knew that society thttp://webmail.pas.earthlink.net/wam/msg.jsp?msgid=15489&folder=INBOX&isSeen=false&x=1092039808 – i._printhere was unraveling fast. Some realized already that the war had been lost, though such were the attitudes of the citizenry back home that they could not yet even imply this in print.
Now they listened to Senor as they increasingly did, setting aside their professional skepticism for attitudes closer to fascination and wonder. Senor’s view of Baghdad was so disconnected from the streets that, at least in front of this audience, it would have made for impossibly poor propaganda. Rather, he seemed truly convinced of what he said, which in turn could be explained only as the product of extreme isolation.
Progress in the construction of a new Iraq? Industry had stalled, electricity and water were failing, sewage was flooding the streets, the universities were shuttered, the insurgency was expanding, sectarianism was on the rise, and gunfire and explosions now marked the days as well as the nights. Month by month, Baghdad was crumbling back into the earth. Senor apparently had taken heart that shops remained open, selling vegetables, fruits, and household goods.
Had he ventured out at night he would have seen that some sidewalk cafés remained crowded as well. But almost the only construction evident in the city was of the Green Zone defenses themselves-erected in a quest for safety at the cost of official interactions with Iraq. Senor went home, married a Washington insider, and became a commentator on Fox News. Eventually he set himself up in the business of “crisis communications,” as if even he finally realized that Iraq had gone horribly wrong.
Inside the Green Zone the talk of progress slowed and then died. The first of the nominal Iraqi governments arrived and joined the Americans in their oasis. The rest of Baghdad became the fearsome “Red Zone,” and completely off limits to American officials, although reporters and other unaffiliated Westerners continued to live and work there. Meanwhile, through institutional momentum and without regard to the fundamental mission-the reason for being there in the first place-the Green Zone defenses kept growing, surrounding the residents with ever more layers of checkpoints and blast walls, and forcing American officials to withdraw into their highly defended quarters at the Republican Palace, whereupon even the Green Zone became for them a forbidden land.
That was the process that has led, now, to this-the construction of an extravagant new fortress into which a thousand American officials and their many camp followers are fleeing. The compound, which will be completed by late fall, is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world, a walled expanse the size of Vatican City, containing 21 reinforced buildings on a 104-acre site along the Tigris River, enclosed within an extension of the Green Zone which stretches toward the airport road.
The new embassy cost $600 million to build, and is expected to cost another $1.2 billion a year to run-a high price even by the profligate standards of the war in Iraq. The design is the work of an architectural firm in Kansas City named Berger Devine Yaeger, which angered the State Department last May by posting its plans and drawings on the Internet, and then responding to criticism with the suggestion that Google Earth offers better views. Google Earth offers precise distance measurements and geographic coordinates too.
But the location of the compound is well known in Baghdad anyway, where for several years it has been marked by large construction cranes and all-night work lights easily visible from the embattled neighborhoods across the river. It is reasonable to assume that insurgents will soon sit in the privacy of rooms overlooking the site, and use cell phones or radios to adjust the rocket and mortar fire of their companions. Meanwhile, however, they seem to have held off, lobbing most of their ordnance elsewhere into the Green Zone, as if reluctant to slow the completion of such an enticing target.
The construction has proceeded within budget and on time. For the State Department, this is a matter of pride. The prime contractor is First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting, which for security reasons was not allowed to employ Iraqi laborers, and instead imported more than a thousand workers from such countries as Bangladesh and Nepal. The importation of Third World laborers is a standard practice in Iraq, where the huge problem of local unemployment is trumped by American fears of the local population, and where it is not unusual, for instance, to find US troops being served in chow halls by Sri Lankans wearing white shirts and bow ties.
First Kuwaiti has been accused of holding its workers in captivity by keeping their passports in a safe, as if otherwise they could have blithely exited the Green Zone, caught a ride to the airport, passed through the successive airport checkpoints, overcome the urgent crowds at the airline counters, purchased a ticket, bribed the police to ignore the country’s myriad exit requirements (including a recent H.I.V. test), and hopped a flight for Dubai. Whatever the specific allegations, which First Kuwaiti denies, in the larger context of Iraq the accusation is absurd. It is Iraq that holds people captive. Indeed, the U.S government itself is a prisoner, and all the more tightly held because it engineered the prison where it resides. The Green Zone was built by the inmates themselves. The new embassy results from their desire to get their confinement just right.
Details remain secret, but the essentials are known. The perimeter walls stand at least nine feet high and are made of reinforced concrete strong enough to deflect the blast from mortars, rockets, and car bombs that might detonate outside. Presumably the walls are watched over by fortified towers and are set back from a perimeter wire by swaths of prohibited free-fire zones. There are five defensible entrance gates, most of which remain closed. There is also a special emergency gate, meant to handle contingencies such as the collapse of the Green Zone or an American rout.
Inside the compound, or very near, there is a helipad to serve the ambassador and other top officials as they shuttle around on important business. Implicit in the construction of such a helipad is the hope in the worst case of avoiding the sort of panicked public rooftop departure that marked the American defeat in Vietnam. Never let it be said that the State Department does not learn from history.
For the most part, however, the new embassy is not about leaving Iraq, but about staying on-for whatever reason, under whatever circumstances, at whatever cost. As a result the compound is largely self-sustaining, and contains its own power generators, water wells, drinking-water treatment plant, sewage plant, fire station, irrigation system, Internet uplink, secure intranet, telephone center (Virginia area code), cell-phone network (New York area code), mail service, fuel depot, food and supply warehouses, vehicle-repair garage, and workshops.
At the core stands the embassy itself, a massive exercise in the New American Bunker style, with recessed slits for windows, a filtered and pressurized air-conditioning system against chemical or biological attack, and sufficient office space for hundreds of staff. Both the ambassador and deputy ambassador have been awarded fortified residences grand enough to allow for elegant diplomatic receptions even with the possibility of mortar rounds dropping in from above.
As for the rest of the embassy staff, most of the government employees are moving into 619 blast-resistant apartments, where they will enjoy a new level of privacy that, among its greatest effects, may ease some of the sexual tension that has afflicted Green Zone life. Fine-as a general rule the world would be a better place if American officials concentrated more of their energies on making love. But unfortunately even within the Baghdad embassy, with its romance-inducing isolation, a sexual solution is too much to expect.
Instead, the residents fight their frustrations with simulations of home-elements of America in the heart of Baghdad that seem to have been imported from Orange County or the Virginia suburbs. The new embassy has tennis courts, a landscaped swimming pool, a pool house, and a bomb-resistant recreation center with a well-equipped gym. It has a department store with bargain prices, where residents (with appropriate credentials) can spend some of their supplemental hazardous-duty and hardship pay.
It has a community center, a beauty salon, a movie theater, and an American Club, where alcohol is served. And it has a food court where third-country workers (themselves ultra-thin) dish up a wealth of choices to please every palate. The food is free. Take-out snacks, fresh fruit and vegetables, sushi rolls, and low-calorie specials. Sandwiches, salads, and hamburgers. American comfort food, and theme cuisines from around the world, though rarely if ever from the Middle East. Ice cream and apple pie. All of it is delivered by armed convoys up the deadly roads from Kuwait. Dread ripples through the embassy’s population when, for instance, the yogurt supply runs low. Back home in Washington the State Department is confronting the issue of post-traumatic stress after people return.
America didn’t use to be like this. Traditionally it was so indifferent to setting up embassies that after its first 134 years of existence, in 1910, it owned diplomatic properties in only five countries abroad-Morocco, Turkey, Siam, China, and Japan. The United States did not have an income tax at that time. Perhaps as a result, American envoys on public expense occupied rented quarters to keep the costs down. In 1913 the first national income tax was imposed, at rates between 1 and 7 percent, with room for growth in the future. Congress gradually relaxed its squeeze on the State Department’s budget. Then the United States won World War II. It emerged into the 1950s as a self-convinced power, locked in a struggle against the Soviet Union.
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 US 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 is 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. A fundamental purpose for these structures at that time remained firmly in mind.
But no matter how sunny they seemed, the US Embassies also embodied darker sides that lay within the very optimism they portrayed-America’s excess of certainty, its interventionist urge, its fresh-faced, clear-eyed capacity for killing. These traits have long been apparent to the world, though by definition less to Americans themselves. It would be illuminating to know how many local interventions-overt and covert, large and small-have been directed from behind US Embassy walls. The count must run to the thousands.
An early response was delivered on March 30, 1965, when a Vietcong car bomb destroyed the US Embassy in Saigon, killing 22 people and injuring 186. Referring recently to the attack, the former diplomat Charles Hill wrote, “The political shock was that an absolutely fundamental principle of international order-the mutually agreed upon inviolability of diplomats and their missions operating in host countries-was violated.”
A shock is similar to a surprise. Did it not come to mind that for years the same embassy had been violating Vietnam? Hill is now at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and at Yale. Explaining more recent troubles at US Embassies abroad, he wrote, “What the average American tourist needs to know is that the American government is not responsible for these difficulties. It is the rise of terrorist movements, which have set themselves monstrously against the basic foundations of international order, law and established diplomatic practice.”
Hill is 71. He was a mission coordinator at the embassy in Saigon, and rose to become the State Department’s chief of staff. After decades of service, he seems to equate international order with the schematics of diplomatic design. His “average American tourist” is young, female, and perhaps less grateful than he believes. US Embassies are not pristine diplomatic oases, but full-blown governmental hives, heavy with C.I.A. operatives, and representative of a country that however much it is admired is also despised.
The point is not that the C.I.A. should be excluded from hallowed ground, or that US interventions are necessarily counterproductive, but that diplomatic immunity is a flimsy conceit naturally just ignored, especially by guerrillas who expect no special status for themselves and are willing to die in a fight. So it was in Saigon, where a new, fortified embassy was built, and during the suicidal Tet offensive of 1968 nearly overrun.
The violations of diplomatic immunity spread as elsewhere in the world US Embassies and their staffs began to come under attack. 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-though in angry reference to America’s earlier installation of an unpopular Shah.
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 US diplomats and their facilities worldwide. On October 23, 1983, also in Beirut, terrorists carried out the huge truck-bombing of a US Marine Corps barracks, killing 242 American servicemen in an explosion said to be the largest non-nuclear bomb blast in history. One could argue the merits of American foreign policy in the long run, but in the immediate it seemed that something had to be done.
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 US 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. Equally significant, the report called for the creation of a new bureaucracy, a Diplomatic Security Service to be given responsibility for the safety of overseas personnel.
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.
On August 7, 1998, however, al-Qaeda drivers bombed the US 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 US government’s African employees.
In frustration, the Clinton administration fired cruise missiles at Sudan and Afghanistan, and back home in Washington engaged another retired admiral, William Crowe, to look into embassy defenses. In 1999, Crowe issued a scathing report, criticizing “the collective failure of the US government” (read Foggy Bottom), and insisting again on the standards that had been set by Inman 14 years earlier. He 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.
Williams is a steely but gracious man, with an affinity for elegant suits. Though he retired from the military in 1989, he still likes to be called The General. Sometimes, The Director. He has lots of medals and awards. Beneath his good manners he is obviously very proud. Among his many achievements, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross piloting combat helicopters in Vietnam, and in the early 1990s survived an even more dangerous stint running New York City’s public-school construction program. He is an African-American and the chairman of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. He has been inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame. He is also considered to be one of the most effective executives in the State Department today, praised in Congress for the production-line efficiency he has brought to embassy construction.
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. There are variations in the configurations, depending on the sites and needs, but most of the 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-though such ideas, if ever legitimate, are now hopelessly obsolete. NECs cost between $35 million and $100 million apiece. By current government standards that means they are cheap. Williams has finished 50 so far, and is churning out 14 more each year.
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. 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. It can be broken by trips to the bathrooms, which however temporarily may provide some relief. The bathrooms are strangely graffiti-free, and contain no hint of the in-house commentary a visitor might wish to see. 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. People who opt for the uncertainties of the streets may get a better sense for various realities-but so what? Crowe criticized the State Department for not doing enough. The new embassies comply fully with Inman’s standards.
Williams is unnecessarily defensive about this. He is offended by criticism of his NECs as diplomatic bunkers, and as quite the wrong signal to send overseas. In response he points out, correctly, that these are not the brutish fortifications they might have been, and that efforts have gone into reducing the obviousness of their defenses. But then he goes as far as to call the compounds inviting-which by definition they cannot be. It would be better to answer squarely to the criticism, were he in a position to be frank.
These embassies are indeed bunkers. They are politely landscaped, minimally intrusive bunkers, placed as far from view as is practical, and dependent as much on discreet technology as on sheer mass-but they are bunkers nonetheless. Those that do not contain official housing (and most do not) increasingly are linked to residential enclaves which themselves are fortified and guarded. And no, this is not how the State Department would choose to conduct itself in an ideal world.
But, again, let’s be frank. The NECs may be artifacts of fear, but it is an exaggeration to suggest that they teach the world that America is hostile or afraid-as if the locals were so simpleminded that they did not understand the reason for the diplomats’ defenses, or were not already forming independent opinions from close observations of the United States. Those observations are rooted in trade and financial ties, immigration, tourism, television and music, the Internet, and news reports of the superpower’s policies and wars-the whole organic mass of globalization that, by the way, has rendered obsolete the role of embassies in providing information of almost any kind.
Indeed, the depth and sophistication of foreign views help to explain the fact that ordinary Americans are generally well accepted even where the US government is despised. In any case, Williams’s mandate is not to ponder the fundamentals of a changing world order. His task is practical and narrowly defined. For whatever reasons, the United States has come to the stage where it maintains 12,000 foreign-service officers at diplomatic posts abroad. There is no question that these people are targets, and no evidence that reforms in foreign policy will make them safe enough in the near future. As long as the United States insists on their presence, the State Department has no choice but to protect them.
The new fortifications are not a perfect solution, particularly since there will always be the next softer target-whether American or allied. In 2003, for instance, after the US Consulate in Istanbul relocated to a bunker 45 minutes from its old center-city location, Islamist terrorists bombed its former neighbors, the British Consulate and the London-based HSBC bank, apparently because they decided that the American defenses were too tough. Thirty-two people died, including Britain’s consul general, Roger Short. Nonetheless and however sadly, since no American officials were among the dead, within the closed realms of the US government the shift to the new consulate had succeeded. So yes, Williams is right to be proud of his work. When he is done, the State Department should add to his collection of medals.
But his clients in the embassies are in trouble. Their need for protection has limited their views at the very time when globalization has diminished their roles. Security is their requirement and their curse. I first noticed the predicament years ago, in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. This was in 1994, nearly a decade after the Inman report, and four years before al-Qaeda’s attacks on Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Sudan at the time was controlled by a revolutionary Islamist regime, upon whose invitation Osama bin Laden had arrived. Perhaps 50 al-Qaeda foot soldiers were staying in my hotel, a run-down establishment where they lived several to a room, squatting late into the night in murmured conversation, without bothering to close the door. We made a wary peace, and over burners on their floors sometimes shared tea. I did not hide my curiosity. These were bearded men dressed in emulation of Muhammad, hardened jihadists who had fought in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Some spoke about their beliefs and their pasts; I did not ask about their plans.
I was in Khartoum for about a month, talking to Islamist revolutionaries and theoreticians, and between appointments walking for hours through the streets. There were hardly any non-Sudanese in sight, though occasionally I saw foreign-aid workers drive by in air-conditioned Land Cruisers, with antennas swaying on the roofs. The city was poor. The days were hot. Twice I was detained for being a spy and easily talked my way free. I never felt threatened. One day I walked to the American Embassy, hoping for special insights into the revolutionary scene.
It was one of the old embassies with improvised defenses, standing directly on a street near the city center, and vulnerable to attack. It was visibly sleepy. Inside, a good-humored Marine told me he had pulled the short straw. I met with a foreign-service officer tasked with monitoring political affairs. He was a pleasant man with detailed knowledge of Sudan’s formal government but, as it turned out, very little feel for the revolution there. He did not pretend otherwise, and was surprised that I was able to stay in the city without a driver or guards.
He had questions that needed to be answered-who really were these Islamists, what was their relationship with the military, how antagonistic were they to American interests, how solid was their popular base, and why had all the jihadists come to town? He was not getting good answers from Sudanese officials, or from the various schemers who showed up at the embassy seeking deals. I could not help him, either. I suggested that he walk around, make friends, hang out in the city at night. He smiled at my naïveté. Khartoum was a hardship post, where the diplomats lived restricted to the embassy and residences, and moved through the city in convoys of armored cars. The original purpose of being there had not been forgotten, but a security plan was in place, and it overwhelmed other concerns.
So too, now, with the construction of the NECs and the launching of the flagship, the mega-bunker of Baghdad. A dynamic is in play, a process paradox, in which the means rise to dominance as the ends recede from view. The United States has worldwide interests, and needs the tools to pursue them, but in a wild and wired 21st century the static diplomatic embassy, a product of the distant past, is no longer of much use.
To the government this does not seem to matter. Inman’s new bureaucracy, the Diplomatic Security section, has blossomed into an enormous enterprise, employing more than 34,000 people worldwide and engaging thousands of private contractors-all of whom also require security. Its senior representatives sit at hundreds of diplomatic facilities, identifying real security risks and imposing new restrictions which few ambassadors would dare to overrule. Safety comes first, and it is increasingly difficult to achieve.
In Baghdad the mortar fire is growing more accurate and intense. After 30 mortar shells hit the Green Zone one afternoon last July, an American diplomat reported that his colleagues were growing angry about being “recklessly exposed to danger”-as if the war should have come with warning labels.
At least the swimming pool has been placed off limits. Embassy staff are required to wear flak jackets and helmets when walking between buildings, or when occupying those that have not been fortified. On the rare occasion when they want to venture a short distance across the Green Zone to talk to Iraqi officials, they generally have to travel in armored S.U.V.’s, often protected by private security details.
The ambassador, Ryan Crocker, is distributing a range of new protective gear, and is scattering the landscape with 151 concrete “duck and cover” shelters. Not to be outdone, a Senate report has recommended the installation of a teleconferencing system to “improve interaction” with Iraqis who may be in buildings only a few hundred yards away. So, O.K., the new embassy is not perfect yet, but by State Department standards it’s getting there.
What on earth is going on? We have built a fortified America in the middle of a hostile city, peopled it with a thousand officials from every agency of government, and provided them with a budget to hire thousands of contractors to take up the slack. Half of this collective is involved in self-defense. The other half is so isolated from Iraq that, when it is not dispensing funds into the Iraqi ether, it is engaged in nothing more productive than sustaining itself. The isolation is necessary for safety, but again, the process paradox is at play-and not just in Iraq.
Faced with the failure of an obsolete idea-the necessity of traditional embassies and all the elaboration they entail-we have not stood back to remember their purpose, but have plunged ahead with closely focused concentration to build them bigger and stronger. One day soon they may reach a state of perfection: impregnable and pointless.
Some months ago I got a call from a friend of mine, a US Army general, with long experience in Iraq. He asked me my impression of the situation on the ground, and specifically of the chances that the surge of troops into Baghdad might succeed. I was pessimistic. I said, “Ten times zero is still zero. The patrols don’t connect with the streets.” I might as well have been speaking of embassies too. He seemed to agree, but rather than surrendering to despair, he proposed a first step in the form of a riddle.
“What do you do when you’re digging yourself into a hole?”
I said, “You tell me.”
He said, “You stop digging.”
William Langewiesche is Vanity Fair’s international correspondent.
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