Bunker Mentality

Can the U.S. keep diplomats safe without turning embassies into fortresses?

When U.S. embassies are under attack around the world, it may seem like an odd time to talk about architecture. But this week's events have highlighted the degree to which U.S. embassies are America's foremost symbolic representatives abroad, and the way the United States presents itself in foreign capitals includes the design of the embassy buildings themselves. Over the last three decades, the design of U.S. embassies has been a balancing act between the need to protect diplomats and staff and the desire to project a positive image of the United States: welcoming buildings that showcase transparency and openness versus imposing and intimidating fortresses. But attacks on U.S. facilities, especially in the post-9/11 era, have tended to tilt the conversation toward the latter, and it remains to be seen whether this week's attacks in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere will have a similar effect.

"It's really a tradeoff that a lot of diplomats will accept, accepting more risk to make it easier to do their jobs," says Jane Loeffler, an architectural historian and author of The Architecture of Diplomacy, a history of U.S. embassy design. "But we're not always willing to make that tradeoff on their behalf."

The State Department didn't put much thought into embassy design for most of its early history; it usually simply bought existing buildings in foreign capitals. In 1926, the Foreign Service Buildings Office -- later renamed the Overseas Buildings Office (OBO) -- was formed to oversee the construction of U.S. embassies. According to architecture critic Martin Filler, "the results were hardly distinguished and ran to Beaux-Arts Classical or Colonial Revival clichés."

In 1954, the OBO instituted a new embassy design program that embraced the emerging architectural modernist movement in order to give its facilities what Loeffler calls "a distinguishable American flavor." The legacy of that era can be seen today in buildings like the Athens embassy built in 1959 by famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and the New Delhi embassy built the same year by Edward Durell Stone, best known for Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center. These facilities may look a bit run-down today, but at the time, they were considered architectural milestones and an emblem of American swagger at the height of the Cold War.

This age of relative innocence in embassy design ended in 1983 with the suicide bombing that killed 63 people at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. At the time, it was the deadliest attack ever against a U.S. mission overseas and, following closely on the heels of the 1979 embassy siege in Tehran, underscored the dangers facing U.S. diplomats in lightly protected overseas facilities.

Following the bombing, the State Department formed a panel on diplomatic security led by retired admiral and former National Security Agency director Bobby Ray Inman. The 1985 Inman Report, as it came to be known, led to the creation of the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and laid out a new set of guidelines for embassy construction. According to the new standards, embassies were required to be built behind a 9-foot security wall, the building itself set back from the street by at least 100 feet and with a maximum window-to-wall ratio of 15 percent. It also recommended sites of 15 acres or more located far from city centers. The report suggested substantial renovations or complete replacements of 126 diplomatic posts, but due to a lack of funding from Congress -- only about $880 million was allocated of the estimated $3.5 billion needed -- only 15 embassies were ever upgraded to the new standards over the next decade.

In 1998, simultaneous bombings hit the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 223 people. The attacks alerted Americans to the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, and they were another bloody wake-up call on embassy security. Neither embassy met the Inman standards -- the Dar es Salaam building was only 25 feet from the street, for instance -- and a subsequent investigation found that 85 percent of U.S. embassies still weren't up to code. "After 1998, things really did change, and the State Department, under a lot of criticism and with a lot of money coming in from Congress, reorganized its building program," Loeffler says.

The 9/11 attacks led to a complete swing toward security; in 2002, the OBO adopted new guidelines known as "Standard Embassy Design" (SED) which aimed to create a reusable template for U.S. embassy construction around the world. The blueprint -- including high fences and a 100-foot setback -- is available in small, medium, and large versions and designed to go from empty lot to fully operational in less than three years. It also requires that all U.S. offices be located in the same fortified compound. "The model was a three-part structure with a semi-public part for visitors and the public, an atrium for events and exhibits, and a more secure part," says Loeffler. (See the embassies in Mali, Haiti, and Belize for examples of the form.)

Aesthetics are clearly not a priority in the post-9/11 era; in fact, the State Department's architectural advisory committee was eliminated in 2004. "There was criticism from a lot of places," remembers Loeffler. "Diplomats felt they couldn't do their jobs if they were totally cut off. The buildings didn't seem to be complementing their locations and weren't exactly exporting the best of what America had to offer."

The apotheosis of the safety-first era is the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, whose construction began in 2005 and which opened in 2009. Located behind 9-foot blast walls on a compound the size of the Vatican City within Baghdad's Green Zone, the $736 million embassy features a setback 2.5 times the normal distance, housing for hundreds of employees and Marines, and an independent electricity and water system.

The "Fortress America" on the Euphrates along with the cookie-cutter mini-fortresses being built around the world, provoked their own backlash. "We are building some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen. We're building fortresses around the world. We're separating ourselves from people in these countries. I cringe when I see what we're doing," said Sen. John Kerry at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 2009.

The pendulum has begun to swing the other way under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tenure. In July 2009, the American Institute of Architects issued a report with recommendations on improving embassy design. In particular, it recommended making standards more flexible when possible and moving away from SED. In 2010, the OBO established a new Design Excellence initiative to improve the aesthetics, location-appropriateness, and environmental sustainability of embassies. "There's a definite move away from 'one size fits all,'" says Loeffler. "There hasn't been this much of a positive statement from the department since the 1950s."

The design of the new U.S. Embassy in London by the firm KieranTimberlake to replace famed architect Eero Saarinen's building from the height of the 1950s Modernist era, though mired by controversy throughout the design and panned by some architecture critics, is an example of the new spirit of compromise between design and security. Rather than blast walls, its setback includes a water feature and green space meant to be less disruptive to the site. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's energy-efficient design for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which opened in 2008, has won a number of architecture awards. (Carrying this spirit over into more sensitive projects like the planned expansion of the U.S. embassies in Kabul and Islamabad may prove more difficult.)

It's still too early to say whether this week's attacks will shift the State Department's priorities back toward security; the OBO did not respond to requests for comment. The Cairo embassy that was attacked this week was built between 1982 and 1987, and it was not planned according to the Inman standards, though it had since received security upgrades. (If it were being built today, it would likely be outside the city rather than in the affluent Garden City District -- walking distance from downtown and Tahrir Square.) In Benghazi, Libya, there has been scrutiny that the consulate -- where U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was killed -- was an "interim facility" with no Marines providing security and without features like bulletproof glass or reinforced doors that are standard in embassies.

In the end, of course, diplomatic postings in politically sensitive regions will always carry risks, and embassies will always be targets for demonstrators or militants angry at U.S. policies. There may indeed have been some troubling security lapses at U.S. embassies over the past week, and procedures may need to be changed. But for all accounts, Stevens was a diplomat who believed it was worth taking risks to interact directly with the people of the country where he was posted. It would be unfortunate if his death were used as a pretext to further isolate U.S. diplomats behind blast walls and razor wire.



Meet the New Boss

The news may look grim, but the United States is poised to remain the dominant power in the Middle East.

The attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, this Sept. 11 echoed the worst moments of American impotence in the Middle East. They not only evoked memories of Iranian revolutionaries storming the U.S. Embassy in Tehran almost 33 years ago, but their occurrence on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington further reminded Americans of the deep roots of anti-American rage in the Arab world.

As a result of that terrible Tuesday morning 11 years ago, Americans have spent a decade deeply intertwined in the affairs of the Arab and Muslim worlds. After watching Egyptians tear the Star and Stripes to shreds and Libyans carry Ambassador Christopher Stevens's dead body, they can be forgiven for believing it is now time to come home. How much has the United States invested in Egypt over the last three decades? Was not Benghazi saved in large part because of the bravery and skills of U.S. Air Force pilots? These are the questions Americans are now asking themselves. The U.S. public can be naive about the world, but they are not fools. They understand when they may no longer be welcome.

Still, it was Vice President Joe Biden who thundered, "Don't bet against the American people" on the third night of the Democratic National Convention, a sentiment with which virtually all Republicans would reflexively agree. The concept of American exceptionalism is in danger of becoming a political cliché, but who would deny that the United States saved the world from fascism and communism and has been a beacon of freedom and prosperity for people the world over? The two major parties have it right: Despite the background chatter of the America's diminished global stature, the country is uniquely positioned to lead the world and remain the preeminent power in the Middle East.

In their early 21st-century malaise, citizens of the United States have been told that the American Dream is dead, but it is clear that the rest of the world does not believe it. There is something to this idea of American exceptionalism: People do not swim to Brazil for a better future; authoritarian Russia is a model for no one. India and China are still very poor countries, and millions of their citizens want to build their futures in the United States. But it's not American ideals alone that ensure its global role. The continuation of U.S. leadership has more to do with the structure of international politics and Washington's capacities than the values Americans hold dear.

Nowhere is this leadership role clearer than in the Middle East. For all the sentiment among Libyans, Tunisians, Syrians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, and especially Egyptians about national empowerment, the United States will continue to be the region's indispensable power. This may sound odd given everything that has happened in the region over the last 18 months, including the assaults on U.S. embassies this week. And yes, the Arab uprisings, the United States' difficult fiscal situation, and new contenders for regional leadership all pose a challenge to Washington's influence. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and a potentially rejuvenated Egypt all want to be influential players in the Middle East, but in the crosscutting conflicts of the region, only Washington can lead.

All the contenders for regional leadership in the Middle East have critical weaknesses that will prevent them from supplanting the United States. Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the Saudis have been playing a more prominent regional role, but it has been almost entirely based on Riyadh's efforts to ensure that unrest does not spread to the kingdom, which generally means spreading around financial resources. Money is important, of course, but outside of Bahrain, the Saudis have not been successful in convincing other countries to support their view of what the region should look like. Moreover, Riyadh is tethered to Washington: It seeks American protection from Iran and looks to the United States to drive events in the region. The Saudis consistently ask the Americans to intercede with Beijing on Iran, for instance, not recognizing their own leverage with the Chinese in the form of 1 million barrels of Saudi crude that China imports daily.

The Qataris have clearly distinguished themselves as a regional leader through, like the Saudis, their ability to spend liberally around the region, whether it is funding the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army or pledging to invest $18 billion in the Egyptian economy in the next five years. There is also the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera, which endows Doha with influence well beyond its size. Yet even with all the leverage Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has amassed, he has made Washington need him because he needs Washington. The emir did not build al-Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. facility in the Persian Gulf, out of altruism -- but rather for external and internal protection. U.S. forces are Qatar's strategic depth, and they bind the emir to the United States in ways that make it hard for him to break free.

A great deal of ink has been spilled about Turkey's emergence as a new regional powerhouse. Yet despite praise for its financial wherewithal, cultural affinity, and political assets, Ankara's ambitions appear greater than its capacity. Nowhere is this clearer than in Syria, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unable to translate considerable political and personal investment in President Bashar al-Assad's regime into influence. Now, 18 months into Syria's uprising, the Turks are confronted with 80,000 Syrian refugees and a full-blown crisis that threatens Turkish security in multiple ways, from the intensification of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkish territory to the emergence of Syrian Kurdish nationalism. Yet no one should mistake Erdogan's recent barb that the United States is "lacking of initiative" in Syria as a sign that Turkey will go it alone. Rather, Erdogan's angry words were an effort to shame Washington into action, because he knows Turkey lacks the capacity to manage the crisis on its own.

Egypt's newly elected leaders appear eager to present a new approach to the Arab world, but Cairo remains hobbled by a fragile political order and long decades of stagnation under Hosni Mubarak's rule. Egypt now has competitors for influence in the Arab world, including the Qataris, Saudis, and Turks. It's also important to note that despite the strain in U.S.-Egypt relations over the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, President Mohamed Morsy bowed to U.S. demands that he work to bring the situation under control.

The United States has made a military and financial investment in the Middle East that no one else will match. There's good reason for that: Other powers are only too happy to benefit from the security Washington provides without bearing the cost. With all the gauzy talk of the "New Silk Road" and China's global rise, Beijing's diplomatic, political, and military roles in the Middle East have remained relatively modest even as its geostrategic and economic interests have grown. The Russians, meanwhile, have proved themselves to be demonstrably on the wrong side of history as Arabs struggle to build more just societies. Moscow's support for the Assad regime has proved that it is more interested in maintaining a toehold in the region at the Syrian port of Tartus than saving thousands of Syrian lives. And despite Morsy's planned visit to Brazil in late September, Brasilia is not a player in the Middle East. India, which has strong intelligence and military ties with Israel, also has a very low profile in the Arab world.

It may be a new Middle East, but some of the old realities still hold true. Osama el-Baz, Mubarak's longtime foreign-policy troubleshooter, once remarked, "There is no alternative to the United States … yet." To date, the shift in the global distribution of power to which Baz was referring has not occurred. The United States may still struggle with the pathologies of decline -- burdensome military commitments, foreign assistance packages, and alliances -- but for better or worse, the Middle East remains well within Washington's sphere of influence.

After a decade of two wars, regime change in Libya, the prospect of conflict with Iran, and general upheaval, Americans may be tired of this volatile region. But don't expect the United States to depart anytime soon. That is the price of indispensability -- and exceptionalism too.