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Hearing: U.S. Embassies Isolated, Ugly

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has become a symbol of failed diplomacy in Iraq. Last year the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform documented horrific labor practices and human trafficking committed by building contractor First Kuwaiti in building the 104-acre, $740 million embassy. And more recently the committee and Justice Department have investigated the unfinished embassy’s nonexistent fire safety system and dubious electric wiring.

After exposing the scope of the embassy’s problems, the committee was, sort of, at it again today. Instead of going forward the latest allegations of rogue State Department officials and broken water sprinklers, the issue at hand was the failed mission of U.S. embassies across the world.

National security subcommittee chair John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat, romanticized the aesthetically pleasing embassies of the Cold War era that encouraged interaction between diplomats and their surrounding community. Now, Tierney lamented, “Our concerns with security have led us to build new embassy compounds of cookie-cutter boxes surrounded by walls located on the outside of town.”

Tierney’s assertions were supported by a Center for Strategic and International Studies report presented to the committee by Marc Grossman and Thomas Pickering, each a former Undersecretary for Political Affairs at the State Department. Not surprisingly, Grossman and Pickering hammered home that State needs more money to hire hire and train personnel. They also acknowledged that diplomacy can’t happen if the diplomats are fortified from living, breathing society. “The key factor is that locations away from urban centers must be avoided whenever possible,” Grossman told the committee.

From that perspective, the Baghdad Embassy is but the most extreme example of problems from the “Standard Embassy Design” program Congress created after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The Baghdad embassy is ensconced in the U.S. military green zone and is intended to be an entirely self-sufficient compound.

Jane Loeffler, a professor at the University of Maryland and architectural historian, testified that standard design “dots the global landscape with embassies that resemble big box stores” which doesn’t exactly put America’s best foot forward.

In a hearing that included three other witnesses and a rotating cast of lawmakers, Loeffler was the only one to connect standard design protocol problems with private contracting. “It gives direct control to individual contractors, weakens the government’s negotiating role, and minimizes the contribution of architects and other design professionals.” Loeffler also pointed out that State’s Overseas Building Operations abandoned the 50 year-old peer review panel for Embassy projects in 2004- right before Baghdad embassy construction inauspiciously began. “Instead it created a panel of industry representatives who vied for contracts and rubber-stamped the director’s policies.”

In an interview afterward, Pickering was confident that more money for State would alleviate the problems of privatizing future embassy-building projects. “We’ll be able to make better, more selective use of the contractors,” Pickering said. Pickering also pointed that the problems in Baghdad are unique. “It’s in a war zone so it shouldn’t be a pattern- I hope it’s not a pattern.”

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