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Get Out of the Embassy

In my piece Wednesday about the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq, I quoted a senior State Department official about diplomatic culture. He was reacting to a kind-of-obnoxious question I asked about the department being somewhat hidebound and embassy-centric, too reluctant and resistant to get out into the far-flung areas of a country where important political activity is germinating. The reply:

“There’s a recognition that going down and talking to the foreign ministry doesn’t do the job,” said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “Most every one of us [feels] cooped up in an embassy. If [diplomats] want sit in an embassy and look at a computer screen, they could have saved the money on a plane ticket” and remained at home instead.

Now take a look at this piece from The Washington Post, hinging off a serious-looking compound in New York’s Turtle Bay that’s to house the U.S. Mission to the United Nations:

The 26-story building is one of a new generation of hardened U.S. diplomatic outposts. More than 60 high-security embassies and consulates have been constructed in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa over the past eight years.

The primary goal is greater protection for the 20,000 American officials serving in those facilities, but the buildings have also been criticized as enduring symbols of the fears and anxieties that gripped the United States in the wake of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

There are, of course, legitimate security reasons for building fortress-embassies in some cases. (But there’s no argument for doing that in New York City.) And because the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security has very few actual bodyguards compared to the volume of diplomats in need of protection, the immediate-term protection when traveling out into the hinterlands of weak states is often a dreaded private-security company like Triple Canopy or DynCorp.

But security can be a self-perpetuating argument, and it can also be an excuse for doing less at a time when the Obama administration is trying to rebalance the civilian and military components of national security. Wade Weems, PRT director for Iraq, told me that one of the ways that PRTs are changing department culture is by attracting “people who want to go out and get their boots muddy, and who want to do the more dynamic, slightly adventurous, muddy-boot diplomacy that we at the PRTs do.” When I embedded with a PRT in Mosul in 2007, its tactical operations center had a sign hanging that read GET OFF THE FOB!, meaning that to be successful it had to get off the Forward Operating Base (FOB) that hosted it and deal with the Iraqis on their terms. Fortress embassies are sometimes necessary, but they risk losing that ethic — which is often the whole point of diplomacy.

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