Thursday, May 24, 2007

Is the U.S. becoming too risk averse?

UCSD professor and former Clinton administration official Richard Feinberg wrote an interesting op-ed piece in today's Post describing how U.S. embassies are turning into fortresses:

With threats to American power growing stronger and American prestige slipping around the world, our professional Foreign Service officers are more crucial than ever. Unfortunately, our approach to their security is making it almost impossible for many of them to do their jobs. Marooned in fortress-like embassies, cut off from the societies where they should be gathering intelligence and spreading American values, too many of them might as well be surveying the landscape from offices in Washington.

U.S. embassies are increasingly becoming like medieval fortresses -- remote, foreboding, impenetrable. Perched on suburban hilltops safely distant from more dangerous urban centers, they sit behind layers of high-security fences, reinforced concrete walls, thick glass windows and squads of armed guards.


In violent cities, draconian security measures may be necessary. Diplomats in Baghdad inhabit the famous Green Zone, which generally shields them from car bombs and suicide bombers, even as U.S. intelligence has suffered from these separations. But this solution to extreme threats hardly seems warranted in most capitals. Yet in calm cities, from Singapore to Santiago, garrison embassy compounds are becoming the rule as strict security measures are standardized throughout the world.

Many security measures predated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and even the 1998 bombing of our embassies in East Africa. After the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, new embassies began to take on the fortress architecture, and tightened security was prioritized over diplomatic function. Certainly, when danger is demonstrable, smart security upgrades are warranted; security measures can partially be compensated for by attractive landscaping, and the loss of physical accessibility can be partially replaced by interactive Web sites. But in most places, the fortress embassies are overkill.

Yes, it's a dangerous world, but so is policing our own cities, and we do not suggest that police officers remain barricaded behind their precinct walls. Just the opposite: We now instruct law enforcement officers to walk the streets in their communities, believing that this is the best long-term approach to improving relations with citizens and, ultimately, reducing risk to the officers themselves.

Nor will it ever be possible to eliminate risk for overseas assignments, and attempts to do so become ever more expensive and self-defeating. The only foolproof way to eliminate risk to our diplomats is to bring them home. Better to restore a more considered balance between absolute security and diplomatic effectiveness -- and for the nation to recognize that diplomats, no less than soldiers, accept a degree of risk when they enlist.

I can commiserate with Mr. Feinberg's point. Two years after 9/11, I spent a summer working a U.S. consulate in Japan that was right on a major thoroughfare in the heart of a major Japanese city. The atmosphere of the facility was pretty open -- there were no concrete barriers on the sidewalk and the building's security detail was small cadre of polite Japanese security guards. The staff was so committed to this approach that they wouldn't even let a credible terrorist threat that copped up nearby hamper operations. In the end, their approach really paid dividends for the consulate in terms of public diplomacy and connecting to the local community.

Is this issue just part of a growing preference for risk averse foreign policies in the United States? One could easily see the parallels between the embassy issue and the public's obsession with "protecting our troops" by cocooning them in bulky body armor and increasingly heavy armored cars.

What about national security policy in general? Aren't programs like missile defense, prompt global strike, and the robust nuclear earth penetrator designed to substitute for policies that entail the risk of relying on the cooperation of foreigners -- such as cooperative security, international regimes and diplomacy?

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