Shaping perceptions

Quickly, read Foreign Policy’s recent article on the latest Crusader Castle, the new US embassy in Baghdad. I’ll post more on this later.  

Saturday is reportedly the State Department’s self-imposed deadline for completion of construction on the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The facility has been plagued with controversy, including unproven allegations that the Kuwait-based contractor in charge of  construction imported Filipino workers against their will. But more profound questions about this new compound remain. Is it even correct to call something this large, this expensive, and this disconnected from the realities of Iraq an “embassy”? And what does it tell us about America’s thinking on Iraq?

In the September/October issue of FP, architectural historian Jane Loeffler–who knows more about U.S. embassy design than just about anybody–gives readers a taste (sub req’d) of just what kind of embassy $1 billion buys these days:

Located in Baghdad’s 4-square-mile Green Zone, the embassy will occupy 104 acres. It will be six times larger than the U.N. complex in New York and more than 10 times the size of the new U.S. Embassy being built in Beijing…. The Baghdad compound will be entirely self-sufficient, with no need to rely on the Iraqis for services of any kind. The embassy has its own electricity plant, fresh water and sewage treatment facilities, storage warehouses, and maintenance shops. The embassy is composed of more than 20 buildings, including six apartment complexes with 619 one-bedroom units. Two office blocks will accommodate about 1,000 employees…. Once inside the compound, Americans will have almost no reason to leave. It will have a shopping market, food court, movie theater, beauty salon, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, a school, and an American Club for social gatherings.”

But what, Loeffler asks, does an embassy this large and this costly say about the nation that built it?

If architecture reflects the society that creates it, the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad makes a devastating comment about America’s global outlook. Although the U.S. government regularly proclaims confidence in Iraq’s democratic future, the United States has designed an embassy that conveys no confidence in Iraqis and little hope for their future. Instead, the United States has built a fortress capable of sustaining a massive, long-term presence in the face of continued violence.”

Forty years ago, after the 1967 Six Day War, America was forced to flee a newly constructed embassy in Baghdad just five years after it opened. It’s unlikely we’d abandon this new compound–whatever the circumstances. Instead, this time around, the question is whether something so isolated can really be used to conduct diplomacy and spread democracy. To get Loeffler’s full argument, check out her essay: Fortress America.