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Bunker Mentality

Designing an American embassy in a foreign country is always a tricky proposition. On the one hand, the building is supposed to convey diplomatic goodwill. On the other hand, it needs to protect its staffers from that pesky segment of the population that wants to, well, kill them.

Back in the early days of the cold war, goodwill--if not good taste--had the upper hand, as Washington engaged prominent architects to build its overseas outposts, like Kennedy Center creator Edward Durrell Stone, whose grandiose U.S. Embassy in New Delhi bears a more than passing resemblance to his largely unloved white box on the Potomac. But in the decades since the Iran hostage crisis, security has, quite understandably, become priority number one. While the results make diplomats safer, the architectural brutality comes at a cost: It doesn't take a rabid anti-American to interpret our chancery in even a relatively friendly country like Sri Lanka as a sign of malicious intent. Behind the blast-proof walls, little is visible to the passerby except the sinister-looking antennas on the roof. Never mind gun-boat diplomacy; this is the age of gunwale democracy.

Come September, that age will reach its apotheosis, appropriately enough, in Baghdad--the very place where our invasion was supposed to spark a regional democratization that was, in turn, somehow going end to the global terroristic nastiness that has turned far less important diplomatic outposts into miniature Fort Apaches--when the U.S. Embassy opens there. With the construction of the $592 million facility, the Bush administration apparently meant to signal that it's not about to abandon Iraq to its fate. (There will be no mad-dash helicopter evacuation from this embassy.) Unfortunately, pretty much everything about the Embassy's design suggests the opposite.

The complex is to be 104 acres, six times the size of the United Nations' property in New York and approximately the same size as the Vatican. It has fortified walls and apartments inside for 615 staffers, to spare them the risk of having to go out on the actual streets of, you know, Iraq. Despite American vows to return normalcy, the new long-term home seems to bet on decades of chaos: Behind the walls, it has water-treatment facilities to cope with the Iraqi capital's lack of potable water, power generation to compensate for Baghdad's erratic electricity, as well as a food court, beauty parlor, pool, gym, and club. All surely necessary to keep staffers safe and sane in unimaginably difficult working conditions. But not quite the kind of facility you build for the long run in one of those normal, friendly countries that Iraq was supposed to become.

In its own way, the Embassy is a rare U.S. success story in Iraq, arriving more or less on time and on budget (albeit with not quite enough residential space for the burgeoning cadre of American employees there). Like the decision to guard the Oil Ministry while the rest of the city was looted in 2003, though, even this success has dubious symbolic value. Sure, we may have wildly misjudged the political realities and exposed our own troops to needless death and danger, but we have enough drinking water for our (pro)consular crew to wait out the next 15 surges.

Taken a certain way, sinking more than a half-billion dollars into a diplomatic installation is actually an optimistic gesture--a possibly foolish expression of faith in a future full of transnational cultural-exchange festivals and ambassadorial Fourth of July receptions and fancy dinners in honor of visiting American industrialists, the bland ordinary stuff of foreign representation. Not to mention a future where the residents of the embassy don't also control a 150,000-plus army that's caught in the middle a nasty civil war.

The same dreamy idealism was at play last year, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced plans to move personnel from embassies in national capitals to offices in second-tier cities overseas. The logic was all about making friends and influencing real people; there's no point sending our diplomats around the world just to hang out with a bunch of foreign folks who went to Georgetown. But the reality is that security risks make such an initiative largely unfeasible. Any U.S. presence in those parts of the world we're out to "influence" necessarily has to look like a bunker. Better, for now, to stick with e-mail.

But the Iraq Embassy's own website, likewise, reflects the wonderful banality of a government's interactions with a world that isn't blowing itself up. There are lists of local pharmacies and lawyers, advice for travelers on how to avoid avian flu, and lost-passport information. There's a fact sheet on the Middle East and North Africa, whose warnings include the helpful hint that "Americans considering seaborne travel near the Horn of Africa or in the southern Red Sea should exercise extreme caution." It's all so normal that you might miss the message that sits somewhere between the absentee-ballot information and the bird flu brochure. The one about Iraq. "U.S. citizens and other foreigners continue to be targeted by insurgent groups and opportunistic criminals for kidnapping and murder," it notes.

By Michael Currie Schaffer