Friday, March 6, 2009

Senator Lugar Wants to Bring Back American Centers

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I see that Senator Lugar has called on the State Department to "reinvigorate the old American Center concept" of cultural outreach facilities that are located apart from embassy office compounds. A good idea, I think, and one I've commented about here.

Some key quotes from the Senator:

But after the Cold War, the United States prematurely declared victory in the battle for hearts and minds, terminating the U.S. Information Agency, which ran the centers, and cutting the State Department's public diplomacy budget. Many thought the Internet and global satellite TV would render irrelevant the people-to-people exchanges fostered by the centers.

Separately, U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas became more isolated. Following the 1998 bombings by Al Qaeda of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 12 Americans and more than 200 Tanzanians and Kenyans, the United States embarked upon a major construction program to build new embassies protected against terrorist attacks. Many embassies are now far from city centers and impose time-consuming security procedures upon all visitors. Additionally, most U.S. civilian employees are required to work within the embassy perimeter.

Those security upgrades were necessary, but the result has been less day-to-day interaction between U.S. diplomats and locals. Stripped-down outreach facilities, now called Information Resource Centers (IRCs), are often located within embassy compounds and open to the public by appointment only. State Department statistics show that IRCs within embassy walls in the Middle East received only one sixth as many visitors as those off-compound. Clearly, reaching a wider audience will require creative adjustments to the United States' security approach, keeping in mind that the safety of U.S. personnel must be paramount.

And, his recommendation is that:

As part of a broader overhaul of its public diplomacy effort, the United States should reinvigorate the old American Centers concept - putting, when possible, new ones that are safe but accessible in vibrant downtown areas - support active cultural programming, and resume the teaching of English by American or U.S.-trained teachers hired directly by embassies. That would help draw people to the centers and ensure that students got some American perspective along with their grammar.

Far be it from me to nit-pick what a U.S. Senator says, especially when I agree with him, but permit me to quibble about three of his points:

"Many embassies are now far from city centers"

Actually, only new embassies - meaning those that were built under the new construction program that started around 2000 - are located far from city centers, and not all of them are. Only 21% of our embassies and consulates are new ones, so I doubt the location factor alone can account for a systemic loss of public access. Many of the remaining 79% of our diplomatic facilities are right smack in the middle of downtowns areas, even those so excessively 'vibrant' (Damascus and Belgrade, for example) that it would be safer for our embassies to be a little more distant. Still, I take his point: our embassies get fewer walk-in visitors than our old American Centers did.

Incidentally, I get my information about the percentage of new diplomatic facilities from a recent General Accountability Office report which noted that from 1999 to 2008 only 64 new embassies, consulates and annexes were completed, and from the State Department's website which lists a bit over 300 overseas diplomatic missions.

"[M]ost U.S. civilian employees are required to work within the embassy perimeter"

The Senator is referring to what is known as the collocation requirement, in accordance with which all the offices and agencies under the authority of the Ambassador in a given country must be located together on a single compound rather than scattered around town. I must note the collocation requirement is not some State Department security standard, but rather part of Public Law 106-113, Title VI, Section 601, known as the "Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999." The same law also requires every diplomatic facility to have a certain setback distance between it and the perimeter of the property on which it is located, something which is rarely possible in downtown areas and therefore contributes to the embassy remoteness problem.

The Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act says in part:

Site Selection - In selecting a site for any new United States diplomatic facility abroad, the Secretary shall ensure that all United States Government personnel at the post (except those under the command of an area military commander) will be located on the site.

Perimeter Distance - Each newly acquired United States diplomatic facility shall be sited not less than 100 feet from the perimeter of the property on which the facility is to be situated.

The law defines a diplomatic facility very broadly, to include any "other office" no matter whether it has a public outreach purpose:

In this title, the terms `United States diplomatic facility' and `diplomatic facility' mean any chancery, consulate, or other office notified to the host government as diplomatic or consular premises in accordance with the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations.

"Clearly, reaching a wider audience will require creative adjustments to the United States' security approach"

Clearly, it will. And I, for one, am all in favor of creativity in approaching security problems. However, no adjustments can be creative enough to overcome the collocation and setback restrictions imposed by Public Law 106-113.

If Senator Lugar really wants to be helpful, he ought to sponsor a bill to amend the law so as to exempt American Centers. Then we might be able to open a few in those city centers where he wants them to be.

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