Monday, April 30, 2012

U.S. Embassy In The Netherlands Will Be Replaced

Consumer Notice: This post is certified 100% free of Matters of Official Concern that are not referenced from publicly available sources of information. 

The State Department sent out a solicitation for construction of a new U.S. Embassy in The Netherlands today. The synopsis reads:

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE (DOS), Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) is requesting submissions to pre-qualify firms for Construction services for the construction of a New Embassy Compound (NEC). This project will be executed under OBO's Design Excellence Program [program details here]. The project will consist of the construction of a compound to house U.S. Diplomatic functions at [The Hague, The Netherlands].

The solicitation estimates the construction cost to be between $170 million and $210 million. That  estimate is for construction costs alone, since the design is already completed. Pricey, but then, this will be an Excellent Embassy, and you don't find them in a discount bin.

To put the cost in context, it is less than half as much money as our new Ambassador-nominee to The Netherlands personally raised for President Obama's reelection campaign.

The current embassy office building was designed by the noted Modernist architect Marcel Breuer, which makes it a property of cultural significance. What will be done with that building once the new embassy is up?

The Dutch authorities, and appreciators of Modernism, have a few ideas about that:

In the area of historic preservation, the solitary Modern Movement building has always posed a problem for our field. An “oddity”, debate surrounds a perceived mismatch between Modern Architecture and their historical surroundings of ornamented 18th-19th century architecture. This is also the case with the American Embassy in The Hague, the Netherlands. The embassy was designed by Marcel Breuer from 1957-1959. Since the Gulf War, and especially after 9/11, the embassy became a defensive, "attack proof" building, heavily guarded by high fences and permanent police protections. It is expected that in the near future, the American embassy will leave Breuer's building and move to a new, more easily protected location.

These recent developments have stirred up several public debates about the embassy’s future. Some have argued for demolition, a sentiment that seems to be dictated by the current inaccessible character of the embassy. Others have opted for preservation, ranging from restoring it to its original state, to reuse in an adapted form. At the moment, current public opinion supports the preservation of Breuer’s building as an opportunity to celebrate this icon and research its possibilities for transformation. The Alderman for Culture of The Hague holds a corresponding view, and has announced a desire to investigate the possibility of conversion into a design hotel and museum for the 2018 event entitled: The Hague - Cultural Capital of Europe. It seems that even an iconic MoMo building like Breuer’s American Embassy at The Hague will have to face the 10th International Docomomo Conference mantra: “The Challenge of Change.”

"Docomomo" is an international non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation and conservation of buildings of the modernist movement.

I looked up some photos of the U.S. embassy in The Hague, and they show the progression of physical security measures that have been installed over time. 

Early 1960s

First and foremost, you see how the building sits right on the street. Completely accessible. There is almost zero setback distance between the building and those great 60s cars that are parked just a few feet away. Carbombs were not a concern back then, obviously.

Security aside, I rather like the design. Modernism wasn't decorative, and many people find the buildings ugly. But still, those are some clever window details. It reminds me of the many 1930s and 40s office buildings you see in Washington, and that seems an appropriate look for a U.S. embassy.    

Around 1980, I would guess

A wire fence and some low parking bollards - those little black metal posts - were added to the sidewalk in front of the embassy at some point after the 1960s. That provided a little bit of access control, probably by channeling visitors to a screening point.

Current Conditions

In the current photos the wire fence has been replaced by a taller metal picket fence that would be harder for a mob to push down or climb over, and the bollards seem to have been replaced with stronger (higher, larger diameter, and more closely spaced) ones.

Current Conditions


The perimeter has also been supplemented with an elevated guard booth.

But the booth doesn't really matter, and neither do the fence and bollards. Given the fundamental lack of setback distance, there is nothing the USG could ever do with that building to make it reasonably well-protected against terrorism.  

The new embassy will be in a more remote location where it can be much better protected. But, what will it look like?

Here's an artist's rendering, which I found in a publicly available Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations briefing to industry.

New Embassy Project, artist's rendering

We gain in security, I'm sure, but we lose something in character.

Except for the Great Seal, that looks like any of a thousand community colleges. Or the FSI campus, if enough geese collect around that pond.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline Of The Week

"Meth Lab Explodes In Man's Pants" - OKMULGEE, Oklahoma (AP)

Public Opinion Of Federal Government At New Low; What Would Don Draper Do?

A new Pew Research Center poll (here) found that "the favorable rating for the federal government has fallen to just 33%; nearly twice as many (62%) have an unfavorable view."

That's the lowest rate in fifteen years. And it is specifically the federal level of government that has fallen in the public's opinion; the same poll found that state and local governments are pretty well-regarded.

Some of this is simply partisan, and varies depending on which party has the White House:

In the current survey, 51% of Democrats have a favorable opinion of the federal government in Washington, compared with 27% of independents and just 20% of Republicans. This contrasts with partisan views of the federal government when George W. Bush was president. As recently as 2008, Republicans held a more favorable opinion of the federal government in Washington (53%) than did Democrats (29%).

Some of it also seems to relate to disillusionment with President Obama among Democrats and Independents:

Since Barack Obama’s first year in office, public assessments of the federal government have dropped nine-points, with most of the change among Democrats and independents. In 2009, 61% of Democrats and 35% of independents had favorable opinions of the federal government in Washington, those figures stand at 51% and 27%, respectively, today. Republicans’ views, already low in 2009, have shown less change.

Maybe we feds need to refresh our brand. Putting on my Don Draper hat, pouring myself a Scotch, and lighting up a smoke, I'll start the ball rolling by throwing out a few ideas:

How about, "We’re the Federal government, and we’re here to help"

No. Too 1960s.

"The people who brought you Shock and Awe"

That one has potential with Republicans and pro-defense Democrats. Run it up the flag pole and see who salutes.  

"Large and in charge"

Maybe. Appeals to big-spenders and pro-regulation types; test market it in Blue states.  
"To know us is to love us"

Forget it. Begging won't help.  

"You know you want us"

That one works. Maybe with some imagery of Interstate highways, national defense, moon landings, that kind of thing.  

"We’re not as bad as you think"

No. Never complain, never explain. 

"It’s good to be the King"

Absolutely not.

"Did we say E Pluribus Unum? Make that E Pluribus You da’ Man!"

That's it! That's the campaign.

Friday, April 27, 2012

And So The Food Fight Begins ... Week Two Of The Secret Service Scandal

As Federale suspected, the Secret Service's hasty crackdown on the Cartegena agents looks like it will backfire. Reportedly, some of the agents who resigned under pressure last week are ready to fight for reinstatement. That pretty much means that they are willing to start leaking details of identical behavior by other agents on other trips, and naming the supervisors who knew of and tolerated it all. Having already been forced out, what do they have to lose?

Once that food fight starts, you just know it will spiral out of control. The media has an endless appetite for salacious stories, and a 24/7 news cycle to feed.

Congress is already grilling administration witnesses on their handling of the Secret Service. I notice that Senator Grassley is asking very specific questions about the White House staffers and (military) White House Communications Agency staff who accompany Secret Service advance units on Presidential trips. Is it just my imagination, or does he sound like he has been getting some information under the table?

If Congress runs with the scandal - and they will, during this election year summer - will the administration be able to resist the impulse to fling a little something back at Capitol Hill? I mean, come on, Congressmen and sex scandals? That has been going on ever since Constitution Avenue was a dirt road. Could there be a more tempting target?

The press limbered up its throwing arm by republished this week a U.S. News and World Report article from way back in 2002 that detailed numerous old incidents of misbehavior by Secret Service agents. Just a little something to get things started, like tossing a handful of grapes before reaching for the big, messy, pies. 

The first pie, or anyway, the first one to be publicly reported on, was thrown yesterday by a Seattle TV reporter, and it featured a March 2011 Secret Service advance visit to San Salvador. The splatter from that one hit some DEA, FBI, and U.S. Embassy officials who were in the vicinity.

Collateral splatter also occurred in Brazil, when a local reporter asked visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta whatever happened to the three Marine Security Guards assigned to U.S. Embassy Brasilia who tossed a Brazilian prostitute out of their embassy van last December. That resulted in significant physical injuries to her, and, maybe now, a lawsuit against the embassy.

The administration tried to wipe some of the mess off its face today by issuing written rules for traveling Secret Service agents. No guests in hotel rooms, no drinking within ten hours of duty (or at any time in the protectee's hotel), no visiting off-limits establishments of ill repute, and so on. One of the enhanced rules of conduct requires the Secret Service's Office of Professional Responsibility to accompany agents on at least some trips, like chaperones on a High School outing.

This has the potential to get really, really, nasty. No one in Washington has more ammunition for a food fight of this sort than the agents who ride in every limo, stand in every corridor, enter every room, and generally hover all over the most senior officials. They are the fly on every White House wall. So far, the rule has been 'what happens in the limo stays in the limo.' So far, but maybe not forever. 

There was only one winner this week - the GSA. They got off scot-free while Congress and the press pursued ever so much more entertaining scandals of a sexual nature.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Do You Call A Cuban Musical Quartet Returning From A Foreign Tour?

A trio!

Many a traveling Cuban baseball team has come home missing a player or two. Now, it's Cuban actors.

The LA Times reports that Cuban stars of film screening at Tribeca fest may have defected:
In a case of life apparently imitating art, two stars of a fictional movie about Cubans defecting to the United States have disappeared in Miami en route to the Tribeca Film Festival, and may themselves be seeking to defect.
Javier Nunez Florian and Anailin de la Rua de la Torre, the 20-year-old stars of the Havana-set drama "Una Noche" (One Night), disappeared on a layover in Miami last Wednesday as they were traveling from Havana to New York. They have not been heard from since. The filmmakers, including New York-based director Lucy Mulloy, believe the two are in hiding and do not wish to return to Cuba.
Havana-based producer Sandy Perez Aguila had been traveling from Cuba with the pair as well as with a third actor from the film, Dariel Arrechada. Aguila said he and Arrechada had agreed to briefly separate from Florian and De la Torre in the Miami airport, with the latter two saying they wanted to browse some shops and would meet up with the producer at the gate for their New York flight. That was the last time Aguila saw the pair.
When the actors didn't turn up at the gate, Aguila went to police at the Miami airport, who told him that they could not investigate until the duo was missing for at least 24 hours. With no other option, he and Arrechaga boarded the plane and flew to New York.
Upon arrival, the producer opened the checked luggage belonging to Florian and De la Torra and found the suitcases were empty, suggesting a premeditated plan to stay in the United States.
-- snip --

"Una Noche" centers on three young Cubans who, frustrated by their lack of prospects in the Communist country, plot to escape Havana to Miami by homemade raft; Florian and De la Torre play a brother and sister who are particularly close. Mulloy shot the film in 2011 after several years spent researching the subject in Havana and abroad. She had the full cooperation of the Cuban government, which even sent diplomats to the Berlin Film Festival screening.
-- snip --
Numerous Cuban actors and sports stars have over the years defected to the U.S. In 1995, the Clinton administration signed legislation that provided for the "wet foot-dry foot" policy, which allows any Cuban citizen who arrives in this country by air or arrives on land by boat to remain in the country and seek residency a year later; those caught at sea are repatriated to Cuba or sent to a third country.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Winners and Losers of Week 1, Secret Service Scandal

Winner: Spirit Airlines, which spun up an advertising gimmick based on the scandal ("upfront payment is required").

Loser: The Secret Service GS-14 supervisory agent who resigned abruptly this week. Since the agent is married, 48 years old, and reportedly had almost twenty years in, I'm guessing that he wasn't quite ready yet, financially speaking, to retire. With all the notoriety surrounding him, his post-retirement opportunities in the private security industry might be disappointing. It doesn't help that he posted lots of indiscreet photos of himself - at a boozy high school reunion, with an Egyptian belly dancer, and "checking out" Sarah Palin while on her protective detail in 2008 - on his Facebook account.

Winner: The 24-year old Colombian woman who complained to police when the Secret Service agent who had picked her up the night before didn't seem to understand that he owned her $800 in the morning. She was interviewed by the New York Times this week where she stressed that her high price tag makes her one of the classier ladies that can be hired for sexual services in Cartagena. ("The price alone, she said, indicates she is an escort, not a prostitute. “You have higher rank” ... “It’s like when you buy a fine rum or a BlackBerry or an iPhone. They have a different price.”) It's a commercial hierarchy, with escorts like her at the top, followed by the prostitutes who work out of the nicer clubs, followed by the ones who work out of sleazy bars, and so on down the chain to the street-walkers and the underage runaways. She is no doubt already fielding offers for an 'as told to' book and a TV movie deal. Classy ones, naturally.

Loser: The other Secret Service GS-14 supervisory agent who got the ax this week. That one is still employed for the moment, and his lawyer says he will take full advantage of the bureaucratic process to fight his dismissal for cause. He is reported to be divorced, and his ex-wife is also a Secret Service agent.

Winner, sort of: The one Secret Service agent who is reported to have been cleared of serious charges, and faces only lesser administrative punishment.

Losers: The four non-senior Secret Service agents who have resigned as of today, ending their careers prematurely.

Likely future losers include the remaining five agents, who are all under investigation by the Secret Service's Office of Professional Responsibility, plus the eleven military service members who have been returned to their commands and are facing disciplinary procedures and possible criminal charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

We might as well count Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan among the losers, since he is likely to come out of this with his, and his agency's, reputation diminished.

As the weeks go by, I think winners will be harder and harder to come by in this kerfuffle.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Obama Gets Casual, But Hillary Gets Down

As I suspected he would, President Obama refused to wear the 'Silly Shirt' in the official group photo at the close of the Summit of the Americas today. He wasn't the only one; from the wide-angle photo below, it looks like compliance was only 50 percent. Some of the stiffs even wore suits and ties! Obama struck a safe middle ground by going Casual Friday in khakis and a blazer.

The photo gives a sartorial signal of the political discord on which the conference ended. There wasn't even a final joint declaration, since the delegates couldn't agree on matters from Cuba to the Falkland Islands.

“There is no declaration because there is no consensus,” in the words of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the summit’s closing news conference.

Well, that summit conference was a lot of trouble for nothing.

While Obama stayed buttoned-up, SecState Hillary Clinton was in a partying mood, going to a Cartagena bar on Saturday night to dance and chug cerveza from the bottle.   

According to a report in the British press, Hillary "ditched her trademark scrunchie and let her hair loose, opting for a more laid back look ... Mrs Clinton, who is normally a fan of two-piece suits, was pictured in a casual black dress, which she teamed with chunky jewellery."

There are more photos of party-hearty Hillary here.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Another TDY Gone Wrong (Deadbeat Secret Service Agents Recalled From Colombia)

Updated at 4 PM: Since I originally posted this, there have been some unattributed statements in the Washington-based news media to the effect that the Secret Service agents had a dispute with the Caribe Hotel over room charges - the hotel expected them to pay extra for having overnight guests - and that it may have been the hotel management, rather than local prostitutes, who complained to local police.

Updated again at 5:45: The New York Times has a bit more detail on how the TDY went south.
A senior United States official who had been briefed on the matter said that investigators were sorting through accounts that more than one member of the Secret Service team may have had women in their rooms — although it was not clear whether others were prostitutes or, if so, whether the agents knew that.
“There are people who willingly went to prostitutes and other people who ended up with prostitutes,” the official said. “Either way, it’s just unacceptable.”
Specifically, the official said, on Wednesday night an agent is believed to have taken a Colombian woman back to his hotel room and had then thrown her out in a dispute over money; investigators are trying to figure out whether the agent knew that she had intended to be paid.
The woman apparently began causing a disturbance in the hallway, eventually bringing other Secret Service agents — as well as a small number of law enforcement and military officials working with them on security and communications matters — out of their rooms and attracting the attention of hotel management and security.
It emerged that others on the team also had women in their rooms. Tempers flared, compounded by the language barrier. At some point Colombian police became involved, and American government officials decided to replace the team.

I'm shaking my head ruefully. Ruefully, I tell you.


This is an example of why consular officers always have the best stories of anybody in the Foreign Service:

Who could not be entertained as often as appalled by the infinite variety of troubles that visiting gringos can cause?

Ed Henry's tweet from yesterday reinforces what the WaPo's Ronald Kessler said in his interview with CNN today, the bottom line of which is that a prostitute in Cartagena complained to local police that a U.S. Secret Service agent had refused to pay her, leading the police to contact "the State Department" which in turn contacted the Secret Service.

The State Department official in that chain of phone calls was having a much better day than the Secret Service official.

I looked at several Colombian newspapers in search of juicy details, but they had nothing, really, other than the unsurprising news that the Secret Service agents involved had "bebían mucho alcohol" during their stay at the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena.

I think Homer Simpson said it best: "To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Fidel Castro Throws Down A 'Silly Shirt' Challenge

Fidel Castro wears a guayabera well, I must say. And he looks rather elegant there, posing cigar-less and holding a wine glass.

Barack Obama is obviously not a casual clothes guy. Not even close. He even declined to hold the traditional Silly Shirt Photo Op at the Pacific summit he hosted last November. But will he wear one at the Americas summit in Colombia next week? Maybe he will, if Castro needles him enough.

Fidel Castro mocks Obama over 'guayabera' diplomacy:

Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro has mocked the idea that US President Barack Obama could wear a "guayabera" shirt at an upcoming Americas summit in Columbia, while opposing Cuba's presence at the event.

News reports have said a noted Colombian designer is making a series of guayaberas for Obama to wear at the summit of the Americas in Cartagena, April 14-15.

Castro, whose brother Raul formally succeeded him as president in 2008, offered a history lesson on the origins of the light, tropical shirt, asserting that it was created in an area of Cuba that is watered by the Yayabo River.

"That's why they were originally called yayaberas," he wrote in an article published in the Cuban press.

Other accounts say the shirt's name may have come from the guayabas, or guavas, that could be carried in the large pockets that are sewn into the shirt's pleated front.

"What's curious, dear readers, is that Cuba is forbidden from attending this meeting, but not the guayaberas. Who can stop laughing?" Castro said.

The United States and Canada have opposed Cuba's participation in the meeting, which brings together 34 heads of state and government to discuss regional cooperation and a reduction of physical barriers to integration.

Other Latin American countries had pressed for Cuba's inclusion in the summit, but Washington has been reluctant to end a five decade old policy of isolating the only one-party communist state in the Americas.

Okay, so Castro resents Cuba's exclusion from these summit things. Got it.

To get back to the Silly Shirts, I see that Castro got Jimmy Carter to wear a guayabera during his 2002 visit to Cuba. But, how hard could it have been to persuade Carter to do something slightly undignified in the interests of going along with his hosts? I don't think Obama will loosen up without a fight.  

If Obama won't wear the Silly Shirt to spite Castro, this guy will. In a heartbeat.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

What Went On In Vegas Didn't Stay In Vegas, This Time

H/T to the Huffington Post for posting the complete videography of GSA's 2010 Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas.

And here's the whole one-hour extravaganza:

'American Idle' GSA Rap

On the one hand, I am immensely pleased that such a great parody was created by some of my fellow USG employees. On the other hand, this video, and the award it received at GSA's incredibly stupid and wasteful Las Vegas conference, is a massive self-inflicted wound on the agency itself.

The guy who does the singing is so good that he ought to do it professionally. Which is a post-government career path that he just might have the opportunity to pursue before long, because the video is pluperfect material for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The Committee has posted the video online:
The House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform has released a rap video made by a GSA employee in Hawaii in which he pokes fun at buying "everything you field office can't afford" and says he'll "spend BA 61 all on fun."
According to the GSA, "BA 61" is a "budget activity that provides funds to all Government-owned facilities that are maintained and operated by the General Services Administration. ... BA 61 also funds staff support (including salaries, travel, training, etc.). ..."
The rapper also says, "I'll never be under OIG investigation."
That part about the OIG investigation is no longer correct.

This video is very far from being the worst example of waste or abuse that I have ever seen. On balance, it's really pretty innocuous. Let him who has never goofed off a little on company time cast the first stone. But don't put it on video. That's a little advice I offer from the bottom of my government-employed heart.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline Of The Week


"Saudi Arabia Not Sending Women To Olympics"

Wanted, But Not In Pakistan

Johnny Cash isn't the only one giving us the finger.

So, a couple days ago the Department announced a cool ten million dollar bounty for Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. You can read the reasons why here:

The Republic of India has issued an Interpol Red Corner Notice against Saeed for his role in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Additionally, the United States Department of the Treasury has designated Saeed as a Specially Designated National under Executive Order 13224. Saeed was also individually designated by the United Nations under UNSCR 1267 in December 2008.

Lashkar-e-Tayyiba was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in December 2001. In April 2008, the United States designated Jamaat-ud-Dawa as a Foreign Terrorist Organization; similarly, the United Nations declared Jamaat-ud-Dawa a terrorist organization in December 2008.

Saeed is a bad actor who no doubt deserves all the retributive justice that U.S. taxpayer's money can buy.

But the problem is that Saeed lives in Pakistan, which supports Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and openly gives him asylum. He is not hiding; on the contrary, he has a high public profile. Who do we expect will turn him in, and to whom?

Foreign Policy's Passport blog took notice of this strange situation today in Hafiz Saeed to America: Come and get me!:
It was already a bit bizarre when the United States offered a $10 million reward on Monday for information leading to the capture of Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba who is accused of orchestrating the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
After all, Saeed isn't exactly in hiding. As the New York Times reported yesterday, he lives in a well-known compound on the outskirts of Lahore and appears frequently at public rallies throughout Pakistan. (You can send my $10 million check to 1899 L St. NW., Washington D.C. 20036. Thanks!)
But things reached the level of high farce today when Saeed held a press conference essentially daring U.S. authorities to come arrest him:
The 62-year-old former engineering and Arabic professor appeared on stage at a specially convened press conference in the Flashman Hotel, close to the headquarters of the Pakistan army in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
If the United States wants to contact me, I am present, they can contact me. I am also ready to face any American court, or wherever there is proof against me,” he told reporters in the hotel named after a fictional colonial hero.

“Americans seriously lack information. Don’t they know where I go and where I live and what I do?” he said. “These rewards are usually announced for people who are hiding in mountains or caves. I wish the Americans would give this reward money to me.”

There was evidently some U.S.-India diplomacy behind the oddly timed reward U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman announced the bounty during a visit to New Delhi. But it still seems a little odd to essentially highlight Washington's inability to apprehend a suspected terrorist living in plain sight in a country that's ostensibly a U.S. ally.

Obviously our relations with India played a big part. But, you have to wonder why anyone would think that a reward offer would help us there. Will the Indians fail to notice the futility of that gesture?

Or, maybe the reward offer is our attempt to 'name and shame' the Pakistanis for harboring Lahkar-e-Tayyiba? Would that work with the Pakistani government? Can I even suggest such a thing with a straight face? Actually, no.

Cash and Dylan had a really excellent song in Wanted Man. Please click on the embed and listen to it. It just needs one more little stanza.

Wanted man in Washington, 
Wanted man in Manhattan, 
Wanted man in ol’ New Delhi, 
Not so much in Pakistan

Monday, April 2, 2012

No Drama, No More

President Obama made a decidedly strange remark today at a Rose Garden press conference when he was asked about the Supreme Court's review of 'Obamacare', i.e., The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010:
The president spoke at length about the case at a joint press conference with the leaders of Mexico and Canada. The president, adopting what he described as the language of conservatives who fret about judicial activism, questioned how an "unelected group of people" could overturn a law approved by Congress.

"I'm confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress," Obama said.
That was strange on several grounds. First, the Supreme Court has been overturning laws as unconstitutional since Marbury v. Madison in 1803. It's the exercise of judicial review pursuit to Article III of the Constitution. If Obamacare is overturned, will it be "unprecedented" and extraordinary? No, not hardly.

Second, Supreme Court justices are "unelected" because that's the way the Constitution works. Separation of powers, and all that. They are appointed for life, as President Obama knows perfectly well.

Third, all the laws that have even been overturned were "approved by Congress." That's how they got to be laws in the first place. So what of it?

Lastly, as for the "strong majority" that passed Obamacare, it consisted of a 60-39 vote of the Senate with all Democrats and two Independents voting for and all Republicans voting against, and a 219-212 vote of the House of Representatives with 34 Democrats and all 178 Republicans voting against the bill. If that was a strong majority, what would a razor-thin one look like?

What happened to the cool, laid-back, No Drama Obama of years past?

A Kind Word For Fortress Embassies, From A Surprising Source

The Washington Diplomat had an article on embassy architecture versus security the other day (America’s Embassy Building Boom Fortifies Diplomacy, Security Abroad), which I thought was only mildly interesting until I got to the obligatory quote from Jane Loeffler. She is our foremost - only? - historian of diplomatic architecture, and premier critic of Fortress Embassies, and no article on the subject would be complete without her remarks.

Normally in an article of this sort, Dr. Loeffler provides unrelenting criticism of defensive embassy architecture, and then it's left to some poor Department spokesman or project architect to put up a weak rebuttal about the need for security. But this time, Dr. Loeffler played for the other team. After others had made the customary attacks, she had the concluding statement:  

The 2012 fiscal year budget for new construction is about $1 billion. So why should taxpayers support the construction of secure new embassies in low-threat countries like Latvia or Malta?

"People shouldn't have to work in high-risk situations doing such important work for our country," Loeffler said. "Diplomacy is our most important initiative and it's so much less expensive than war. We need to make the buildings attractive and functional, but they're also targets so they need to be secure."

"People shouldn't have to work in high-risk situations doing such important work for our country." Damn straight. I will add that the risks of terrorism can be high even in purportedly low-threat countries such as Latvia and Malta. For example, that new secure embassy in Malta replaced one that was located inside a multi-tenant commercial office building, a type of property in which it would never have been able to achieve satisfactory security.

If we are serious about moving our people out of high-risk situations and into better and more secure buildings, then our new embassies will inevitably have to have certain fortress-y characteristics. I'm not saying we need to go medieval and do the whole castle-on-an-island, but our embassies will need features such as setback distance from surrounding streets if they are to be reasonably well-protected against physical attack.

That is why I am 100 percent in agreement with the new Design Excellence initiative for new embassies. I say, turn the architects loose to do what they do best, which is to satisfy the client's needs in a better way than the client himself is capable of imagining.

Incidentally, you can see what the old not-so-excellent embassy construction program created over the past ten years by checking out these architectural mugshots that the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations has made publicly accessible for your information.