Friday, November 18, 2011

American Centers vs Fortress Embassies

Photo - The Archer K. Blood American Center Library at the American Center, Dhaka, Bangladesh (from Embassy website)

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H/T to John Brown's Press and Blog Review for posting a link to the agenda transcript for the May 2011 Public Meeting of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

Check the date of that meeting - May 2011. And yet the transcript was only released a couple days ago. Did it take that long to clear the publication? Better late than never.

One part of the transcript piqued my own personal special interest. In the presentation by Ms. Betsy Whitaker, Strategic Communications Officer, Office of the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, she remarked on the ongoing attempts to maintain some public diplomacy outreach facilities outside of the Department's famously forbidding Fortress Embassies:

American Spaces are clearly an area of great importance to generations of public diplomacy officers, and platforms of course that can be used sometimes as a sort of politically neutral venue where people can gather and simply learn about the United States through a variety of different media, and also interpersonal interaction.

We have, with, again, the assistance of IIP, created an office for the support of American Centers. In fact, we have the acting director over here, Anne Barbaro. And in working with IIP, we have also worked very, very hard for 18 months now, I think, to create a very good working relationship with our colleagues in Diplomatic Security and the Overseas Building Operations Bureau.

Why? Because we have sought, and I think are gradually achieving, an all-of-department approach to these spaces. DS clearly we need as a partner as we – because one of the reasons, as you know, that many of these centers have been shuttered or called back or pulled back behind embassy gates is simply because of security concerns.

And what we have been doing with OBO is twofold. One, as posts are anticipating the construction of new embassy compounds or new consulate compounds, working with the mission, if it has been part of the planning discussion to think about bringing some of these centers and spaces back in with the rest of the mission, we’re simply asking people just to stop for a second and ask the question, is this a wise move in terms of our outreach, and, you know, is this absolutely necessary in terms of security?

Let me be clear: Under Secretary McHale says security trumps all. And if it is indicated that these facilities must be brought – relocated or brought behind a fortified line of some sort, she of course understands that. But I think what she’s asking is for people just to simply stop and think and consider this, consider whether or not the mission would be interested in coming in for what we call a co-location waiver, whether or not there is a circumstance in which that space could be apart from the mission offices and such.

And we’ve had some good luck. We’ve had a couple of waivers granted in the past year, one in Ouagadougou I recall. And, you know, others are coming in as our missions – and this is, again, an all-of-missions thing – the chief of mission must sign off on these requests – as missions decide, you know, whether or not they’d like to make the request for a co-location waiver.

The issue here is the legal requirement that all U.S. diplomatic offices abroad be collocated on a single embassy compound in the principal place of USG business in that city. You can read all about it here, in 12 FAM 300. The requirement is invoked whenever a new embassy office facility is constructed or acquired.

(By the way, "collocation" is the correct spelling of the word, with two "l"s and no hyphen, although it is almost always misspelled as "co-location." That misspelling is my pet peeve, and correcting it is my lost cause.)

The collocation requirement may be waived, and so the R Bureau routinely puts up a fight to keep public diplomacy outreach facilities outside whenever new embassy compounds are planned. The position as Ms. Whitaker stated it, i.e., that the Department ought to consider waiving the collocation requirement on a case-by-case basis, is impeccably reasonable. This is basic risk management. The program benefits of making public diplomacy facilities easily accessible to the public can, in a rational world, be articulated and weighed against the security risks, and the increased security costs, of having a comparatively 'soft target' official facility in an annex across town from a new embassy compound.

Let the Ambassador make the request, and let the Secretary decide. Everyone signs on the dotted line, and accountability is established. Fair enough.

My personal interest in this matter is only indirectly with public diplomacy, in that I liked the old independent American Libraries and think they ought to be brought back into the mix of PD platforms, but I am directly interested in good risk management. As the wise man who hired me for my first job in DS said when he gave me the Foreign Affairs Handbook that contained our security standards: "These are the standards, but, of course, they have to be applied by reasoning human beings." I have always tried to apply reason to them, and I find they are much more persuasive that way.


Matt Armstrong said...

It is worth noting that if John Brown says the transcript was just posted, which i dont belive he did, it doesn't make it so. There were some changes to the site that caused material to be resent by the State Department email broadcast system. Further, there is no clearance for the transcripts as you imply or suggest. Any delay in releasing the transcript is purely the result of workload or dropping the ball (I'd have used 'oversight' here but...). The transcripts may be edited for clarity, correct spelling, and expansion of terms. There is no censoring or clearing of statements. The audio of the meetings are available on request.

TSB said...


I didn't mean to imply or suggest anything. Just thought it was noteworthy that the transcript hit my inbox this week. I'm happy to see it whatever the date.


Anonymous said...

TSB: December 7th, 70yrs after Pearl Harbor would be perfect for the start of a disastrous war. I think Bibi wants to start it with Iran. Would Hillaryhawk or Barack say no? I don't think so. What do you think? How are the anti-missile defenses at Fortress Baghdad? How many carriers do we have ready to strike? gwb

TSB said...

I don't think either side really wants to cross any red lines, but they might very well want to talk about doing so, for their own reasons.

If anyone attacks Iran, we can say goodbye to about 20% of global oil exports (since the Straits of Hormuz are begging to be mined). And if Iran nukes Israel it will kill more Muslims than Jews (since they are way too intermingled for Iran's primitive weapons to be discriminating).

But, the endless war talk is really wearing on everybody's nerves. And the fact that we are having an election year will just amp it up.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% except for the nuke Isreal part. The talk of an Iran nuc weapons development reminds me of Hans Blix in Iraq and all his "unanswered questions" about their nonexistent program. They want the ability to make one but that is not the same as having one. Don't they have the missiles to shut down Saudi production? gwb

Anonymous said...

You know you are toast when Chris Matthews turns on you! gwb

TSB said...

Iran can only nuke Israel in the world of U.S. political rhetoric, where it is constantly talked about as if it were a real present threat.

But Iran really could close down Saudi crude shipping through the Persian Gulf (plus Kuwait's and Iraq's and its own) since it all transits through a one-kilometer wide sea lane in Iranian waters. The Straits of Hormuz is the Mother Of All Choke Points. The Saudis have only a single pipeline and a handful of terminals for shipping crude through their only alternative route, the Red Sea.