Perhaps it's time to downsize embassy obligations

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This is not the first time in recent history that American embassies have fallen to attackers. In 1979, a rampaging mob marched 15 miles from Rawalpindi to sack and burn the heavily guarded embassy in Islamabad, killing three embassy staff including one American. In 1983, a suicide bomb attack destroyed the U.S. embassy in Beirut and killed 63 people, including 17 Americans. In 1988, Al Qaeda orchestrated truck bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 236 people, including 12 Americans.

Beyond the immediate and serious political issues, the embassy attacks highlight the vulnerability of U.S. diplomatic missions in violence-prone capitals.  They raise the question of whether we need to maintain all of our embassies in this age of violent protest, instant communications and global jet travel.

Since the first overseas mission was established in Paris in 1779 by Benjamin Franklin, U.S. embassies and consulates have proliferated. Today our government maintains more than 270 embassies and consulates around the world. Embassies in country capitals represent the United States abroad in diplomacy. U.S. consulates in both capitals and major cities issue visas and resolve expatriate and tourist issues.

The Beirut attack and the ones in East Africa prompted a security upgrading of embassy buildings. In 1999 the State Department adopted a standard model for embassy construction, described by one observer as an “isolated walled compound.” The heavily secured embassies are unattractive and intimidating to visitors. Fortress barriers and restrictions on officer travel create a bubble mentality among officers and staff that  impedes personal contacts and relationship building. Without such contacts, foreign service officers are unable to gain access to needed information. They might as well send their emails and make their calls from Washington, D.C.  

The president’s $51.6 billion budget proposal for State/USAID in 2013 includes “$1.4 billion in security for diplomatic personnel, information and facilities at our worldwide posts.” The budget proposal also includes “$1.6 billion for security-related construction, major facility rehabilitation and operational requirements at embassies, consulates and missions worldwide.”  Over the past few years, the U.S. has spent more than $1 billion on embassy construction in Baghdad (the world’s largest embassy) and Kabul.

Given the continued vulnerability of even the most bunker-like embassies and the enormous cost of staffing, maintaining and securing them, the State Department should abandon its policy of maintaining an embassy in every country. It should close at least some of them. How should the decisions be made”

Firstly, the closure process should be selective. While no American embassy is immune from violent attack, some are more at risk than others. In high-risk countries, such as those in the Middle East and North Africa, closing embassies would remove the most tempting targets for attacks on Americans. In countries where resident diplomats have regular and safe access to their counterparts and the public, our embassies would remain open.

Secondly, the selection of embassies for closure should take into account the adequacy of alternative tools for diplomacy, such as international teleconferencing, secured electronic communication and airborne missions from and to Washington.

Even in those violence-prone countries where embassies are selected for closure, the U.S. consulates would remain open to process visa applications and provide expatriate and tourist functions. With fewer American staff, a lower profile and well-planned evacuation procedures, the consulates would be at lesser risk than the embassies.

As attacks on our embassies become more frequent and more violent, we need to consider alternatives to the costly and now dangerous policy of maintaining them in every capital. We need to stop making our embassies, however buttressed, targets for attack. In high-risk capitals where diplomatic business can be conducted from Washington, D.C. let’s close our embassies.

Hager is co-founder and former director general of the International Development Law Organization, Rome, Italy.