I had dinner the other night with two McClatchy folks from California who are vacationing in Kenya. They're staying with some friends who live not far from the diplomat-heavy Gigiri suburb, home to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
That place is HUGE, one of them said.
I've almost forgotten how imposing the new U.S. embassies of the developing world can look to visitors. I've become accustomed to the whole Fortress America thing -- the fenced-off compound a safe distance from the city center, the phalanxes of security guards, the way the hospital-like buildings themselves stand back at least 100 feet from the road (per post-9/11 regulations), as if daring an attacker.
You might expect a fortress in Baghdad (as my colleague Hannah Allam reported this week) or Nairobi, where terrorists bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998, killing more than 200 people, mostly Kenyans. Last week, however, I visited the new American Embassy in Kampala (pictured above). Kampala is normally one of the most placid capitals in Africa, but our embassy there is, if anything, more isolated and unfriendly-looking than Nairobi's.
The motorbike taxi I rode there had to drop me off 100 yards from the main vehicle entrance. It took me 20 minutes to get through five checkpoints -- including one manned by a hulking American serviceman behind a glass window as thick as his neck -- for the meeting I had scheduled.
Very safe, said the Ugandan security guard who escorted me between two checkpoints. Verrrrrry safe.
Mission accomplished in that regard. But gone are the days, it seems, when our embassies were just that -- ambassadors of American culture and values in the developing world. When the embassy in Nairobi was located downtown, it had a library where ordinary people could come in and read American newspapers and books. The new embassies have libraries, too -- but the architecture doesn't exactly scream "Welcome" and your average Kenyan or Ugandan is scared off by the security.
Other missions are taking cues from us. When I moved to Nairobi, the Australian Embassy located a few hundred yards from my place was set back from the road but separated by a low metal gate. You could see the large glass windows and tennis court. It felt almost friendly, like Australians themselves. But now they've constructed a big concrete wall and sliding steel gate that blocks our view of the building -- and theirs of the city.
Victor Ashe, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Poland, is on the record as saying the post-9/11 American Embassies are too much like fortresses -- and that too many are being built in the same imposing, aloof style. The embassy you'd want in Pakistan isn't necessarily the one you should construct in Warsaw, Ashe says. Safety of American staff is of paramount importance, of course, but in places like Kampala we risk walling ourselves off unnecessarily from a place that doesn't deserve that distance.