Stephen M. Walt

Edifice complex

McClatchy News reports that the United States is planning to spend over $700 million dollars to build a major new embassy complex in Pakistan, while negotiating to purchase a five-star hotel to serve as the new consulate in Peshawar. These new facilities are intended to support the "surge" of diplomats and aid workers that the ...

McClatchy News reports that the United States is planning to spend over $700 million dollars to build a major new embassy complex in Pakistan, while negotiating to purchase a five-star hotel to serve as the new consulate in Peshawar. These new facilities are intended to support the "surge" of diplomats and aid workers that the United States intends to deploy as part of President Obama’s deepening involvement in Central Asia. The obvious comparison is to the huge U.S. embassy in Iraq (which cost nearly $600 million dollars and occupies on 104 acres (in downtown Baghdad), but I’m also reminded of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, which was one of the largest U.S. facilities in the 1970s and was later occupied by Iranian students in the infamous 1980 hostage incident.

I’m all for providing U.S. officials with adequate facilities, but this idea merely underscores the inherent contradictions in the current U.S. approach. One of America’s main problems in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan is the widespread popular belief that it is now addicted to interfering in these societies, usually in a heavy-handed and counter-productive way. In their eyes, Washington is constantly telling them which leaders to choose, which leaders should step down, which extremists to go after and how they should reorder their own societies to make them more compatible with our values. And oh yes, we also drop bombs and fire missiles into their territory, which we would regard as an act of war if anyone did it to us. Even when well-intentioned, these activities inevitably lend themselves to various conspiracy theories about America’s "real" motives, and reinforce negative impressions of the United States. As of last year, only 19 percent of Pakistan’s population had a favorable view of the United States, and this hardly makes it easier to get meaningful cooperation on issues that we should (and do) care about, such as the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Building a costly new embassy — which will undoubtedly resemble a giant fortress — is  not going to help win "hearts and minds" there, or allay concerns about our ambitions in that part of the world. And if we need a facility like that in order to execute our overall strategy, doesn’t that cast some doubt on the merits of the strategy itself?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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