Applying Lessons From Camden, New Jersey, to US Foreign Policy: Fences Don’t Make Good Neighbors

How can the spread of US fortress diplomacy contribute to a smart, effective foreign policy?

On a recent Monday afternoon, I toured a down-and-out block in East Camden, New Jersey, labeled by many as one of the most dangerous cities in America. My guides were team members from a nonprofit that works to strengthen struggling communities by building affordable housing and helping them organize.

Touring with me was a community-development consultant from Hartford, Connecticut, who had recently helped a similar, crime-plagued neighborhood in his own town retrench and revive. The first question he asked as we strolled down the sidewalk past the neat, newly built homes was, “Why are they all fenced in?” The residents requested the fences, we were told, because they feel safer with them. As we studied the houses more closely, we noticed that most of them had drawn their blinds as well, and several had encased their new front porches in metal grillwork.

“That’s the folklore – that ‘good fences make good neighbors,'” commented my colleague. “But our experience in Hartford showed the opposite.” He gradually persuaded the residents to take down their fences, open their blinds and sit on their front porches. The result: Crime went down, not up. The more the residents engaged with their neighborhood, the broader the support network they created and the less “attractive” it became for criminal elements.

As I traveled home that evening, I found myself comparing the lessons of Camden and Hartford to the US embassies in Pakistan and Yemen, two facilities (more like fortresses) I have seen up close and personal in the past year. In Pakistan, even as US citizens, my delegation of “peace ambassadors” from Codepink had to pull every string our connections allowed to even get close to the building. We finally were able to pull our bus up in front of the tall fence and guardhouse surrounding the imposing edifice, where we were met by burly security guards with wrap-around sunglasses. That’s as far as we got; the acting ambassador did agree to meet with us, but only at our hotel. What was striking was his seeming total lack of knowledge (or deliberate, feigned ignorance) about civilian casualties from US drone strikes in the country and the justified anger that was raging as a result. Our group had met with many of the victimized families, and when we asked if they had taken their grievances to the US government, we received incredulous stares. “(Americans) don’t consider us human beings. I can’t go to your embassy (to register a complaint). This is our sovereign state, but no one can go there without permission, which we don’t usually get,” said Kareem Khan, a Pakistani journalist from a tribe in Northern Waziristan, whose compound was destroyed by a Hellfire missile from an American drone on Dec. 24, 2009.

When another Codepink group traveled to Yemen several months later, the situation was virtually the same. Although representatives from our group were escorted into the embassy for a meeting after extensive advance contacts, the hostile fortress the US base has become was legend among the people we met outside of it, and it had become a source of great animosity and the butt of jokes. International employees of the embassy lived in the Sheraton hotel next door, walking to work through an underground passageway, never going anywhere else in the city except to a few preapproved locations using government-selected vehicles and drivers. (International NGOs operate within the same “bubble,” separating them from the ordinary people they are there to understand and presumably serve.)

The purpose of the layers upon layers of security is, of course, to protect the diplomatic staff from being targets of violent attacks. There’s no contesting that being a diplomat overseas has its dangers, particularly when you work for a government that has a long history of meddling militarily and otherwise in the affairs of others – often with disastrous consequences for the people on the ground. The move to convert our embassies into fortresses can be traced to the assassination of the American ambassador in Lebanon in 1975, and accelerated with the 1998 bombings of two of our embassies in East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania). Just before our trip to Pakistan, in September 2012, the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and four others.

A year later, as the debate continues to rage in Congress over who is at fault for not protecting our overseas personnel from all those people “who hate us,” only a few voices have dared to challenge the notion, as my colleague in Hartford is doing at the community level, that all of these extra layers of walls, guards, sensors and guns are really making our diplomatic staff safer. And even if they are, at what cost?

Prudence Bushnell, US ambassador to Kenya when the embassy was bombed in 1998, could be expected to be a proponent of ever-greater security measures. However, she is among the lonely voices challenging what diplomacy can really achieve when the staff is separated by such distance and with such hostile symbols from their “hosts.” Robert F. Worth of The New York Times quoted her as saying, “No one has sat back to say, ‘What are our objectives?’ The model has become that we will go to dangerous places and transform them from secure fortresses. And it doesn’t work.”

Overseas service once was regarded as a noble profession that brought with it inherent risks. Today, however, there appears to be an overriding need to assign blame, as well as a political unwillingness to accept that some degree of risk is to be expected – just as crime and terrorism are unfortunate elements of the human condition and thus cannot be totally eliminated no matter how much we go to “war” against them. (One could argue that an increasingly pre-emptive foreign policy does as much to put our embassies at risk as anything else.)

“I used to tell my security guys, ‘OK, we built a 16-foot wall, but there is such a thing as a 17-foot ladder,'” Edward P. Djerejian, former ambassador to Syria and Israel, told Neil MacFarquhar of The New York Times. Where does it end?

According to The New York Times’ Worth, when he was reporting from Lebanon, most journalists didn’t bother to interview embassy personnel because “we assumed they knew the country far less well than we did” because of their insulation. How can that lack of knowledge and closeness to the people possibly contribute to a smart, effective foreign policy?

A separate question is whether the construction of US fortresses in countries where the population is overwhelmingly hostile to American interference is provocative in and of itself. According to the website policymic, there have been 88 new US diplomatic facilities built since 2001, with 41 still under construction – joining a total of 294 around the world. During that time, there have been eight attacks on US embassies and consulates, mostly in the Middle East. The American embassy in Baghdad, for example, cost $750 million to construct, the largest in the world at 104 acres; what message does that kind of footprint send to the people of a country where a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line?

It’s a tragedy that Ambassador Chris Stevens, in whose name some are pushing an expansion of Fortress America, is said to have been a diplomat in the truest sense – fluent in the Libyan dialect of Arabic, stopping to chat with people on the street when he went running in the mornings, and listening without seeming to pass judgment in a region where American policy inspires such deep resentment.

In years past, before security-before-diplomacy became the modus operandi, American government personnel were evacuated from countries deemed unsafe. For example, the United States pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989 and didn’t return until 2002. Likewise, we withdrew from Somalia in 1992 and have not officially returned since (although American intervention through CIA and JSOC drones and sponsorship of warlords is well-documented in Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars). So it’s possible to say that “fortress diplomacy” allows the US to be present in more hot spots.

Based on what my delegation heard when we met with families in Pakistan and Yemen, however, it’s clear that no presence might be better than a 900-pound gorilla with an AK-47 in both hands. It may be counterintuitive, but less is often more.