EDITORIAL: Excess embassy expenditures

The new American embassy in London is an expensive model of waste

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Trust in American diplomacy has faded dramatically over the past months, and President Obama obviously has no clue as to how to retrieve the nation’s lost international prestige. The president and his secretaries of state have left America looking less like a graceful superpower and more like a nation timid and afraid.

The list of failures and disasters is a long one: Benghazi, the red lines drawn and ignored, the loss of Mosul to al Qaeda, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the trade of five high-ranking Taliban terrorist commanders for an American soldier who may be a deserter, all leave the impression only of American weakness across the globe.

But not to worry. The State Department is treating itself to something special, a new embassy more expensive than any anyone has ever built before. Construction has begun on an elaborate new building in London. By the time it opens in 2017, the blastproof, glass-covered structure will look something like a supersized offspring of Rubik’s Cube out of Apple Store.

CBS News reports that just six months into construction, the $1 billion digs for the ambassador to the Court of St. James has already rung up $100 million in cost overruns. It’s only money, of course, but that’s a lot of it.

This is not surprising. The previous most expensive foreign diplomatic building, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, had an initial estimate of $592 million, owing mostly to security requirements. When it was completed in 2008, the price tag was well north of $700 million — and $115 million more in upgrades have been added since the embassy was opened. A new U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea, supposed to have cost $50 million, came in at more than $160 million over budget. Luxury and style can be cheap, but they’re not inexpensive.

An embassy must be secure against foreign spies and terrorists, and building one entirely of glass is style over function. A traditional design, architecture that has a better chance of standing the test of time, would have cost a fraction of what Washington is spending to decorate foreign landscapes.

State Department officials say the London embassy will be funded with the proceeds of the sale of U.S. government properties in London. However, a State Department critic, writing on the DiploPundit website, notes that sales of only about $840 million worth of federal property have been reported so far. George W. Bush-era embassies cost just a fraction of the embassies built on President Obama’s watch, and the Bush-era facilities are no less safe and functional.

The new embassy in London might have been meant to compensate for how badly American diplomacy has gone over the past decade or so, but spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make ourselves feel better is an expensive and ultimately useless exercise. The Obama administration would better focus on examining its failure overseas and working to regain moral authority and lost respect. Elaborate state-of-the-art embassies won’t do it.

Putting up a front is a cheap temptation, and dangerous when the front is revealed to be false. Only when America protects her citizens, beginning with embattled ambassadors, will the nation impress its friends and intimidate evil, and be recognized as the great force for peace and freedom in the world.

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