California Literary Review

Notes From Italy: The Oversized Embassy

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November 6th, 2007 at 11:01 am

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United States Embassy in Rome, Italy

The heart of the American embassy in Rome is a huge and now almost impenetrable palace on Via Veneto. The embassy also includes twin adjoining villas and, behind the palace, a huge office building lately acquired for the embassy’s expanding staff. The main building, Palazzo Margherita, was the home until her death in 1926 of Margherita, the widow of King Umberto I, assassinated in 1900 by an anarchist from New Jersey. Two millennia ago this site had been the gardens of Sallust, the historian who enriched himself under Julius Caesar. In the seventeenth century the Ludovisi family built their palace here, surrounding it with fifty acres of gardens that one can still see in old engravings. In 1890 the Prince Boncompagni Ludovisi, after most of the family land was sold to developers, built the present palace. It cost him so much that he had to sell it to the royal family.

When I was first sent to the embassy, in 1966, I had never worked in so grand a building. The corridors of the State Department in Washington always reminded me of a hospital rather than the foreign ministry of a major power; the embassy in Panama was a handsome but modest place; the Moscow embassy occupied one of the shoddy tall buildings erected after World War II in the style Westerners called Stalin Gothic.

I came to Rome as a mid-grade officer in the Foreign Service of the United States. A lady lately said to me “Oh, so you were a foreign officer?” No, m’am. I was an American officer, a member of a separate commissioned service of the United States which numbers six thousand or so officers and which staffs our diplomatic and consular positions abroad and most of the professional-level positions in the State Department in Washington.

Are these the people we have just read about, who are shying away from service in Baghdad? Indeed, it seems many officers are reluctant to be sent to that huge fortress called an embassy in the Green Zone, where one cannot go call on a politician without an armed escort, and which in my professional opinion cannot function as an embassy. But Foreign Service officers do not shy away from difficult places. I have just read that 68% of them are now assigned abroad, a far greater percentage than is true for the American military, and they serve not just in Rome or Beijing or Baghdad but in small, crummy, and dangerous places all around the world. The plaque in the State Department lobby that lists officers who have lost their lives to violence is running out of room for names. Indeed, since World War II more American ambassadors have died violent deaths than generals and admirals combined. I myself have lost four friends and colleagues to terrorists; two others were kidnapped but survived. (All six, incidentally, were career officers, and four of them were ambassadors. We send many political appointees abroad but around two-thirds of American ambassadors come from the Foreign Service.)

I was assigned to Rome as a political officer, the same sort of work I had done during half of my assignments both in Panama and in Moscow. My last Panama year had been spent interviewing visa applicants; in my first year in Moscow my diplomatic responsibilities included supervising the motor pool, ordering forms, and trying to keep our Soviet-made elevators from breaking down, as they liked to do each week.

But just what does a political officer do? The brief answer is Reporting and Representation; the heart, in fact, of all diplomatic work.

The Reporting amounts to finding out what’s going in the country of one’s assignment, in the general sphere of politics, and reporting about it to one’s government. Washington doesn’t need to know everything about Italian politics, but only what’s relevant to American interests and policy. Since any capital contains a lot of clods, when a political officer drafts a report he or she does well to point out its relevance, perhaps even adding a suggestion about what, if anything, Washington ought to do. Since people in capitals are always busy, the smart reporting officer does well to write clearly and, above all, succinctly. An embassy also has officers reporting on what’s going on in the country’s economy, culture, science, etc. Embassy management must ensure that Washington is getting what it needs to comprehend what is going on in Italy that is of importance to the U.S. government, without reporting things Washington can ignore.

Oh, says our average citizen, but isn’t it CIA and NSA who tell Washington what it needs to know? Intelligence from clandestine sources can of course be vitally important–but a veteran of senior positions in the CIA, State Department, and White House has estimated that two-thirds of the information and analysis on which the United States bases its conduct of foreign relations comes from the reporting done by Foreign Service officers in our embassies abroad. The term “conduct of foreign relations” does not, of course, include irrational decisions to go to war.

Representation is what you tell the people whom you’re dealing with in, say, Rome. My first years there, that meant telling Italians I knew in politics, government, and journalism that we were doing the right thing in making war in Vietnam (a thesis increasingly harder to sustain, in the face of biting comments by Italian interlocutors as well as many influential Americans); that we hoped Italy would not get too involved with the Communist world (including China, with which we had no relations while Italy did a lot of trade); that we wanted to coordinate our dealings with the third world (where the United States poured in aid that produced little development, while Italy developed trade that, whatever it did for Africa, was certainly good for Italy).

My main piece of the action was reporting on the Italian Communist Party, with which I was not permitted to have personal contact, lest it give the wrong idea about our attitude toward Communism to our non-Communist Italian friends (who met with their Communist colleagues every day, not just in Parliament but over lunch or dinner). To make up for no contact with Communists, I was the contact with the Partito Liberale Italiano, a smaller, center-right party that had a number of interesting parliamentary deputies. These included the author Luigi Barzini, who was pleased to share with me his caustic views on his own country, beyond what he had written in his best-selling 1964 work The Italians.

Eventually two good things happened to me. I got promoted, and would now be a First Secretary of Embassy, which had more cachet with Italians than did my old title, Second Secretary. Then the State Department decided to reduce a little the size of its staffs abroad. We lost two positions and I became the liaison with a dozen offices in the foreign ministry’s Directorate General of Political Affairs–and besides the Liberals was finally permitted to undertake contact with the Partito Comunista Italiano. It all made for busy and interesting days. I even got a bigger office. Until now I had had a former closet, fortunately one with a window. Now I moved into what had been a small bedroom in Queen Margherita’s time.

What was going on in the rest of that large palace and the adjoining villas? One of the villas was busy with consular work: interviewing applicants for visas, helping Americans with passports and other problems, checking the bona fides of thousands of people in Italy receiving U.S. Social Security benefits. The other villa housed the U.S. Information Service with its cultural and informational programs, including the Fulbright grants that brought a number of Italians to study and teach in America, and American scholars to Italy.

There was much more. In addition to the political section, consulate, and USIS, the embassy had economic and commercial officers, plus a section for agriculture and one for scientific matters. There was a large administrative section, to do housekeeping for the contingents from the State Department and other Federal agencies. There was a large CIA station; too large, one of its officers admitted to me once. There were a number of Defense attachés. I did not try to count the number of agencies outside the State Department that had attachés in that embassy, but there must have been a good dozen. One of them, from the U.S. Maritime Administration, had so little to do that he spent his time buying and selling secondhand cars.

I spent five happy and I thought productive years in Rome. Finally they made me leave and go to Prague, and then my family and I returned to Washington. A decade later, in 1981, I came back to Rome as DCM, the Deputy Chief of Mission, deputy to Ambassador Maxwell Rabb. On my earlier tour I had not counted up the number of Washington agencies with people in the embassy. Now I did a count: twenty!

I kept a couple of agencies from opening offices in the embassy. One was the Secret Service. One day the ambassador’s secretary told me that an assistant director of the Secret Service had just been in to see the ambassador. That was a surprise; there had been no cable from Washington proposing such a visit, as was the proper thing to do. The gentleman had simply flown to Rome, phoned Max Rabb, and come in. I went to see the ambassador and asked What’s up? Well, he said, they want to open an office here. What did you say? I asked. I said OK, he said.

We got hold of the assistant director before he left town and he came back to see the ambassador and, this time, the DCM. We don’t think, I said, that we should add offices to this embassy unless there is a real need. Ah, he said, there is. We have to prepare Presidential and Vice Presidential visits. Ah, I said, we have had a visit by Vice President Bush, and I don’t think anyone expects Mr. Bush to come back to Rome during this administration. As to Presidential visits, we are even now preparing for the visit by President Reagan. We are preparing this in close cooperation with the teams from the White House and the Secret Service that have been here for weeks now. Have your people made any complaints to you about lack of cooperation from the embassy? No, no, he said; to the contrary. Good, I said. Since I doubt very much there will be a second Rome visit by Mr. Reagan, that takes care of visits.

Ah, said the assistant director, but we are also responsible for fighting counterfeiting. Ah, I said, the Italians have an equal interest in fighting counterfeiting–of dollars as well as lire–and they have just broken up a big ring in Milan. From what we know, the Italians cooperated fully with the Secret Service; true? True, he said. And then Mr. Rabb said, all in all I don’t think that you need to open an office here. Nor did they–until I had left Rome.

Two decades later, after I had long been out of government, I asked the DCM in Rome if perhaps there were now more than twenty agencies in the embassy. Thirty, he said, and some of them are pretty big, like DEA and FBI and, of course, CIA.

We are speaking, of course, of the country that is building the biggest embassy of any government anywhere in the world: the one at Baghdad which, one reads, will have a staff of a thousand. Our embassy in Rome is not that big, but it is far bigger than anyone else’s Rome embassy. One can find on the Internet the Rome diplomatic list, the list that the Italian foreign ministry puts out of officers–not all the staff–of foreign embassies in Rome. The 2007 Rome list shows 21 officers for the British embassy, 42 for the German, 45 for the Chinese, 59 for the Russian–and 116 for the American. (I still have my copy of the 1969 Rome diplomatic list. Our embassy then had 61 officers, just over half of today’s number.)

Do we need twice as many diplomats in Rome as the Russians–or five times as many as the British? What does this grand embassy of ours do? As far as its Foreign Service contingent is concerned, I fear it is not doing what it used to, three or four decades go. Back then, for my colleagues or me a good day meant seeing a member of Parliament over coffee, calling on a couple of office directors in the foreign ministry, lunching with a top journalist, and then spending a couple of hours writing cables to the State Department (and another hour reading cables from the Department and other posts) before going home for an hour with the kids and, finally, dinner at a foreign diplomat’s home with, one hoped, interesting Italians.

Today our Rome embassy is a smaller version of the fortress we are building in Baghdad’s Green Zone. In the old days, politicians and members of Parliament would come by to see us. Today, if I were a respectable Italian, I would not think of calling at the Palazzo Margherita, given the lengthy and sometimes demeaning security checks. Nor, it seems, do Americans get out of their diplomatic fortress the way they used to. Italians say they do not have the American friends and acquaintances that they used to. What do embassy officers do with their time? Like many professionals in this country, they spend hours in front of computer screens, busy with e-mail. That may be work, but it has little to do with representing the United States.

The very size of the Rome embassy–and every other oversized American embassy–plays against our people doing a good job. The larger the number of Americans, the more they are going to congregate with one another instead of getting out in the local society. A lot of them are not even supposed to be dealing primarily with Italians. They are State Department security people and administrative people and many of the ever more numerous attachés from other agencies.

Do we need all these people in Rome? Take the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For decades the FBI had a small and sleepy office in the embassy, staffed by two officers known as legal attachés. J. Edgar Hoover had wanted to station his people all over the globe but lost out to the CIA, which gained the main responsibility for foreign intelligence. The “war on terrorism” changed that. Now there are U.S. legal attachés in seventy embassies, including many more people in Rome–and the bureaucratic fight continues between CIA and FBI–and the advantage to America is Zero. (I am not against the FBI, though I never thought it worked well in the foreign field; but they do not need to double bureaucracy by stationing people abroad.)

If I were the American ambassador to Italy I would not want such a huge staff. Unfortunately, while ambassadors can prevent the establishment of new positions, they do not have authority to cut positions. Only Washington can do that; and Washington does not do that. But have our ambassadors to Italy even wanted to see a smaller embassy in Rome? The most recent American ambassadors in Rome have gotten their appointments not for management skills but for Republican credentials, while the last ambassador sent to Rome by the Democrats was so bad that his staff tried to discourage him from coming to the embassy, which in any case he seldom did.

Our oversized embassy is an object of marvel for Italians. They themselves have some experience with bureaucracy, but they have a relatively small foreign ministry and their ambassadors are all experienced professionals. For me, when I walk by the Palazzo Margherita I simply feel sorry.

  • Michael J Elliott

    Thank you for posting this website and the picture of the Embassy in Rome. I was stationed there from 1975 to 1979 with the Defense Attache Office while assigned to the staff of the NATO Defense College. I lived in Frascati to experience the real Italian culture and people and avoid living with the other Americans who seemed to complain a lot about how Italy wasn’t the United States (which thankfully is true). Anyway, thank you. Michael J. Elliott (formerly YN1, U.S. Navy)

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