Trump's Lame Excuse for Avoiding London
In case some dedicated soul is keeping track of all the "for the record" corrections thrown up by President Donald Trump's misstatements, here's one more to log in: Trump's tweet Friday about why he won't be visiting London.
Londoners know better. Trump's on-again, off-again visit was a source of dread in British officialdom, from Buckingham Palace to Downing Street, where Theresa May had much cause to regret her rash offer of a state visit a year ago. Nearly 2 million people petitioned to have the visit withdrawn back then; nearly half of respondents in a December poll said they wanted the visit scrapped. It soon became clear that Trump would have been greeted by a wall of protesters and subjected to the full, cut-you-down-to-size force of Britain's tabloids. The trip had already been downgraded to a "working visit."
"It appears that President Trump got the message from the many Londoners who love and admire America and Americans but find his policies and actions the polar opposite of our city's values of inclusion, diversity and tolerance," said London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has been vocal in opposing Trump's stance on immigration and foreigners.
But what of the U.S. Embassy — that great eagle-capped nerve-center of American government activity in the capital city of the closest U.S. ally? Like Trump, I was initially disappointed about the move from an iconic building in tony Mayfair to Vauxhall, south of the River Thames, a change of address that, as one British commentator put it, was like swapping Park Avenue for New Jersey. But it also made perfect sense.
That decision was not made by former President Barack Obama, as Trump has it, but by a former Republican president, George W. Bush. For one thing, the existing building on Grosvenor Square, designed by the Finnish-born modernist architect Eero Saarinen and opened in 1960, was too small to accommodate a staff that had quadrupled in size since then. For another, it was a massive security hazard.
In response to the heightened terrorist threat after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. had required all its embassies to tighten security dramatically, in part by creating 100-foot setbacks around their circumferences. The newly fortified area around the London embassy had become known as "the Green Zone," a sarcastic reference to the heavily guarded government area in central Baghdad. Well-heeled neighbors complained that the embassy's security measures were a blight on the genteel Georgian square, and that the U.S. had overstepped its boundaries.
The Bush administration was focused on security and had adopted an embassy design model that resulted in, as former Secretary of Defense William Cohen put it, charmless "concrete bunker" embassies. Some diplomats claimed they were so depressing to look at that they were bad for local relationship-building. The Obama administration sought to correct this with a design-led program that invited architects to imagine embassies that reflected the best of American design and were respectful of the culture of the host country, while meeting modern security needs.
Trump's complaint that the old building — which was bought by the investor Qatari Diar and will be turned into a luxury hotel — was sold for "peanuts" is also off-target. The embassy was apparently sold for around $431 million (the land underneath the building, in a quirk of English property law, is actually owned by the Duke of Westminster).
It might have been worth substantially more, but Saarinen's building had been designated by English Heritage as "listed." Under English law, that means it is considered historically significant and cannot be destroyed or substantially altered. The listing ruled out rebuilding the embassy on the same site and lowered its market value.
The new, $1 billion cube-shaped embassy has double the space of the old Mayfair address. It has a moat and is highly secure but not obtrusively so (bollards are hidden behind thick hedges), and occupies a 4.9-acre plot. Photovoltaic roof panels, a ground-source heat pump for renewable energy, toilets flushed with collected rainwater and abundant green space earned it an environmental rating of "outstanding." It is located on what is now Europe's largest regeneration project, which meant that the U.S. acquired the site relatively cheaply while contributing significantly to local development (prices in the area have risen steeply since the U.S. purchase), whatever one thinks of the contrast with Mayfair.
The embassy will open on schedule and the ribbon is now expected to be cut by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted in reply to Trump's announcement:
Sad indeed. Unless you're a Londoner.
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Jonathan Landman at firstname.lastname@example.org