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U.S. Debates How to Keep Envoys Safe Without Smothering Diplomacy

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The attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and the resulting death of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, revealed the longstanding tug of war between keeping diplomats safe while letting them do their job.

Though tossed around as political football during the presidential election, the Benghazi attack has raised serious questions about how to limit the vulnerability of diplomats in hotspots where risks can come from all sides (not only terrorism but crime, disease and natural disaster), without hindering their access to the very people they're supposed to be engaging.

Exposure versus engagement — it's a perpetual quandary for diplomats not only from the United States but also from allied countries such as Britain and Canada. And in a sense, Chris Stevens, who became the first U.S. ambassador killed in a terrorist attack in more than 20 years, personified this dilemma.

An Arabic speaker with deep roots in the Middle East, Stevens by all accounts relished returning to Libya, where he had been the administration's point man with the rebels who overthrew Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.

"All in all, it's great to be back, especially in the 'new Libya,' as people here are saying," he wrote in letters to friends, as reported by the New York Times.

Stevens though was fully aware of the dangers around him. In journals discovered by CNN, the slain ambassador wrote about the constant security threats around him, including the growing presence of Islamic radicals and al-Qaeda. Still, throughout his postings in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and elsewhere, Stevens, 52, was passionate about going beyond the confines of embassy walls to meet people and absorb the culture.

Nowadays, U.S. diplomats in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon are cloistered behind fortress-like compounds and when they do venture outside — for which they have to submit their travel plans well in advance — they're escorted by a cavalry of armed bodyguards and security convoys. In stark contrast, Stevens reportedly jogged every day in Benghazi and was eager to personally connect with the officials, academics, activists, tribal elders and business people who would rebuild the war-torn country.

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Photos: U.S. State Department
The American flag flies over the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia, where protesters scaled the compound's wall in mid-September in a melee that killed four people. Since then, the U.S. government has pulled out all nonessential embassy personnel and advised Americans to avoid the country, even though hopes were high that Tunisia was transitioning toward a stable democracy.

In fact, according to the State Department, Stevens had just finished meeting with a Turkish diplomat about an hour before armed gunmen stormed and set fire to the consulate — killing Stevens and three other Americans on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. "It's especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city he helped to save," President Obama said shortly after the killings.

Indeed, the fact that the attack happened in Libya only added to the shock and sadness, both in the U.S. and in Libya.

"Perhaps it was due to the particularly awful irony of Ambassador Stevens' death in a place to which he'd committed his heart, soul, and energies to liberating Libya's people from decades of cruel dictatorship that this tragic episode has generated unprecedented public sympathy for the dangerous environments in which our diplomats often operate," wrote Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Middle East Institute, in an article that first appeared in the Huffington Post. "It has also aroused public debate regarding acceptable safety standards and circumstances for American diplomats and whether we should, in fact, even be in 'those places.'"

But "those places" are also usually where history is being shaped and America's vital interests are at stake — and Chamberlin, a 29-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, answered her own question: "The answer from those of us who have served in the Foreign Service is an unequivocal, 'Yes!' We should be there. We must be there."

Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says the risks are a necessary evil in today's tumultuous world. "It is time we come to grips with the world we actually live in. We can't deal with the political upheavals in a single Arab country, the impact of transition in Afghanistan, the internal struggle for the future of Islam, energy and trade security, the various national crises in Latin America and Africa, or the competition for the future of Asia by speeches in the U.S., quick visits by senior U.S. officials, outside radio and TV programs, and empty rhetoric about taking stronger stands or exporting U.S. values," he wrote in a Oct. 11 CSIS commentary.

"We need strong country teams, and teams that are active and take risks. We need men and women on the scene who accept the realities on the ground in the countries they operate in."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed that sentiment. "Our people can't live in bunkers and do their jobs," she said in a speech at CSIS on Oct. 12. "But it is our solemn responsibility to constantly improve, to reduce the risks our people face, and make sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs."

Clinton added that despite the Benghazi tragedy, the United States must not lose sight of the bigger picture — "to weigh the violent acts of a small number of extremists against the aspirations and actions of the region's people and governments. That broader view supports rather than discredits the promise of the Arab revolutions."

Long Before Libya

The movement to have eyes and ears on the ground in global hotspots predates the Arab Spring, gaining traction after the Bush administration undertook its "transformational diplomacy" initiative that deployed U.S. diplomats into war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan and "hardship" locations such as Sudan and Angola (along with critical postings such as China, Egypt, India and Nigeria).

Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell told a Senate Committee in June 2011 that "the department now operates diplomatic missions in places where in the past we likely would have closed the post and evacuated all personnel."

As a result, the pressure on the State Department and American intelligence services to protect diplomatic assets abroad has naturally increased. But Congress and Foggy Bottom have been trying to address the issue for years. Following the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the 1985 Inman Report set out increased security measures for American missions abroad. The list of recommendations led to the creation of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and called for design specifications like situating an embassy a certain distance away from public streets.

The push for greater security, however, ramped up after the 1998 terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed more than 200 people and spurred Congress to devote billions of dollars for new embassy and consulate construction (also see "America's Embassy Building Boom Fortifies Diplomacy, Security Abroad" in the April 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

"Everything changed after the bombings in East Africa," Jane Loeffler, author of "The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies," told The Washington Diplomat. "Congress came through with money that they hadn't come through with after the Inman Report. Security was the number-one reason why Congress came up with the money and that's what's still been driving the program."

Since a new mandate was created in 1999 that ordered security precautions such as nine-foot walls, the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations says it has spent $13 billion to overhaul its security apparatus, hiring some 40,000 to provide protection around the world, completing nearly 90 new buildings, and moving more than 27,000 people into "safe, secure, and functional facilities."

The massive U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad's Green Zone perhaps stands as the crowning achievement — or costly blunder, depending on one's perspective —of this 21st-century hunkered-down approach to diplomacy.

Benghazi Breakdown?

Unlike the walled-off compound in Iraq, however, the temporary facility in Benghazi was only lightly guarded — a flashpoint in the controversy over whether the terrorists who easily overran the complex could have been thwarted.

Republicans have grilled administration officials over whether they botched the initial handling of the attack — attributing it to a spontaneous protest when signs clearly pointed to a well-armed, premeditated assault — and whether the State Department refused requests for added security despite an avalanche of documented threats.

Last month, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) led a congressional hearing titled "Security Failures of Benghazi" in which he said the State Department was repeatedly warned about instability, but that "Washington officials seemed preoccupied with the concept of normalization" after Qaddafi's ouster.

The State Department has admitted that requests for beefed-up security were denied, namely the extension of a 16-member military team that departed in August, though that team was assigned to protect the embassy in Tripoli, 400 miles away from Benghazi.

To that end, State officials pushed back against charges the attack could've been prevented. "The ferocity and intensity of the attack was nothing that we had seen in Libya, or that I had seen in my time in the Diplomatic Security Service,"' said Eric Nordstrom, who up until July was in charge of security for diplomats in Libya. "Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra half dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault."

Whether that's true or not, it won't quell the uproar over security lapses at Benghazi, where, alongside Diplomatic Security Service, only a small force of local, privately hired guards had been stationed. "There were no Marine guards in Benghazi at the time of that attack, which raises questions about whether they could have played a role in limiting the damage," William Young, a former senior CIA officer who's now with the RAND Corporation, wrote in a blog post.

Yet the presence of Marines doesn't necessarily guarantee complete safety, either, especially given their limited rules of engagement, Young pointed out.

"This latest attack points to the need to review both decisions about where to post Marine guards and the protocol governing what they are allowed to do in the event of an attack. Their purpose in an attack is to secure the embassy and its classified paper and electronic storage systems. The Marines do not have the mandate to engage with attackers and are limited to designated areas on the embassy or consulate grounds."

In addition, the Marines — which are costly because the State Department must reimburse the Pentagon for them — are also not assigned to watch over ambassadors or senior officials. That's the job of the Diplomatic Security Service, which officials say is not well equipped for all-out combat. Private guards, too, are not always the answer. The Libyan government was adamantly opposed to armed private security contractors establishing a presence in the country, particularly given the stain that U.S. security firm Blackwater left on the industry after a clash in Baghdad left at least 17 Iraqis dead.

But beyond the debate over whether more guards, better weapons or stronger barricades could've prevented the killing of four Americans, there's also been a renewed focus on devising better, not necessarily bigger, tools to shield diplomats from the anti-American tide that's swept the Arab world.

Options that have been discussed include social media to predict likely attacks, providing embassies with non-lethal crowd-control technologies like sound blasters, and outsourcing advocacy to locally based NGOs.

Young suggested roving security patrols to not only detect signs of unrest but also to build linkages with the local community to prevent future attacks. Engaging shop owners, who have a vested interest in preventing unrest that often hurts their business, "and others who live and work in these areas is one way of monitoring public sentiment — a low-tech social networking opportunity."

Also overlooked in the current imbroglio is the fact that host governments are responsible for protecting diplomats posted on their soil, though countries such as Pakistan, Serbia and most recently Egypt have in the past been accused of sympathizing with protesters and turning a blind eye to security breaches.

So far, though, many of these nuances have been lost in an election year. While the Obama administration came under fire for its shifting response to the Benghazi attack, Republicans too have taken heat for seizing on the tragedy to score political points.

Cordesman of CSIS argues that hindsight is always 20-20 when crises erupt, no matter which party is in power.

"The Republicans seem to be 'winning' in political terms, largely because so few Americans in think tanks and the media realize that virtually all intelligence and security post-mortems on such events uncover the same problems. Once the event is over and clear patterns emerge, there are always warning indicators that could have been heeded in retrospect [and] every such event is always an 'intelligence' failure," wrote Cordesman, who previously served as director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as civilian assistant to the deputy secretary of defense.

"Moreover, competent security officers always are asking for more support and coverage in any area where risks exist. There is never enough security even in the best-funded times, and these are not the best-funded times. Almost every aspect of U.S. diplomacy has been subject to budget cuts at a time of upheaval in the Arab world and global economic crisis."

Part of the Job

In a world filled with turmoil, there's no precise formula for how to protect the 275 posts that America maintains abroad. Part of the problem is the "diffused terrorist threat, the notion that targets can be anywhere, which adds to the uncertainty," says Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

And as national symbols, embassies are natural magnets for all kinds of anti-American anger. The widespread demonstrations in the Arab world fueled by a crudely made video denigrating Islam were just the latest in a long tradition of protests directed at U.S. missions (also see "Embassy Protests Make Noise, But Do They Make a Difference?" in the August 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Protests and violence can be a fact of life for many diplomats — as are more common hardships, such as a lack of schools or health facilities, for instance, high crime rates or natural disasters such as earthquakes. Hence the concept of hardship pay, which increases with risk.

But terrorism is a perennial concern. Though relatively rare, diplomats have paid the ultimate price for their service. Stevens was the eighth American ambassador killed in the line of duty — and the sixth to be killed by terrorists.

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) maintains a plaque of fallen civilians at the State Department. Since 1950, 165 names have been inscribed on the wall — with more than 20 added since the year 2000, the majority of whom died in terrorist attacks.

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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honor the victims of the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack at a ceremony held at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The attack claimed the lives of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and security personnel Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty.

But for most Foreign Service officers, the risks outweigh the rewards, as AFSA President Susan Johnson, who has served in Iraq, Bosnia and Cuba, recently told WAMU's Rebecca Sheir.

"It's not a career where you're going to get rich," Johnson said. "But you may have a very rich life experience. And most people retire really proud to have served in the Foreign Service, and to have represented their country and lived history."

Interestingly, throughout much of that history, there was little separating diplomats from the outside world. In the New York Times article "In Praise of What Has Been Lost at U.S. Embassies," Mort Rosenblum recalled the openness of embassies at the height of the Cold War, when the world was seemingly on the brink of annihilation.

"If a U.S. mission needed guarding anywhere, it was Kinshasa after the C.I.A. provided matches to set the Congo ablaze. Soviet spooks worked hard to discomfit America," he recalled. "I dropped in regularly for updates on a nasty bush war, and a lone Marine waved as I breezed past. Often it was a guy with whom I'd done the clubs the night before along with diplomats and local luminaries. But no one else got stopped either unless something awkward bulged under a raincoat."

Those freewheeling days have given way to X-ray machines and intrusive pat-downs, but many feel the security pendulum has swung too far. As the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum pointed out: "American diplomats who bring menacing bodyguards to meetings, or who make their visitors endure humiliating security checks, are unlikely to make many friends."

"It is a constant battle and struggle between the need of diplomats to get out in communities and the security restrictions that make it difficult to have a human touch and get the feel of place," said the CFR's Patrick.

And many diplomats, past and present, say human interaction is critical to their work. "If we can't get out, talk to people, travel around, understand the reality of the society and the country where we're assigned, then we can't do our job," John Limbert, a former U.S. ambassador and one of the 52 Americans held hostage when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed in 1979, told the BBC. "If you sit behind the walls and the barbed wire and the moat, that affects what you know and it affects your usefulness."

Canada Cuts Back

Interestingly, Canada — whose government didn't leave Tehran after the 1979 revolution and in fact helped rescue six American hostages during the embassy siege — has come under fire for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision in September to close down Ottawa's embassy in Iran. Harper called the regime a threat to world peace, but critics of the move say Canadian diplomacy will be hobbled by the absence.

"Canada's action reduces our presence on the ground in Iran to zero," John Mundy, the former Canadian ambassador to Iran who was expelled in 2007, wrote in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail. "We will no longer have the ability to communicate directly with Iran's government in Iran. We will no longer have Canadian diplomats following political developments within the country and using their local contacts and knowledge to assess how Iranian policy towards the outside world might evolve."

In severing relations, Harper's Conservative-led government cited Iran's covert nuclear program, its human rights record, support for the Syrian government, and repeated threats against Israel.

"These are actually reasons why we should stay," Mundy countered. "When the going gets rough you really need your diplomats. Canada's tradition is to be one of the last countries to leave in a crisis, not the first."

Mundy speculated that one of the reasons for the embassy shutdown might have been to pull diplomats out of the country ahead of a possible military strike by Israel. Others, including the Iranian government, said the move was a cost-cutting measure.

Interestingly, during a recent visit to Canada, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his Canadian counterpart John Baird announced a plan to share embassy and consular offices in a handful of locations around the world where one of the nations does not have an embassy.

Facing austerity back home, the move is a way for both governments to cut spending, but another reason is to pool representation (and security resources) in dangerous areas such as Iraq, where Canada's envoy has already been working out of a room in the British Embassy.

But, like the United States, Canada too finds itself enmeshed in a similar debate over striking the right balance between security and accessibility — especially on the heels of its decision to abandon Iran. Critics say the joint missions are a raw deal for Canada. "Even with an equal partnership, the British, who have a lot more resources in this arena, will dominate the relationship," Meyer Brownstone, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told The Diplomat, echoing complaints that Ottawa is outsourcing its diplomacy, and influence, to Britain.

There may even be an inherent danger in combining diplomatic missions. "Some countries are generally more at risk because of the political positions they take," Patrick of CFR told The Diplomat. "Co-location increases the prize of a potential attack" — i.e., terrorists look for targets where they can get more "bang for the buck."

Short-Changing Security

The issue of resources underlies any security arrangement — and the Benghazi attack is no exception. At the highly charged congressional hearings in October, Republicans and Democrats traded accusations of short-changing America's diplomats.

"I believe personally, with more assets, more resources, just meeting the minimum standards, we could have and should have saved the life of Ambassador Stevens and the other people," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

But Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) called the hearings a shameful campaign stunt and blasted House Republicans for slashing nearly half a billion dollars from the Obama administration's previous requests for diplomatic security funding. Republicans said the cuts were bipartisan and cited budget waste at the State Department.

Yet as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank pointed out, under Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, non-defense discretionary spending, which includes the State Department, would be slashed nearly 20 percent in 2014, which would translate to more than $400 million in additional cuts to embassy security.

Cordesman says Congress needs to rise above the "petty partisan feeding frenzies" and get smart about where it can get the most bang for its buck.

"The cost of properly funded expeditionary diplomacy — people, military and civil aid funds, and fully funded security efforts — is going to be cheaper even on a global level than losing contact and U.S. influence in a single country like Egypt, or being unprepared to deal with the flow of events in a nation like Syria or Iraq," he argues.

"It is also already all too clear that extremist elements throughout the world realize that attacks on U.S. diplomats and military advisors or partners are one of the cheapest and most effective ways to gain immediate visibility, strike at the heart of U.S. public opinion, drive the U.S. out of a country, or limit its influence," he added.

The battle to stop those attacks existed long before Benghazi and will continue long after — no matter which party is in charge. Yet despite the partisan noise, there is also a genuine desire to protect the lives of those who represent the nation abroad.

It's a fine line, however. "Lean too far in the direction of engagement, and you might end up dead in a rocket attack, as Ambassador Stevens' death sadly reminds us," Stephen Kelly, a visiting professor at Duke University and a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, wrote in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune. "Lean too far the other way, however, and you might as well run diplomacy by email and fax machine from Washington."

And that defeats the purpose of diplomacy, says Cordesman. "We need to protect our embassies, consulates and military advisory groups, but we cannot afford to turn them into fortresses that lock our diplomats, aid teams and military on the scene away from events and the people they are trying to influence," he said.

"If there are any real lessons from Libya — or Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and all the other nations on the long list of cases where American diplomats, advisors and security teams died to serve their country — it is that projecting any form of smart power is done on the ground, is done by moving throughout the country, is done by taking risks, and will inevitably incur casualties."


About the Author

Talha Aquil is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 11, 2013