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Diplomacy is a Necessary but Dangerous Business

February 20th 2013

Libyan rioters at US consulate Sep 2012 #2
U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in flames following terrorism.

In her farewell letter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the need for American leadership and the continuing impulse in American foreign policy for the United States to be a “force for good”. That signifies engagement. Unfortunately, that engagement has too often been military action, followed by Foreign Service and civilian efforts to build the blocks of democracy at the same time reconstructing stones and fabrics which have been torn down. What is termed American “expeditionary diplomacy” is not new to the post 9/11 world.

Once upon a time there was Vietnam. I remember the push for Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) to be out there in the provinces as “political advisors” to Province Chiefs. I was enthusiastically briefed on the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program which would remake South Vietnam. A personnel officer proudly showed me his M-16 hanging behind his State Department desk and he underlined the need for FSOs to be armed and competitive with the Department of Defense. Vietnamese language training would prepare you to understand and to influence. All that did not work out.

The difficulties faced by our diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan are evident, but to be expected in the aftermath of occupation. We know after decades of bombings in Beirut and Nairobi and countless assaults by mobs that embassies need to be hardened. Recent events—from attacks on the embassy in Cairo to the bomb in Ankara—indicate that much has been done right to secure embassy buildings. There are still too many chanceries—especially in areas outside the Near East—that need to be brought up to security standards. God forbid a terrorist attack with that job yet unfinished.

So, embassy—and consulate—security is one thing. Quite another is the ability of diplomats to do their job. Confinement to the chancery prevents meaningful action in the US interest and as that force for good underlined by Secretary Clinton. No real contact out in the community means no real understanding for analysis and policy purposes. Our Ambassador’s trip to Benghazi was part of that reasoned calculation to project American diplomacy. It ended tragically, but the highly partisan treatment of the attack in Benghazi took the American public off on a tangent. The congressional committees mostly ignored the fact that the site was neither chancery nor even a real consulate.

I can’t imagine that it would have passed the security test for a permanent consular post. That “consulate” consisted of leased villas as is obvious from the video footage. In 2012 it had become a kind of outpost in unfriendly territory and were it not for the other USG facility in town, might already have been shut down. Insecurity in Benghazi was spreading to such an extent that even the Italian Consulate closed this January, after an attack on the Consul.

Danger to the diplomats there has always been. When I joined the Foreign Service in the mid-sixties, one area of focus was a Latin America threatened by Castro-linked revolution. American efforts were to provide aid and to literally get out in the countryside in order to support those fighting for reform and opposing Soviet–backed groups. Our ambassadors and embassy personnel were targets for kidnapping and murder as well. We learned how to drive in a manner to thwart kidnappers (spin the car or run through a road blockade) and to vary our times and routes. We were warned if kidnapped to expect to be on our own. There would be no USG ransom payments.

At the same time, no one suggested that we not be out with the trade union and campesino leaders. Just the opposite. That was where the action was and our leadership was challenged by the Soviets and their proxies. We were warned just to watch our behinds. When mobs stormed our embassy in Lima in the mid- 1970s, and the crowd was repelled by Peruvian army Soviet T-55 tanks (the only time I believe that US diplomats cheered soviet-made tanks) no one suggested we then remain behind embassy walls. Rather we competed withThe New York Times, AFP and ANSA to get the stories and, more importantly, stay engaged working on development, human rights and democracy issues. Even in Europe there were the Red Brigades and other terrorists.

In Rome we had an Foreign Service Officer killed, a general kidnapped and failed bomb attempts at the embassy. There were times of terrorist tragedy, like the terrible massacre at Rome’s airport in 1985. I remember a car bomb at our embassy in Lisbon, not to mention a mortar attack and a failed RPG launch aimed at our Ambassador’s office. As for the Congress, those Cold War terrorist actions were not seized upon for partisan advantage. The Executive agencies were expected to take action as required by events.

Of course that ongoing and existential Cold War struggle for Latin America, Africa and Europe itself contrasts with the current terrorism of jihadis and thugs. The absence of existential threat may even partially explain the deeply partisan political attacks immediately following the Benghazi burning. Congressional hearings did not await results of the non-partisan congressionally mandated Accountability Review Board (ARB), and the thrust of congressional questioning seemed almost totally unrelated to what actually happened in Benghazi. The ARB provided some good advice on embassy security, although its focus seemed to be limited primarily to “security-platform” issues. That does not address the critical need for meaningful discussion on the role of diplomats outside the “security-platform” walls. There was little reference to or interest in that on the part of the congressional committee hearings on Benghazi.

In this post-Benghazi milieu, the dilemma remains. To leave the compound or not to leave the compound. If we cannot leave the compound then we can’t do the job. But then we have less need for the massive compound. America has much to do in the world. We need to do it where we can. We can be, as Hillary Clinton said, that “force for good”. Ambassador Stevens had it right in that he knew you had to be out there in the field. The chancery was secure. But he could not hide behind those walls. He died doing his duty. He will be followed by those who are dedicated to US leadership and their work as a force for good.

Jim Creagan writes for American Diplomacy, from where this article is adapted. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Honduras and as a Foreign Service Officer at other posts in Latin America and Europe. He is currently Professor of International Affairs at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.


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