Libya & Leaving The Fortress

A heavily guarded U.S. embassy. Source: Angelo Carconi/AP

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 print edition, which can be found here.

On September 11th and 12th 2012, US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were slain at a diplomatic villa and a nearby security compound in Benghazi, Libya. The murder of Ambassador Stevens was the first successful assassination of an American ambassador in decades, and set off a Republican-led witch-hunt to assign blame for the lapse in security, potentially forging a death knell for the State Department’s recent “expeditionary diplomacy” initiatives.

In wake of the tragedy, many conservative leaders pointed fingers at Secretary Clinton and President Obama for failing to anticipate the attack. The GOP also contended that the Department of State (DOS) provided inadequate security for Ambassador Stevens and his team and called for the further securitization of American embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The initial release of the Accountability Review Board report, the official administrative summary of the causes and consequences of the Benghazi incident, recommended that the DOS continue to buffer U.S. embassies, rather than increase security for those diplomats, such as Ambassador Stevens, who choose to operate outside of these “security-platforms.”

The Republican proposal to increase the security of U.S. embassies in response to the Benghazi crisis is not without precedent. In 1979, the State Department was rocked by the Iran hostage crisis in addition to the burning of US Embassies in Islamabad and Tripoli. In 1983, the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut killed 63 people, including most of the CIA’s staff in the region. These tragic events led to the creation of the Inman Report, which called for new security benchmarks at all US embassies.

The report’s recommendations included creating a “100-foot setback” from the perimeter of diplomatic complexes to their main buildings, as well as the relocation of US embassies from capital cities to the more easily defensible suburbs. According to Philip Giraldi, a former CIA Case Officer, the intent of the reforms was to transform American diplomatic outposts into modern fortresses that were both invasion and bomb proof. Over the past decade, these events, combined with the attacks on the World Trade Center, have resulted in the confinement of U.S. diplomatic personnel to heavily guarded compounds on the outskirts of major cities.

This functional entrapment of US diplomats in isolated fortresses impedes US foreign policy by preventing DOS personnel from engaging in cultural and individual discourse with local peoples, which is crucial to understanding and analyzing different regions. In the case of Yemen, Barbara Bodine, a former US ambassador to the country, notes that the secluded location of the embassy in Sana’a prevents American diplomats from forging the “essential relationships” with local actors that are critical to mitigating the risk of terrorism. Joshua Polacheck, Senior Near Eastern Affairs Advisor to Ambassador Verveer, theorizes that this isolation directly led to the Western failure to anticipate the Arab Spring.

Furthermore, the isolation of American officials in heavily fortified consulates may spark violence, rather than prevent it, as this isolation further entrenches the perception of a narcissistic U.S. that believes in its own exceptionalism. This may reinforce terrorist propaganda of a nefarious American empire that cares only for its own economic and political interests, as American diplomats chose to remain within their bunkers, rather than engage with local people. Likewise, this may also act to confirm the (disputably) unfounded foreign hatred of the United States and allows terrorists to rationally justify the murder of U.S. civilians.

To rectify this trend, the Obama Administration has introduced the concept of “expeditionary diplomacy” into the foreign policy lexicon. This concept was first introduced in the 2009 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which recognized the need for the DOS to take a more active role in conflict-resolution, amid growing complaints from senior diplomatic officials. In practice, expeditionary diplomacy entails the deployment of DOS personnel to potentially unstable regions to meet as many local leaders and organizations as possible, despite the security risks involved.

Though this move represents a positive step for the DOS, the political storm created by the death of the Ambassador threatens to upset this development. In the wake of the attack, Congressional hearings into the tragedy devolved into a fiery political contest to score foreign policy points for Republicans rather than a lucid assessment of the assassination. Although Ambassador Stevens’ death was undoubtedly a tragedy, there must be a recognition among Congressional officials, that for diplomacy to be effective, an element of risk must always be at play. According to Anthony Cordesman, the Strategy Chair at CSIS, when the diplomatic corps is most effectual, casualties will be inevitable. Ambassador Stevens understood that, and actively chose to leave the heavily guarded compound in Tripoli because he believed he would have a much greater impact out in the field.

Rather than recognize the achievements of Ambassador Stevens and applaud his audacity in leaving Tripoli, the GOP instead chose to publicly shame Near Eastern security advisors at the highest level. The harsh reprimanding of the officers involved potentially creates a “chilling effect” that deters other diplomatic security officers from making the high-risk decision to allow Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) to leave the chancery and enter the field. This chilling effect will most likely reverse the work of the Obama administration to promote expeditionary diplomacy as low-level security officers will actively avoid making the high-risk, high-reward decision to place their charges in potential danger, for fear of losing their careers.

Thus, the GOP-led Benghazi hearings not only threaten to roll back the diplomatic initiatives of the White House but also ignore the fact that diplomacy is a dangerous business. The modern security paradigm of absolute security, though laudable, comes at the expense of a loss of mobility for our diplomatic corps. In the end, though the deaths of a few FSOs may be prevented due to the GOP’s new security proposals, America may find itself militarily intervening in a conflict that could have been avoided with a few more diplomats on the ground in the first place.