American Ambassadors Shouldn’t Hide in Their Compounds

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 18 2012 10:43 AM

Diplomatic Insecurity

American ambassadors can have too much security. Chris Stevens understood that.

Philippine policemen stand guard in front of the US embassy in Manila.
Philippine policemen stand guard in front of the U.S. embassy in Manila on in September as demonstrators ride past. Security at U.S. diplomatic posts has increased.

Photo by Noel Celis/AFP/GettyImages.

Several months ago, I found myself walking down an empty Tripoli street near midnight, looking for a taxi. I wasn't alone—I was with two colleagues, one of whom was then living in Libya. But we weren't especially well-protected. We didn't have a bodyguard. We certainly didn't have a gun.

Was I taking an unacceptably dangerous risk in being on the street at night, in Libya, appearing foreign, speaking English? I didn't think so at the time. I trusted the colleague who told me it was a safe neighborhood. I also trusted my intuition: I had been in the city for several days, had noted the pro-American graffiti, had experienced no hostility, and had not felt a sense of menace.

As it turned out, I was right not to feel threatened. After 20 minutes—it was a slow evening for taxis—we found one and went home. The story ends there. But since the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last month, I've begun to think about that evening in a different light.

Here I should say that I don't have strong views on the origins of that attack nor on what was said by whom afterward, though I am surprised by the prominence the subject has acquired in the election campaign. Neither the president nor the secretary of state personally makes decisions about diplomatic security, after all, and we wouldn't want them to. If one or the other wants to take responsibility anyway, that's fine with me. As far as the aftermath goes, it does seem that events in Benghazi were very confusing that day. As a result of that confusion, some people think the attackers were motivated by news of an anti-Islamic video, some think they were members of an al-Qaida affiliate, and maybe U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice should have waited before speaking with such certainty about what happened.

To my mind, there is only one truly disturbing element of this discussion: the underlying assumptions—made by almost everyone participating in the argument—that no American diplomats should ever be exposed to any risk whatsoever and that it is always better to have too much security than too little.

Since Ambassador Chris Stevens' death, it's become widely known that he did not subscribe to those assumptions. He was a popular, admired, and successful ambassador precisely because he traveled around the country where he was posted, got out of his residence, spoke Arabic, and understood the value of public diplomacy. He was in Benghazi on Sept. 11 to open a new cultural center where Libyans could get access to books and movies about America, something he clearly thought was important.

All of this made him extremely unusual in a region where many American diplomats spend most of their time behind the guarded doors of bunkerlike embassies, often far from the center of town. The U.S. embassy in Tunis looks like a high-security prison. The U.S. embassy in Amman is encircled by barriers of concrete and steel. Even in London, the U.S. embassy is surrounded by so many impractical road blocks that neighbors have protested and the Americans have decided to move. When the construction is completed, the American ambassador will commute from his residence in central London to the U.S. embassy in a distant suburb, far away from the events and people he is supposed to monitor.

This is not merely an aesthetic problem (though it is that as well) or a question of convenience. Diplomats who have no contact with ordinary people get things very wrong and are liable to be badly misunderstood themselves. Remember Iraq's Green Zone, the high-security U.S. compound in Baghdad where American soldiers and diplomats had access to discos, bars, and a shopping mall—but rarely met any local residents? Does anybody still think that was a good place from which to run Iraq? In Kabul a few years ago, I met a USAID official who showed up for a meeting at a factory with a security detail so obtrusive that all of the Afghans in the room shrank away from her. American diplomats who bring menacing bodyguards to meetings, or make their visitors endure humiliating security checks, are unlikely to make many friends.

In the wake of the Benghazi attack, even more Americans scurried for the cover of bullet-proof windows. The current argument could make things worse. I don't know why officials decided that Ambassador Stevens had sufficient security in Benghazi, but I'm sure they had their reasons—just as I had my reasons to believe I would be safe on the street in Tripoli that night. Clearly they were wrong. But that doesn't mean that going forward their counterparts should always err on the side of safety, all of the time. There is such a thing as too much security.

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