September 13, 2012

The death in Benghazi of US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other staff members of the US mission in Libya is a chilling reminder of the risks that American diplomats and American diplomacy face at a time of violence and uncertainty in the Middle East and the world. 

Chris Stevens is the first US ambassador killed in the line of duty since the 1979 kidnapping and murder of Adolph Dubs in Kabul.  Many friends and colleagues of mine at the American embassy in Moscow in the early 1980s were close friends of Spike Dubs, and his death affected them for many years.  In the 33 years since, the American Foreign Service Association memorial in the Department of State lobby has had added to it the names of some 58 diplomats killed abroad in the line of duty by hostile fire.  If service in Paris or Tokyo is generally benign, America’s diplomats in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan have risked their lives just as surely as have our military personnel, and the list of countries where serious risks to personal security abound is substantial. 

Reforms and serious investments in infrastructure upgrades since the bombing of the US Embassy and Marine Barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and 1985, respectively, have led to dramatic security improvements at our facilities virtually worldwide.  As the president’s personal representatives and as flag bearers attractive to terrorists and those with grievances, ambassadors are special targets, and they have benefitted from special attention in the form of armored cars and, in some places, security details.  Speaking from personal experience, these details are no fun, and they are costly.  It is important that these efforts continue and that even in tough fiscal times Congress provides the funding to carry it out.  We will honor our public servants by doing so. 

In the coming days, US policymakers should review all possible steps to bolster the security of our diplomats overseas.  This will be especially crucial in Muslim-majority countries where many people find outrageous the ugly, hateful parodies of Islam put together by Pastor Jones and others who think that hating those of another faith is wise.  Fanatics and members or fellow travelers of al-Qaeda and its terrorist kin use for ill purposes these images and the natural reaction of many to them.  For better or worse, our people abroad should be prepared.  Clearly, there was a specific breakdown in Benghazi.  There and all around the world local authorities bear the main burden for protecting diplomats.  While no one should blame the Libyan government for Stevens’s death or think it wanted this tragedy to happen, steps must be taken to reassure our diplomats and other citizens in Libya that they should have confidence in the authorities now.  Our other posts overseas, in difficult places and elsewhere, should review their security posture and contingency planning, including with their own local authorities. 

It will also be important not to overreact.  In 1998, I oversaw from Washington the closure of the US embassy in Tajikistan.  It was shuttered not because of any security change whatsoever in that country, but because al-Qaeda bombed our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya; a decision was made that we had to do something, and Dushanbe was a victim.  But the whole point of having a Foreign Service, and the reason that most of its members join it, is to be active, engaged, and out there there in the world – in tough as well as easy places and of course where security can be reasonably assured.  Where we lack diplomats on the ground in such places as Iran and North Korea, American policymakers are left blind to social and political nuances, deaf to the meaning of sometimes cacophonous messages, and made dumb by our absence that precludes even the possibility of communicating directly, however difficult that may be.  Indeed, it would have astounded my peers and me in 1979 that for 33 years and counting the United States would lack any diplomatic presence in Tehran, a state of affairs which is unbefitting and unwise for our country. 

America’s diplomats are our eyes and ears who provide overwhelming preponderance of our government’s information about political conditions and hot-burner issues in most areas of the world and who carry out our government’s day-to-day conversation with the leaders and citizens of other countries.  Despite risks and of course insisting on appropriate steps to protect their security and that of their families, the Foreign Service and its personnel do this work because they recognize the immense importance for American interests of engaging directly with the countries in which they serve. 

As the American Foreign Service memorializes Chris Stevens and the three public servants who died with him, it will also go on about its work, and many of its members will similarly put their lives on the line for the United States.  They will do this, among other reasons, to honor him and the many others among their peers and colleagues who have made the last sacrifice in service to their country. 

Ross Wilson was a member of the US Foreign Service from 1979 to 2008 and served as America’s ambassador in Turkey (2005-2008) and Azerbaijan 2000-2003.  He is currently Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council

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