Diplomacy and Risk After Benghazi
When I was a kid the word “diplomacy” for me conjured images of sophisticated men (always men) having barbed, yet politely worded, exchanges with Soviet officials to the amusement of cocktail party audiences in Western European capitals. “An equal share of the misery, indeed.” Some clever chap would haughtily quip to the guffaws of his fellow diplomats.
As a Marine Embassy Guard in my early twenties I stared at enough hostile mobs through the windows of U.S. government facilities abroad to know that my boyhood fantasies of diplomacy were pretty far from the truth. Diplomacy often involves being in dangerous places and talking to unsavory people. I also quickly learned the lesson that mobs throughout the Muslim world have surmised over the last month: the illusion of security at U.S. diplomatic facilities is just that.
Not all embassies and consulates have Marine Guards and most that do have detachments numbering in the single digits. Add to that two, maybe three, U.S. Diplomatic Security Agents and you have the internal defense contingent of most U.S. embassies. Moreover, the primary mission of Marine Guards is to prevent the compromise of classified material—counter-espionage, not counter-terrorism.
The deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 underline just how risky an undertaking diplomacy can be. Given the proximity of the U.S. elections, the political manipulation of the event was disappointing, but not surprising. What has been surprising is the nature of some of the questions concerning the security procedures that were in place at the consulate.
Fire burns in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi after the attack there on September 11, 2012 (Wikicommons).
Security is a thankless trade. When I was serving at U.S. diplomatic missions abroad (1999-2001) I took great pride in the axiom, “A Marine on post has no friends.” Leave it to the Corps to not only accept the inherent obstinacy that security requires, but to revel in it. Measures taken to mitigate risks are never popular.
Maintaining standoff distances in front buildings makes most prime real estate in a city off limits. Utilizing armored vehicles is cumbersome and expensive. Even seemingly innocuous measures like periodic checks of emergency communications procedures are inconvenient.
At the end of the day, the safety and security of U.S. diplomatic personnel and facilities is the responsibility of the host government. For people who work in diplomatic security, this statement is almost always followed by some version of the mantra that, in places where host governments are unable to meet this obligation, the U.S. government has the responsibility to fill the gap. But there are only so many measures that can reasonably be taken to mitigate the risks of continuing operations in high threat areas. The most effective risk mitigation strategy is simply to avoid it: pack up our diplomatic facilities and go home. Short of this, security personnel can mitigate risk, but they can’t completely eliminate the danger.
In the wake of the tragic deaths in Benghazi, the U.S. State Department set up an independent panel to examine (among other things) security procedures at the consulate. While this panel completes their investigation, the question we should be asking is not, “Is it time to leave these places?” but rather, “How can we stay?” How much risk are we willing to accept to talk to unsavory people in dangerous places and how important is it that we do so? Nothing illustrates this better than the relationship between the United States and Iran.
There are a number of reasons why the United States does not maintain a formal diplomatic presence in Tehran. One of these reasons is worry about the safety of U.S. diplomatic staff in the country. It is a legitimate concern. History (both recent and not so recent) has demonstrated that Iranian politicians are capable of manufacturing outrage that could make working in Tehran dangerous for U.S. diplomats. Many of these same politicians had hands in deplorable acts that stretch as far back as the bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
Diplomacy in the country would involve working in a potentially dangerous place and talking to some unsavory people. But miscalculation in the present nuclear standoff could realistically result in war. The lack of formal lines of communication between Tehran and Washington means there is no quick way to defuse such misunderstandings; our present reliance on intermediaries is an unwieldy way of doing so.
One aspect of my boyhood fantasies about U.S. diplomacy was correct: even during the worst years of the Cold War, Soviet and American diplomats talked to each other. Today we look at this engagement as a no-brainer—of course the United States maintained diplomatic dialogue with the only other superpower in the world. It would have been insane not to, right?
The Economist grandiosely called President Ronald Reagan, “The Man Who Beat Communism.” Those of us with liberal leanings roll our eyes at the overt Regan fetishization within conservative circles in the United States. “The Soviet Union would have collapsed under its own weight eventually,” we snidely observe. But even at our most petulant, there’s no ignoring the fact that Reagan’s eight years in office accelerated that collapse.
A common misconception of Reagan’s foreign policy is that engagement with the Soviet Union hinged on certain preconditions. That is to say, the Reaganites would only talk to a Gorbachev and only after a Perestroika. This simply was not the case. In 1985 (three years before Gorbachev’s accession as head of the Soviet Union) George Schultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, wrote the following in a State Department memo:
I believe the next step on our part should be to propose the negotiation of a new U.S. —Soviet cultural agreement and the opening of U.S. and Soviet consulates in Kiev and New York… Both of these proposals will sound good to the Soviets, but are unambiguously in our interest when examined from a hard headed American viewpoint.
In The Atlantic, Christopher de Bellaigue commented that, “there is an unresolved argument over the extent to which the Islamic Republic in its current form represents ordinary Iranians or merely imposes itself over them.” The Reagan administration answered this question about the Soviet Union and the Russian people by doubling-down on diplomatic engagement. Schultz’s strategy of expanding the conversation with the Soviet Union beyond arms control, into the areas of human rights and democracy, required diplomats on the ground. It was a politically risky approach; if it hadn’t worked the Democrats would have readily seized upon Reagan’s “weakness with the Soviets.” But it worked.
Obviously, this analogy can only be pushed so far: the Soviet Union is not Iran. U.S. diplomats did not face any degree of physical threat in the Soviet Union. Still, it took a great deal of political courage for the Reagan administration to engage with the superpower; it would take even more for an American President to do so with Iran. In addition to the physical security concerns, domestic political opponents would portray any administration’s opening of diplomatic relations with Iran as a “concession.” But from a “hard-headed American view point” would such relations be in our interests? The unresolved argument de Bellaigue described is within both the American foreign policy establishment and in Iran itself. It’s difficult to win an argument in which you refuse to fully engage.
Modern diplomacy is a risky endeavor. It’s also an honorable one. We do a disservice not only to the brave women and men who engage in this line of work, but also to the country’s foreign policy interests by viewing it otherwise. Some risks are worth taking.
October 22, 2012