Foreign and Defense Policy

Too much embassy security is also a bad thing

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

In the aftermath of the disaster at Benghazi, the State Department is adding security at embassies and consulates around the world. According to the New York Times:

By late this summer, the State Department plans to send dozens of additional diplomatic security agents to high-threat embassies, install millions of dollars of advanced fire-survival gear and surveillance cameras in those diplomatic posts, and improve training for employees headed to the riskiest missions.

One of the things I admired most about murdered US Ambassador Chris Stevens — a man whom I never met — was that he understood the importance of getting out and about. It is a characteristic that — despite the howls of protest that sometimes emerge from the Foreign Service whenever its officers feel besmirched — is sorely lacking in the State Department today. One of the reasons why the State Department is woefully bad at gauging the mood on the street or predicting events is that its diplomats remained trapped in the elite bubble, if not within the walls of embassies itself.

While ambassadors technically run the show at embassies, Regional Security Officers (RSOs) run lives. Their goal is not diplomacy, but keeping diplomats safe. The best way to keep diplomats safe is to keep them locked up behind high walls. In Iraq — America’s most expensive embassy — diplomats engage Iraqis — but only those who can get past multiple checkpoints and into the sprawling compound. Outside the high walls, life goes on as normal — and Iranian, Turkish, and various Arab countries’ diplomats meet Iraqis on the streets, in shops, and at restaurants. Diplomats — frustrated at the restrictions — have privately claimed that the Embassy in Baghdad is only able to support 12 trips outside the embassy walls each day. In a compound of hundreds, that means that most will never experience the country to which they represent the United States.

The Lebanese civil war devastated that country but, despite continued political tension, normalcy now reigns. Teens and young couples stroll the cornice, stopping at the occasional shwarma stand as they pass old men fishing or smoking hookahs. It’s a scene American diplomats won’t experience because, once RSOs impose security restrictions, no one wants to be the employee who loosens them, lest he get blamed if something happens.

Security can be taken to extremes. The best way not to be secure is simply not to station diplomats in hardship posts. Thankfully, no one serious makes that case, but too much security effectively achieves the same thing. Benghazi was a tragedy, but blanket security restrictions are not the answer. That Secretary of State Clinton or her immediate underlings rejected calls for plugging security holes demonstrates incompetence in addressing a fluid situation with nuance and precision, but the real danger lies in faulty intelligence.

That Obama administration and senior State Department officials sought to apologize for if not deny the growth of radical Islamism in Libya (and Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Turkey, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere) suggests politicization of intelligence at the most senior of levels. That the reaction to an Islamist terror attack is to insulate diplomats from the reality of the societies they are supposed to observe will only compound the failure. Now more than ever, it’s important to hire diplomats who achieve fluency in strategically important languages and have the street smarts and wherewithal to put their training to use. Rather than holding countless meetings and drafting a cable after each one, they should be out and about holistically assessing the situation and reporting back on the feel of the street. Apt policymakers might then calibrate American policy to the reality on the ground rather than the illusions of the bubble. That might be uncomfortable for some and seem risky for RSOs, but preserving American national security will never be a risk-free endeavor.

One thought on “Too much embassy security is also a bad thing

  1. Great article. A very important issue and a very rational analysis. Unfortunately, I fear this is trending in a direction (the militarization of foreign policy and the under-resourcing of diplomacy) that will have major negative ramifications for US foreign policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>