American diplomats in a dangerous world
September 22, 2012
During my 28-year U.S. Foreign Service career I experienced sniper fire in Grenada and traveled in armored vehicles in Peru, but that’s nothing compared to the daily dangers faced today by American diplomats in the volatile Middle East, and beyond.
This ominous situation became apparent to everyone a few days ago when one of our most dedicated career diplomats, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, was murdered by bloodthirsty Islamic terrorists at the besieged American Consulate in Benghazi. Despite the Obama administration’s attempts to blame widespread violence on an obscure Internet video, it’s apparent that Stevens and three of his colleagues were slaughtered in a coordinated, 9/11-related terrorist attack.
I concur with veteran diplomat Bill Kiehl of the Public Diplomacy Council, who wrote that “the tragic deaths of four brave Americans in Benghazi weren’t caused by an anti-Islamic video. This was a planned, coordinated attack by a terrorist organization which would have happened whether this video existed, or not.”
Here’s what happened: The American Embassy in Cairo issued a statement intended to head-off the violence, condemning “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims . . .”
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney immediately called it an “apology” and blamed President Obama, thereby politicizing a dangerous situation before all of the facts were known. It was an egregious foreign policy error, and Romney should apologize.
Based on available evidence, I believe the attack on our Benghazi consulate was carried out by al-Qaida-related terrorists who took advantage of a public demonstration against the offending video. The irony of this particular attack was that it targeted an American diplomat who had championed the rebels who overthrew longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
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Although American embassies are usually well fortified and guarded by local police outside the perimeter and elite Marine guards inside the compound, consulates are much more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Embassies are located in capital cities while consulates are located in outlying cities. The Benghazi consulate was a lightly guarded home in a residential area of that strife-torn city. Stevens was accompanied by two former SEALs, who died in the attack. They were no match for the heavily armed and well-trained terrorists who easily overran the consulate compound.
As we used to say, there’s always too much security except when you really need it, and then it’s never enough. This was especially true for those of us who worked in “public diplomacy,” designing and implementing information and cultural programs to help foreign audiences better understand American institutions, policies and values. I recall the outcry in countries where I served when we required people attending our concerts and art exhibits to pass through metal detectors, a harbinger of things to come.
Stevens was in Benghazi to dedicate an “American center” designed to expose young Libyans to our diverse culture and freedom-loving ideals. Unfortunately however, public diplomacy, or “soft power,” is no match for fanatical Islamic jihadists armed with automatic weapons and rocket launchers.
Those who wish to understand Islamic fanaticism should read a historical novel, “The Haj,” by best-selling author Leon Uris, who wrote “Exodus,” the definitive story of the founding of Israel. Uris clearly explains the frustrations and resentments of a culture that once dazzled the world, only to stagnate as the rest of the world modernized and adapted to changing economic and political realities. This is the tragedy of the Arab World and a cautionary tale for foreigners who try to change it, including my fellow diplomats.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired diplomat.