Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Securing our diplomatic missions


Finding the proper level of security for our diplomatic missions is a more complex issue than recent campaign rhetoric would suggest. My experiences as a Foreign Service officer with 25 years of service may shed some light on the matter. Among those experiences was having my shirt torn off as I escaped an enraged mob in Khartoum, helping prepare for our evacuation from Sudan during the 1964 revolution there and from Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and being assigned to Brazil when our ambassador was kidnapped by urban guerillas.

The question is how much security is enough, and when does too much security make it impossible for our diplomats to do their jobs. It is a difficult balance that often pits our security officers, whose main concern is the physical safety of our diplomats, against those same diplomats whose mission is to meet and mix with the citizens of the nations to which they are assigned. We are not sent abroad to hide behind the walls of a fort.

To illustrate the point, when I was in charge of our public affairs program in Indonesia, the State Department security people decided that the American Embassy was vulnerable to mob attack, and ordered that a high wall be build around our entire compound. That would have put our American library, American studies classrooms and meeting rooms out of reach of our audience. The public affairs program is a government-to-people mission. If we were cut off from the people, we couldn't accomplish our mission. Fortunately, a compromise was reached in which our public affairs facilities were kept outside of the security fence, while other means were found to mitigate the greater risk this posed to our personnel.

There are obvious risks to the safety of our diplomats serving abroad. Especially vulnerable are our ambassadors. We all accept those risks. What we do not accept is the efforts of some to make political hay out of the death of our ambassador to Libya and the three other Americans. The fingers of guilt should be pointed to those responsible for this tragedy—the extremists who fired the rockets—not to some fantasy conspiracy in Washington.

Frederic S. Mabbatt, of Sun Valley, is a retired senior Foreign Service officer.

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