Against the backdrop of sectarian unrest in Bahrain, where I am visiting and writing this from, the U.S. embassy – who is not my sponsor and with whom I have had no contact – is evacuating diplomats from residences in compounds near largely Shi’ite villages. While the Shi’ite opposition has legitimate grievances, militant clerics appear to be seeking to provoke clashes to create martyrs ahead of expected February 14 protests. The Bahraini government made mistakes last year, but appears to be making a good faith effort to rectify and reform.
While the State Department is right to worry about the security of its employees, removing diplomats at the first sign of trouble undercuts diplomats’ ability to gather information. Thousands of American diplomats in Iraq, for example, achieved little to nothing because they allowed themselves to be shuttered behind the walls and checkpoints of the green zone. Likewise, many American diplomats in Egypt spent so much time catering to the Egyptian elite, they underestimated the discord brewing below. The last place anyone should go to understand what is going on in Lebanon is the American embassy, where diplomats remain shackled with security procedures that date back to the Lebanese civil war that ended well over two decades ago.
Many American diplomats are bold, and chafe at the restrictions placed upon them by regional security officers. Being a diplomat, however, should not be a risk-free endeavor. When the going gets tough, that is the time for American diplomats to be on the street, in local markets, and generally outside embassy walls or the confines of posh neighborhoods.
The State Department is seeking ever-greater funding. If there is some bang for the buck, that may be okay. But if the State Department restricts its diplomats’ ability to report, then there is really no justification for the budget it demands.