The September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was a preventable tragedy. The blame for Stevens’s death lies with the terrorists that murdered him, although they would not have gotten the chance had it not been for negligence if not incompetence at very senior ranks of the State Department. That the Obama administration responded with obfuscation rather than serious introspection merely compounded the tragedy.
The State Department, for its part, still smarting from the loss of four of its own, has also learned the wrong lessons. About a month ago, I penned a short piece for the American Enterprise Institute arguing that too much security can be a bad thing. It is easy to guarantee the safety of diplomats but, if such a guarantee requires locking diplomats away from the societies in which they are supposed to serve and comes at the expense of the ability of diplomats to do their jobs, then the broader goals of American diplomacy will be missed.
Nowhere is this clearer now than in Iraq. The Basra corniche is a lively place at night. Cars cruise, locals play backgammon, restaurants are packed, and businessmen talk in luxury hotels. Thursday nights are shopping nights in the Al Jazair neighborhood, where men and women look for bargains in indoor markets, hit the new supermarkets, or take a break for some shawarma with their sons and daughters in one of the bustling fast food restaurants. Alas, it is a city life the diplomats stationed at the U.S. consulate will never experience, because the consulate is located out by Basra International Airport, about 15 miles from the center of town. While the consul-general does go to formal receptions and events, few Basrawis ever see the Americans outside the consulate walls. To their credit, American diplomats have expressed frustration to their Iraqi friends over the situation.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a $750 million behemoth alongside the Tigris River, may house more than a thousand diplomats and other government diplomats, and even more contractors, but few ever see Baghdad. Iraqi officials say most officials who leave the embassy compound go either to the airport, to parliament, or one of perhaps a half dozen other Iraqi government offices all within walking distance (though the American diplomats are not allowed to walk outside). Outside the International Zone, Iraqis say they have seen Iranians, Turks, Russians, and Chinese but few have ever met an American diplomat. Nevertheless, each of the American government employees housed and working in the embassy gets hardship and danger pay that might add 70 percent to their annual salary, even if they never meet an Iraqi.
Perhaps nothing shows the Benghazi meltdown more than the U.S. consulate in Kirkuk. Kirkuk, for economic, political, and cultural reasons, may be the most important city outside Baghdad and perhaps Najaf. Yet after the attack on the Benghazi consulate, the State Department moved its Kirkuk consulate to Erbil, an hours’ drive away, where the United States already has a consulate. Now I’ve been staying in Kirkuk city for the past several days and, as I’ve indicated in other posts, it’s regaining its former glory. While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) often brags about its heightened security, Kirkuk is not located in areas controlled by the KRG and so security does remain a problem, albeit a manageable one: Top officials live in compounds sealed off by blast walls and checkpoints, but get out and about by switching cars and license plates frequently, and taking other basic precautions.
If the purpose of an American diplomat is simply to pass messages, then the State Department can reduce its budget considerably if they would rely on Skype or build a couple secure video teleconference facilities. I say that with tongue in cheek, of course, because the purpose of American diplomats is more: State Department employees might talk about one project or another, but when push comes to shove, American embassies should be about influence, showing the flag, and gaining an increased understanding of societies that is not possible simply by sitting at a desk, meeting with officials, or hunkering down behind blast walls. Alas, it seems that in the wake of Benghazi, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor John Kerry have responded by raising the white flag. How sad it is that rather than recognize and repair the faults in management and intelligence that led to Benghazi, the State Department prefers simply to hide its head in the sand, its diplomats behind sandbags.