America's Foreign Service: Soldiers Without Guns

The killings of four U.S. diplomats in Libya Tuesday exposed a stark truth that many Americans either don't realize or won't believe — diplomacy has gotten dangerous.

Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and a career foreign service officer, died in a rocket and mortar attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan was abducted and murdered in 1979.

But in the years since 1979, scores of lower-ranking U.S. diplomats have died or been injured flying over Scotland, working in Kenya or driving in Mexico.

Diplomatic duty, which in the popular mind and in the estimation of too many members of Congress is viewed as a soft metier of wingtips and canapes, in fact is an increasingly harsh grind of improvised explosive devices and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Foreign service personnel now stand shoulder to shoulder with U.S. troops protecting national security in so many inhospitable locales they could well brand themselves "soldiers without guns."

Of course, being a diplomat has always had its rigors. Two plaques in the lobby of the State Department honor diplomats who have died since 1780 in the line of duty from causes that range from yellow fever to shipwreck.

But in recent years, and especially since 9/11, diplomatic work has gotten more hazardous for two main reasons.

The most important is that the places where unarmed diplomats now serve are far more dangerous. Posts like Baghdad and Kabul, which in an earlier time would have been evacuated as too risky, have instead been bulked up into the largest U.S. embassies in the world, creating huge targets of opportunity.

Heavily armed insurgents attacked the U.S. embassy in Kabul exactly one year ago. Although no U.S. diplomats were killed, a rocket penetrated the embassy's wall in what was supposed to be the safest quarter of the city.

Those serving in the capitals of Iraq and Afghanistan actually have it good compared to foreign service personnel assigned to provincial reconstruction teams, which are essentially military outposts in sometimes far-flung corners of the countries. Without their weapons-toting military countrymen around them at all times, these diplomats would be toast.

The second reason diplomats find themselves on the receiving end of far more bombs than bonbons comes down to the inherent dilemma of practicing diplomacy in an increasingly unstable world.

Diplomats are paid and trained to make friends and influence people on behalf of the United States. You can't do that effectively from a fortress.

As New York Times writer Thomas Friedman has reported, in 2003 the U.S. moved its consulate from downtown Istanbul to a remote, fortified compound that Turks found hard to reach and very uninviting. Not exactly an ideal platform for winning hearts and minds.

But later that same year terrorists blew up the British consulate in Istanbul, which had remained downtown, killing 30 people, including the British consul general. Friedman reported that one of the terrorists later told police they really wanted to blow up the new U.S. consulate, but it was deemed too imposing.

The same thought process plays out around the world in the post-9/11 environment, even in places far from known trouble spots.

When I served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, I arrived in 2000 to find a beautiful new chancery with glass walls and a circular driveway built to bring Canadians to our front door.

By the time I left in 2004, post-9/11, the gate to the circular driveway had been chained shut for years, the glass was coated with a protective film, and two lanes of traffic on major thoroughfares had been closed off on either side of the building to give us more setback from a possible explosion.

Few Canadians ever get to the front door, much less peek inside the building.

Diplomats need to be able to interact with host country nationals to effectively defend U.S. security interests, and they need to do that in dicey places where those interests are threatened. But they also need to be protected.

Lean too far in the direction of engagement, and you might end up dead in a rocket attack, as Ambassador Stevens' death sadly reminds us.

Lean too far the other way, however, and you might as well run diplomacy by email and fax machine from Washington.

That might suit some members of Congress. But it certainly won't make us any safer.

Stephen R. Kelly is a visiting professor of the practice of public policy and Canadian studies, who served 28 years in the U.S. foreign service. This commentary was originally published in The Chicago Tribune on Sept. 14, 2011.