Libya & Leaving The Fortress

A U.S. Marine stationed at Baghdad Embassy Compound in Iraq. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot.

What the assassination of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi means for the practice of diplomacy. 

On September 11th and 12th, 2012, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were slain at a diplomatic villa and a nearby security compound in Benghazi, Libya. The murder of Ambassador Stevens was the first successful assassination of an American ambassador in decades, and set off a Republican-led witch-hunt to assign blame for the lapse in security, potentially forging a death knell for the State Department’s recent “expeditionary diplomacy” initiatives.

In the wake of the tragedy, many conservative leaders pointed the finger at Secretary Clinton and President Obama for failing to anticipate the attack. The GOP also contended that the Department of State (DOS) provided inadequate security for Ambassador Stevens and his team and called for the further securitization of American embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The initial release of the Accountability Review Board report, the official administrative summary of the causes and consequences of the Benghazi incident, recommended that the DOS continue to buffer U.S. embassies, rather than increase security for those diplomats, such as Ambassador Stevens, who choose to operate outside of these “security-platforms.”

A history of embassy entrapment

The Republican proposal to increase the security of U.S. embassies in response to the Benghazi crisis is not without precedent. Since the late seventies, the threat to U.S. diplomatic personnel has increased exponentially; in response, the intense fortification of American consulates increased as well. In 1979, the State Department was rocked by the Iran hostage crisis in addition to the burning of U.S. Embassies in Islamabad and Tripoli. In 1983, the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut killed 63 people, including most of the CIA’s staff in the region. These tragic events led to the creation of the Inman Report, which called for new security benchmarks at all U.S. embassies.

The report’s recommendations included creating a “100-foot setback” from the perimeter of diplomatic complexes to their main buildings, as well as the relocation of U.S. embassies from capital cities to the more easily defensible suburbs.[1] According to Philip Giraldi, a former CIA Case Officer, the intent of the reforms was to transform American diplomatic outposts into modern fortresses that were both invasion and bomb proof.[2]

In 1998, the security of American Embassies was placed under further scrutiny after the bombing of the Embassy in Nairobi. The attack, executed by al-Qaeda, resulted in the death of 200 people, with more than 4000 injured. Over the past decade, these events, combined with the attacks on the World Trade Center, have resulted in the confinement of U.S. diplomatic personnel to heavily guarded compounds on the outskirts of major cities.

This functional entrapment of U.S. diplomats in isolated fortresses impedes U.S. foreign policy by preventing DOS personnel from engaging in cultural and individual discourse with local peoples, which is crucial to understanding and analyzing different regions. In the case of Yemen, Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to the country, notes that the secluded location of the embassy in Sana’a prevents American diplomats from forging the “essential relationships” with local actors that are critical to mitigating the risk of terrorism.[3] Joshua Polacheck, Senior Near Eastern Affairs Advisor to Ambassador Verveer, theorizes that this isolation directly led to the Western failure to anticipate the Arab Spring.[4]

Furthermore, the isolation of American officials in heavily fortified consulates may spark violence, rather than prevent it, as this isolation further entrenches the perception of a narcissistic U.S. that believes in its own exceptionalism. This may reinforce terrorist propaganda of a nefarious American empire that cares only for its own economic and political interests, as American diplomats chose to remain within their bunkers, rather than engage with local people. Likewise, this may also act to confirm the (disputably) unfounded foreign hatred of the United States and allows terrorists to rationally justify the murder of U.S. civilians.

Moreover, the lack of American engagement with isolated provinces, as a result of strict security requirements, may prevent Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) from dealing with the underlying grievances in host nations that instigate militarism in the first place. These include factors such as tension between tribal and local governments, water scarcity, and food shortages that could be addressed through outside intervention in the form of U.S. mediation of native governmental disputes and USAID training in resource conservation.

A shift in diplomatic tactics?

To rectify this trend, the Obama Administration has rolled out a new “Design Excellence” initiative for its Embassies and introduced the concept of “expeditionary diplomacy” into the foreign policy lexicon.

The Design Excellence initiative, created by the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations in 2011, aims to dispel the current image of U.S. embassies as unwelcoming, isolated fortresses by relocating and reimagining American diplomatic posts to befit the stature of a “freedom loving,” economically prosperous super power. The move represents the State Department’s first major non-security based redesign of embassy policy since 1954.[5] Though the program took many in the diplomatic community by surprise, the initiative has received overwhelmingly positive feedback thus far as it signals a recognition from the State Department it must not intimidate the overseas communities it intends to serve.

“Expeditionary diplomacy,” as defined by Ambassador James Bullington, is the concept of “making the U.S. government more effective in working with local partners…to prevent, contain, and end conflicts.” [6] Though the term was first coined during the Bush administration, the concept did not receive full funding until the stewardship of Secretary Clinton. The first iteration of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, published in 2009, recognized the need for the DOS to take a more active role in conflict-resolution, amid growing complaints from senior diplomatic officials.

In practice, expeditionary diplomacy entails the deployment of DOS personnel to potentially unstable regions to meet as many local leaders and organizations as possible, despite the security risks involved. Andy Wright, a former Associate Counsel to the President, describes the process as pushing “people out of the embassies and into the population—out of capitals and into the hinterland.”[7]

The concept of expeditionary diplomacy is born out of a school of thought that it is impossible to deal with growing threats to national security, such as the possibility of an unsuccessful Afghanistan transition, maritime conflict in East Asia, and instability in the Middle East without a strong diplomatic presence on the ground. Advocates for expeditionary diplomacy, such as Anthony Cordesman, the Strategy Chair at CSIS, believe we must have stronger, better-funded country teams in the regions of most need to ultimately meet our diplomatic goals.[8]

The mission in Benghazi—led by Ambassador Stevens—was one of the most prominent examples of expeditionary diplomacy conducted by the DOS in recent memory. Even though Ambassador Stevens understood the risks involved in leaving the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, he frequently chose to work out of the diplomatic villa in Benghazi because he believed he would have a much greater impact “closer to the action.”

One step forward, two steps back

Though the creation of the Design Excellence initiative and the shift towards expeditionary diplomacy represents positive steps for the DOS, the political storm created by the death of the Ambassador threatens to upset these very developments. In the wake of the attack, Congressional hearings into the tragedy devolved into a fiery political contest to score foreign policy points for Republicans rather than a lucid assessment of the assassination.

Rep. Issa (R-CA), the GOP point man on the Benghazi investigations, openly compared the attack to Watergate—in the hope of tarnishing the reputation of Secretary Clinton in anticipation of 2016. Furthermore, Kurt Bardella, a high profile staffer for Rep. Issa, recently penned an op-ed in the Huffington Post in which he blamed the Benghazi missions’ tag of expeditionary diplomacy as the root cause of the tragedy.[9]

Rather than recognize the need for increased funding for diplomatic security at forward deployed outposts such as the one in Benghazi, the GOP instead chose to publicly shame Near Eastern security advisors at the highest level. The harsh reprimanding of the officers involved potentially creates a “chilling effect” that deters other diplomatic security officers from making the high-risk decision to allow FSOs to “leave the chancery” and enter the field. This chilling effect will most likely reverse the work of the Obama administration to promote expeditionary diplomacy, as low-level security officers will actively avoid making the high-risk, high-reward decision to place their charges in potential danger, for fear of losing their careers.[10]

Although Ambassador Stevens’ death was undoubtedly a tragedy, there must be a recognition among Congressional officials, that for diplomacy to be effective, an element of risk must always be at play. According to Cordesman, when the diplomatic corps is most effectual, casualties will be inevitable. Ambassador Stevens understood that, and actively chose to leave the heavily guarded compound in Tripoli.[11]

Thus, the GOP-led Benghazi hearings threaten to not only roll back the diplomatic initiatives of the White House, but also ignore the fact that diplomacy is a dangerous business. The modern security paradigm of absolute security, though laudable, comes at the expense of a loss of mobility for our diplomatic corps. The best way to respond to the perceived threat to the United States in the 21st century is to more actively and effectively engage with the world, not to retreat further within our shell. In the end, though the deaths of a few FSOs may be prevented by the GOP’s new security proposals, America may find itself militarily intervening in a conflict that could have been avoided with a few more diplomats on the ground in the first place.

Note: The above is a longer version of an article I wrote for the Winter 2013 Print Edition of the Berkeley Political Review. The original is available via electronic access here.


[1]Can American Diplomacy Ever Come Out of Its Bunker?,” New York Times, November 14th 2012.

[2]The Myth of Embassy Security,” Philip Giraldi, October 2nd 2012. Philip Giraldi, Former CIA Case Officer; Writer for The American Conservative.

[3]BEYOND THE FORTRESS EMBASSY,” Foreign Service Journal, December 2012. Jane C. Loeffler, Diplomatic Architecture Historian.

[4]BUILDING THE BONDS OF TRUST,” Foreign Service Journal, December 2012. Joshua W. Polacheck, Senior Policy Adviser for Near Eastern affairs to Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer in the Office of Global Women’s Issues.

[5]BEYOND THE FORTRESS EMBASSY,” Foreign Service Journal, December 2012. Jane C. Loeffler, Diplomatic Architecture Historian.

[6]Expeditionary Diplomacy and the Casamance Conflict,” State Department Press Release, September 9th 2013. Ambassador James R. Bullington.

[7]Benghazi Oversight and the Death of Expeditionary Diplomacy,” Andy Wright, October 7th 2013. Andy Wright, Former Associate Counsel to the President, White House Counsel’s Office; Former Staff Director, National Security Subcommittee of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 111th & 112th Congress.

[8]The Death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, the Need for “Expeditionary Diplomacy,” and the Real Lessons for U.S. Diplomacy,” Anthony H. Cordesman, October 11th 2012. Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

[9]Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy and His ‘Expeditionary Diplomacy’ in Benghazi,” Kurt Bardella, September 18th 2013. Kurt Bardella, President, Endeavor Strategic Communications; Former Senior Advisor to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

[10] Benghazi Oversight and the Death of Expeditionary Diplomacy,” Andy Wright, October 7th 2013. Andy Wright, Former Associate Counsel to the President, White House Counsel’s Office; Former Staff Director, National Security Subcommittee of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 111th & 112th Congress.

[11] Ibid

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