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December 24, 2012

After Benghazi, reassessing the risk of America’s ambassadors

Some say there’s such a thing as too much security.

Soon — perhaps very soon — the Syrian government of Bashar Assad will fall. On that day, and for months after, Damascus will probably be a disorderly and dangerous place, a risky place for American diplomats to be.

So who wants to go there? American diplomats, that’s who.

“We have to be there,” said Ronald Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan. “It’s an important place. To understand what’s going on and to make sound policy, we will need to be in contact with people on the ground. The alternative is to cede influence to Iran and Hezbollah and other people we’re not fond of.”

It’s not surprising that the State Department panel investigating the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens in Libya in September concluded that the department’s security measures in Benghazi were “grossly inadequate.” And it’s not surprising that the remedy proposed was to tighten security at every embassy and consulate in harm’s way.

But what might be surprising are the voices warning that there’s such a thing as too much security: the ambassadors themselves — the men and women who are taking the risks.

American diplomats think they’re already hamstrung by some security restrictions that prevent them from doing their jobs the way they’d like. They worry that the reaction to Stevens’ death has been disproportionate, not only regarding the political question of what the Obama administration said about the incident during the campaign but also the desire to keep diplomats safe at any cost.

“A zero casualty standard isn’t achievable in the real world,” said Neumann, who now runs the American Academy of Diplomacy, a nonprofit organization. “You can’t advance our national interest and our diplomatic goals if you bottle us up and make us stupid.”

He’s only one of many former ambassadors who have expressed similar concerns in recent weeks.

“One of the lessons I hope we don’t think we learned [from Benghazi] is: Let’s retrench … let’s go out less; let’s know less,” said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, who knew Stevens well. “That would be a horrible way to acknowledge Chris’ sacrifice.”

I talked with several active-duty diplomats who said they agree but were reluctant to be identified because the issue is so sensitive now.

“You can’t do the job properly without taking risks,” an ambassador who knew Stevens told me. “It’s actually a miracle we haven’t lost more people.”

The life of a U.S. ambassador these days, he said, can be like living in a bubble. Diplomats may spend much of their time in heavily guarded embassy compounds, insulated from the real world by high blast walls. They travel in armored vehicles surrounded by armed bodyguards. Their opportunities to encounter ordinary people in normal life — in marketplaces, restaurants or homes — are almost nonexistent.

Most of those constraints are unavoidable, of course, in a world where terrorist groups would like nothing better than to kidnap or kill U.S. diplomats. Nobody’s arguing that risks should be ignored or that security spending should be reduced.

So what are these danger-hungry diplomats asking for?

The leeway to make their own decisions — including the freedom to make mistakes now and then.

“It’s important that people on the ground make these decisions, and that we live with the decisions even when they go bad,” said Neumann, who noted that he carried a pistol in the 1980s as a diplomat in Yemen — no bodyguards in those days. “If you ask for a decision from Washington, the answer will always be no.”

The panel noted that Stevens decided to leave the embassy in Tripoli to go to Benghazi, even though he had reported to Washington that the city was plagued by a “security vacuum.”

“His status as the leading U.S. government advocate on Libya policy and his expertise on Benghazi in particular caused Washington to give unusual deference to his judgments,” the panel reported.

That sounds like a criticism, but the ambassadors I spoke with said they hoped it wouldn’t prompt the bureaucracy to overrule diplomats in the field in the future.

“He knew the dangers; he knew the risks,” Crocker said at a meeting sponsored by the Middle East Institute last month. “He did not take unnecessary chances.”

The inquiries into the Benghazi incident aren’t over. Congress’ intelligence committees are still trying to unravel why the Obama administration said the attack began as a spontaneous demonstration (the answer so far: That’s what initial reports said) and why the White House didn’t mention the role of al-Qaida (answer: The CIA wanted to keep that secret).

The main request from some of our best diplomats is that we stop treating this failure of security as if it were a scandal. After all, they say, it’s almost certain to happen again.

“We’ve had ambassadors killed in the past and we didn’t get all hyper,” Neumann complained. “Sometimes a decision is going to turn out to be wrong. And sometimes you may just be unlucky.”

“Yes, we’ll lose some; that’s a tragedy,” Crocker said. “[But] if we’re doing our jobs right, we’re going to run that risk.”

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Contact him at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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