After Benghazi: Diplomacy With a State; War Within

FILE - In this Monday, April 11, 2011 file photo, U.S. envoy Chris Stevens, left, speaks with British envoy Christopher Prent
FILE - In this Monday, April 11, 2011 file photo, U.S. envoy Chris Stevens, left, speaks with British envoy Christopher Prentice, right, in the lobby of the Tibesty Hotel where an African Union delegation was meeting with opposition leaders in Benghazi, Libya. Libyan officials say the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans have been killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi by protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad. The officials say Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed Tuesday night when he and a group of embassy employees went to the consulate to try to evacuate staff. The protesters were firing gunshots and rocket propelled grenades.(AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

America's first diplomat, Benjamin Franklin, first set sail for Paris in 1776 to secure French support for a rebellious colony. Since then the United States has deployed foreign service officers, or FSO's, around the world to represent our nation's interests.

Unlike the days of fine wine, good cigars, and elegant receptions of Mr. Franklin's mission 236 years ago, modern diplomats face dangerous hardships. About 238 American diplomats have died in the course of carrying out their duties, or on average one per year since our independence.

From 1780, when FSO William Prior was lost at sea, up to today, our envoys have succumbed to natural disasters and tropical disease, and in at least 115 cases, been murdered, ambushed, lynched by mobs, hit by landmines, killed in gunfire, gone down in suspicious plane crashes, or been the victims of bomb and other attacks against our diplomatic missions. And this does not include the hundreds of locally engaged Foreign Service National staff who have given their lives in support of our missions. Most recently, the nation mourned the loss of our ambassador to Tripoli, Chris Stevens, and three of his colleagues, following a prolonged attack by armed groups against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Perhaps it was due to the particularly awful irony of Ambassador Stevens' death in a place to which he'd committed his heart, soul, and energies to liberating Libya's people from decades of cruel dictatorship that this tragic episode has generated unprecedented public sympathy for the dangerous environments in which our diplomats often operate. It has also aroused public debate regarding acceptable safety standards and circumstances for American diplomats and whether we should, in fact, even be in "those places." The answer from those of us who have served in the Foreign Service is an unequivocal, "Yes!" We should be there. We must be there.

Unlike the military, whose job it is to ensure force protection when deployed in hostile activity, our diplomats, if they are to be effective, must be mobilized continuously. The conduct of diplomacy runs the gamut from discreet exchanges in private to potentially provocative public stances calling for new forms of democratic governance in failed or nascent polities lacking either strong security apparatuses or the established, empowered central authorities to control them.

In this brave new context the 1961 Vienna Conventions, based on the premise of the equality of sovereign states, seem quaint to say the least, particularly Article 22 which guarantees the inviolability of diplomatic facilities. Clearly we must not abandon the mission even though these newly emerging nations do not have the wherewithal to provide such security.

The pointed question seems to be whether or how it is possible for the U.S. to conduct traditional diplomacy in countries in which we are both at nominal peace with host government and at war with elements of their citizenry.

In Yemen, for example, we support a post-Saleh government while we continue to conduct unilateral drone attacks against Al Qaeda elements of sympathizers within the country. Pakistan offers another example in which U.S. counterterrorism strikes inside Pakistan are deeply resented by the population and allied government.

In these circumstances, is there such thing as an adequately protected U.S. diplomatic mission? As a former FSO with long experience in the Near East quipped: "You can build a 16-foot wall, and someone will come with a 17-foot-high ladder."

Chris Stevens was doing what good diplomats, indeed what good intelligence officers and Peace Corps and development workers, have done through the years: mingling, listening, supporting, admonishing gently, and putting themselves at risk in the process. Our diplomats assume risk to promote broad acceptance of what we consider to be universal standards of human behavior that are at odds with traditional societies and institutions, or elements therein.

Our principles are sound, but our tactics should be examined. In transitional regions, we must rely on smaller, more agile missions, granting the ambassador greater control over the nature and size of his or her staff. While not minimizing the importance of personal contact, and the unspoken message our presence sends, we should engage NGOs and local platforms and deploy electrons in lieu of bodies whenever possible. We must be more Sun Tzu than Clausewitz, less bulky and bureaucratic, with the budgetary flexibility to change direction when need be and less reliant on embassy fortresses to secure our assets, even as we work to assist central authorities to build their security infrastructure. And perhaps it is time to take another look at our increasingly militaristic approach to international relations, driven to some degree by the fact that our enormously talented, competent military and its neatly measureable operational successes are politically easier to fund than the long, often messy slog of brick-making for building the foundations of civil society.

That said, we must accept a certain degree of risk, which has always been there. Patriots are prepared to pay a price, and despite the myth of the well-shod dandy, our diplomats have long dealt with violent death, disease, and displacement, and with soothing worried children whose hearts stop when they learn from CNN that the U.S. embassy where their parent is posted is under attack.

We must be prepared to continue to face the possibility of violence in our path, based on an inherent faith in the progression of the human being, of society, and with humble reflection on our own revolutionary experience. Just ask Ambassador Benjamin Franklin. It can be a painful and difficult path, but surely it is more honorable than the alternatives.