The Death of an Ambassador
Monday, September 17th 2012
It’s been less than a week since U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats were murdered in Libya, unprotected by Diplomatic Security in a notoriously unstable country. Yet six days after that chaotic night when our government didn't even know where Ambassador Stevens was for up to eight hours, until his body was found at a local hospital, the focus of much of the discussion of these events has been stuck on domestic politics rather than on questions such as: Where was our ambassador's security? Why was he in an unguarded consulate more than 400 miles from the embassy on the anniversary of 9/11? Why were they not better prepared?
Until shown otherwise, these murders have to be seen as fundamental security and intelligence failures by Diplomatic Security and INR, as well as by the secretary of state who oversees them. Since that night, credible reports have surfaced indicating that State Department officials were given advance warning that attacks were being planned. Yet even if that wasn’t true, one doesn't need an advance warning to know that in some countries in the Middle East – and Libya is certainly one of them – the anniversary of 9/11 is always a time for Americans and American diplomats to be extra vigilant. Now the world is watching our diplomats reducing their presence in several U.S. embassies in the Middle East because of security concerns.
Given these events, why aren’t those who mourn these victims demanding to know how and why their government failed them?
There is another sensitive but unavoidable issue that must be addressed. We can all agree that it is admirable for a diplomat to escape the confines of the embassy compound and mix with the local population when he or she can. But when he is the ambassador and he does this under dangerous conditions, he is putting not only his own life but also our national interests in jeopardy if he is killed or captured. This is obviously a touchy subject that has not been addressed much publicly yet, but it deserves attention.
What does all this have to do with public diplomacy? Simply this: A debate in this country about our interests and the security of our diplomats serving abroad sends one kind of message about our society’s values and priorities to international audiences. But a debate focused solely on domestic political disputes sends quite another.