When Egyptian rioters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, raising the black banners (and bizarrely enough, some were hiding behind Guy Fawkes’s now ubiquitous visage), the news was bad enough. A handful of well-financed cranks, advancing a deluded and hateful but crushingly unsurprising agenda, helped ignite a crisis in a critical U.S. partner. The Embassy’s security personnel managed to avoid harm to its staff or the exercise of deadly force (today, it seems, Egyptian internal security has finally showed up at the compound walls). Yet despite the presence of Egyptian security services in the area, the rioters still stormed the walls, desecrated the flag, and flaunted those of the country’s foes – all on nominally sovereign U.S. territory.
In Benghazi, the stronghold of a revolution that, with aid from America and its allies, toppled the murderous Gaddafi regime, worse fears came to pass. Beset by militants – let no media outlet utter again the ridiculous phrase “armed protesters” – firing automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades, U.S. personnel returned fire. An outmatched Libyan security force proved basically ineffectual. One U.S. diplomat died, at least another was wounded, and the whole consulate burnt to the ground after the mob finished looting it.
UPDATE: As I woke up to edit this, news broke reporting that in addition to a potential three additional U.S. deaths, a high-level official – possibly a Consul or even U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, died as a result of the assault there. This new information, if it is verified, makes this all the more urgent, and the record of warning signs below all the more troubling.
This was not, of course, the first attack on diplomats in free Benghazi. Militants fired rocket propelled grenades at British embassy vehicles, and bombed an Egyptian diplomat’s car. America’s Benghazi legation also suffered an IED attack. I discussed the apparent compromises with, or neglect of, Libya’s extremist armed groups in a previous post, when they were mostly focused on razing Sufi shrines. Today, the inability or unwillingness of the Libyan security forces to rein in these actors cost American diplomats their lives. The last Ambassador to die in duty was Adolph Dubs, the U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan, killed after a botched, hasty raid on his militant kidnappers in 1979. That same year, three American embassies – Tripoli, Tehran, and Islamabad – all suffered sieges. As in Tehran, there was a record of targeting foreign diplomats and officials (including by groups such as the MEK) before the siege. Unfortunately, the hindsight is too late.
What is to be done? The most obvious solution would be for the governments of Libya and Egypt to perform their diplomatic obligations and curb attacks on other countries’ diplomats. Yet compelling even a friendly government to conduct such a task when it disrupts transitional regimes’ relationships with violent, and powerful political actors, is a task difficult even when the government in question is deeply dependent on American largesse.
For those few for whom hasty (and later repudiated) Embassy press releases and tweets might tip the balance from violent assaults on American lives and sovereign soil to less ferocious forms of truculence, there is public diplomacy, information operations, and the “war of ideas” (which Adam critiques magnificently). For everyone else, there’s the Marine Corps. In addition to the Marine Security Guards at U.S. facilities, today’s Marines maintain FAST units – Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams and RRTs – Rapid Response Teams – to protect American officials, citizens, and interests abroad.
Far from being historically unprecedented, the Marines and Navy have long been the big stick that enables American diplomats to speak softly, and for merchantmen to go about their business peaceably. In the hundreds of military interventions from America’s founding to today, many concerned specifically the enforcement of widely recognized sovereign privileges. These were initially, and especially, the rights of maritime shipping, upon which global trade and diplomatic communication depended. Depredations against American merchantmen, murder of sailors, and piracy all earned swift and limited punitive action. Revolutionary upheaval prompted landings in defense of American lives and property.
When the Marine Corps hymn sings of the “shores of Tripoli,” they really mean Derne, in Cyrenaica, where Marines, supporting a Consular official leading an army of mercenaries, with the backing of American offshore power, hoisted an American flag over foreign shores. The goal was not to liberate Libya but to discourage its governments from violating America’s maritime rights.
Similarly as important and almost universally recognized, in both practice and law, as legitimate sovereign privileges, are the rights of diplomats. All these rights have limits, of course. In 1984, when anti-Gaddafi protesters surrounded the Libyan embassy, Britain sent police officers for crowd control. The Libyan officials inside decided to open fire on the crowd, killing WPC Yvonne Fletcher. Libya then used its diplomatic bags to smuggle the submachine gun out of the country. Diplomatic missions and associated officials have obligations to avoid interference with domestic affairs and especially breaches of the peace, and host governments have responsibilities to assist them in that task. When that becomes impossible, diplomatic missions have a right to repel offenses with violence.
Effective diplomacy demands the safety of diplomats. When diplomats feel they cannot leave the embassy, their professional duties suffer for it. In 1866, when bandits attacked the American consul in Newchwang, the USS Wachusett landed bluejackets to apprehend them. In the late 19th century, America landed forces in Samoa, Argentina, and Chile, in part to protect consular officials and properties – and these were acts where there were far more legitimate grievances about America’s role, such as its overt backing of rival partisans in the Chilean case. America landed also, in the early 20th century, to protect consular officials in Honduras, and even further aflung, in Syria and Abyssinia. America landed troops frequently in China throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, and defended legations in Korea frequently. In more modern times, George H.W. Bush deployed military forces to defend and evacuate U.S. diplomatic facilities in Africa, the Balkans, and Latin America.
The U.S. may not need be as audacious in its expeditions now, particularly since in the case of Egypt and Libya, the U.S. diplomatic presence is, however influential, nowhere near as powerful in each country’s internal political situation as America’s legations were in say, Latin America or the Pacific during the early 20th century. Yet the U.S. must remain willing to deploy the Marines as precautionary measures, and it must be willing to defend its diplomatic personnel with lethal force. While questions of punitive expeditions are more complicated, the use of military force in the defense of nigh-universally recognized sovereign rights is a principle in keeping with American interests, history, and its proper comportment under international law and state practice.
The alternative to effectively securing American diplomats through traditional means is not pretty. The rise of private security contractors owe much of their current prominence in part to this fact. After the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing, private contractors took increasingly large roles in providing facility security, with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security hiring contractors in 1994 to protect State Department personnel in Haiti. Expanding the role of the State Department sounds well and good, but a more robust diplomatic presence requires security, and when military forces are unavailable, private contractors fill that gap, to frequently problematic results.
So, if and when the U.S. Department of State returns in full force to Libya, it may again be bringing a few hundred mercenaries with it – not to overthrow the government, but to keep its lack of will or martial capability from threatening its ability to maintain a presence in the country. The complement, or worse, the alternative, will likely be diplomatic missions – and their clandestine counterparts who rely on diplomatic covers – even less willing to leave the facility, less willing to engage with the local population, and less effective at actually doing the job of professional diplomacy (or intelligence collection and covert operations, as the case may be).
It is far too early to reasonably outline any kind of punitive measures for what has occurred now. In theory, the bulk of the work of securing cities for diplomats will fall to host governments. Yet it is manifestly unclear how or how soon governments such as Libya’s, (particularly given the almost total denial of reality some Libyan spokesmen have evinced by blaming these acts on Gaddafi bittereinders) can adequately secure these facilities, or if they really have the will to prioritize them.
In the past, offenses such as these – even against, say, sailors of naval vessels – prompted a punitive expeditions against non-state groups such as bandits or partisans, followed by the imposition of an indemnity on the government for the U.S.’s troubles. In Libya, nothing so dramatic is likely to occur. Yet the capability to rapidly respond to evacuate or assist State Department officials under threat will remain essential, even if the full expeditionary power of a Joint Task Force or MAGTF is unlikely to be unleashed.
The readiness to defend American diplomatic rights is a cornerstone of American foreign policy. The strength of the State Department is bolstered, not detracted, by deterring power of the limited military detachments which accompany it and stand over the horizon to defend it. The more that deterrent and security is weakened, the less able the State Department can operate safely and effectively without a growing reliance on private security or other measures. Regardless of what policy options should or do play out in Libya, the US Department of State – together with its colleagues in the USMC – ought ensure that anyone contemplating to forcibly enter our legations or partake in an open season on our diplomats do so only with a great and well-founded fear for their lives.
Lastly, and perhaps most striking, is something Joshua Foust reminded me of on Twitter today – since World War II, more Ambassadors have died in the line of duty than general officers. During many years of American history since, it has arguably even been more dangerous to be a member of the Foreign Service than the Armed Forces. The complexity and difficulty of protecting diplomatic personnel, as outlined above, leaves them in a deeply vulnerable situation. Responsible for the constant maintenance and crafting of the vast and inscrutable beast that is U.S. foreign policy, they assume serious amounts of personal risk, knowing that by the nature of their trade they must leave themselves exposed, and that the very nature of their profession will inherently constrain what their country can do to save them in an hour of need. In theory they are protected by inviolable sovereign rights and centuries of diplomatic tradition. In reality, the options for the Marines attached to the legations will always be circumscribed by the foreign policy considerations those they protect serve to advance. With the enormous amount of risk State Department civilians face, it is imperative the military components supporting the State Department ensure they retain the capability to protect those rights if called upon, and deter breaches of those rights so they need not be called upon in the first place – and it is also imperative that policymakers give them an effective mandate to support those missions. They fight so that we might not lose men such as Ambassador Chris Stevens and Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and it appears in Benghazi, some lay down their lives to do so.