Brit-Yank journalist & environment consultant.
Fellow @ Center for Climate & Security, TED fellow, Reporting @NatGeo, @NYT, @bbc etc
CAIRO — The U.S. embassy in Cairo is a forbidding-looking fortress. Its imposing concrete blast walls are visible for miles, and cast an ugly shadow over a cluster of surrounding villas. Flanked on all sides by edgy soldiers in body armor and camouflage uniforms, the atmosphere can scarcely be called welcoming.
For diplomatic personnel posted across the Middle East, the security protocols are often no less daunting. Many are shuttled from their offices to their homes in armored vans with tinted windows. When the U.S. ambassador to Cairo’s car emerges onto one of the capital’s main drags, city police block lanes and back up traffic as they hustle to facilitate the convoy’s passage.
Given recent events, the U.S. instinct to wrap its foreign representatives in cotton wool is somewhat understandable. The mission in Cairo — considered relatively safe by regional standards — was attacked by a mob and the site of the stabbing of a U.S. citizen in the last four years alone. The list of assaults on State Department posts around the world runs long and lethal.
But to those who puzzle over Washington’s erratic foreign policy in these parts, this safety-centric tack has much to answer for.
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Foreign Service officers (FSOs) have become so encumbered with restrictions that many have little opportunity to immerse themselves in their host country’s environment. Many young diplomats I spoke with have such a hard time collecting information and reporting home that a number of them wonder: What’s the point of me even being here?
“I could do almost everything I’m able to do here from home in the states with Skype,” a young diplomat at an embassy in the Arabian Peninsula, told me on the condition of anonymity.
Neither he nor the half dozen other serving FSOs interviewed would discuss security issues on-the-record. The diplomatic security team at the State Department in Washington D.C. declined to comment.
The implications of this retreat behind high walls are particularly frightening at a time when the U.S is once more maximizing its influence in the region.
“It’s as if the American giant has put a hand over one eye, and a hand over half the other eye, and is sort of wondering mostly eyeless,” said Robert Springborg, professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a former USAID consultant in the Middle East.
If Washington decision makers sometimes appear to be acting on incomplete information, that’s possibly because they are.
Some Egypt-based commentators wondered aloud whether it was the U.S.’s apparent failure to fully appreciate the unpopularity of now-deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi that left the Obama administration unduly surprised by his swift downfall in 2013.
Had the U.S. embassy in Cairo — which frequently shut down amid turbulence in nearby Tahrir Square — been freer to dispatch diplomats far and wide, they arguably may have gleaned a better sense of the chaos to come.
In Libya, where the U.S. has lacked a serious presence on the ground for several years, some former FSOs suspect that the diplomatic mission’s quick withdrawal following the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012 left Washington with gaps in its understanding of local dynamics. The decision could well have led to flaws in the U.N.-brokered scheme to reconcile warring factions.
“There is a profound lack of clarity outside Libya regarding the main actors, their agendas, and their backers,” said Ethan Chorin, who served in Tripoli before former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi’s toppling. Chorin returned to Libya a few years later to help build a medical capacity, and was in Benghazi on the night of the attack.
“Things were far from simple at the time of the 2011 revolution, but some problems might have been addressed, and even controlled, if there had been much greater multilateral engagement on local security and development early on.”
According to Chorin, the short duration of diplomatic postings at higher risk posts and the lack of free access to local sources adds to the problem. “It’s not an easy job, there’s no doubt about it.”
And then there’s Lebanon, which remains one of the most egregious examples of the U.S undermining its information-gathering capabilities.
Diplomats here — as in places like Khartoum — are marooned far away from the action, in a compound in the hills above Beirut. Given the difficulty of sneaking out of the compound without a conspicuous security detail, Washington’s representatives appear to have a very limited ability to interact with most local political players and have lost touch with the country at large.
“You can only really meet those who are willing to come to the embassy. You’re only meeting your friends, so to speak,” Robert Springborg said.
None of this, of course, is to say that diplomats and embassies across the Arab World and beyond don’t have good reason to take serious precautions.
Ever since a suicide bomber tore through the old American embassy in Beirut in 1983 killing 49 embassy staff, followed by the bombing of the replacement embassy a year later, American diplomatic facilities in the Middle East have been high on terrorists’ target lists.
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Even the most ardent critics of the U.S.’s stringent safety precautions concede that the threat level is significantly greater now than ever before.
Past and current FSOs are also quick to point out that D.C. hasn’t completely doubled down on risk aversion, as the memorial to diplomats who’ve died in the line of duty that stands at the State Department’s C Street entrance indicates. They say they do sometimes rebel against excessive security measures when the occasion demands.
“We would push back if we felt the restrictions were overly onerous,” said one diplomat at an embassy in the African Sahel.
At the very least, Washington does appear to be better informed now than it was under the Bush administration. “At one point, Under Secretary [of State for Political Affairs] Grossman told a gathering of U.S. ambassadors not to bother reporting; State already knew everything it needed to know,” said John M. Evans, a former ambassador to Armenia.
But when the process for U.S immigration applications in Beirut grinds to a halt because accommodation at the embassy compound is being renovated and other options are considered unsafe for visiting officials; when work at the American mission in Kabul slows to a crawl as travel by land is deemed too dangerous; and, significantly, when locals come to see U.S. protective procedures as an extension of D.C.’s overbearing ways, at a time when the America’s reputation in the region is already at a low ebb — then it becomes quite clear that the balance between security and FSOs’ capacity to do their jobs has been irretrievably undermined.
Even in Central Cairo, where residents have grown used to heavily guarded convoys darting in and out of the Ministries of Justice and Interior, the U.S. embassy security footprint is keenly felt. “Is that really necessary?” muttered an employee at an electronics store steps from the U.S embassy in Cairo, as several heavy 4 x 4s with green diplomatic plates tore out of a side street amid a screech of churning tires.
Legend has it that until recently, third secretaries at British embassies were ordered to leave their desks, spend time in the city and patronize tearooms, while periodically writing up their experiences. While this might no longer be possible for their American counterparts, the evidence would suggest that there’s a middle ground that some embassy security officers have long since left behind.
“If you let the insurance people take all the decisions, you’re never going to do anything because everything involves at least some risk,” said Springborg. “But put simply: How can you do your job as a government official if you can’t get out of your office?”