Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed in Benghazi by an enraged mob of religious fanatics, gave his life for his country and in the pursuit of his profession. He became the latest U.S. diplomat killed in the line of duty, a fate that has befallen more ambassadors than generals since the end of World War II. It’s a dangerous trade.
That is especially true in a country such as Libya, where the fall of the Gaddafi regime has created a power vacuum and the populace has ready access to powerful weapons. The rocket propelled grenade that shattered Ambassador Stevens’s armored SUV is designed to destroy tanks. He and the other three U.S. citizens in the vehicle had no chance.
Ambassador Stevens, whom I did not know, surely realized that he would encounter risks on this trip. A fluent Arabic speaker, he had been in Libya since the civil war and had witnessed the deterioration in public order. He was in the consulate in Benghazi, over four-hundred miles away from the better-fortified embassy in the capital of Tripoli. It was September 11, a day that has a special resonance among Muslim militants. And the film that ridiculed the Prophet Mohammad, which even moderate Muslims would regard as blasphemous, had become a staple on YouTube.
Still, he decided to go. Like all dedicated U.S. diplomats, he knew that to understand a country and its culture, to report accurately to Washington, and to promote effectively U.S. policies, he had to engage the people, in provincial cities and small villages as well as the capital.
Ambassador Stevens no doubt had ample security, and the level of security was determined by intelligence reports and the likelihood of violence. But ultimately all diplomats from every country must depend on the local government for their protection. When that government cannot, or refuses to, respond, as was the case with our embassy in Teheran in 1979, the situation becomes plainly hopeless for those in the diplomatic compound.
The dozen or so Marines in the embassy serve primarily to provide internal security and only as a last resort to defend the building itself. Diplomatic security agents, often in coordination with local police forces, are responsible for the safety and welfare of all embassy personnel and for the personal protection of the ambassador. But, again, although brave and well trained, they are few in number.
When I was ambassador to Nicaragua in 2009, the State Department publicly criticized President Daniel Ortega for manipulating the constitution to allow for his reelection. In a televised speech a few days later I repeated our concerns.
The following morning a group of a couple of hundred demonstrators gathered in front of the embassy. Judging from the professionally made signs and placards, it was hardly spontaneous. They jeered and hollered but, except for a few teenaged agitators, seemed to be there because they were told to be there.
The embassy’s diplomatic security officer called the police and asked for protection. Eight poorly equipped policemen arrived. Around noon, the demonstration dissipated. We sent all the Nicaraguan employees and many Americans home and made fast the embassy defenses.
Then a larger group, perhaps five-hundred strong, arrived in the early afternoon. The tone now was uglier, the demonstrators angrier and more animated. They began throwing rocks and firing projectiles through metal tubes they called mortars. They defaced signs, scrawled graffiti on the walls, and broke windows. Diplomatic security requested that police dispatch the riot squad, but the police did not act.
It was then that it became apparent to us how vulnerable we were, and how quickly a sizable mob of impassioned protestors can turn violent. I called the chief of police and demanded that she send immediately a large contingent of police. I reminded her of Nicaragua’s commitments under the Vienna Accords, which requires that host countries protect diplomatic missions, and noted that my government would take seriously any lapse in this regard.
At last the riot police arrived in force. They wore helmets, carried shields and truncheons, and kept the demonstrators at bay, often in hand-to-hand scuffles. The foreign minister phoned and informed me that the president himself had ordered the police deployment. He then assured me that the government would take every measure to protect the embassy and its employees, which they did, albeit belatedly. The demonstrators drifted away. The crisis passed.
As this was happening in Managua the State Department in Washington maintained an open telephone line with the embassy, offering us advice and assistance. For the State Department, the safety of its employees is a near obsession. Wherever I served, from battle-scared Baghdad to tranquil Rome, security was paramount. It costs the State Department many hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
But security can never be absolute or infallible, no matter the place. Weapons are widely available. Travel is easy and cheap. The United States is a symbol and misguided people everywhere can imagine slights and invent grudges.
This does not, however, discharge diplomats from their obligation to take risks to promote the United States’ interests. We understand the imperative. We accept the challenge.
Christopher Stevens and his three compatriots did, and they died as American heroes.
Ambassador Robert J. Callahan is a retired career foreign service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008 to 2011.
This opinion article was first published by the Chicago Tribune and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.