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[Author Kenneth Stammerman]Author Kenneth Stammerman, shown above with US troops at Dhahran,Saudi Arabia, retired in 1994 as a senior U.S. Foreign Service officer after a career spanning twenty-seven years, much of that time dealing with the Middle East. He took up his post as American consul general in Dhahran just before operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Mr. Stammerman now writes and lectures on international affairs and economics. In the wake of the terrorist bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, he led a most interesting email discussion of terrorism’s implication for the conduct of diplomacy in the Reader’s Forum of our Summer issue. – Ed.


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American Diplomacy

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Conducting Diplomacy
in the
Age of Terrorism

By Kenneth Stammerman

The recent bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are not the first such murderous attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions by terrorists. They are an escalation of the targeting by Middle East-based terrorists from our more or less hardened facilities in that region to our more vulnerable missions elsewhere. Experienced Near East and South Asia Bureau (NEA) officers learned long ago that the terrorists of the Osama bin Ladin stripe will be with us for the rest of our lives, and many have learned to adjust their conduct of diplomacy accordingly. The days of the open embassy are gone. The rubble of our embassy in Beirut, the plaque honoring the bombing dead in our embassy in Kuwait, the names of those who have given their lives through the years on the wall in the Department of State lobby, and now the lost innocent lives in the African bombings — all these tell every ambassador, deputy chief of mission (DCM), and regional security officer (RSO) that their embassies are vulnerable.

What are the implications of living and working in this kind of environment? Some op-ed pieces I have read, and some conversations I have had with officers from less risky times and places, look on U.S. missions ideally as open embassies, welcoming the public and our contacts into an island of American life and culture abroad. These same commentators recoil at the idea of living and working in ugly fortress-style edifices, which, while secure, could isolate the embassy and its personnel from the local citizenry.

I would argue that the conduct of diplomacy in such environments, while different, is no more difficult.

In a career spent mostly in NEA missions, I saw the change in the way we conducted diplomacy, often successfully, as our external security circumstances steadily worsened over the years. In the late 1960s, as acting RSO (that’s one job the junior officers had in those days, since it mostly meant working with the Marines on handling routine security violations) I had the task of taking photos of explosives being removed by a local bomb-squad from a satchel charge left in the USIS library of one of our NEA embassies. By the time I was again posted to an embassy in that area, in the ‘70s, we had moved to a harder stance with tight searches of people entering the embassy. Setbacks were not yet in vogue, though the inconvenience of the tight access control meant that we and our contacts learned to meet more often outside the embassy than inside it, and the USIS library was no longer located at the embassy.

After Teheran and Beirut everything changed. My next post abroad was at Embassy Kuwait in 1987. With the Iran/Iraq War raging just to the north, domestic terrorism, which spilled over into Kuwait from either side in that war and from elsewhere in the region, meant local bombings occasionally added to the steady pounding which shook the walls from the artillery barrages just to our north. I was on the embassy security committee and with the embassy still recovering from its bombing in 1983, security rated a very high priority in everything we did. The embassy compound in Kuwait was isolated, with a big setback; it was a bit shabby and fairly secure, although there were inherent problems with the location which could not be solved until a new location was found. But a new location would cost money, which the usual penny pinchers in State and on Capitol Hill were loathe to spend. (The main security issue which interested the Department about our embassy in those days was whether the embassy employees’ association had pirated tapes in its inventory, so a lot of responsibility fell on our RSO and the embassy leadership to deal with the real local security issues.)

Khobar Towers, Dhahran
A brutal terrorist attack on a US-led peacekeeping force in Dhahran left 19 dead and hundreds injured.

In 1989, I moved to Dharan as consul general, where we had a reasonably secure setback, but facilities which we felt were very vulnerable, especially after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait brought a security threat much closer to the consulate general. We were very fortunate in having a host government in Saudi Arabia which shared our concerns and which committed forces and materièl to beef up our external security in a manner which the Department’s Diplomatic Security (DS) Bureau could not even contemplate doing on its own. One wonders, however, whether DS ever understood the risks — they were constantly trying to downgrade the threat ratings of our diplomatic facilities in the Gulf, presumably on budget grounds. Those attempts and corresponding attitudes toward security were a penny wise tactic by Washington-based careerists which has been the bane of effective security practice in the State Department for years.

NEA officers have learned to conduct effective diplomacy in such environments over the years. I mention briefly below a few guidelines, though I am sure that other officers with experience in high-threat areas could add their own.

  • First, treat the embassy environment as a place to perform office tasks. It is not where the Foreign Service officer conducts diplomacy. It’s nice to take the occasional visitor past the flag and the Marine and to call on the ambassador or consul general in the spacious office. But tight access controls mean that that visitor will have his or her car searched, will pass through metal detectors, and will be subject to personal search. In Kuwait and Dharan, I always walked through with important visitors, to show that I got “wanded” too if I had metal on me. (On one occasion, a high ranking Saudi and I had a laugh when I told him about our no weapons rule: we had his retinue wait outside the consulate building because the amount of weapons they were carrying would have made an embarrassingly high stack of guns at the Marine station.)

    Embassy architecture should rate as efficient and secure — above all, secure. Aesthetic considerations are nice, but are ‘way down the list of priorities. Those who want a tradeoff in favor of appearances over security should count the lives they are willing to spend.

    Having an office in a secure embassy is no good reason for a diplomat to spend all his or her time there. In Kuwait, for example, much of the emirate’s political, business, and social life takes place in the diwanniyas of the leading families, the extended family gatherings held weekly at the homes of local patriarchs. In the late 1980s, the four senior officers of the embassy, Ambassador Howell, the DCM, and economic and political officers, were regular visitors at those gatherings.

  • Second, the diplomat must know the local culture to appreciate the security situation. In Kuwait, I had no hesitation in bringing the ambassador to visit diwanniyas of the most pro-Iranian local families, even those with regular visitors from Iran, nor to gatherings of those who bitterly disagreed with our position on the Palestinian question. It made for lively debate, but the local code of manners meant that as guests we were perfectly safe. And maybe we all learned something from each other. In the same way, at Dharan, I had no problem driving past Saudi National Guard checkpoints into Shia villages to meet contacts in the Eastern Province, in areas which had not many years earlier been in armed rebellion against forces supplied and trained by the United States. Again, the diplomat has to know the local culture. In the pathways of the Shia oases, I was the guest of people who would guarantee my life with theirs and those of their families. I recognize, however, that there are cultures elsewhere in the world in which kidnapping is rampant, so diplomats have to adjust their security precautions appropriately.
  • Third, diplomats need not fear the consequences of retaliation against terrorists. Foreign Service personnel are safer when our enemies learn that killing innocents at embassies carries a hefty price. Diplomats not only need to disregard the usual pro forma notices from DS for all officers to be on guard (as if Foreign Service personnel ever are not!) when our military forces exercise the right of self-defense against terror; diplomats should also aggressively move into the community and make the point to their contacts that terrorism has no place among civilized peoples. It is through such aggressive and open conduct of diplomacy that the Foreign Service demonstrates an unwillingness to be cowed by the cowardly acts of bloody minded fanatics, and in doing so, recruits allies to a common cause. Moving back unnecessarily into a perimeter and staying there rewards the terrorists. Beirut was a disaster in more ways than one.

    Diplomatic personnel can never be absolutely safe from a determined enemy, but the cost of attacking them can be increased, and it is possible to make embassy and consular facilities harder to hit than other available targets, which gives employees and their families an edge. At my last overseas post, Dhahran, the greatest danger we faced was not locally-based attacks on our facilities, thanks to our own precautions and the efforts by our Saudi friends, but attacks by Iraqi missiles during the war. At one point, several of us were caught in the open while returning from putting Americans from the local business community on board evacuation planes, when an exchange between an incoming scud and an intercepting Patriot missile caused an explosion nearly over the compound, leaving us to run across a plaza while bits of metal showered nearby. That kind of terror attack the Foreign Service cannot defend against. But the Iraqis ended up paying, and dearly.

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