In Libya and Elsewhere, Our Diplomats Deserve Better
THERE is a black wall in a State Department lobby inscribed with the names of those who died while serving overseas. Every time I passed that wall after Al Qaeda blew up two American Embassies in East Africa in 1998, I thought of the 12 American and 32 Kenyan friends and colleagues who died on my watch as ambassador. I thought of my own journey that day down flights of stairs in the building next door to the embassy, after having been knocked out by the blast, of the people who risked their lives to save others, and of how we carried on under horrendous circumstances.
Now every time I pass the black marble wall, I will think of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his colleagues who died after an attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, this week.
Diplomats don’t often make headlines until something horrible happens. Even then, it is policy and politics that get the attention. We had barely learned of the attack before talking heads began to expound on Middle East policies and the words administration officials used, or should have used, to uphold our national dignity. Where were the conversations about the diplomats who were actually carrying out those policies in faraway, often dangerous places, the people who take care of us despite the hardship and risk? Imagine what it must have been like trying to escape the raging fire in the Benghazi consulate or enduring hours of assault in the nearby annex waiting for relief from the Libyan government.
Diplomacy is a dangerous profession. You cannot exert influence by whispering in diplomatic code to your government counterparts behind closed doors. You do not spread American values — especially in places where passions are high, governments fragile and guns plentiful — by remote control from Washington. You have to get out from behind the walls and engage with people. We know this can put us in harm’s way; our people in the Benghazi consulate knew it. And they did their jobs anyway.
That is because, hokey as it sounds, the people who represent us overseas really do believe they can make a difference. They confront violent behavior and strong passions with American leadership, smart power and peaceful means.
We must make that work safer.