Why you should care

Because diplomats are one of the keys to stopping and preventing war.

The accusations and howls of conspiracy started almost immediately after a group of Libyans stormed U.S. compounds in Benghazi in September 2012, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Amid the political clashes, one point of agreement emerged: We need to beef up security for diplomats abroad. Bunkerize ’em! went the call.

It was an understandable reaction — Stevens’ death was undoubtedly tragic. But there is a risk inherent to his job, which involved mixing it up with locals, exchanging information and ideas and breaking bread with locals, or at least mingling with them. Which is why the embassies where foreign service officers work should project openness and accessibility — “the front door for U.S. diplomacy,” as Secretary of State John Kerry put it in 2013. There is a balance to this business, but we’ve taken the bunker mentality too far. Keeping foreign service officers locked up behind 8-foot-thick walls might keep them alive, but it portends the death of real diplomacy. At best, they can’t quite do their jobs. At worst, handcuffed diplomats make Americans everywhere unsafe.

The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, for instance, is charged with ensuring American aid — some $100 billion of it — is being used for the correct purpose. But without the ability to leave the base, SIGAR can’t go and check whether there are actually teachers in schools or soldiers showing up to training, says Inspector General John Sopko. Instead, it outsources the intel to private groups, one of which reported, for instance, that warlords were taking salaries meant for teachers. Sopko says that if his team “can’t leave the embassy, our mission will probably fail and the insurgents will win.”

Diplomats know their job is risky — and that is part of the appeal.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, marked a shift in how the United States thinks about security. But the real watershed in the annals of consular architecture was the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Before that, the State Department commissioned renowned architects, like Walter Gropius and Eero Saarninen, to design buildings that were sometimes controversial but always took aesthetics and accessibility into account. Afterward, a sort of embassy-bunker complex took root, and it affected not only the security of the buildings — including how far they should be set back and what they should be made of — but also where they are located. The result is often counterproductive. The U.S. Embassy in Haiti, for instance, recently relocated from downtown Port-au-Prince to a suburb that is far from where most Haitians live but close to the airport. When architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote about the new London embassy, the headline was A New Fort, er, Embassy, for London.

That new fortress, by the way, is projected to cost $1 billion. It’s a lot of money to be putting into an office building for people who sit around pushing paper. OK, we exaggerate, but the point is: If we’re not going to let diplomats do their job, why even station them abroad?

A State Department official told us that it “constantly assesses security needs,” and “prioritizes the safety and welfare of its personnel.” But at what cost? Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, tells us that diplomats’ No. 1 complaint is that they don’t have enough freedom to do their job outside compound walls. “The best, most effective of them want to get out and about in town,” he says. Indeed, diplomats know their job is risky — and that is part of the appeal. No one is arguing that we should expose diplomats to unwarranted dangers, but there is a risk of going overboard. As Sopko, of SIGAR, puts it: “We’ve got to be careful, but not fearful.”

Right now, we’re doing more of the latter.

Are we putting our foreign service officers at risk by locking them up?

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