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Security-Paralyzed Diplomacy: An Internal Critic Attacks Our Barricaded Embassies

As we meditate on the lessons of our failure in Afghanistan, one that’s easy to diagnose is the isolation of the American State Department presence there. In Afghanistan—and Iraq, Pakistan, and even in Libya, where it can be argued there is no threat to our personnel—American diplomats are unable to travel on short notice or using ordinary cars. Typically our consulates and embassies are highly fortified compounds in remote suburbs.  Even for an American citizen, getting inside the Kabul embassy is a big deal, involving a quarter mile walk to the first checkpoint, an airport-style security check, and the surrender of one’s mobile phone at the security desk. 

As for getting out—forget about it! Our diplomats are often required to travel by armored cars, usually in scarce supply, which makes it difficult for them to get outside and actually learn what’s going on in the country. In many places, they have to give travel plans to their security chief 48 hours in advance, making it almost impossible to react to events in real time, much less to shape them. While such constraints often hinder most nations’ diplomats, American officials face particularly stringent rules.

Luckily, a few of them seem inclined to do something about it.

On June 26th, a young diplomat I know, Josh Polacheck, received a reward for “constructive dissent” from the State Department’s union, the American Foreign Service Association, for arguing internally against the fortress mentality. Joshua, who has served in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Iraq, and speaks fluent Arabic, explained the situation over brunch in New York this Sunday.

“The problem is, we have reasonable degrees of security going from, say, level one to five. And then it jumps to eleven. When I was recently in Tunisia and Morocco with my boss, we traveled in normal cars. But [in] other countries, like Yemen and Lebanon, we move around in armored cars, often with bodyguards.”

In other words, we are treating countries, especially Islamic ones, going through revolutionary change as if they are terrorist free-fire zones. I should know. I tried to meet with some State experts in Tripoli this spring, only to run against the armored-car and advance notice issues.

How do we change this situation? Polacheck has argued for an internal dialogue within the State Department. Our elected representatives in Congress need to take up the issue as well. The General Accounting Office should study whether the (enormous) expenditure for security for our diplomats is rational or cost-effective, and Congress should debate the wisdom of the tradeoff we are making.

As Polacheck is quick to note, there will be hell to pay if rules are relaxed and a tragedy occurs. But it seems that such incidents happen from time to time no matter what we do, and sometimes in places considered safe. Such is the reality in a world where terrorism is a part of the fabric of life. But our ability to defeat the terrorists is badly degraded by forcing our diplomats to cower behind blast walls and guess at the conditions on which they are supposed to be experts. 

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