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Security for Those on Front Line

By Bruce Laingen / August 19, 1998



I first knew the US ambassador in Nairobi, Prudence Bushnell, when she was a young girl living in Karachi, Pakistan in the early 1960s - her parents assigned, as was I, to the American embassy. The United States had just built a handsome new chancery there designed to be open and welcoming in the style of the time.

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Within months of its dedication, however, Pakistan moved its capital north to Islamabad. In the years thereafter, a new chancery was built there, a well-protected building but destined to be assaulted and burned in 1979. A new one, with even more security, has taken its place. And in Karachi, that one-time chancery, now a Consulate General, has itself been targeted by terrorists. In 1996 several of its staff were murdered on the streets of the city.

Ambassador Bushnell is now a senior and proven Foreign Service Officer, her exemplary performance showing a degree of courage and competence that speaks proudly of a lifetime in the Foreign Service.

We also now know that her two pleas for better chancery protection - one directly to the Secretary of State - were set aside because of higher priorities elsewhere in a time of allegedly limited budgets. The shock of what happened in Nairobi, and in Dar Es Salaam, surely will trigger a new round of congressional hearings on security for our missions abroad, no doubt analogous to the Inman Commission in 1995, a group put to work in the aftermath of a spate of terrorist assaults on our diplomatic missions then. Bushnell should be among the first to testify.

But there should be no need for another Inman Commission. What's needed in those hearings will be follow-through, above all by Congress. The Inman Commission made recommendations then estimated to require expenditures of something more than $5 billion over a period of several years. Budget allocations by Congress saw that figure reduced to just above $3 billion. The result: State had to make the kind of priority allocations that saw Bushnell's pleas heard but not met.

No one who has served in our missions abroad expects perfect security. It doesn't go with the game. Perfect security is possible only by closing up shop and leaving. Sometimes that's unavoidable - as in places like Kabul and Khartoum today where government-to-government diplomacy is politically precluded and security impossible, leaving our chanceries in the hands of housekeeping staff, those unsung but critically important Foreign Service nationals of the country concerned. And even with Inman-like hardening installed, experience shows that in the final analysis security is never total. In Tehran, Iran, for example, anticipating risks in the aftermath of the revolution there in 1979, security hardening became so extensive as to cause us to label that chancery our Fort Apache. But that security failed too, with the assault by hundreds of students coming over the walls. Marine security guards are there to buy time, not fight Custer's last-stand operations.

Foreign Service is no easy service. Those who serve in it know it can't be. Most are instinctively uncomfortable in any event with the constraints of security - diplomacy, after all, being by nature an interactive profession.

In the final analysis, what they're asked to perform - the best possible diplomacy on the front lines of America's defense - has inherent risks that go with the leadership role the US plays on the world stage. But surely the nation owes its diplomats - those from the many agencies of government, including the military services, who now staff our missions abroad - the fullest possible protection that money can buy to help ensure the security they need to get the job done.

We allocate $250 billion annually for our military budget. By contrast, requests in the $5 billion range for improved diplomatic security are modest indeed - especially in light of the tragedy of Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam.

* Bruce Laingen was taken hostage as charge d'affaires of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. He is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, D.C.