Embassy safety: an ignored priority

Last August, when the bodies of 12 American diplomats who died in the bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were brought home at Andrews Air Force Base, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "Americans will continue to be present around the world wherever we have interests to defend.... America will not be intimidated.... We will do all we can to protect our diplomatic and military people around the world."

President Clinton's remarks at the same ceremony reaffirmed that conviction, saying that America "will not shrink from our responsibilities to stand against terror."

In January, the Accountability Review Boards, required by law to investigate such tragedies, concluded that both the administration and Congress bore responsibility for not having adequately pressed for funding for enhanced security at those embassies that might have prevented the tragedies, or at least limited the injury and loss of life. Warning that similar dangers lies ahead for American diplomats abroad, the boards' recommendations included calls for expenditures of $14 billion over the next decade to strengthen embassy security worldwide and to replace those buildings considered indefensible. Coincident with those findings, Mr. Clinton in his State of the Union speech this year said, "Let's give [our diplomats] the support they need, the safest possible workplaces and the resources they must have so America can continue to lead."

The man who chaired the boards that made these recommendations was Adm. William Crowe, a warrior-turned-diplomat, having gone from being chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to US ambassador in London, and now retired.

His report recalled that the recommendations of the Inman commission, issued in the aftermath of the mid-1980s bombings of the US embassy in Beirut, had fallen far short of implementation because of budget constraints. His report warned that the same shortfall could happen again without strong and sustained leadership.

It may well be happening again. There is little evidence of a serious response to that warning in the administration's current submission to Congress for FY 2000. It has no new funding for embassy construction, beyond $36 million for preliminary design and site acquisition for several projects. As submitted, it projects no new money to replace or redesign a number of vulnerable embassies. Far from asking for funds at levels recommended by the Crowe report, the budget asks Congress only to pledge $3 billion in funds for the future, most of it to be spent five to six years from now - sufficient time for the same diminished focus and attendant budgetary cutbacks to see the Crowe report suffer a fate similar to that of the Inman commission.

Admiral Crowe, in words that perhaps reflect more his military than his diplomatic experience, has been quoted in the press calling the administration's response to date "a timid approach to the problem," warning that Congress might once again "put money in front of lives on their priority list."

Today all our diplomatic missions abroad are at risk - the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam assaults symbolizing how terrorists today look for targets of opportunity, with exact locations of little matter. The number of security threats in our missions abroad has reportedly tripled in number since Nairobi. And in recent months, it is not unusual on a given day that four or five of our missions worldwide have suspended operations for security reasons.

Congress is currently moving on a fast-track basis toward large increases in our defense budget to ensure our military forces are adequately manned and equipped to respond to new security challenges. The need is no less on the first line of America's security - diplomatic missions and those who staff them. A recommendation for expenditures of $14 billion over a decade in a trillion-dollar-plus annual budget - about a penny out of every $10 dollars of federal spending - is worth the gain. But it will not become reality without more determined and sustained leadership at the level that matters - the Oval Office.

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

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