The isolation of American diplomacy. US embassies under siege by terrorism
Lima, Peru — Near the top of his profession, with a rank just below ambassador, John Youle enjoys the privileges -- and also the growing list of inconveniences -- that come with being a senior US Foreign Service officer abroad in an age of terrorism. Every morning the 47-year-old deputy chief of mission at the United States Embassy in Lima, Peru, bids goodbye to his wife -- and to the armed guards that protect his secured residence around the clock. An armed chauffeur drives him to work in an armored car. On even the hottest days in this arid, equatorial city he's required to keep the bullet-resistant car windows tightly closed.
At work, he takes his seat inside an embassy guarded by machine-gun-toting Peruvian guards and a detachment of US marines, conducting the day's business behind shatterproof glass windows and iron bars, and within easy access to the embassy's ``safe haven,'' a temporary refuge in case of mob attack.
For Mr. Youle, and for thousands of other US Foreign Service officers (FSO) around the world, these are the most obvious signs that the job of being a US diplomat abroad has become one of the most dangerous in the world.
Before the mid-1960s, according to the State Department, not a single American diplomat was murdered abroad for political reasons. Since then more than 70, including six ambassadors, have been killed and many others wounded. American citizens and property have become targets of nearly one-third of all international terrorist incidents.
For Youle, who chose a career in the Foreign Service over banking and law, it's all part of the job. ``If you feel the work is important, you don't mind running the risks. The Foreign Service has given me a chance to accomplish things, to do something for my country, to help make relations with other countries better. It's hard to imagine another career where you're playing such a part in history.''
At the State Department, providing protection for over 6,000 Foreign Service employees abroad has become an urgent task. The department is now engaged in a seven-year, $4 billion-plus program to upgrade embassy facilities and security procedures around the world.
The department's various security-related activities are also being consolidated into a new Bureau for Diplomatic Security headed by Assistant Secretary of State Robert E. Lamb.
Says Mr. Lamb: ``The new bureau represents a commitment that the department's taking security seriously. We're tellng our employees, and the world at large, that this is an important issue for us.''
State Department officials say the challenge of providing security for US diplomats abroad is epitomized in Lima, a city of 6 million people. Here, 200 embassy officials like John Youle live on the margin of danger as they tend to the day-to-day business of keeping relations with a key Latin nation on an even keel.
Department officials regard Peru, the second poorest country in the region, as one of the most dangerous posts in South America.
Since 1980, the country has been terrorized by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas. Peruvian officials say the war against the radical Marxist group has been responsible for close to 7,000 deaths.
In May 1985, Sendero terrorists tossed dynamite over the wall of the US ambassador's residence in Lima. Sendero is also believed to be responsible for damage last year to a nearby US Agency for International Development annex. Forty windows were shattered in the building when a car bomb was detonated across the street at a Peruvian police precinct.
Another terrorist group, the Lima-based Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) has claimed responsibility for a recent machine-gun and bomb attack on the embassy chancery, as well as attacks on the offices of US firms in Lima, including IBM, Citibank, and Texaco.
There have been seven attacks on US Embassy facilities in Lima during the past three years. So far, no US employee or dependent has been killed or injured in a terrorist-related incident in Peru.
Many embassy staffers say history provides cold comfort. They say more daring tactics and newer weapons available to terrorists -- plus the widespread notion among Peruvians that the nation's current economic plight is the fault of the US -- have contributed to a growing perception that American diplomats in Peru may be living on borrowed time.
``So far, terrorism has been directed mostly against the government of Peru,'' says one embassy staffer. ``But we're not very far down the scale as No. 2.''
In theory, the main responsibility for protecting diplomatic missions abroad lies with the host government. But US officials say they have little confidence in Peru's inefficient, bureaucratically fragmented police forces.
To provide a main line of defense, embassy officials last year launched a major security program, starting with renovation of the 20-year-old chancery.
Located on one of Lima's busiest intersections, the US Embassy is a model of what embassies were once designed to be: open, centrally located, an accessible place for Peruvians to do business with and learn about the US.
Now, these very assets have turned into liabilities. Surrounded by city traffic and tall buildings, security officials fear the embassy could be easy prey for mobs or terrorists.
Last summer, officials began a year-long $1 million construction project to upgrade the embassy, erecting barriers to prevent car bombs, beefing up the embassy guard system, reinforcing walls, and installing bullet-resistant glass. ``By hardening our embassies, we're denying terrorists political gains. Very few targets out there have the same symbolic value that an embassy does,'' says Assistant Secretary of State Lamb.
At the same time, thousands of dollars have been spent to upgrade residences of embassy officials.
In addition, all embassy staffers and many dependents have been given training in coping with violence in personal situations.
State Department officials insist they're not out to make ``James Bonds'' of American diplomats. But a required day-long ``Coping With Violence Abroad'' seminar in Washington, combined with training at individual embassies, is designed to teach skills that until recently were taught to only US intelligence and military personnel.
Employees are taught how to frustrate surveillance by a potential kidnapper or assassin. For the most part, that means varying daily schedules and driving routes to avoid being too predictable.
There is also training in the fine points of offensive and defensive driving to elude pursuers or to break out of a roadblock.
In addition, a course in personal protection is being taught at the 30 highest-risk posts. Besides politics and protocol, the job of an FSO now also involves learning some of the basics of martial arts, plus rudimentary skills in the use of firearms and the detection of explosives. (Searching the family car for bombs is now part of the daily routine for hundreds of American diplomats around the world.)
Embassy personnel are also taught how to improve their chances of surviving as a hostage. This training includes tips on interacting with captors (follow orders; don't be confrontational; get emotions under control) and establishing routines to adapt to prolonged periods of captivity (establish regular habits; get plenty of exercise).
``Essentially, we're trying to instill a sense of balance,'' summarizes State Department psychologist Elmore Rigamer, who helps teach Foreign Service families how to deal with terrorism. ``We don't want you to see a terrorist behind every tree. But we want you to take the precautions you should take.''
The threat of terrorism has also taken its toll on families of FSOs, especially families with children.
Despite the increased risks, State Department spokesmen say few families have so far chosen to stay behind. To make life easier for those who go, the department offers family counseling services and links private residences to the embassy by radios that children as well as spouses are taught to operate. In addition, many residences in high-risk posts are protected by special locks and iron bars, while some have safe havens -- usually a bathroom with a steel- and concrete-reinforced door and extra food supplies -- to provide refuge in case of emergency.
Even so, consciousness of the risks pervades daily life.
``The kids are a constant source of concern for me,'' says one Foreign Service wife in Lima. ``I want them to have normal lives, but you can't help being overprotective when kidnapping's become the national pastime.''
Surprisingly, State Department officials say the growing risks of diplomacy in an age of terrorism have not affected recruitment. Last year, more than 28,000 people -- the highest number ever -- applied for the department's 250 available foreign service jobs.
Nor are FSO's sidestepping the high-risk posts.
Even so, many FSOs acknowledge that the rewards of diplomatic service have been increasingly offset by the personal risks posed by terrorism.
They also say that, by forcing the US to adopt a lower profile in many countries, terrorism has altered, perhaps permanently, the essential nature of conducting diplomacy abroad.
``The essence of diplomacy is to be with society, to feel its richness and texture,'' says David Jordan, US ambassador to Peru. ``When you're so concerned about safety, it makes it more difficult to feel the pulse of the people, to know what it's really like for an ordinary person when the price of bread goes up. It makes you more dependent on the reports of other people's perceptions. That puts us one step removed from where we'd like to be.''
``Terrorism forces you to crimp your operating style by reducing your exposure generally,'' says another embassy staffer, who says his best contacts with host country nationals have often come in informal settings like impromptu backyard barbecues.
Security threats have also altered the face of public diplomacy: the libraries, cultural, and media events set up to get America's message across in foreign countries. Embassy officials say events like concerts by touring American musicians, which would normally be performed in a public square or auditorium, are now routinely held in restricted areas, often by invitation only. Visiting US dignitaries, whose presence might be used to publicize US programs, now often come and go virtually unnoticed to the general public.
Embassy officials in Peru say it was the threat of terrorism that forced cancellation of plans to open a large Spanish-language circulating library to make information on the US more widely available to Peruvians. After the open, glass-enclosed consular building where the facility was to be located was attacked with machine-gun fire last July, embassy officials decided to stick with the existing more restricted English-language library used only by scholars. ``For us, it's always a matter of balancing public access with the need for security,'' says an official involved in the decision.
Maintaining such a low profile ultimately means fewer foreign nationals are aware of what the US does in any foreign country. Aid projects, drug-enforcement programs, or cultural events now often go unnoticed and unappreciated, minimizing the goodwill and mutual understanding such projects are designed in part to cultivate.
``It conveys the idea of American withdrawal and retrenchment,'' laments another embassy official. ``It creates the impression of abandonment that totally belies reality.''
This official says it also puts the US at a competitive public-relations disadvantage with the Soviet Union, whose Peruvian embassy, which so far has not been the object of terrorist attacks, has been able to maintain a higher level of visibility.