15 years after embassy attacks, America's fortress diplomacy

When Al Qaeda attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, it began a culture of aggressive security in US diplomatic missions, writes former ambassador John Campbell. 

Jason Reed/Reuters
US President Barack Obama (and former President George W. Bush attend a memorial for the victims of the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, July 2, 2013. Wednesday marked the 15th anniversary of the attack, which began a culture of fortress diplomacy in American embassies around the world.

•A version of this post originally appeared on the blog Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Now overshadowed by 9/11, the August 7, 1998 attacks on the United States embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, also crossed a new terror threshold.

Some 200 Kenyans as well as 12 American diplomats were killed in Nairobi. Eleven Tanzanians were killed in Dar es Salaam. Many more Kenyans and Tanzanians were wounded in the attacks, which were carried out by Al Qaeda operatives. The United States continues to be responsible for their medical care and rehabilitation.

There were fresh reminders this week that terrorist attacks against diplomatic missions remain a threat – since Aug. 4, most US diplomatic establishments in the Middle East and North Africa have been closed as a precaution against a new terrorist attack.

Security of US diplomatic facilities had been a concern since at least the mob attack abetted by the Khomeini regime on the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, which led to scores of American diplomats being taken hostage for 444 days (the subject of the recent film, “Argo”). At the time of the Nairobi and Dar attacks, the Department of State prioritized diplomatic facilities for renovation or replacement according to the perceived threat level, but, as always, the chronic underfunding of the diplomatic function limited what could be accomplished. By the summer of 1998, Nairobi and Dar were way down the list as neither city was seen as the venue of a serious security threat. But the twin assaults demonstrated that no place is immune from attack by international terrorist organizations.

Since then, enormous resources have been devoted to rebuilding diplomatic facilities and increasing security. The surge in such spending has far exceeded that of traditional diplomatic activities – indeed, it accounts for much of the growth in funding over the past decade. In the Department of State’s proposed 2013 budget, 37 percent of funding is to counter threats to US security and advance civilian security around the world.

Even during the cold war, diplomatic facilities were designed to be welcoming and to project the American values of openness and individual liberty. No more. Now, diplomatic facilities sport huge setbacks from roads, high walls, and highly sophisticated technical security devices. Access is strictly controlled, and even widows are rare. The reality is a fortress, ideally outside of town, too often with a rigidly controlled line of visa applicants snaking around it.

The current shut-down of US diplomatic facilities in the Middle East is no longer exceptional, though the scope this time is especially broad. According to press reports, it is the result of credible intelligence that Al Qaeda was about to launch a terrorist operation against a diplomatic facility.

While I was ambassador to Nigeria (2004-2007) we closed the embassy in Abuja once and the consulate in Lagos at least twice, each for several days (if I remember rightly) because of credible intelligence about a possible attack. At the time, the Nigerian government was highly cooperative and supportive. It provided increased security personnel and closed adjacent streets. However, we were criticized in the media because, the argument ran, closure somehow implied that the Nigerians could not provide adequately for the security of diplomatic facilities, which is an obligation of any host country under the various Geneva conventions that govern diplomatic behavior.

Once diplomatic missions are closed, governments proceed with caution to reopen them. But, diplomatic facilities fill an essential function and prolonged closure is not really an option. Hence, the response has been to make them more and more impregnable, from Nigeria to the Middle East and beyond. And diplomatic facilities increasingly showcase “Fortress America.” Though impossible to quantify, the need to subordinate so much to security diminishes American soft power by undermining its traditional message of openness and welcome.

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