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Election 2012 Tue Oct 16 2012

Demagoguing the Death of an Ambassador

Parts of the world are dangerous, and some professions are even more so in such places. It would be nice if politicians and commentators would use context to cool passions rather than fuel flames of outrage, Islamophobia, and jingoism as a result of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which ambassador J. Christopher Stevens died. Instead, I was struck, as I watched the vice-presidential debate last week, how the first question out of the box was angry demand for some sort of mea culpa on Libya, and I am still struck by how the event is still being exploited for political fodder, a meme we can expect to see continued.

The context that responsible leaders would provide is this: serving far from home has its risks even when the placement is a Paris or London, but the risks are greater when the host country lacks the stability or other amenities we take for granted, and doubly so when the US had a role in that instability. Chris Stevens was hardly the first diplomat to die, and he won't be the last. The US foreign service lists 236 people who have died in the line of duty. For decades, the greatest risks were of disease: yellow fever, cholera and the like took many lives of embassy personnel in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.

Victor Stanwood, a diplomat murdered in Madagascar in 1888, might have been the first US diplomat to die unnaturally, but since the 1960s, most US consular deaths have been violent. Gunfire, bombings, and outright assassinations mix with an unusual number of plane crashes to account for most diplomatic fatalities.

It's ridiculous to blame one administration for this. We lost US ambassadors under Presidents Johnson (John Mein, Guatemala), Nixon (Cleo Noel, Sudan), Ford (Rodger Davies, Cyprus; Francis Meloy, Lebanon), Carter (Adolph Gubs, Afghanistan), and Reagan (Arnold Raphel, Pakistan). Nor does the US have a monopoly on this occupational hazard. Worldwide, hundreds if not thousands more have given their lives in the service of diplomacy.

What does stand out in the list of US foreign service dead in the past 50 years is how many of the incidents have been in countries where the US has intervened in a civil war, has actively bombed or sent troops, is conducting covert operations, or has been a participant, right or wrong, in the violence or strife that claims citizen-victims of the host country. The 1998 African embassy bombings stand out as exception but are also linked to US presence in the Middle East.

Worldwide, terrorism against American makes up less than 8% of all terrorist attacks; however, attacks on US personnel over the past 40 years account for over 28% of all attacks on diplomatic targets. As recently as July, 2012, an IED was detonated outside a US embassy in Libya, a country where the US actively participated in the overthrow of a regime, and where the State Department's own website advises of instability and violence throughout the country. While the US maintained that its role in the 2011 war was not regime change but to be an "interlocutor" for "genuine transition," the subtle distinction might be lost on survivors of US Tomahawk missile and drone strikes on Benghazi.

Chris Stevens's death was thus tragic, but not actuarially unpredictable. Likely only in America, where it seems all tragedy now requires recrimination if not litigation and legislation, would his death become fodder for political attack or Monday-morning-quarterbacking. The attending physicians say Stevens died of smoke inhalation. The fire apparently was started by a rocket attack. Having more security at the consulate itself would not have prevented the fatal fire.

Worldwide, the National Center for Counterterrorism shows that terrorism fatalities have actually declined every year that Barack Obama has been president. Still, to accept a post in a place like Libya, that was inflamed most of 2011 in a civil war, takes some courage, and to recognize Ambassador Stevens's courage requires agreeing that his posting carried risk, including risk of death. It is not at all clear that the so-called global war on terrorism has done anywhere near as much to reduce such risks as has disengagement from Iraq; worldwide, terrorism had a dramatic increase after the US invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Those two countries, along with neighboring Pakistan, a country with which the US is not at war but where the US has now also killed hundreds, became the locus of more than half the terror attacks in the world.

No one should demagogue the Libya incident and use it as excuse for further escalation of rhetoric or military action, a deeper plunge into a cycle of violence. Those who do are just making the job of the diplomats like Chris Stevens all the more difficult, and all the more dangerous.

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Mal McLean / October 20, 2012 3:33 AM

Excellent summation, thank you for that analysis and especially the conclusion. Sadly, politics seem to take precedence over decency far too often.

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