A New Security Reality Challenges Our Ability to Practice Diplomacy in Dangerous Places

The second witness at the Oversight Hearing on Benghazi, the former Regional Security Officer for Libya, Eric Nordstrom, addressed a topic that has gotten lost in discussions of the attack: the Benghazi attack may well be something new.

Let me say a word about the evening of September 11 th . The ferocity and intensity of the attack was nothing that we had seen in Libya, or that I had seen in my time in the Diplomatic Security Service. Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra-half dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault. I’m concerned that this attack will signal a new security-reality, just as the 1984 Beirut attack did for the Marines; the 1998 East Africa bombings did for the State Department, and 9/11 for the whole country. It is critical that we balance the risk-mitigation with the needs of our diplomats to do their job, in dangerous and uncertain places. The answer cannot be to operate from a bunker.

I’ve been wondering whether the attack gives terrorists, gangs, and others wanting to target or disrupt diplomatic have have a new roadmap for attacking a lightly secured diplomatic buildings.

But they don’t even need to succeed with such attacks: we’re likely to see further militarization of our diplomatic locations, making our efforts to help countries strengthen their governance look more and more like empire-building.

Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy addressed this issue as well.

I would like to take a moment to address a broader question that may be on your minds: Why is it necessary for representatives of the United States to be in Benghazi despite the very real dangers there? This question cuts to the core of what we do at the State Department and to the role of America in the world.

Ambassador Stevens first arrived in Benghazi during the height of the revolution, disembarking from a chartered boat, when the city was the heart of the opposition to Colonel Qadhafi and the rebels there were fighting for their lives. There was no doubt that it was dangerous. A bomb exploded in the parking lot of his hotel. The transitional authorities struggled to provide basic security. Extremists sought to exploit any opening to advance their own agenda. Yet Ambassador Stevens understood that the State Department must operate in many places where the U.S. military cannot or does not, where there are no other boots on the ground, where there are serious threats to our security. And he understood that the new Libya was being born in Benghazi and that it was critical that the United States have an active presence there.

That is why Ambassador Stevens stayed in Benghazi during those difficult days. And it’s why he kept returning as the Libyan people began their difficult transition to democracy. He knew his mission was vital to U.S. interests and values, and was an investment that would pay off in a strong partnership with a free Libya.


Diplomacy, by its very nature, often must be practiced in dangerous places. We send people to more than 275 diplomatic posts in 170 countries around the world. No other part of our government is asked to stretch so far or reach so deep. We do this because we have learned again and again that when America is absent – especially from the dangerous places – there are consequences: extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our national security is threatened. As the Secretary says, leadership means showing up. So that’s what we do. And that’s how we protect this country and sustain its global leadership.


We must continue deploying our diplomats and development professionals to dangerous places like Benghazi. There is no other alternative. As the Secretary said, “We will not retreat. We will keep leading, and we will stay engaged everywhere in the world, including in those hard places where America’s interests and security are at stake. That is the best way to honor those whom we have lost.”

We’ll see whether the efforts to politicize this prevent efforts to find the appropriate middle ground here.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. Bill Michtom says:

    What this quote ignores is that democracy is NOT why the US is in these countries. Imperialism is.

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    If one really wants to understand what US diplomatic personnel are doing in dangerous places like Benghazi, I suggest they read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Second best would be seeing the film of the novel made a few years ago with Michael Caine. But the book is best.

    With the important exception that the Communist Vietnamese are worlds different from the Western Libya salafists politically, the US machinations would be remarkably similar, i.e., looking for leaders one can control and do the bidding of the US in regards to its “interests.”

  3. OrionATL says:

    “…the answer cannot be to operate from a bunker…”

    eric nordstrom and under-secretary kennedy make important points in describing a new reality.

    it is well to prepare for the present and near future, but one would do well not to project current possibilities and realities too far into the future.

    in particular, i hope the congress and presidency don’t create a dos security bureaucracy that is as unnecessary, monstrously expensive, embarrassingly ineffective, and destructive both of liberty and ordinary human commerce as security systems like the dept of homeland security and the national security bureau of the fbi which were created in the season of political panic and opportunism following sept 11,2001.

  4. greengiant says:

    Whatever the strategic motivations of Steven’s and 36+ other Americans was, the tactics involve say 5 gallons of diesel for the first building which effected two deaths. The security guy was able to “drive” out of the compound after exiting the safe room. The “accurate mortar” rounds on the second building may turn out to be have been an attack of opportunity. If the attack had been effectively planned they would have brought more than 6 mortar rounds.
    Hmm, maybe that is what they told Susan Rice, and maybe this is kabuki from the school of never waste a crisis.

  5. ted says:

    Kevin Drum relays “Via Steve Benen, I see that Darrell Issa might have a wee problem on his hands when holds his hearings today about inadequate security at the Benghazi consulate. Dana Milbank reports:

    House Republicans cut the administration’s request for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012….Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Republicans’ proposed cuts to her department would be “detrimental to America’s national security” — a charge Republicans rejected.

    Ryan, Issa and other House Republicans voted for an amendment in 2009 to cut $1.2 billion from State operations, including funds for 300 more diplomatic security positions. Under Ryan’s budget, non-defense discretionary spending, which includes State Department funding, would be slashed nearly 20 percent in 2014, which would translate to more than $400 million in additional cuts to embassy security.


  6. ted says:

    Romney is trying desperately to change the Benghazi story from one where, in his haste to turn an unfolding tragedy into votes for himself, he revealed himself to be manifestly unfit for the office he seeks.

  7. Charles D says:

    When the US government is intentionally making a place dangerous, the State Department has no reason to complain about the dangerous environment for its diplomats. Also, “America’s interests and security” have never been at stake in Libya. American corporations and its ruling elite have interests everywhere and endanger the security of millions to acquire and protect their interests and the State Department is their willing partner.

  8. DWBartoo says:

    EW, in terms of Libya, as well, for that matter, in terms of just about any country, what do you mean by “… our efforts to help countries strengthen their governance …”?

    Help “who”, in terms of “what”, and by what “means” are “we”, the USA, to help the “who” and seek to bring about the “what”?

    To be very honest, much of our “help”, for many decades, DOES appear, very much, “to look more and more like empire-building.”

    What legitimate role, diplomatically, “strategically”, or in terms of other genuinely humane “interests” may be imagined, supported, OR condoned in a world in which this nation or, more correctly, OUR government, is, deliberately and consistently, undermining international law?

    This nation insinuated itself IN Libya, quite as SCOTUS insinuated itself in the election of 2000, which is to say, unreasonably, illegally, and with the very deliberate INTENT of affecting and deciding the outcome of “events” and the power structures which would obtain AFTER the “main” event.

    That, of course, is merely my opinion.

    However, I remain very much interested in understanding both what you intended to suggest with the assertion you made, and your opinion about the necessary value and fundamental legitimacy of what you appear to suggest.


  9. emptywheel says:

    @DWBartoo: Libya is a tough example, for all the reasons you state.

    But I keep thinking back to what we coudl have done differently in Yemen, 12 or 8 or 6 years ago, that would have made it better off than it is now.

    Frankly, I think we CAN’T help build nations anymore 1) because our favorite tool is neoliberalism and 2) because we refuse to forgo the deposits leaders get by looting their country (and the money we throw at problems creates corruption even if we don’t bank that money).

    But we have done better in the past.

  10. joanneleon says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Agree. I’m glad you pointed out the term “our interests”. Nobody even explains what “our interests” are, exactly. Not in public anyway. When people use this term in speeches, I always want to ask them what, exactly, are the interests that we are talking about.

    I am really tired of this charade.

    No other part of our government is asked to stretch so far or reach so deep. We do this because we have learned again and again that when America is absent – especially from the dangerous places – there are consequences: extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our national security is threatened. As the Secretary says, leadership means showing up. So that’s what we do. And that’s how we protect this country and sustain its global leadership.

  11. Raphael Cruz says:

    “…the answer cannot be to operate from a bunker…”

    Guess what, folks. U.S. Embassies and Consulates already operate from a bunker. For those of you who have never seen a U.S. Embassy or Consulate, they already are heavily-guarded, blast-walled fortresses, that, particularly in peaceful countries, convey nothing less than the jarring impression that the United States expects an armed attack at any moment. I have seen these hideous monoliths throughout Latin America, the Balkans and the Middle East.

    I am currently working in Kabul, where, even for a U.S. citizen to enter the U.S. Embassy compound, it is at least a thirty-minute ordeal to negotiate the multiple checkpoints, heavily armed guards, pat-downs, looming humvees mounted with manned machine guns, hand-scanners, ctx scanners, x-ray scanners, document checks, etc., and even then you have to be on a pre-approved list and accompanied by an authorized embassy staffer at all times. I am much less inclined to question such precautions here in Kabul, but the impression it creates in countries like Argentina and Macedonia is both sad and embarrassing.

    I certainly don’t have the answer to the security of State Department facilities in foreign countries, but I think measures as I described above are highly indicative of the animosity the U.S. has engendered in countries around the world.

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