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You Can't Take Danger Out of Diplomacy

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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Yesterday’s knife attack on U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert in Seoul has sparked concerns about whether he had adequate protection. The bigger issue for American diplomats is not whether they're vulnerable to attack. It’s whether they can do their jobs under stifling security requirements that keep them in bunkers or whisk them away whenever danger seems to threaten.

Before the attack, Lippert was doing exactly what he was supposed to do, mixing with Koreans high and low, hearing their views and representing ours. As the Washington Post reports, Lippert often spoke with Koreans along his half-mile walk from his residence to the embassy, or when he was out in the early morning or late evening walking his basset hound. A U.S. Navy reservist and former chief of staff at the National Security Council and Pentagon, with close ties to President Barack Obama, Lippert is a good example of how qualified political appointees can make strong ambassadors.

Unfortunately, his openness threatens to become more the exception rather than the rule. Since the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. personnel, the administration has fixated on minimizing risks to diplomats, especially in the Middle East and Africa. In August 2013, for instance, the State Department closed down 19 embassies and consulates there in response to intelligence warnings of possible terrorist activity. More recently, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen was evacuated during a period of political turmoil, even as U.S. personnel remained to conduct counter-terrorism operations.

As two of the most seasoned former U.S. ambassadors warned Secretary of State John Kerry last December, “What we see happening in far too many places are decisions reflecting Washington guidance to avoid risk at all cost … creating a chilling effect for our diplomats attempting to carry out their missions through travel and contacts.”

The administration’s risk-avoidance amplifies a larger post-9/11 problem: the creation of a security-industrial complex within the State Department itself. By some yardsticks, spending on security now accounts for 30 to 40 percent of the department’s operational budget. Next year, it plans to spend four times more on “worldwide security protection” than on public diplomacy. It wants to break ground on a half-billion-dollar, state-of-the-art training facility, with shooting ranges and driving tracks for diplomatic security personnel, whose numbers almost doubled from 2000 to 2012. And with the best of intentions, the department is forging ahead with billions in spending to upgrade embassies into hardened compounds that can accommodate all U.S. non-military personnel in one place, with recreation centers and parking garages.

There, behind 100-foot setbacks and arid walls, they'll be able to drink Coke, eat hamburgers and speak American all day -- while “foreign” visitors have to run a gauntlet of inspections to enter. No more walking Grigsby outside the grounds for you, Ambassador Lippert.

As a former foreign service officer, I recognize that U.S. diplomats (and their families) need protection beyond the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. But the U.S. is oversteering. Diplomats do their job best when they can speak the language and hobnob as freely as possible with the locals. It’s a profession that comes with an irreducible element of risk and danger -- even in a relatively “safe” city such as Seoul.

Thankfully, Lippert is on his way out of the hospital, and has tweeted that he’ll “be back ASAP to advance US-ROK alliance.” Let’s hope so. Still, his near-death experience should be a reminder that an ambassador is an honest man (or woman) sent abroad not just to lie for his or her country -- but sometimes to die for it as well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net