Most of the op-eds and blogs that will be written over the course of this week will psycho-analyze Terry Jones or argue about the relative merits of the Arab Spring. There is, however, an immediate concern that relatively few have addressed: what yesterday's attack on the American consulate in Libya and the American embassy in Egypt means for the protection of American diplomatic property, personnel, and interests abroad. This post will look at both the "new" and old dimensions of embassy and consulate attacks and how the US might learn from how it previously dealt with far greater challenges of this nature.
"New" and Old Risks
One perennial (and quickly cliched) argument of the Iraq War era was that the United States, with its fortress embassy and army of security contractors, was losing the war for public opinion. What was needed was for American diplomats to move away from an exclusive focus on state-to-state relations and directly intersect with the people, free of ostentatious security entourages. The idea was to radically transform the structure and dynamics of American diplomacy to engage the whole of foreign societies in order to gain leverage among sectors beyond foreign governments. At its most ambitious, the idea also sought to utilize a civilian surge to directly utilize the State Department as a tool of national power in counterinsurgency wars.
There are certainly merits to this idea that would presumably justify the risks in question. But there were always nagging questions of capacity as well as practicality. Most importantly, such ideas also assumed a permissive environment for these 'guerrilla diplomats' to operate in. The unfortunate reality is that, for all intents and purposes, the United States government cannot expect governments or sub-state movements in conflict zones or politically unstable states to respect the Vienna Convention. Norms of diplomatic immunity do not mean anything to rent-a-mobs, armed "students," or militias fired up by religion or ideology. And counting on host nation leaders looking to protect themselves to risk their political position to protect foreigners is a historically losing proposition. Even when host governments need American support, they often lack the capacity or will to devote resources to aggressively securing compounds and conducting intelligence-based disruptions of assault plans in light of urgent domestic problems.
Since the 1979 Tehran embassy hostage crisis, this new reality should have been obvious, but diplomatic missions abroad have still had a checkered history of force protection. Compared to past eras of US diplomacy, deployment of Marines as precautionary measure and demonstrations of force are sparse. Foreign governments are also rarely held to account for their failures to exercise their diplomatic obligations, out of a mistaken belief that the greater good of promoting US interests outweighs the strategic consequences of enabling these governments to evade their responsibilities to protect American lives and property.
Some, for that matter, use American diplomats and other foreigners as objects of domestic political games. As Christine Fair soberly argued, Karzai's incitement of Afghan rage over Mr. Jones' last outburst was likely intended to demonstrate his independence from the US. But it risked American lives and resulted in the murder of United Nations personnel in Mazar. It is telling that Egypt's President Morsi can willfully incite anti-American rage and fail to protect the United States embassy in Cairo without fear of losing $1.5 billion in US annual aid or the $1 billion in debt that Egypt seeks creditors to forgive. Perhaps some client states have come to see aid as entitlement that will not be threatened regardless of their failures to protect their patrons' in-country personnel.
The result of force protection spottiness and difficult host nation politics, as Daniel Trombly notes, has been both a failure of deterrence and a heavy reliance on contractors to perform security missions. The ad-hoc alternatives that have emerged pose political and operational risks of their own. These issues range from the political problems experienced with Blackwater in Iraq to the potential diplomatic and operational issues involved in attempting to maintain a human intelligence presence capable of disrupting plots against Americans in conflict zones. The fact that American spies need Spanish translators to even operate south of the Rio Grande and often are forced to rely on corrupt local governments for targeting information is a sobering reality that any force protection planner seeking to use intelligence for force protection must reckon with.
This is the new reality: in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, the United States must expect that its diplomats will not enjoy protection in societies wracked by political instability and the birth pangs of transition into new forms of government. This problem is by no means exclusive to these areas of conflict. Even Mexican drug cartels have no fear of shooting at diplomatic cars. As Trombly pointed out, the ability of the State Department to advocate for US interests will be compromised if effective measures are not taken. The State Department--on its own--lacks the capacity and redundancy to ensure that most of its stations across what has dubbed the "arc of conflict" can function at the level of combat readiness experienced in environments like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of Punitive Expeditions and Politics
Ultimately, this unfortunate state of affairs may actually be a reversion to the norm in American diplomacy. During the 19th century and pre-World War II era, the United States found itself operating in transitional states throughout Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. It could not assume, as a rule, that local rulers would honor US diplomatic obligations or refrain from preying on American merchants. The United States Navy and Marine Corps bore the primary responsibility for protecting US lives and property and establishing deterrence. Most heavily in Latin America, the Marine Corps had the capacity to intervene with combined arms combat power necessary to make local governments respect their treaty obligations. Most famously, the US utilized unconventional warfare during the Barbary Wars to force pirate lords to cease their attacks on American merchant ships.
But the kind of deterrence Americans sought in those bygone days was not the deterrence of Kenneth Waltz. It was more suited to the threats and diplomatic objectives of the time and you will not find an explanation for it in the academic literature shaped by Cold War experience. The United States had limited resources and an politically inward-facing populace. The punitive expedition by the Marines to save the European legation from Boxers and Qing Army units in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion was one of the most substantial pre-WWI American involvements abroad. Cold War deterrence was based on the presumption that once force is used, deterrence has failed. However, as Thomas Rid writes about Israeli deterrence, force can also be used to shape norms of international behavior. As in law, consistent punishment can under some circumstances shape a deteree's perception of costs and benefits.
Despite persistent myths of prewar isolationism, the United States was in fact heavily commercially and diplomatically involved in the world. Particularly on the high seas, the ability of the United States to have political and commercial relationships with the outside world depended on the resolve to punish those who would prey on American citizens. With limited resources, the United States needed to rely on sheer will and rapidly deployable air-ground-sea forces to make up for its lack of a British-sized worldwide military presence. Because Americans have grown accustomed to the luxury of hegemony, establishing a norm of deterrence has fallen as a political priority. But the importance of maintaining a norm of deterrence will only increase as limited financial and military resources heighten the necessity of American diplomatic and commercial presence in a world increasingly resembling the concert system of the late 19th century in structure and configuration.
Establishing Norms of Deterrence
Even if the United States' political distinct arrangements in zones of uneven political authority shift, there will always be a necessity for the United States to use diplomacy and trade to operate in the world. This will implies several conceptual tasks for strategists and political thinkers. First, one cannot simply resurrect punitive expedition and demonstration of force concepts from the 19th century without paying attention to a different configuration of power, politics, and slate of military capabilities. Concepts of operation should be crafted that are sensitive to these new realities. But there are important similarities, such a need for naval expeditionary and ground forces to be capable of fighting both irregular bandits and national army forces simultaneously--a common scenario in the 19th century. The Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and special operations forces are ideally placed to do more than evacuate Americans under threat in these situations. They, along with nonkinetic instruments of national power, can also be used to proactively shape foreign perceptions of the cost of either abusing American diplomats and civilians or failing to fulfill diplomatic obligations.
Second, the "message" that would shape a norm of deterrence must be shaped by both military and nonkinetic actions coupled with clear statements by government officials about the necessity of ensuring American life and dignity are respected by foreign governments and sub-state movements. As Naval Postgraduate School professor Anna Simons argued, politically the United States should also embrace aspects of a 19th century understanding of its relations with the outside world. Quite simply, states that tolerate or abet injuries to Americans at home and abroad should be faced with a choice of what kind of relationship they seek with the US. Whether national government or armed tribe, those who are willing and able to assist the United States government in securing its citizens abroad should be aided. Those who are not should be exposed to a sliding scale of political-military consequences.
In the event that diplomatic and economic means of power are not enough to persuade adversaries to respect American lives and property and political-military circumstances permit it, rapid and decisive punishment should not be ruled out. If the United States is not willing to employ force to protect its own citizens it will find that no one else will exercise such sovereign duties for it. Establishing norms of deterrence would stand in contrast to the "whole of government" era of American national security thought, which conflated defeating one's adversaries with governing them. Moreover, it would also sidestep the strategic and ethical complications of the current targeted killing regime by setting clear conditions about targets, defeat mechanisms, and aims of employing force. Finally, it would be a mode of security management more fitting to a near-term future of limited resources.
Future of Force Protection
With security being boosted across American embassies, the Benghazi and Cairo attacks may serve as forcing incidents for some of the concepts noted in this post. So far, the Libyan transitional government seems to be willing to help us achieve redress. Egypt is not. Further events could complicate this judgment, but if unchanged it can and should inform US policy.
To be sure, economic and diplomatic sources of power can and should be the primary means by which the United States defends its citizens abroad. Working with local governments, as we appear to be doing with Libya, is always best.
But if this is to be a truly "maritime century," we need to look carefully at how the United States guaranteed its interests abroad during the last one. Such a review will surely give us ideas as to how all instruments of national power--including the military instrument--can be used to proactively protect American diplomats and merchants abroad.