By William Young, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: William Young is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He was formerly a senior officer with the CIA with extensive experience in the Middle East. The views expressed are his own.
Benghazi is back in the news. Late last week, clashes between protesters and militia claimed at least two dozen lives after demonstrators reportedly stormed a pro-government militia base. The latest violence is a reminder of just how unstable parts of the country remain – and how many questions remain unanswered as the United States seeks to ensure that there is no repeat of a tragedy that claimed the lives of four Americans last September.
The truth is that something has gone terribly wrong when two U.S. government officers end up making a last stand against overwhelming odds in a terrorist attack on an American diplomatic compound. Last year’s attack on the Benghazi consulate, reportedly also a CIA outpost, suggests the United States simply was not prepared to operate in such a high-threat environment and had not reassessed the changing nature of the danger.
Before entering a high-threat area like Benghazi, or indeed any other unstable environment, it is essential to determine if the mission is worth the risk. In assessing Benghazi, the first question that comes to mind is: What was so important about having a diplomatic presence in a city characterized as unstable; a city the British, French and United Nations had effectively abandoned because of warring militias and earlier bombings? Why was the United States still there? All assessments about the viability of the mission and all plans to protect U.S. diplomatic compounds around the world have to begin with answers to this question.
The second question that needs to be asked is: How did the embassy, the State Department and others justify such a low level of protection for a mission in such a threatening environment? An argument could be made that mission personnel were surprised, that the threat level escalated quickly and that it initially did not seem to require more visible protection and support from the militia governing that area of the city.
But was there no reassessment of the threat? It is standard procedure at U.S. missions abroad to hold Emergency Action Committee meetings, and to reassess the changing nature of threats in volatile environments. These meetings are held with greater frequency at posts in war zones, and where the threat of street demonstrations and terrorist attacks is high. Whether or not Embassy Tripoli held an EAC meeting is classified, but it is an important question Congress should ask.
If such questions are asked at the start of a mission and as changes occur, and if appropriate actions are taken as a result of the answers given, then there should be little chance of surprise. Threats can be acknowledged and dealt with by evacuating unessential staff, and by enhancing the protection and deterrent posture provided by foreign hosts. At the same time, embassy personnel can increase visibility into local neighborhoods around the mission site, and strengthen the security inside the walls of the mission compound.
The original justification for having a diplomatic presence in that location can be reconsidered and perhaps justified. But not asking these questions and not continually reassessing both the mission and the risk are the equivalent of taking one’s eyes off the ball in the middle of the game. The likelihood of being hurt is high.
If the local government or militia is unable or unwilling to provide an armed, physical presence to deter an attack, then the mission should be abandoned. Without enough protection to carry out the mission, why continue to put anyone in harm’s way? If the mission is deemed too important to abandon and foreign hosts are incapable of providing adequate security, then the United States would have to consider other means to provide for the safety of mission personnel.
More Marine Security Guards are not the answer. An embassy or consulate would have to deploy too large a force of Marine guards to make a difference against an attack the size of the one that occurred in Benghazi. Outside a war zone, where the United States lacks a controlling presence, the host country probably would not anyway permit a large U.S. Marine force inside its embassy anyway – perhaps regarding such a presence as an infringement on its sovereignty and as something more than a diplomatic force.
For the same reason, it is unlikely most host nations would permit any other large U.S. military presence inside or outside the diplomatic mission. Given the history of attacks against the Marine barracks in Beirut and Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, more U.S. military boots on the ground might well be a strategy to avoid. Nevertheless, if the mission is important, perhaps the United States could persuade the host government to allow it to keep an appropriate number of troops for training and emergencies on one of its own military bases. Indeed, the U.S. military already does this in a number of countries.
If it is not possible to keep a large enough contingent of U.S. forces inside or around embassies or consulates, then it might be possible to station them nearby in the region as a Quick Reaction Force. This could work in some regions where the United States has allies willing to cooperate and where U.S. military bases exist.
If a U.S. presence is remote and the mission is still deemed essential, then U.S. allies could be called upon to assist if personnel need to be evacuated before, during, or after an attack. The relationships the United States has built over the years – and the foreign assistance it continues to provide – could serve as incentives to persuade these allies to help in times of need. The United States should ask.
All this said, the best way to safeguard U.S. diplomatic missions abroad is to think hard up front about the purpose of the mission and to constantly reassess it in light of changing conditions. Being vigilant about using the procedures and mechanisms already in place at embassies will help diplomatic staffs collaborate with decision makers in Washington to realistically assess the threats they face. Like a doctor’s checklist before surgery, these procedures will help guard against the complacency that can build up slowly in high-threat environments.
Making this way of thinking a routine is the best way to condition personnel to be alert to signs of warning, which will help prevent more tragedies like Benghazi.