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The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other American diplomats were killed on Tuesday during an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. The incident has raised questions about the safety of American diplomats posted overseas, particularly those working in dangerous environments. We chat with two former U.S. ambassadors for perspective about what these killings will mean for American diplomacy and security abroad.
- Ronald Neumann President, American Academy of Diplomacy; U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain (2001-2004)
- Theodore Kattouf President, AMIDEAST; Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria (2001-2003)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, new scientific evidence that a timeless Asian spice can help the human body fight off everything from headaches to possibly even HIV, but, first, protecting American diplomats working overseas. The United States ambassador to Libya and three members of his staff were killed on Tuesday during a rocket attack on the consulate in Benghazi.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's the first time an American ambassador has been killed abroad in more than 20 years. President Obama has ordered that security be bolstered at all U.S. posts, including in Libya, but the incident has raised urgent questions about the safety of civilians at a time when they're becoming a bigger and bigger component of America's national security strategy in violent regions in the Middle East and South Asia.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us by telephone to discuss the security of American diplomats in the wake of these recent events is Theodore Kattouf. Ted Kattouf was the ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003. He's now the president and CEO of AMIDEAST, a nonprofit organization engaged in international education training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa. Ted Kattouf, thank you for joining us.
AMB. THEODORE KATTOUFMy pleasure.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone is Ronald Neumann. He was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. He also served as ambassador to Bahrain and Algeria. He's currently the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. Ronald Neumann, thank you for joining us.
AMB. RONALD NEUMANNMy pleasure.
NNAMDIBoth of you gentlemen have served in countries where your safety is not something that's taken for granted. What was your immediate reaction when you heard about what happened to Amb. John Christopher Stevens yesterday, starting with you, Ted Kattouf?
KATTOUFWell, shock when I awakened this morning to the news. I served with Chris Stevens in the U.S. embassy in Damascus for a couple of years, and he was a superb officer and somebody I admired greatly. And what was so shocking was how he had dedicated himself to helping the opposition in Libya against the tyrant Muammar Qaddafi and helped in the saving of Benghazi from advancing Libyan troops being the senior American diplomat on the ground and now this. It's horrible.
NNAMDIAnd your reaction, Amb. Neumann?
NEUMANNWell, certainly, I mirror Ted's in terms of sorrow and distress for Chris and for the others who died with him. I understand we don't have the fullest of names. I haven't seen them yet, but there were three others as well. And in recognition that we do diplomacy in dangerous places and we have for many years and that that it's a tragic price that sometimes comes with our profession.
NNAMDIHere, of course, you had Amb. John Christopher Stevens who was experienced in that region of the world and the kind of professional diplomat that President Obama found it necessary to talk about when he made his remarks about this incident. Here's a clip.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAIt's especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save. At the height of the Libyan revolution, Chris led our diplomatic post in Benghazi. With characteristic skill, courage and resolve, he built partnerships with Libyan revolutionaries and helped them as they planned to build a new Libya.
NNAMDIPresident Obama in his remarks a little while ago about the occurrences in Libya and in Egypt. The attack at the consulate in Benghazi coincided with a separate situation in Egypt where protesters tried to storm the walls at the American embassy in Cairo. What are the broad steps you think the president and the secretary of state need to take, starting with you, Ronald Neumann, when it comes to a security strategy for its diplomatic outposts?
NEUMANNI think the first thing to understand is that in most places security has to be governed by the situation on the ground. It's not a good idea to have a broad strategy. You may well want people to hunker down for a few days while you look at the situation and the intelligence, but you need to look in great detail at the kind of threat you're facing and size your security against that, recognizing that you also have to maintain contacts with the government.
NEUMANNWe have a job to do. And you have to maintain broad contacts so that our diplomats are able to assess the situations on the ground because frankly good knowledge is the basis of good policy. So you tighten up, but you also want to be very careful that you're sizing your situation, your security measures to your actual threat, not some kind of cookie-cutter approach.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments, you can also send them by email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or make your comment, ask your question at our website, kojoshow.org. Amb. Kattouf, was there ever a moment in your experience where you feared for your immediate safety, and how did that work out?
KATTOUFThere was, you know, when you undertake to serve the United States government as its representative whether as an ambassador or whether as a third secretary and a number of countries in this world you know there are certain dangers. You don't get up every morning necessarily thinking about them, but you know they're there. And, you know, I've been on the wrong end of rocket-propelled grenades, but I was very fortunate that the attempts were either fairly amateurish or perhaps more intended to send a warning than to be lethal.
KATTOUFBut, you know, Amb. Neumann served in Afghanistan with great distinction, and it takes a lot of courage to be in those zones. Amb. Ryan Crocker was there until recently, and there was, you know, a 24-hour firefight in the embassy. So our American men and women who serve in embassy and aid missions and public diplomacy abroad are often putting their lives on the line no less than our soldiers and the armed forces.
NNAMDITed Kattouf was the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003. He's now the president and CEO of AMIDEAST. He joins us by phone along with Ronald Neumann who was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. He's currently the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. Ronald Neumann, protests at American embassies are pretty routine in a lot of foreign capitals. How do these events, especially at the consulate in Benghazi but also what occurred in Libya, how do those -- in those events change the game, so to speak, at all?
NEUMANNThey can definitely change the game, but again, you have to look at what you're dealing with. Now, this one, I don't -- we don't have details yet, or I don't have them on Benghazi. It seems to have come up as something of a surprise. It seemed to involve heavy weapons, which is -- or at least moderately heavy weapons, which is a bit of an unusual feature. Mobs are a bit more common.
NEUMANNI've had my embassy in Bahrain attacked by mobs on several occasions. The first line of defense actually is the local government because we don't maintain the force protection measures that the military does. We have small bodies of Marines with most embassies, but we depend on host governments. Sometimes, they can be slow to react.
NEUMANNThe question is once you've had a mob, do you have a situation where you have to just stay home for a while, or did you have a sort of one-off with a small group where you get the government to give you more security and you basically go on doing business? That is more often than not the case, but you can't make an assumption.
NNAMDIYou may have answered Perry's question calling from Brunswick, Md., but allow me to ask Perry himself. Perry, was your question just answered, or would you like to raise it?
PERRYWell, I did ask -- the question was partially answered. I guess, what I conclude from the discussion I just heard is that the embassy in Libya was not protected by any military personnel.
NNAMDITed Kattouf, how are embassies normally protected, and does it vary from country to country?
KATTOUFIt does vary from country to country, but I think it's important to note that in the late '70s and early '80s we had some horrific incidents at embassies. Our embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, was twice blown up. Marines were, of course, attacked in October of 1983 with the loss of 241 lives. We've had ambassadors assassinated in places like Cyprus and Beirut. So there have been commissions that have looked at standards for embassies.
KATTOUFAnd there are many, many new and expensive embassies around the world that are intended to be able to withstand bomb blasts and that have high walls. And, you know, and embassy personnel and whenever there are Marine detachments and the like, they practice drills for such occasions. But like -- as Amb. Neumann said, the exterior perimeter of the embassy and one is dependent on the host government security.
KATTOUFAnd I think what we saw in Libya, and to maybe in Egypt as well, is that there are radical groups, some of them armed, who are -- who have bad intentions toward the U.S. and are looking for an excuse to attack our people.
NEUMANNCould I add one thing?
NNAMDIPlease do, Amb. Neumann.
NEUMANNI have seen a press report. I'm not sure it's correct that two of the people who were killed in Benghazi may have been U.S. Marines. And I want to note that the State Department has a very long partnership with the U.S. Marine Corps, which has detachments in most of our embassies guarding the embassy, but they guard on the inside. And you're usually talking about six, eight dozen people.
NEUMANNIt can be a little larger in a big embassy. You're not talking about a major military force, but they have been our partners overseas and have often lost their lives in the defense of embassies along with their State Department colleagues.
NNAMDIPerry, thank you very much for your call. How does this change the way that American diplomats may feel they're free to engage in the communities where they're posted abroad? How does American diplomacy change if more officials feel like they're tethered to their embassies, trapped inside those security perimeters erected outside of their workspaces, Ted Kattouf?
KATTOUFWell, it already has changed, Kojo. It's -- sorry to say, but we do -- a lot of embassies are much like fortresses, and there are many embassies where personnel are told not to move around unless they're in an armored car and maybe have a security escort as well. It might be from diplomatic security, State Department. It might be local government security. But the way we practice diplomacy has changed significantly over the last several decades, but nevertheless, people, like Chris Stevens, recognize you can't do your job if you hold up -- if you're hold up in the embassy.
KATTOUFYou have to get out. It sounds to me very unfortunate circumstances that, you know, he happened to be in Benghazi with no reason to believe probably when he went there that there was going to be a problem. And, of course, this film, that none of us had ever heard of, was inflaming -- was being used to inflame people in Egypt and Libya. And we've seen the tragic results.
NNAMDIAmb. Neumann, since you served in Afghanistan, how important was it for you to feel like you were not only getting outside of the embassy but also getting outside the capital city and engaging the broadest ranges of community in that country that -- as you could?
NEUMANNIt's very important. And I can go a little broader because I served in Baghdad as well for 16 months, and I served for three years in Algeria where we had a blanket death threat against all foreigners. And it is enormously important to get out. As I said, you can't make good policy with bad information. You have to be creative, and how you deal with it depends on local security. In Algeria, we had a lot of people who were -- felt comfortable coming in to the embassy.
NEUMANNIn Baghdad, where people didn't feel comfortable coming in to the green zone, we held a lot of meetings in hotels where Iraqis could meet with us on a low -- lower profile basis. In Afghanistan, it varied in the place. I traveled generally once a week the two years I was in Afghanistan to a different province or back to a similar province and therefore made a great many trips. I also would send a political officer often as a site officer in advance so that he would have a day or two in another province with various people, locals and Americans or NATO forces there to talk to people before I arrived.
NEUMANNSo you use a lot of measures, and you size them to the threat so that in Kabul, generally people can go to meetings with an armored car and a driver. But they don't need a detail except for the ambassador, some of the senior people. Going to their party was a little more complicated. But it's enormously important to get out. It's going to be one of our big challenges in Afghanistan as we downsize as we have fewer our military platforms to keep a -- an understanding of what's going on in the country.
NEUMANNBut we will still need to be creative and find ways to do it. But as Ted said, we've been going through this for a long time. This is not a new situation as tragic and unfortunate as it is.
NNAMDIThe trigger that apparently set off the attacks was an obscure video posted to YouTube that mocked the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. We have Amon (sp?) in Silver Spring, Md., who has a question about this. Amon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMONYes. Thank you for taking my call. I just watched the trailer today. And I, you know, I was really surprised to see it, like, designed to be offensive, really, really offensive, not even politics or historical or anything.
NNAMDII felt the same when I watched it. You're right.
AMONYes. And who's -- like something like $5 million with 100 donors. Now, the people who designed this movie and published it, they elicited such reaction because, given the several episodes in Europe and in the United States and the Arab world, they know the effect of such a film. So they wanted this. We should expose them and expose their agenda. That's one thing. And also I find it very curious the timing of this film with the elections, like they elicited the reactions and it's, like, tied to the American election. I would take my answer from -- off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDII don't know the part about being tied to the American election, but certainly the people who put it together were probably seeking these kinds of response to the video itself. But in terms of being investigated and exposed from everything, I can see, both Ted Kattouf and Ronald Neumann, the media is in the business of doing that even as we speak.
KATTOUFWell, I, you know, the things is, we've had a lot of people fight and die for this country. And Amb. Neumann is a veteran -- combat veteran of Vietnam -- he won't say it, but I will -- for the right free speech. And so you can be as ignorant and as stupid and as vile as you want usually, and it's protected under the Constitution. People elsewhere in the world where secular values don't prevail are understandably confused by all of that.
KATTOUFAnd what we have is small groups of hate -- small Islamaphobic hate groups in this country who know what buttons to press. Indeed, I saw a statement, I don't know whether it's true or not, that the man who was behind this film said, well, we knew that's, you know, something like this could probably -- would probably happen. Well, he knew it, but he went ahead anyway. So they're saying, we know what buttons to press to get the jihadists out in the streets and turn them violent.
NNAMDIAnd outside of the suppression of speech, there is little that the United States can do to prevent people from expressing themselves in that way. But, Amon, thank you for your call. We are at a pivot point where civilians fit into America's broader national security strategy. The president pursued what you might call a civilian surge of sorts that's part of the plan to eventually draw down troops in Afghanistan. How do the events of the past several months change this calculus, if at all, Amb. Neumann?
NEUMANNI don't think they change it. When you're talking about the civilians in Afghanistan, you're already in the middle of a war. And we've recently seen various attacks, including on the embassy in Kabul, as my friend Amb. Kattouf said -- and I thank him for his very nice comments about me, by the way. And I noticed his very dismissive comments about being on the wrong end of an RPG. So I think one should pay a little more attention to that as well.
NEUMANNBut, no, I don't think seeing a graphic example of a threat we already knew to be the existence in which we have to prepare to deal with doesn't make the threat any different than we knew it was in Afghanistan.
NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us, Ronald Neumann. He was the ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, also served as ambassador to Bahrain and Algeria. He's currently the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. Amb. Neumann, thank you for joining us.
NEUMANNOh, thank you. Thank you for giving me a chance to join with my friend Ted Kattouf as well.
NNAMDIAnd Theodore or Ted Kattouf was the ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003. He's now the president and CEO of AMIDEAST, which is a nonprofit, engaged in international education, training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa. Amb. Kattouf, thank you for joining us.
KATTOUFMy pleasure. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, new scientific evidence that a timeless Asian spice can help the human body fight off everything from headaches to possibly even HIV. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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