When I was in the Foreign Service I was in countries that either had (Kinshasa) or would have (Nairobi) serious security issues.   And what’s happening following the tragedy in Benghazi makes my blood pressure go through the roof.

Complete Security Is a Myth

I’m not belittling the importance of security, but if you are overseas in an Embassy or Consulate there is risk.  Security situations can change overnight.

A Middle East expert colleague opted for a quiet “backwater” posting because he and his wife were starting a family.  But when the time came, his wife was still recovering from medical complications.  They agreed he would go on ahead with their baby and the nanny they had brought from his last post.

He was in Kuwait barely a week before Saddam invaded.

Embassy officers were immediately taken to Baghdad, his child was handed off to an American dependent to be evacuated, and the nanny scrambled to make her own way out.   His wife was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  So much for careful planning.

Security Isn’t Always Welcome 

If security had their way, foreign service officers would be locked behind tall walls and never venture out.  Keeping us safe is their job.

In Kinshasa, the security officer decided that making us ‘safer’ entailed soldering the glass doors to our balconies shut.   This in a tropical country where electrical outages were a common occurence.  He also cemented in the storefront windows of our library, leaving those of us who worked there in complete darkness during such outages.

But most foreign service officers have to get out and mingle.  That’s THEIR job.

People open up if they get to know and relate to you.  And to relate to you they need to know you beyond the official ‘facade’.  This means casual chats, cups of tea or coffee, impromptu visits.  Finally you reach a point where you begin learning who really has the ear of the higher-ups, the ‘skinny’ on the key players and the complex motivations affecting decisions.   You get the bigger picture.   And that is the value of being ‘in country’.

Security Upgrades Take Time and Money

Budget requests, hiring new personnel and capital improvements take time.

One advantage of dictatorships, while they’re in power, is that security tends to be good.  After the “Arab Spring”, it wasn’t just the Consulate in Benghazi that faced a new security reality.  Requests would have started pouring in from most of our installations  (including USAID and most other civilian government agencies covered by State Department security) across the region.  All the while Washington has been on a budget cutting spree.

So Enough of Using Benghazi as a Political Football

Could the State Department have done better in Benghazi.   Sure.

But instead of honoring Ambassador Steven and his fellow Embassy staff and focussing on solutions, his death and the serious issues it has exposed have become political talking points aimed at winning elections.

In the meantime, the officers and staff in Benghazi and elsewhere just keep doing their jobs, taking the risks and trying to drown out the political static that threatens to derail all they’re efforts.