from Africa in Transition

Why U.S. Diplomatic Missions Became Fortresses

August 07, 2013

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Sub-Saharan Africa



United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Now overshadowed by 9/11, the August 7, 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in retrospect also crossed a new terror threshold.

Two hundred and one Kenyans as well as twelve American diplomats were killed in Nairobi. Eleven Tanzanians were killed in Dar es Salaam. Many more Kenyans and Tanzanians were wounded in the attacks, which were carried out by al-Qaeda operatives. The United States continues to be responsible for their medical care and rehabilitation.

There were fresh reminders this week that terrorist attacks against diplomatic missions remain a threat; since August 4, most U.S. diplomatic establishments in the Middle East and North Africa have been closed as a precaution against a new terrorist attack.

Security of U.S. diplomatic facilities had been a concern since at least the mob attack abetted by the Khomeini regime on the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, which led to scores of U.S. diplomats being taken hostage for 444 days (the subject of the recent film, “Argo”). At the time of the Nairobi and Dar attacks, the Department of State prioritized diplomatic facilities for renovation or replacement according to the perceived threat level, but, as always, the chronic underfunding of the diplomatic function limited what could be accomplished. By the summer of 1998, Nairobi and Dar were way down the list as neither city was seen as the venue of a serious security threat. But the twin assaults demonstrated that no place is immune from attack by international terrorist organizations.

Since then, enormous resources have been devoted to rebuilding diplomatic facilities and increasing security. The surge in such spending has far exceeded that of traditional diplomatic activities—it accounts for much of the growth in funding over the past decade. In the Department of State’s proposed 2013 budget, 37 percent is to counter threats to U.S. security and advance civilian security around the world.

Even during the Cold War, diplomatic facilities were designed to be welcoming and to project the American values of openness and individual liberty. No more. Now, diplomatic facilities sport huge setbacks from roads, high walls, and highly sophisticated technical security devices. Access is strictly controlled, and even windows are rare. The reality is a fortress, ideally outside of town, too often with a rigidly controlled line of visa applicants snaking around it.

The current shut-down of U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East is no longer exceptionable, though the scope this time is especially broad. According to press reports, it is the result of credible intelligence that al-Qaeda was about to launch a terrorist operation against a diplomatic facility.

While I was ambassador to Nigeria (2004-2007) we closed the embassy in Abuja once and the consulate in Lagos at least twice, each for several days (if I remember rightly) because of credible intelligence about a possible attack. At the time, the Nigerian government was highly cooperative and supportive. It provided increased security personnel and closed adjacent streets. However, we were criticized in the media because, the argument ran, closure somehow implied that the Nigerians could not provide adequately for the security of diplomatic facilities. That is an obligation of any host country under the various Geneva conventions that govern diplomatic behavior.

Once diplomatic missions are closed, governments proceed with caution to reopen them. But, diplomatic facilities fill an essential function and prolonged closure is not really an option. Hence, the response has been to make them more and more impregnable, from Nigeria to the Middle East and beyond. And diplomatic facilities increasingly showcase “Fortress America.” Though impossible to quantify, the need to subordinate so much to security diminishes U.S. soft power by undermining its traditional message of openness and welcome.