Author Kenneth Stammerman, shown above with US troops at Dhahran,Saudi Arabia, retired in 1994 as a senior U.S. Foreign Service officer after a career spanning twenty-seven years, much of that time dealing with the Middle East. He took up his post as American consul general in Dhahran just before operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
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A brutal terrorist attack on a US-led peacekeeping force in Dhahran left 19 dead and hundreds injured.
NEA officers have learned to conduct effective diplomacy in such environments over the years. I mention briefly below a few guidelines, though I am sure that other officers with experience in high-threat areas could add their own.
- First, treat the embassy environment as a place to perform office tasks. It is not where the Foreign Service officer conducts diplomacy. It's nice to take the occasional visitor past the flag and the Marine and to call on the ambassador or consul general in the spacious office. But tight access controls mean that that visitor will have his or her car searched, will pass through metal detectors, and will be subject to personal search. In Kuwait and Dharan, I always walked through with important visitors, to show that I got "wanded" too if I had metal on me. (On one occasion, a high ranking Saudi and I had a laugh when I told him about our no weapons rule: we had his retinue wait outside the consulate building because the amount of weapons they were carrying would have made an embarrassingly high stack of guns at the Marine station.)
Embassy architecture should rate as efficient and secure above all, secure. Aesthetic considerations are nice, but are way down the list of priorities. Those who want a tradeoff in favor of appearances over security should count the lives they are willing to spend.
Having an office in a secure embassy is no good reason for a diplomat to spend all his or her time there. In Kuwait, for example, much of the emirate's political, business, and social life takes place in the diwanniyas of the leading families, the extended family gatherings held weekly at the homes of local patriarchs. In the late 1980s, the four senior officers of the embassy, Ambassador Howell, the DCM, and economic and political officers, were regular visitors at those gatherings.
- Second, the diplomat must know the local culture to appreciate the security situation. In Kuwait, I had no hesitation in bringing the ambassador to visit diwanniyas of the most pro-Iranian local families, even those with regular visitors from Iran, nor to gatherings of those who bitterly disagreed with our position on the Palestinian question. It made for lively debate, but the local code of manners meant that as guests we were perfectly safe. And maybe we all learned something from each other. In the same way, at Dharan, I had no problem driving past Saudi National Guard checkpoints into Shia villages to meet contacts in the Eastern Province, in areas which had not many years earlier been in armed rebellion against forces supplied and trained by the United States. Again, the diplomat has to know the local culture. In the pathways of the Shia oases, I was the guest of people who would guarantee my life with theirs and those of their families. I recognize, however, that there are cultures elsewhere in the world in which kidnapping is rampant, so diplomats have to adjust their security precautions appropriately.
- Third, diplomats need not fear the consequences of retaliation against terrorists. Foreign Service personnel are safer when our enemies learn that killing innocents at embassies carries a hefty price. Diplomats not only need to disregard the usual pro forma notices from DS for all officers to be on guard (as if Foreign Service personnel ever are not!) when our military forces exercise the right of self-defense against terror; diplomats should also aggressively move into the community and make the point to their contacts that terrorism has no place among civilized peoples. It is through such aggressive and open conduct of diplomacy that the Foreign Service demonstrates an unwillingness to be cowed by the cowardly acts of bloody minded fanatics, and in doing so, recruits allies to a common cause. Moving back unnecessarily into a perimeter and staying there rewards the terrorists. Beirut was a disaster in more ways than one.
Diplomatic personnel can never be absolutely safe from a determined enemy, but the cost of attacking them can be increased, and it is possible to make embassy and consular facilities harder to hit than other available targets, which gives employees and their families an edge. At my last overseas post, Dhahran, the greatest danger we faced was not locally-based attacks on our facilities, thanks to our own precautions and the efforts by our Saudi friends, but attacks by Iraqi missiles during the war. At one point, several of us were caught in the open while returning from putting Americans from the local business community on board evacuation planes, when an exchange between an incoming scud and an intercepting Patriot missile caused an explosion nearly over the compound, leaving us to run across a plaza while bits of metal showered nearby. That kind of terror attack the Foreign Service cannot defend against. But the Iraqis ended up paying, and dearly.
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