The Right Response

Nevada Senator Harry Reid (D) issued this statement in regard to the attacks on American consulate personnel in Libya:

I was deeply disturbed and saddened to learn of the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. I join President Obama in condemning these senseless acts of violence. And my thoughts are with the families of those who were killed in this horrific attack.
It is too often forgotten that American diplomats risk their lives on a daily basis. Our diplomatic corps is filled with admirable and dedicated public servants. And the four Americans who lost their lives yesterday exemplified the courage and sacrifice that happens every day at diplomatic posts across the globe.

I have traveled to many of America’s embassies abroad, and I have always been impressed by and grateful for the leadership and commitment of America’s ambassadors and State Department personnel. Ambassador Stevens was a career Foreign Service officer and a former Peace Corps volunteer, who spent his life giving of his time and his talents to promote democracy and American values. I support President Obama’s directive to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the world, and to provide whatever resources necessary to keep our personnel in Libya safe. And I will continue to the monitor the situation as we learn more about these terrible events.

This is what diplomacy sounds like.   This is also what someone sounds like who has been reading the foreign policy and intelligence briefings.  Here’s why:

1. Condemnation is a strong word in the diplomatic world.  It is not used lightly.  To condemn an action is to place it beyond the realm of negotiation.  However, it must be use carefully so as to allow the party creating the injury to respond in diplomatic terms without necessarily having to resort to military action.

The Administration and State Department achieved that.  The proof is in the response of the Libyan government – what we would want to hear is precisely what the Libyan government conveyed: President Magariaf of Libya expressed his condemnation and condolences and pledged his government’s full cooperation.”  [TDS]

The Libyan President responds with an equal measure of outrage, offers his condolences on behalf of his nation, and most importantly offers his nation’s “full cooperation.”   The modifier is also significant.  “Full” is also a meaningful word. The Libyan President could have stopped with the condolences — with all the implications that might have inferred — but he didn’t, he went that last step and offered all the services his new government can muster to resolve the issues peacefully.

The public isn’t privy to the policy and intelligence briefings concerning the new Libyan government but we can reasonably surmise they are not far from the public assessment offered by the U.S. State Department:

“Libya faces the challenges of building democratic institutions, protecting the universal rights of all Libyans, promoting accountable and honest government, rebuilding its economy, and establishing security throughout the country. The United States has a strategic interest in a stable and prosperous Libya, and is supporting Libya’s democratic transition in cooperation with the UN and other international partners.”

Note that the democratic institutions are not yet fully functional, the economy is not yet fully stabilized, and “establishing security throughout the country” is  still a work in progress.   This leads to the second reason why briefings and intelligence analysis and cool heads matter.

#2.  Attacks on American and American interests are no longer primarily a function of state actors.  They may not even be the result of client state activities such as we witnessed during the Cold War.  The term asymmetrical threat is a polite euphemism for “Who Knows Who’s Going To Do What, Much Less When?”   Senator Reid is correct — it take some courage to take a diplomatic posting these days because an incident which outrages some group in one country  could result in an attack on an American embassy anywhere.  For example, in May 1986 “The Japanese Red Army fired on the Japanese, Canadian, and U.S. embassies. The Red Army’s goals included overthrowing the Japanese government and starting a world revolution.” [IBT]  A splinter group from Al Qaeda was responsible for the September 13, 2001 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France. [IBT]

Because the attacks are “asymmetrical,” because they are not state sponsored, and because they aren’t even organizationally rational, it becomes all the more important to be as fully briefed as possible with the understanding that those briefing are as informative as the host government is cooperative.

#3.   Here’s what happens when the time isn’t taken to assess a diplomatic situation carefully before speaking:

Romney: “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” Romney said. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” [WaPo]

The first, and obvious problem, is that the statement came out before Ambassador Stevens death was confirmed and the family was notified.  But, there are diplomatic issues as well.

Yes, indeed, the attacks were outrageous, but notice that the Romney statement fails to differentiate between official State Department statements and a release by the Cairo Embassy well in advance of the protests which sought to explain that the motion picture so offensive to some Muslims was not indicative of American attitudes toward members of the Islamic faith.  A point raised by President George Bush after the September 11, 2001 attacks and maintained by his successor.  Both the Bush and Obama Departments of State repeatedly sought to sustain cooperation with Middle Eastern, African, and Asian nations by emphasizing that the American government  dislikes terrorists but does not vilify all Muslims.   The previous point should be repeated: Those briefing are as informative as the host government is cooperative.

The second is that there is no message.   Senator Reid points out that the U.S. will be stepping up mission security, and that “we” will be monitoring the situation.  That “we” could infer a wide variety of agencies.   Secretary Clinton said:

“But we must be clear-eyed, even in our grief. This was an attack by a small and savage group – not the people or Government of Libya. Everywhere Chris and his team went in Libya, in a country scarred by war and tyranny, they were hailed as friends and partners. And when the attack came yesterday, Libyans stood and fought to defend our post. Some were wounded. Libyans carried Chris’ body to the hospital, and they helped rescue and lead other Americans to safety. And last night, when I spoke with the President of Libya, he strongly condemned the violence and pledged every effort to protect our people and pursue those responsible.”

The friendship between our countries, borne out of shared struggle, will not be another casualty of this attack. A free and stable Libya is still in America’s interest and security, and we will not turn our back on that, nor will we rest until those responsible for these attacks are found and brought to justice. We are working closely with the Libyan authorities to move swiftly and surely. We are also working with partners around the world to safeguard other American embassies, consulates, and citizens.”  [emphasis added]

Secretary Clinton affirms the relationship with Libya, thanks them for their cooperation, and announces there will be further discussions of embassy security with other host nations.   Messages sent.   Unfortunately, the only initial message from Governor Romney is that he is angry and doesn’t think the President is doing a good job.  It doesn’t take diplomatic credentials to figure that out, but it also doesn’t give our friends and enemies any hints about how he might address similar issues in subsequent talks with them.

There was a message in the President’s remarks: “We’re working with the government of Libya to secure our diplomats,” he said. “I’ve also directed my Administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world. And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.” (emphasis added)  The collaborative nature of the activities is on notice.  The United States has received the assurance of the Libyan government that it will “fully” cooperate, and will act in concert with the Libyan government to secure what we want — bringing the perpetrators of the attack to justice.

And, while the U.S. works with the Libyan government Americans may learn that there are 22 shabiyats or districts in Libya, and four significant political parties.  However, the most important word is “with” — we will not act on them, or independently of them, but WITH them — sending the message that we accept them as a full partner and equal on the world’s diplomatic stage.  The right responses help  send the right messages.

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