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Political Reaction to Libya Attack Could Hurt Diplomacy, Former Officials Say

Knee-jerk reactions to the death of four State Department employees in Benghazi, Libya last month could hurt, not help, U.S. diplomacy, several former ambassadors and State Department employees warned Thursday.

The former officials, who spoke at the Stimson Center think tank, said their major concerns are that Washington’s response to the attack in Benghazi could further restrict diplomats’ ability to do their jobs overseas and that Congress could end up reducing funding for the thing they say they need most — more Foreign Service officers — to pay for more security personnel.

Even as they spoke, however, House Speaker John A. Boehner waded into the highly partisan back-and-forth over last month’s attack with a letter to President Obama. The Ohio Republican called on the president to publicly address questions about his administration’s decisions and statements before and after the attack, in which heavily armed Islamist militants attacked the American consulate and killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The diplomats, however, made clear the Libya attack was not unprecedented.

“There is a danger of overreaction right now because people are reacting as though this was not a fairly constant issue,” said Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria and Bahrain, said.

Security, Neumann said, has always been an issue. “In my career we had an assassination of Americans successfully performed every one of the three years I was in Iran in the ’70s. . . . I served in Algeria where we had a blanket death threat to all foreigners.”

“There is going to be and there always will be a risk versus benefit calculation,” he continued, something that should be made on the ground by security officers and diplomats. “If political leaders will not accept risk, then you will make it extraordinarily difficult for people on the ground . . . to make those decisions.” Neumann warned.

Other former ambassadors on the panel agreed that the political and media reaction to Benghazi seem to be happening in a vacuum, with little acknowledgement of the daily dangers that diplomats face around the world or of the history of security risks the State Department has long juggled.

“This is not a time or a place to give mid-flight comments given, in fact, the general authority by which everybody who knows almost nothing about it is treating it,” said Thomas R. Pickering, a former ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pick to head up a review panel on the Benghazi attacks. Given that assignment, he declined to weigh in any further on the diplomatic security debate currently raging in Washington.

That debate has produced almost daily revelations about the intelligence and internal communications on the situation in Libya, providing ample fodder in a hard-fought campaign season.

In Boehner’s letter to Obama, the Speaker wrote, “It is clear that information now in the public domain contradicts how you and senior administration officials consistently described the cause and nature of the terrorist attack in the days and weeks following. Why did the administration fail to account for facts that known at the time.”

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