We Have to Be There

The rise of risk aversion at the State Department has undermined U.S. diplomats’ ability to work effectively, with serious unintended consequences for national security.


For many years, the value added of U.S. diplomats was knowing more about foreign countries and foreigners than any other countries’ diplomats. American embassies were larger, better financed and better prepared than any other diplomatic service on earth. We were called on to prevent international disputes and help our allies (and foes) navigate their internal disagreements. Every day, American embassies took thousands of small steps to build institutions to serve and protect American interests. It’s what “preventive diplomacy” is all about. That was then.

This is now. Recently I have seen our capacity to prevent conflict and build institutions sharply erode, particularly in countries where local knowledge is most needed. This makes it more difficult for us to foresee problems, much less shape solutions. Our aversion to risk means that we know less—in fact, we are blind in critical countries. So we made mistakes in Libya, in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, because we did not have a good understanding of the local scene.

Fundamentally, the State Department has become profoundly reluctant to put people in harm’s way, under any circumstances. And because we are not on the ground in places like northeastern Syria or Libya or Yemen, we have turned more and more of the responsibility over to the Department of Defense. Further, unpredictable withdrawals of personnel and closing of embassies make us look afraid; and that, too, has long-term consequences.

This isn’t about not having enough money—that’s not new—or about the alleged tyranny of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. In fact, my experience is that senior DS agents understand more than most that embassies need to know what is going on—it makes us safer.

The tendency to pull back was greatly aggravated by the vicious political fallout from the 2012 attack on a U.S. post in Benghazi, killing four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens. But the trend had been growing for years. The 1985 Report of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Panel on Overseas Security (the “Inman report”) responded to embassy bombings in Lebanon, Kuwait and Africa and forced us to move our embassies to the edge of cities and build fortress-like operations that have made it increasingly difficult to do our jobs. But the buildings were only symptomatic.

The Shifts at State

When senior officers talk about why we have become less effective, they mention the inability to travel or meet people outside the embassy, the reduced pool of employees to draw on for our unaccompanied posts, the risk of corruption in management and programs because of the constant churn of supervisors, and the workload disparities because officers who have been in a country longer are simply more productive. In turn, foreigners friendly to the United States see closed embassies, evacuations and withdrawals as abandonment. One Saudi told me he used to know people in the embassy when Americans spent years in country; but with the short tours imposed after the attack on the Jeddah consulate in 2004, he hasn’t bothered much to get to know any American diplomats. Anyone he met would be gone soon; and they weren’t much interested in meeting with him, either.

The growth of risk aversion at State has diminished U.S. diplomacy, and this trend has coincided with broader cultural shifts that have altered our patterns of diplomatic engagement overseas to the detriment of local understanding.

The growth of risk aversion has coincided with broader cultural shifts that have altered our patterns of diplomatic engagement overseas to the detriment of local understanding.

In the last 40 years, we have built the elites of the world in our image. It is a huge success story for the United States. Foreigners who want their children to get ahead school them in English. Our business practices have become the gold standard of the world; our military is the best; many ambitious students in the world want to go to our schools. All this has had positive benefits for the United States. As a result, however, many prominent foreigners don’t read and write their own language anymore (and, I would add, they often know less about their own countries than we do). Not long ago I was the guest of an Arab minister; his toddlers, barely able to talk, rushed out to greet him in English.

Not surprisingly, we now spend a lot of time interacting with these English-speaking people overseas. In Saudi Arabia, the embassy entertains male and female entrepreneurs who attended Ivy League schools. Our senior diplomats have always had good access to the country’s leaders. But we probably know less today about what is going on in Saudi Arabia’s heartland than we did 30 years ago.

I once asked a Saudi minister who studied in London and Paris what was going on in his conservative home town. He admitted he hadn’t been there in 12 years because his more conservative relatives didn’t approve of his writings. Why does this matter? Because internal stability in Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. strategic interest. And because we need to understand what environment encouraged the Saudi hijackers to flourish—or, in another context, Tunisia’s angry young men to join the so-called Islamic State in droves.

An Unsustainable Model

It isn’t that we don’t have talented and adventurous young Foreign Service officers. In Yemen, before our embassy was evacuated in 2015, there were two outstanding officers who had been Fulbright scholars. They had great contacts and spoke Arabic. But our security restrictions meant that they never left the embassy. Our officers could do a lot by phone, but eventually their skills would atrophy, and Arabs would see the lack of personal contact as a lack of interest. By contrast, there were analysts from international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who lived in downtown Sana’a and continued to provide useful information well into the civil war. Our ambassador, a distinguished Arabist, worked from Saudi Arabia on the phone, taking advantage of the contacts he had made during 10 months in Yemen before he was evacuated. With enormous bureaucratic effort, he managed to make a few short trips back.

Would the U.S. government have been more effective at resolving the conflict if he and his staff had been there more often? Hard to say. But the vast majority of countries in the world are relationship-based societies: It is far easier to find out what someone is planning when you are sitting on their couch late at night rather than talking to them on WhatsApp.

What the Foreign Service can no longer do in many countries was brought home to me by a 2013 New Republic article on Egypt by Eric Trager, an Arabic speaker with excellent contacts. “My Brother’s Presidency Was a Disaster” was an interview with the brother of now-deceased Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. I asked Trager how he had gotten his story. He told me he had gone to Morsi’s hometown, a rural village, and stopped off in a drugstore to ask where Morsi’s family home was located. A kid in the drugstore offered to take him to Morsi’s brother. Trager met the brother and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Today’s American political officers can’t go on the spur of the moment to some rural village, ask some kid to take them to an unknown destination and hang out with some members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

His substantive point in the article was an important one: Despite the military crackdown, the Muslim Brotherhood was alive and well in rural Egypt. But today’s American political officers can’t go on the spur of the moment to some rural village, ask some kid to take them to an unknown destination and hang out with some members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Libya, our embassy closed in 2014 because of violence. Even before the withdrawal, the embassy had been subject to the strictest security of posts in the region, with highly limited staff, one-year tours and the most depressing living conditions I had ever seen in the Foreign Service. The situation gradually improved, and the western embassies began to return—with the exception of the United States and Canada. The United States continued to run its diplomatic operation from Tunisia. Despite numerous requests from the ambassador to both administrations, mission staff was not allowed to return on a regular basis, and the bar to meet security standards kept being raised.

No one in a position of responsibility would sign off on the embassy’s return. Like those junior officers in Yemen, we have strong senior officers, too; through herculean efforts the ambassador met with Libya’s leaders every time they were outside the country, and the United States was still a preeminent influence in that country. But this diplomatic model is not sustainable, because we are cut off from ministries, NGOs and the business community, and from the country’s citizens. It is hard to know, furthermore, whether other countries saw our perceived withdrawal from Libya as a green light for their own intervention.

The increasing militarization of foreign policy is not new, but it also received a huge boost from Benghazi. As U.S. forces continued to operate in places where State Department officers weren’t allowed to go, military personnel not surprisingly assumed more and more of the traditional civilian functions. This has been particularly dramatic in northeastern Syria. Even though ISIS has lost territory, 70,000 ISIS dependents, including 12,000 stateless children, now sit in miserable camps in northeastern Syria. This is an example of the need for preventive diplomacy at its most urgent: to ensure that these camps don’t become a terrorist petri dish and that hundreds of children don’t continue to die every day requires a highly specialized team of civilian specialists working with the U.S. military and with the Syrian Democratic Forces (the Kurds). Yet civilians are only allowed to be present in small numbers, if at all, after an exhaustive internal approval process.

Everyday Diplomacy Is Essential

The irony is that local knowledge and contacts make us safer. In September 2011, American embassies in the Middle East received frantic warnings that we were to “take steps” because Pastor Terry Jones in Florida was about to burn a Koran. Fortunately, in Egypt Political Counselor David Ranz and Political Officer Peter Shea had cultivated the local Salafis, the most conservative branch of Islam. The Salafis actually reached out to the embassy about the Koran burning, and Shea negotiated a statement that effectively dissuaded them from participating in the protest demonstration and kept in touch with them throughout the day. The chargé also had cultivated excellent host-government contacts who were responsive to the embassy’s security concerns. These contacts were important factors in the minimal damage to U.S. interests in Cairo as a result of the incident.

Recently, when visiting our embassy in Doha, I was reminded of what U.S. embassies do year-round, all around the world: help countries take small but important steps to strengthen their society. With no less than five checkpoints, the compound in Doha is hugely unwelcoming. The staff doesn’t invite Qataris to visit because of the embassy’s location and the long delays to get in. But Doha, at least, is a fully staffed embassy where the chargé is respected and highly visible. While I was there, a young officer briefed us on the steps Qatar had taken to improve its labor laws, inadequate to be sure, but a big step in the right direction. It was clear that the U.S. embassy— and this officer, in particular—had worked with Qatari officials, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization and the private sector, and played an important role in promoting the reforms.

This diplomatic model is not sustainable, because we are cut off from ministries, NGOs and the business community, and from the country’s citizens.

Admittedly small potatoes in a strategic sense, an improvement in labor conditions in Qatar is not without important implications: now our ally is not criticized as much for its human rights record, and American firms don’t suffer reputational damage. But perhaps most important, a migrant worker from Bangladesh who makes $300 a month is healthier and safer and has a better future for this accomplishment.

No other diplomatic service in the world can touch so many people, in so many places. When we evacuate or close posts, this is the type of “preventive diplomacy” that gets eliminated.

We weren’t always so averse to risk. In 2003 the Nogal social club in Bogotá was bombed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. It was three blocks from the ambassador’s residence. Thirty-six people died, and hundreds were wounded. Tragically, a children’s recital had just finished. Two embassy personnel had just finished a meeting and departed the premises. Within hours after the attack, American personnel were on the scene to assess the situation. U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms experts arrived from Washington in two days and scraped evidence off neighboring buildings. No one in Washington discussed evacuating or ordered any departure; but as ambassador, I offered anyone the option to curtail. Two people out of a 1,000-person embassy took me up on it. Instead of pressing me to send more people home, then-Management Under Secretary Grant Green asked me why I had allowed people to curtail, saying they should remain in Bogotá “and do their duty.”

The repercussions of withdrawing overseas are subtle and gradual. A review process to justify our overseas presence was instituted in the Obama administration; it was useful but not sufficient. We need an honest conversation within the State Department, with Congress and with the Central Intelligence Agency and DOD about the implications of our presence overseas.

We can’t prevent conflicts, export our products, protect our citizens or improve human rights if we aren’t there. In the May 2015 Foreign Service Journal, James Bullock, writing after his temporary assignment to Tunisia, made the point eloquently that “staying safe” cannot be our highest priority. Our highest priority must be to advance the interests of the United States with a knowledgeable, aggressive and consistent presence overseas.

Anne Woods Patterson is a retired FSO who served as assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs from 2013 to 2017. She previously served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2011 to 2013, ambassador to Pakistan from 2007 to 2010, ambassador to Colombia from 2000 to 2003 and ambassador to El Salvador from 1997 to 2000.