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Originally published February 8, 2013 at 4:26 PM | Page modified February 8, 2013 at 4:24 PM

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Op-ed: Don’t turn U.S. embassies into bunkers

A knee-jerk bureaucratic overreaction that results in further security restrictions on U.S. diplomats will make it more difficult to do their jobs, writes guest columnist Kenneth Torp.

Special to The Times

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I had the honor of working in eight embassies in my thirty years as a Foreign Service... MORE
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T

HE spectacle of seemingly endless second-guessing about presumptive security lapses in Benghazi is more dangerous to the conduct of our foreign policy than the events themselves. A knee-jerk bureaucratic overreaction that results in further security restrictions on our diplomats is all too likely to make it much more difficult for them to do their jobs.

I am a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer. I served as a Greek-language economic-commercial officer at our embassy in Cyprus where U.S. Ambassador Rodger Davies was assassinated. I also worked in Mali, where the northern half of the country is now a complex battleground. My foreign service classmate, Ambassador Arnold Raphel, died along with Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq in a plane crash in 1988.

Like most Americans, I was appalled and saddened by the murder in Benghazi of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. I am equally appalled by the spectacle of exploiting this crime to score partisan political points. There was a time when the murder of a U.S. ambassador united us as Americans to confront a common foe. The poisonous politics of division has, sadly, overturned the long-standing tradition that partisanship stops at the water’s edge.

I fear that hypervigilant security considerations will further vitiate the ability of our professional diplomats to do their job. Many of our embassies have already decamped from historic buildings in central locations to fortified bunkers on the edges of foreign cities. I worry that our diplomats won’t get out enough.

My ambassador in Mali, Robert O. Blake, used to say that when he found me in my office I wasn’t doing my job.

He was right. My job was to meet and talk with government officials, business and labor leaders, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, artists and other diplomats. It was also my job to get out of the capital and to talk with merchants, taxi drivers and farmers.

I worry that our Foreign Service officers will be so cosseted in their new chancery bunkers that it will be impossible to do the job. Done properly, the job gives our diplomats that invaluable understanding of a country that is often simply called “feel.”

You can’t get that hiding in the bunker.

For example, in 1972 in Mali the U.S. Embassy began to hear accounts of a dramatic drought parching the already dry Sahelian region of sub-Saharan Africa. I was dispatched to survey the region in northern Mali, including the area around Timbuktu, Gao and Goundam.

While this area was never risk-free for foreigners, it was, at that time, reasonably safe if one traveled with a modicum of prudence and common sense. I spent a couple of weeks alone, driving the embassy’s Land Rover through the desert stopping to talk with Tuaregs, Maurs and Fulani herdsmen and counting dead animals every few hundred meters.

It became tragically clear that the nomads’ sole source of nutrition was dying for lack of water and forage. It was painfully clear that the people would be next. The result of that mission was a U.S. emergency grain-relief operation that delivered sorghum via U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo planes to northern Mali.

Many nomads starved to death during that great drought; but many were saved. I am convinced that my ambassador’s commitment to doing the job and timely and reliable information from a Foreign Service officer in the field made an important difference. This is the kind of diplomacy that is now threatened by a timid overreaction to recent events.

The job of diplomacy involves risk. And, since the 1979 Iran hostage travesty and Sept. 11, 2001, the job has become even more fraught with peril.

In Benghazi, Ambassador Stevens was apparently one of those committed professionals who made it a priority to accept that risk, to do his job, to get out of the embassy and out of Tripoli, and to get the feel of Libya during its time of upheaval and transition.

I do not suggest that Foreign Service officers throw caution to the wind. Nor do I suggest that northern Mali is currently safe enough for our diplomats to travel freely there. But, I do believe that a zero tolerance for security risk will jeopardize our ability to find out what is going on in the world.

With Senate and House committees pummeling former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about Benghazi, the security mavens at the State Department will undoubtedly tilt even more dramatically toward the zero-risk end of the spectrum. This is a mistake.

Foreign Service officers are quite capable of assessing risk and gauging their behavior accordingly. After all, our presidential commissions start with the words: “Reposing special trust and confidence in your integrity, prudence, and ability ...” They are also a quietly patriotic and courageous lot.

I would urge our new Secretary of State, John Kerry, a Foreign Service “brat,” to upgrade personal-security training for all Foreign Service personnel while firmly and publicly holding the line against counterproductive restrictions that pose a substantial threat to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

Kenneth H. Torp of Seattle is a retired Foreign Service officer. He now does consulting for international clients on public financial management.

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