DAVID IGNATIUS: Fortress diplomacy

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – Buried in the scathing critique of the State Department’s performance during the attack on its consulate in Benghazi is a description of what may become the “new normal” in hot spots abroad – where U.S. diplomats cannot rely on local security and must consider “when to leave and perform the mission from a distance.”
The Accountability Review Board’s report talks about augmenting U.S. diplomatic security and maintaining America’s presence around the globe. But realistically, given the fact that the report triggered the removal of four top State Department officials, it’s likely to reinforce the caution that’s already evident in U.S. operations overseas.
This risk aversion is partly a result of a Washington culture (media included) that treats every mistake as a scandal. Big mistakes were made in Benghazi and people should be held accountable.
The report correctly warns against “an unacceptable total fortress and stay-at-home approach to U.S. diplomacy.”
The passages that caught my eye were the recommendations on security. The State Department must move “beyond traditional reliance on host government security support in high risk, high threat posts,” the report argues. Specifically, the department should “urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risks and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas.” The “acceptable” threat tolerance may become close to zero.
The report suggests several ways to assess vulnerability, but one is crucial: Officials should pay “constant attention to changes in the situation, including when to leave and perform the mission from a distance.”
The Benghazi situation was horrifying. Because Libya had no effective police or army, the State Department was relying chiefly on what the report describes as the “armed but poorly skilled” members of a local militia called the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade. But the report notes that on the day of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ fatal visit, “February 17 militia members had stopped accompanying [consulate] vehicle movements in protest over salary and working hours.”
The militia fighters were worse than useless: They didn’t try to stop the attack on the consulate and they didn’t answer the CIA base chief’s pleas a few minutes later for backup machine guns.
Here’s the problem the report doesn’t state, but is crucial for the future: In too many parts of the world, the U.S. relies as it did in Benghazi on forces that are tribal militias or little better.
The report highlights a final aspect of the new normal: The al-Qaeda terrorist threat is “fragmenting” and morphing. The model now isn’t mega-attacks against the homeland, as happened on Sept. 11, 2001, but what the report calls a “growing, diffuse range” of local operatives who hit American targets wherever they have a chance, as on Sept. 11, 2012 in Benghazi.
Looking back at the 9/11 at tacks, I think many Americans understand now the danger of an overreaction that undermines U.S. values and interests. The same is true of the Benghazi attack. The surest way to empower the new terrorist gangs would be to withdraw from U.S. diplomatic missions.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.