The U.S. diplomatic corps frequently serves as a whipping boy for politicians who want to strike a populist cord with voters. Many Americans fail to see any real connection between the work of the U.S. Foreign Service and things that are important in their own daily lives. Diplomats to them are fancy people who hobnob with millionaires in places like Paris and Vienna, attending social events that normal folk could barely even imagine.
A favorite phrase used to describe the diplomatic corps while I worked on Capitol Hill was “them boys in the striped pants.” Webster Dictionary defines that use of the term “striped pants” as meaning “over attentive to formality, protocol, or partying and social activity.”
Former Rep. John J. Rooney (D-NY), who was serving as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funded the State Department when I arrived as a young staffer on Capitol Hill, partially built his political career around beating up on diplomats. He labeled the State Department’s annual budget request for “representational allowance” as “booze money for cookie pushers.”
I got a very vivid exposure to the other side of diplomatic service in 1980 as part of a congressional delegation that visited Islamabad only a few months after our embassy there had been burned to the ground. The life of many “cookie pushers” was a little tougher than Rep. Rooney and other detractors of the diplomatic corps made it out to be.
Pakistani students became outraged over unconfirmed radio reports that the United States was complicit in attacks taking place in the holy city of Mecca. They gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy, stormed the walls, smashed out the windows, killed two Marine guards, and set fire to anything that would burn, including all of the automobiles parked in the embassy courtyard. All 100 embassy employees (other than the two dead Marines) took refuge in a windowless steel-incased vault. After a long and frightening five-hour wait, the Pakistani Army arrived. Miraculously, everyone who made it to the vault was still alive.
Prior to the deaths in Benghazi, Libya, last week of Amb. Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith, and State Department Security Officers Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, a total of 88 U.S. diplomatic personnel had died in the service of the their country since the burning of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. Military personnel accounted for 23 and central intelligence personnel accounted for 14 more. But a large majority of these men and women were in the U.S. Foreign Service, U.S. Agency for International Development, or staff from other departments and agencies assigned to U.S. embassies overseas.
The deaths were attributable to a variety of causes. The danger of simply living in many foreign capitals with high incidences of traffic fatalities in places such as Cairo, Beijing, or Sarajevo is one factor. Another is exposure to deadly diseases such as malaria in Nigeria or Liberia. A total of 10 died in accidental plane crashes. But the vast majority were victims of embassy bombings or other terrorist or military attacks. A total of 13 died in the 1983 Hezbollah attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Only a year later two more died in a second attack on the same embassy. And that same year the U.S. emissary to Namibia, Dennis Keogh, was killed in Oshakati in a bombing attack.
In 1985 four off-duty Marine security guards were machine gunned to death at a sidewalk café in San Salvador. In 1998 nine Americans serving in the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, were killed in the bombing of that embassy, including Deputy Chief of Mission Julian Bartley. In 2002 Barbara Green was killed in a terrorist attack in Pakistan, and Laurence Foley was killed in a second attack in Jordan. A total of nine embassy personnel were killed in attacks in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.
The deaths last week of Stevens, Smith, Doherty, and Woods should remind all of us of the extreme risks and daily discomforts that are taken by a great many of the thousands of men and women who staff the more than 260 embassies, consulates, and missions we maintain in 180 separate countries. We should also recognize that our national security is as dependent on men like Christopher Stevens and the work they do in weaving together alliances and bringing stability to strife-torn regions of the world as by our investments in military hardware or our deployment of military personnel. It is a tough, often dirty business—it deserves our respect and appreciation.
It also deserves resources. In each of the last two years, Congress has cut President Obama’s request for U.S. Foreign Service and U.S. Agency for International Development staffing levels despite repeated analysis by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, indicating that our embassies are critically understaffed.
But even more inexcusable are the repeated and deep cuts made to embassy security and construction. Thousands of our diplomatic personnel are serving overseas in facilities that do not come close to meeting the minimal requirements for security established by the so-called Inman commission’s report on overseas diplomatic security to President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state more than two decades ago.
Nor is it likely to change anytime soon. In the 2011 continuing resolution, Congress, at the insistence of the House of Representatives, slashed the president’s request for embassy security and construction and forced another cut in fiscal year 2012. Altogether Congress has eliminated $296 million from embassy security and construction in the last two years with additional cuts in other State Department security accounts.
Sequestration required under the Budget Control Act of 2011 will take more than $100 million more out of the program in 2013 if the current Congress does not overcome the impasse over budget cuts and tax revenues by yearend. Those cuts are largely the result of the draconian and unrealistically low budget caps placed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) on all discretionary spending, falling particularly hard on the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee with responsibility for embassy security.
This is not the kind of treatment our dedicated government servants and men and women in uniform protecting them deserve.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.