Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, retired in June after 43 years of government service, including as an Army officer in Germany and Vietnam and 35 years in the Foreign Service, including three in Iraq.
For most of America’s history, our diplomacy was based on establishing rapport with foreign leaders, negotiating military alliances, promoting trade and reporting back to Washington on key developments, all while watching out for our citizens abroad. But since World War II, and particularly under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, our approach has expanded: Our diplomats now move beyond host government offices to work directly with populations to help mediate conflicts, press economic development and serve shoulder to shoulder with the military in the fight against terrorism.
This new type of mission, dubbed “expeditionary diplomacy,” is hands-on and often effective. But, as we saw with the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the Benghazi outpost that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, it can also be very dangerous. In hearings this past week before Senate and House committees, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated her conviction that direct-to-the-population diplomatic work is essential for U.S. security. But to make sure the risks of expeditionary diplomacy are worth the rewards, we need a clear, formal framework for deciding when these missions should be undertaken, avoided or rolled back.
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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the September 11th attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Wednesday. Clinton’s voice broke when she spoke of the safety of U.S. diplomats abroad.
Clinton alluded to this when she promised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that her department would review “where, when and whether” before deploying our diplomats. Likewise, an independent review led by Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen of what happened in Libya noted the need, at times, for “downsizing, indirect access and even withdrawal.” However, the Foreign Service’s culture of courage will routinely answer Clinton’s three W’s with “everywhere, always and of course.”
I’ve experienced these dilemmas firsthand. For example, during my time as deputy chief at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, I lost a civilian officer in 2004 when he ignored instructions to travel with an escort as he helped his Iraqi government colleagues deliver services to their people.
After the Vietnam War, the military faced a similar choice in deciding when and where to use force overseas. In the 1980s, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and then-Lt. Gen. Colin Powell drafted an informal but influential guide, which became known as the Powell Doctrine, that informed our decisions in Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo. It calls for military action only when key U.S. interests are at stake; says we must state clear, achievable objectives for every mission and devote the necessary resources to them; cites the need for congressional and popular support; and cautions that war should be a last resort.
Of course, deploying State Department officials in expeditionary missions is not the same as sending troops into combat, but the 1979 hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the Benghazi attack last year show the risks of getting diplomatic operations wrong. Thus, a modified version of the Powell Doctrine could be a good guideline for deciding where, when and whether to deploy our brave diplomats. It would ensure that their risks and potential sacrifices are in the service of important — and achievable — foreign policy goals.