For years, Staci Raab and dozens of other foreign service students at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington have dreamed of the good work they would do during their first postings as U.S. diplomats.
But on Monday, as she and other students discussed the death of Anne Smedinghoff, a 25-year-old American diplomat killed Saturday in a bomb attack in Afghanistan, they said they had some deeply troubling concerns.
They weren’t, however, about the security threats posed by working in some of the most lawless countries on Earth.
Instead, the students were worried about too much security and the shrinking space for American diplomats to do their work. Today, they know, increasingly higher walls surround embassies and compounds, and diplomats travel in armored vehicles. The result is incredibly restricted movement in places that need outreach the most. Seeing the world through bulletproof glass does not allow a true picture of life beyond the compounds, they said.
“Her death hits so close to home, and we feel horrible about it. But it also raises a tension that we all worry about right now: Can we really do these jobs we have trained for?” asked Raab, 26, who passed her Foreign Service exam and will soon be serving in the Middle East. “Can you do the same type of work from a compound or in a village with soldiers all around you with guns?”
These are not just the concerns of idealistic Foreign Service hopefuls in Washington. The issue facing American diplomats on the ground is just how much security is too much, and at what point does it become counterproductive, making you more of a target, said Barbara Bodine, who was U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.
“Too much ‘security,’ does not create real security,” she said. “To be value-added to the government, we need to know what’s going on ‘outside the wire’ and shouldn’t be hermetically sealed.”
The threat feels especially insurmountable in today’s borderless wars, where attacks can happen anywhere — in crowded markets or outside embassies that look like fortresses — and in a world where there are no such things as what security experts call “zero risk” scenarios. “If you are inside the security bubble it’s really hard to make an assessment of what exists beyond that bubble,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department employee who directs the Middle East program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I traveled with both the government and as an academic, and the question is, should you take public taxis or — as with the government — drive around in armored cars, with bomb-resistant glass, that you can see from half a mile away?” he said. “Are you better off being visible and protected or invisible and unprotected?”
Smedinghoff, who graduated from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Hopkins, was traveling in a heavily armored convoy on her way to distribute textbooks to schoolchildren when she was killed along with four other Americans in what the State Department said was a Taliban attack in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan.
“She was well-protected, so the lesson here is there is no ‘zero risk,’ ” said Daniel P. Serwer, a retired Foreign Service officer in Bosnia and Kosovo and now a professor of conflict management at SAIS. “The truth is, the civilians who serve abroad are as much our troops as the soldiers today, and the natural bureaucratic response is to make the cars more armored, raise the wire even higher, put out more armed guards.” But, he asked, “are we protecting people so much that we are losing personal contacts and connections?”
The issue of how much security is enough was among those at the center of the political storm over the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens after an assault by extremists on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. He was a veteran diplomat, spoke the local language fluently and had more than three decades of on-the-ground experience in the Middle East.
In Washington, an investigation by an Accountability Review Board appointed by the State Department faulted the department for security shortcomings. Testifying before both the House and Senate Foreign Affairs committees, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged to adopt more security while insisting that diplomats must be able to travel in dangerous places to do their jobs.
“We are in a new reality. We are trying to make sense of changes that nobody had predicted but which we’re going to have to live with,” Clinton said.
Inside the SAIS lunchroom, where photographs of the Dalai Lama, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright line the walls, some of the students had already changed their Facebook profiles to an image of a black ribbon paired with the Department of State seal in honor of Smedinghoff.
“I know it’s complicated, but sometimes the best security is having good relations with ordinary people and that means spending time with them,” said Jacob Cohn, who has passed his Foreign Service test and served in the Peace Corps in the Gambia. “Even though this was a horrible tragedy, we can’t just retract and move behind the barbed wire. I don’t think Anne would have wanted us to do that, either.”