In June 2003, US Ambassador John Blaney had a choice to make. Two rebel groups assaulted the Liberian capital to overthrow Charles Taylor. Taylor was wanted by an international criminal court and he controlled Liberia with commandos and unruly militia. There was a real risk that his forces would attack the US embassy.
The city was swollen with thousands of internally displaced people, and there was no food, potable water or electricity. The US embassy was the last Western diplomatic presence and there was no egress, as the port was under attack, no airlines were flying, and roads were impassable. At the low point, the embassy had only a handful of Marines and a skeletal staff.
Ambassador Blaney had every reason to take down the flag and go home. What would you have done?
The ambassador relied on his long experience and his clear understanding of local dynamics and concluded that, while the risks were very real that the embassy could be overrun, he had to give diplomacy a last chance. He did not want Liberia to become a “Somalia West,” an ungoverned space and possible terrorist sanctuary, with disastrous consequences for US national interests and for the Liberian people for years to come. He kept the US embassy open.
Over the next three months, the embassy became a rallying point for international efforts to end the war, and a symbol for the Liberian people that the United States stood with them in their time of greatest need. The compound was shelled and hundreds of Liberians were killed, but the flag flew. US forces reinforced the embassy and West African peacekeepers were deployed.
Blaney took calculated risks: he crossed the frontlines to broker a local ceasefire that had rebels quit the city and agree to a transitional government. As a result, the country stabilised, elections were held, and Liberia elected the first woman president in Africa. Today, nine years on, Liberia is a US friend, Charles Taylor has been convicted, and Liberia is rebuilding its international standing.
The ambassador’s decision points to an often overlooked truth about diplomacy: at its core, it is risk. From the craft’s origins in antiquity, diplomats left the protections of our own borders and relied for our safety on persuasion, judgment and our indispensable role, without which state-to-state relations would go dark.
Our presence on foreign soil best positions us to assess others’ receptivity to our messages and to persuade them to work with us. But we are exposed when we are abroad.
The risks to American diplomats are particularly acute in today’s world. When I was in Afghanistan, we had to evaluate daily dozens of credible threats to our bases, many of which never came to pass but some of which resulted in lethal attacks against our soldiers and diplomats. It became clear to me that, no matter how good the intelligence, it is impossible to defend against every threat. And risks abound beyond conflict zones.
In 1998, I endured the bombing of our embassy in Tanzania. In the smouldering wreckage of our chancery, in the bloodstains on the side of the building, I realised how vulnerable we are simply because we are proud symbols of our country.
For these reasons, as a career Foreign Service Officer, I have found it difficult to read in the press over the past few weeks recriminations over the loss of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other colleagues in Libya. This tragic event is labelled by some a “scandal” due to a “failure” of security, of intelligence, or of leadership.
As it always does where lives have been lost, the State Department has convened an Accountability Review Board, to recommend corrective action if necessary and to find out how we can do better. I do not know what the board will find, but I would hope that those critics external to the department depoliticise the process and, rather than seek to assign blame, reflect on how better diplomatic work can be supported.
The United States shows its leadership in the world through active diplomacy. In the Foreign Service, we identify, cultivate and strengthen the alliances that secure our country, we advocate for open markets to ensure US prosperity, and we support partners who share the values that are the foundation of our strength.
We cannot do these things remotely: we must be present on the ground.
In many places, it is difficult to distinguish friend from enemy. Our role is to clarify and to win partners. We cannot leave the world in the hands of economic or strategic competitors, or in the grip of dictators, criminals or extremists. We must, in the can-do spirit of our country, take necessary risks to represent the American case. We compete, we win and we bring others along with us.
These are the reasons that Ambassador Blaney chose to keep the flag flying in Liberia. They are the reasons that Ambassador Stevens and his team ventured last year into a contested land. They are the reasons that our diplomats even now are trying to support those Libyans who want to turn away from extremism.
In Libya, our diplomats understand the risks more than ever, but they press on because that is what it takes to ensure that our country’s values and interests are advanced. We root for their success. And we honour the courage and sacrifice of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and our colleagues, and we recall the example of US Ambassador John Blaney, and many others like him, who risk career and life to change the world.