Sunday, September 16, 2012

Post #338 - Closing the Barn Door

This timely essay appeared on yesterday on its Opinion page, written by former ambassador John Limbert:

In an embassy under siege

It takes very little to turn the world upside down.

With the Internet, you’re only one idiot away. An amateurish video from California, or an controversial pastor in Florida can do the job quite nicely. Even without the Internet, a bad decision at the White House can do the same.

These attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts across the Middle East are not new. Thirty-three years ago, the U.S. government did in me and my colleagues at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by letting the ailing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into the United States — and leaving us to face the consequences.

The most recent explosions seemed to come from nowhere. A few minutes of third-rate video appears on the Internet, and our embassies are under siege and killers in Benghazi use the incident as cover to murder a brave U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three of his colleagues.

Today’s grim images bring back terrible memories. They bring home to me just how fortunate we were to have emerged safely after the Tehran attack and 14 months in captivity. They also again bring home how much we owe the young Marine embassy security guards whose training and discipline saved our lives that awful day. The Marines held their fire, kept their cool and averted the day becoming a bloodbath.

When I went out the door of the embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, the attackers threatened to shoot me and my colleague, Al Golacinski, if they weren’t allowed to enter. With no help coming from either Washington or the host government, we were on our own.

Golacinski had left the secure building in an effort to calm the growing throng. He was seized and a gun pointed at his head. He seemed to face certain death. I was terrified.

Some might say all we hostages were lucky, because no one was murdered. When I speak with so many of them, however, they are still in pain mentally and physically, or just not there, or have never climbed out of those 444 days of gut-wrenching fear — when each sound you heard was perhaps the last one. I understand too well that there are things that happen to a human being that are worse than death.

Today’s images also remind me just how vulnerable we were to waves of violence, to opportunistic Iranian politicians and to bad decisions in which we had no say. Our security – like that of our colleagues today – depended on our host country’s authorities and their willingness to assume their responsibilities. In 1979, those authorities did nothing to stop the attackers and rode that wave of mob rule to cement their own power.

The current tide of violence against U.S. diplomats and embassies that has erupted in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere should make us recall:

• Our representatives operate in a dangerous world. Their safety hangs by a thread, and violence can come without warning.
• The American people are well-represented overseas. Stevens was a superb public servant – courageous, empathetic and smart. His death and the death of his colleagues in Benghazi represents a loss for all of us.
• Cheap shots do not help. Those who call the U.S. government “the enemy” or criticize our public servants ignore the courage and self-sacrifice not only of Stevens, but also of brave Americans like Ryan Crocker in Afghanistan and Robert Ford in Syria.

Too often, our representatives around the world live under siege because of conditions not of their making. It happened in Tehran in 1979 and is happening now in too many countries. Instead of exchanging ideas, building understanding, finding common ground and looking for resolution of disputes, our people must hide behind walls and dodge angry mobs, bricks, fire-bombs and worse.
The sad reality is that the scoundrels who perpetrated and supported the Tehran outrage in 1979 have gotten away with it.

No one has ever held them to account for their action. Instead, the authorities in Iran every year mark the anniversary of the embassy attack (Nov. 4) with marches and speeches — as though that ugly action was something to be proud of.

The lesson of 1979 is clear: You can attack U.S. Embassies and American diplomats – our people’s representatives – and you pay no price.

There will always be those who wish us ill. There will always be those who make bad decisions and supply our enemies with pretexts by throwing matches on dry tinder. Both enemies and idiots will always be with us. We should never send the message, however, that one can attack Americans and never be held accountable.

(John Limbert, a retired Foreign Service officer, is now a professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was among the Americans held hostage in Iran in 1979-81.)

As much as I respect John -- a good friend (the main person who introduced me to Persian culture) and perhaps the most knowledgeable non-Iranian American about Iran and its recent history -- what he has said begs the question of how we can avoid such situations before they happen. Not "cheap shots" or the groveling "apologies" that figure importantly in Republicans' critique of our stance toward the rest of the world, but genuine, eyes-wide-open grappling with the diversity and complexity of that world. We are clearly not earning high marks when it comes to either winning friends or influencing people -- despite our success in influencing governments and manipulating economics. In fact, part of our problem stems from the fact that we are the single superpower, the most important nation, the hegemon ~ but not ALL of our problem. We also manage to botch a lot of opportunities to establish relationships of mutual respect and real dialogue. If it only takes one idiot on the internet to run us into the rocks, it will take a great many sensible and sensitive people to steer us toward seas of tranquility and harbors of safety.

Specifically, in the case of Iran, President Carter should not just be faulted for failing to support and protect those who served at his pleasure in the Embassy in Tehran, but for failing to realize that our "constituency" in Iran was not merely the crowned autocrat on the Peacock Throne, but the people of Iran, who were not all supporters of the Shah, his modernizing agenda or his ruthless lieutenants. By the time the "King of Kings" was diagnosed with cancer, our foothold in Iran was itself at Stage Four, with no therapies available to make it well.

We see the same scenario, with variations, replayed in Egypt, where we supported Mobarak for many years before we opposed him, in Saudi Arabia where we hold hands with princes who hold hands with fundamentalist Islamists, and in Afghanistan, where the forces we helped create gave safe haven to those who would now destroy us. Self-serving foreign policy has a way of morphing into self-destruction, sometimes in a very short period of time.

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