BEIRUT — On the day that Houthi rebels took over the capital of Yemen in February, US diplomats moved into high gear to do what they are increasingly tasked with doing when the countries they cover explode into crisis: Pack up and leave.
In the month that has followed, Yemen has erupted into one of the scariest hot spots in the world, hosting a high-stakes regional war entangling most of America’s allies and enemies on top of one of the busiest shipping lanes for the global oil supply. Additionally, there is the threat of terrorism: Yemen has produced some of the most significant Al Qaeda plots against American targets since 9/11, but counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering efforts have collapsed along with the US diplomatic exit.
With no diplomats, counter-terrorism operatives, or top-secret spies on the ground, the United States is left with less visibility than ever into a rapidly shifting conflict.
It’s not that foreign service officers suddenly lack the courage or desire to stay put when the countries where they’re stationed go haywire. Rather, a succession of United States administrations has increasingly decided that, in a post-9/11, post-Benghazi era, the stakes for putting civilian diplomats in harm’s way are too high. President Obama’s political wrangle with Congress in the aftermath of the 2012 murder of J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, made an already deteriorating situation even worse. Few, if any, US diplomats today are given the freedom to exercise their professional judgment of what risks are worth taking.
Throughout the combustible region stretching from Pakistan to Morocco, where America has expended most of its foreign policy energy in the last four decades, its diplomatic presence operates at a paralyzing remove, behind concrete as well as perceptual barriers. And intentionally or not, the result leaves the United States flying blind in places where information is the hardest to obtain and where diplomacy may be the most vital.
“WE ARE NOW too restrictive. We need a course correction,” said Ronald E. Neumann, who served as an American ambassador in volatile spots including Afghanistan and Algeria, before retiring in 2007.
Crafting foreign policy requires information and judgments that even the most skilled diplomats and observers can’t cull from afar, Neumann explained. In Yemen, for instance, with the well-connected ambassador now having to work remotely by phone and in meetings abroad, the United States is forced to rely much more on the biased analysis of allies like Saudi Arabia.
“If you’re going to avoid a civil war, it requires understanding what the parties want and being able to broker solutions,” Neumann said. “You can’t do this from a distance.”
But a great distance is exactly what separates American diplomats from flashpoints like Yemen, Syria, and Libya today. In other war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States retains an information network from its long periods of military occupation, but that too is shrinking. American understanding and insight into global conflicts are as limited as ever.
What is lost when diplomats must withdraw — or are forced to operate out of fortress embassies with elaborate security protocols restricting their ability to meet with the people who provide crucial analysis and avenues of influence? Can America even properly understand the places that top its list of threats?
THE DANGERS TO Americans serving the country’s interests abroad are very real and long-running.
“If you’re an American, you’ve got a bull’s-eye on you that others don’t,” said Ryan C. Crocker, who has served as ambassador in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Kuwait.
In 1979, Iranian radicals took over the US Embassy and held 52 hostages for more than a year; that crisis fatally hobbled Jimmy Carter’s presidency. In April 1983, a suicide bomber blew up the US Embassy in Beirut, killing 63. In 1998, massive bombs ravaged the American missions in Kenya and Tanzania. These attacks are only the most scarring of dozens of bombings, assassinations, and other assaults that have targeted US diplomats over the years — so many that the State Department collected them into a glossy brochure.
The consensus among career diplomats is that there’s a way to do an effective job despite threats — so long as they’re allowed to take some risks and keep missions open even in turbulent countries.
But at least two factors have conspired to dramatically reduce America’s diplomatic footprint. The first is the complexity of the threats and violence in trouble areas like Yemen, Libya, and Syria.
The United States shut down its embassy in Damascus in 2012 because of the risk of suicide car bomb attacks. As Libya melted down in the summer of 2014, diplomats were ordered to leave. The same thing happened when the war in Yemen spiraled this February. In three of the four war zones presently raging in the Arab world — all conflicts in which the United States is either directly involved or has close allies fighting for critical interests — the State Department has no eyes on the ground.
“You lose an enormous amount when you’re no longer in the country. You have a reduced ability to persuade and influence, and a reduced ability to understand,” said Robert Ford, who served as the last US ambassador to Syria.
When the uprising began in 2011, Ford was omnipresent, cutting an unusually visible profile for an American diplomat, even paying a surprise visit to antiregime protesters in the city of Hama in July that year. He reluctantly closed the Damascus embassy in early 2012 but continued the job for several years at a distance before retiring and becoming a critic of US policy on Syria from his perch at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
The second factor hampering diplomats is the political skittishness that followed the murder of Stevens and three other Americans at the hands of extremists in Benghazi in 2012.
The Benghazi killings have made it even harder for diplomats to take what they consider reasonable risks. Stevens dedicated his career to tireless outreach and interpersonal contact. Former colleagues, including Crocker, Neumann, and Ford, said it was ironic that the political fallout from Stevens’s murder had curtailed the very brand of diplomacy that Stevens championed.
As Crocker put it, “Chris Stevens would roll over in his grave if he knew how his death has been misused.”
VISITING US EMBASSIES these days can entail running a humiliating gauntlet of body searches, blast barriers, and walled holding areas. And if a US diplomat comes to you, it often means invasive searches beforehand with bomb-sniffing dogs and obtrusive security details. In places like Iraq, where meeting with Americans can put someone’s life in danger, potential interlocutors often prefer not to run the risk if it is overly complicated to talk.
In other words, American diplomacy is becoming increasingly fearful and hidebound. But what is the cost to our foreign policy? How much have we lost in actual influence and actual knowledge because of this bunker diplomacy?
We’re in the process of finding out. In Yemen, the United States is supporting a foreign war against a tough nation that has frustrated every previous foreign military intervention. America might be making decisions based on simplified assertions that its own diplomats contradict: for instance, the characterization of the Houthis as a simple Iranian proxy rather than as a formidable local alliance supported by Yemen’s former president (who is not a Houthi). Elsewhere, the United States seems fuzzy on the dynamics of tribes, of disenfranchised Sunnis, even on the breadth and depth of support for jihadist movements. It’ll be hard to contain ISIS, or prop up the Iraqi government, or limit the repercussion of the regional wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya if the United States is no longer sure of basic descriptive facts — who supports warring parties and powerful ideologies, what’s at stake in the tangled alliances, what complexities underlie the region’s sometimes simplistic sectarian rhetoric.
Mokhtar Lamani, an international diplomat from Morocco who ran an Arab League mission in Iraq at the height of the civil war and later worked for the United Nations in Syria, said he felt sorry for his American colleagues and their oppressive security protocols, which he believes lost them a wide array of contacts and insights.
In Baghdad in 2006, Lamani lived outside the Green Zone, where he regularly met with Iraqis who opposed the US occupation. Eventually he gave up hosting Americans at his mission because of the exhaustive advance searches that he feared would tip off extremists to his whereabouts. “It was easier for me to go see them in the Green Zone,” he said. “But life in the Green Zone had nothing in common with the rest of Iraq.”
One seasoned observer of Middle East diplomacy, the scholar Randa Slim, argues that the Americans relied too heavily on second-hand information from exiles like Ahmad Chalabi during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, resulting in major missteps, including the decisions to disband the military and to dismantle the Baath Party.
“The United States went into a country in which we have not had a diplomatic presence since 1991 and, as a result, had no active on-the-ground intelligence since that date,” Slim said.
Lamani noted that Americans often suffer analytical lapses because they don’t talk to politically unpalatable or contentious players. In Syria, American diplomats avoided meeting with extremists from the opposition even when they were the ones in control of the military uprising. In Iraq, many of the hostile factions and religious leaders refused to meet with Americans on principle, and the Americans didn’t always find ways to bring them to the table.
“In diplomacy, you have to be in contact with everybody,” Lamani said. “There are two kinds of rules that harm American diplomats: the physical rules that keep them from being on the ground, and the political isolation they have imposed on them.”
Even the Americans know from experience that there’s no substitute for being there. Neumann recalls that at the peak of the Algerian war in the 1990s against an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency, experts agreed that the fight was a stalemate and that eventually the secular government would have to reach a political settlement with the Islamists. Despite a very restrictive security environment, Neumann and his political staff spent a year interviewing Algerians, collecting all the information they could, and reached a surprising conclusion: The government was actually winning. Armed with this new analysis, the United States could update its own strategy.
“There’s a lot of things you can do if you’re not stupid,” says Neumann, clarifying that he means so long as diplomats take calculated risks rather than behaving recklessly.
Yet in Lebanon, seven years after the bombing, the United States reopened its embassy on a hilltop far north of Beirut, surrounded by an army of private mercenary guards. Even today, more than three decades after the 1983 attack, diplomats visit Beirut in convoys, with armed guards, sometimes clearing cafes of their patrons to hold meetings. In contrast, European diplomats work in the Beirut city center, traveling independently by taxis or driving their own cars, and they’re free to meet activists, dissidents, Hezbollah members — whoever will talk to them.
THE UNITED STATES now relies extensively on second-hand reports: from British diplomats, who are allowed to move around more; problematic allies like the Saudis; or local politicians, who also can’t be fully trusted. Other limitations are self-inflicted — the United States legally prohibits itself from talking to groups that it labels terrorists, making it harder to deal with critical players, especially foes such as the Taliban or Hezbollah. The United States has not had an embassy in Iran since 1979, making it harder to manage relations with perhaps the most important adversarial actor in the Middle East.
Diplomats, for their part, have tried to make up for the security mentality with creative workarounds. They call old contacts on the phone or on Skype and invite people they know from the past to meet them at the embassy or on neutral ground, like in a Baghdad hotel lobby or at the Kandahar Airport. Others elude threats — and tight budgets — by traveling incognito to meetings in beat-up old cars rather than in attention-grabbing convoys of SUVs with tinted windows.
Ford recalls as a political officer in Algeria, when it became too dangerous to move comfortably around the countryside, he lured reluctant guests to the embassy by inviting them for Lebanese takeout. Eventually he hosted hundreds of meetings that way.
Neumann suggests that the United States could mitigate some of its lost access by extending the length of diplomatic tours, keeping political officers and ambassadors in their posts for two or three years instead of one. Some regional actors like Iran keep their envoys on the same portfolios for a decade or more.
Crocker believes the damage is getting worse. Until now, the United States has been saved from falling totally out of touch by a generation of diplomats who had a chance 20 or 30 years ago to build contacts with whom they could communicate closely in the new era of fortress diplomacy. Despite their zeal, younger diplomats never got the chance to drive themselves around the countryside meeting the dissidents, intellectuals, business people, journalists, and regular people who become any diplomat’s most important informants.
“It’s our future that’s at peril more than our present,” Crocker says. “You cannot practice diplomacy with a zero-loss mentality.”
In Yemen, the United States has withdrawn all civilian, military, and intelligence personnel. That move likely relinquished its only opportunity to affect or even end the war. Instead, Saudi Arabia, which has a stake in pushing back the Iran-backed Houthis, is, more or less, dictating US policy.
“There’s no question that we don’t have as much information as we would like,” Ford said. “And we have less ability to persuade people to move in directions that might resolve the conflict.”
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.
• Foreign policy wins Obama could still pull off
• Why ISIS’s destruction of antiquities hurts so much
• Q&A: Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.
• 2013 | The secret history of democratic thought in the Middle East