The deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his security personnel in Benghazi, Libya demand a military response from the United States; I hope those who carried out the attacks are targeted as soon as possible. But it is too early to jump to the conclusion that those deaths were due to poor planning or inadequate security. When all the facts are known that may turn out to be the case, but until then it is important to keep in mind all the facts about events currently taking place in Libya and across the Middle East.
Safety and security are two different things. Two of the security personnel killed in Libya were former Navy Seals, the same elite commandos who killed Osama Bin Laden. If you have armed, highly trained and combat experienced Navy Seals protecting you, then surely you’re safe, right? Wrong. Our enemies play to win too. Benghazi is currently in a state of flux with no permanent government or functioning institutions. Risks are everywhere, known and unknown; all you can do in that kind of environment is mitigate risks as best you can with as much security as you can.
Some attackers cannot be deterred by any amount of security. I learned that in Iraq; even while on a huge base with 40,000 other armed military personnel and the best technology money could buy, we were still attacked on a daily basis. Foreign service is inherently risky and always will be. Risk can be managed but never eliminated.
An attack by itself is not proof of a security failure. The point of security is to prevent attacks whenever possible and respond whenever necessary. That means when we are attacked we should blame our attackers, not each other or our own government. There are many places in the world where safety as we enjoy it here in the U.S. simply isn’t possible. Planning can help improve safety and security, but rapidly changing conditions can make even the best plans useless.
Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and other countries in the Middle East have recently undergone major changes. Before 2011, public protests were nonexistent. Now protests are a national pastime in many countries across the region. For example in Egypt, particularly Tahrir Square in Cairo, protests have been a daily occurrence for months. Protests rarely get coverage here in the U.S. unless they turn violent, leaving Americans with the distorted view that most protests are violent. They aren’t.
Because the protests have become so frequent it is difficult to predict which ones will be violent and which ones won’t. Most are peaceful. There have been hundreds of protests in Egypt alone since 2011 of which only a small percentage were violent. In Libya the largest demonstrations of the past few weeks were actually pro-American, not anti-American.
The recent protests in the Middle East were of a rare variety because they focused specifically on the United States. Typically protests have nothing to do with us but tend to be focused on local or country specific issues. Nor do all these protests mean the Middle East is in chaos. It isn’t. The power is on, phones are working, and traffic is flowing. Check out any American company sourcing products from Egypt or Bahrain; the factories are up and running normally. Not one shipment has even been delayed due to protests. Protestors represent a tiny fraction of the overall population in the region, not the views of the entire Middle East which are as diverse as views across the United States. The Middle East is not in chaos or consumed by anti-Americanism. It does have a high number of very real and complex challenges which pose threats to our interests. We cannot address those challenges and threats effectively unless we know all the facts.