Libya: Did Citizen Evacuations Stand in the Way of Better Policy?

by Peter Spiro

It now seems to be the conventional wisdom (hard to shake once in place) that the U.S. has been slow off the mark on Libya.  That may have consequences for U.S. standing in the region.  As long-time Middle East hand Aaron David Miller put it in a tweet this morning: “the arab spring isn’t mainly our story; but president obama is now seen by arab democrats and autocrats alike as a weak friend and foe.”

The Administration got a defense out (on background) that it held off on more decisive action — such as imposing the sanctions that were finally put in place last night — pending the evacuation from Libya of U.S. citizens, U.S. diplomats in particular.  As always, safety of U.S. citizens is said to be the highest priority in such unstable situations.  Apparently, the U.S. embassy compound in Tripoli is poorly secured, with no Marine guards in place to defend.  (Vulnerability of nationals in Libya is also now being floated as a reason why other countries are not yet on board with UN sanctions.)

That’s a tough place to be.  Obviously you don’t want to end up in a hostage situation (the politics of that would be horrific for Obama in addition to all the other reasons — the Carter comparison perfected).  But does it have to be the case that U.S. policy itself is held hostage?

Perhaps the lesson here is to have contingency plans in place to pull U.S. officials out of such situations quickly (as of today, think Sanaa, Libreville, Yaounde, among others).  That would have the downside of leaving other U.S. citizens without exit assistance, at least not in place.  But many of them are taken care of by their corporate employers.  Many others will be dual nationals, and only nominally American, and should be able to fend for themselves as well as locals.  (State’s P.J. Crowley seemed implicitly to make this point in an early briefing on the question.)  In any case the safety of the few has compromised the global effectiveness of the whole.

4 Responses

  1. As a former diplomat with experience at some 20+ US diplomatic facilities over the years, I do know a bit about evacuation plans; I’ve even helped draw up several plans. Every embassy has them and they are part of the regular inspection process. The plans are drawn up locally and challenged by State Dept. in Washington to assure feasibility.

    All of them, however, necessarily rely on local security and police forces. Not every embassy has a USMC Embassy Security Guard detachment; those are subject to bilateral negotiation and further subject to USMC staffing availability. Often–and these days, usually–the embassies will also have a contracted security force, hired locally.

    If there is no local security force willing or able to protect the facility, then there’re not a lot of good options. If the local police or military refuse to do their job, there’s no way to make them do it. (See: US Embassy, Tehran, 1979.)

    Where there a USMC-SG detachment, its role would not be to guard potential evacuees, anyway. Its purpose is solely to buy enough time to destroy classified materials in an embassy or consulate. It would, of course, be willing to provide defense in the face of direct threats, but not so much in the face of generalized threats. No detachment is big enough to protect a hundred or more people having to travel even a few miles across a battleground.

    The USMC has a reaction force that can be put on the ground, usually with 48 hours, strong enough to force an exit–assuming there’s an exit available. It might be able to coordinate with the US Navy to provide airlift to US naval vessels. The reaction team is not necessarily right where you need it, when you need it, though. It can take longer than 48 hours if the ships are elsewhere.

    Much like people who live in the path of hurricanes, Americans living abroad need to take some steps to insure their own safety. Like knowing where the exits are and how to get to them. They cannot expect that Uncle Sam will be there in a few hours to make everything well.

  2. I’m a tiny bit gobsmacked that the US Embassy compound in, um, LIBYA??? is poorly secured.

    That said, France and Britain between them have several times as many nationals on the ground as us and their heads of government managed to be a bit more forthright and a bit more promptly.

    More seriously, if this is genuinely the measure of US foreign policy, one understands Obama’s generally timid line. After all there are US nationals all over the world with the possible exception of North Korea – and one wouldn’t want to antagonise anyone who might hurt them, would one?

  3. You might want to address the issue to Congress. It has control over State Dept’s budget.

  4. 1.  Conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. It just seems like it most of the time.
    Still, perception influences reality, even if it does not (as some believe) equate to reality.

    2.  No marines in Tripoli? Sounds like the inspiration for a Country & Western song, perhaps using the “Do They Know It’s Christmas” tune from 1985.
    (But I digress.)

    3.  There are contingency plans for lots of things. The Marine Corps has something of a sideline in NEOs (non-combatant evacuation operations), but some of the sketchier places tend to rather out-of-the-way and would need some assistance to get out and that assistance would take time getting there.
    Recall that during the Rwandan genocide, our embassy folks had to convoy out of the country on their own, something that good RSOs and consular chiefs keep in the back of their minds as one of the nightmare scenarios to prepare against.
    The argument about dual nationals has come up before, and The Onion recently did a piece lampooning the American practise of having to evacuate visitors to places nobody in their right mind should want to visit. I don’t have an answer to either question, but it’s nice to see people asking in public fora what consular officers sometimes ask each other quietly, where the public can’t hear us.
    (Don’t get me wrong, we’ll do everything we can to help, but think of us as firemen who can’t help but wonder to one another just why you were playing with matches.)

    I’ve quoted you and linked to you here:

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.