In the recent film “Argo” there is a scene as the embassy in Tehran is being stormed by the Iranian students in which an embassy security officer explains to the Marines that they are not to shoot because if any of the Iranian attackers are killed it is likely that the Marines and embassy staff would be killed in the ensuing violence or in a subsequent show trial, or they could start a war between the United States and Iran. At last someone explained the reality of protecting a diplomatic/consular mission on another nation’s soil.
Today, in the 21st Century, the United States Government is in the business of building fortresses – only we call them embassies (or consulates general, or consulates) – and we are building them around the world, more than 294 worldwide. At best they are protected by a relative handful of U.S. Marine Security Guards, agents of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security from the U.S. Department of State, a series of passive barriers of varied design, and by the police and ultimately the armed forces of the country in which the building is located.
Under Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the protection of an embassy is the responsibility of the government hosting that embassy, diplomatic, or consular mission. This responsibility has been reinforced by subsequent other international agreements reflecting the growing use of terror against diplomats by various groups around the world. In a sense, this reflects the same imbalance of capabilities noted by Nelson – no embassy in the world can hold out against a sustained and determined attack given its limited space, manpower, and defense capabilities. What security force or passive defenses any embassy has are to be used only as a stop gap measure until the arrival on the scene of the forces of the host government.
Britain’s greatest naval hero, Lord Nelson, reputedly declared that, “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort.” Of course, he spoke at time when the largest warships were less than a football field in length and carried a limited amount of hot for their hundred plus guns (divided into two batteries one along each side of the ship). By contrast, a fort with uninterrupted supply lines giving it access to a potentially limitless supply of ammunition for its guns, which could be both more numerous and more powerful than those carried aboard the ships of the day.
As much as I enjoy studying the works of Vauban, the master of fortification, and walking around surviving examples, the reality is that the 20th Century and aviation brought an end to the dominance of forts and fortresses. France’s Maginot Line is generally considered to be its final high water mark and proof of the folly in building and defending stone and concrete monuments. The mantra for today’s armed forces with their full arsenal of land, sea, and air assets is that if you can see it you can kill it. “Find it, fix it, kill it.”
In 1531 Machiavelli wrote that fortresses “are not needed by those that have good armies…but fortresses without good armies are incompetent for defense.” The problem hasn’t gotten any better over the last five centuries. George Patton reminded us of this in 1944 looking at Germany’s Siegfried Line (the West Wall). He declared “it a monument to human stupidity. When natural obstacles—oceans and mountains—can be so readily overcome, anything that man makes, man can overcome.” Embassies, however, have no armies to defend them other than the police and troops of the government hosting them.
We need embassies to maintain the ties that prevent us from needing to use armies, but we need to recognize that the protection of these buildings and the personnel within them are in fact the responsibility of the government to which they are accredited. The U.S. spent $187 million on its new embassy in Rabat while it spent $247 million in Kiev. And yet it is impossible for the United States to build an impregnable embassy. Governments that fail to fulfill that responsibility must be held to account for their failure. That is the way to defend these buildings and these personnel.