Diplomats, armed with handshakes and briefcases, face uncertainty abroad

Diplomats, armed with handshakes and briefcases, face uncertainty abroad
5:50 PM, Sep 12, 2012   |  
Written by
Robert Marchant

 JOURNAL NEWS (Westchester, NY)

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In this photo taken Monday, April 11, 2011, then U.S. envoy Chris Stevens takes a coffee before attending meetings at the Tibesty Hotel where an African Union delegation was meeting with opposition leaders in Benghazi, Libya. Libyan officials say the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans have been killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi by protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis) / AP

They carry briefcases, not weapons, and seek to make peace, not war. But dangers from terrorism and other hazards can make the job that diplomats, United Nations personnel, Peace Corps volunteers and other foreign affairs professionals a dangerous one.

Ambassador Chris Stevens, a former Peace Corps volunteer, died in an attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya on Tuesday, along with three other Americans, and news of his death caused concern and sorrow in a region that is home to many diplomats and foreign-affairs advisers. It appears Stevens died while attempting to organize an evacuation of the compound, according to initial reports from Congressional and military leaders.

“They go into these countries with a handshake, not a gun,” noted John Coyne, a Peace Corps veteran from Pelham Manor, speaking of Stevens’ background in the Peace Corps and the diplomatic service. “What struck me was that he was going into the building to rescue people. You go to where the problem is, that’s a typical Peace Corps reaction, that’s what he was doing,” said Coyne, who runs a website for Peace Corps veterans.

Speaking of those who have gone abroad to serve, and the recent deaths in Libya, Coyne said, “We’re a tight community. There’s a connecting chord there. It’s a little more personal and tragic.”

There are numerous diplomatic missions around the Lower Hudson Valley, as well as other international organizations in the region, and many embassy staffers and U.N personnel live in the area.

Stevens was called an admirable model of what a diplomat can be.

“I share a great deal of pride and sadness, at all he accomplished, and that he had to pay the ultimate price,” said Richard Olver, a foreign-affairs consultant from Croton-on-Hudson who lived in Libya and other locations in Africa while serving with the U.N.

Everyone who serves overseas, in civilian attire or not, knows there are hazards, said Olver.

“Today, with the world polarized with two different ideas of civilization, it’s always a risk. I don’t think the risks are terribly great, but they do exist, and many of my colleagues have been killed or injured because of these very risks,” he said, “Since 1990 or so, when al-Qaida decided that the UN symbolized the secular, liberal, Western society it opposed, at least a dozen of my colleagues have been killed or maimed in terrorist attacks. … Security is always an issue, but I’ve never allowed it to run my life.” He can recall being told by intelligence officials while stationed in Sierra Leone that a team of assassins, evidently from Libya, was in the country looking to kill high-profile Americans.

Recent years have seen a number of tragedies involving diplomats, including several from the region. Hedi Annabi, the head of the U.N. mission to Haiti, and his chief deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa both were killed in the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Annabi, 65, lived in Cortlandt, and Da Costa, 60, had relocated from Pocantico Hills to Ossining at the time of his death.

At Da Costa’s funeral in Sleepy Hollow, he was eulogized as man who saw a better world, one that could be transformed “little by little, step by step, person by person.”

5 Comments

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  • Good points, John, as always. Aren’t you glad that someone decided to call us Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, rather than Peace Corps Veterans?
    One other issue to raise: because of the killings in Libya, there will be increased pressure to step up security precautions for both the diplomatic corps and Peace Crops. These had already become difficult. PCVs are already limited on some of their travel and movements — and it could get worse. And diplomats complain that security restrictions make it difficult for visitors to get into embassies which have been turned into walled fortresses. And restrictions on movement for diplomats often mean they can make the contacts they need to make to do their job.

  • I am a RPCV and retired US diplomat and as such was particularly angered by the brutal slaying of Ambassador Stevens and members of his staff. While I fully understand the risks involved in these careers, the closest I came to being killed was as an American businessman in Ankara, Turkey. I was running a joint venture there during the Gulf War. One spinoff of that war was to reignite a far left terrorist group in Turkey who went around murdering two kinds of men, Turkish generals and American heads of companies. Two of my colleagues were savagely murdered in their own offices while their tied and gagged Turksh staffs heard the shots that blew out their brains. I installled very tight security procedures and defenses at our offices. Fortunately that war was short and the killers melted away.

  • John, I have been using your How to Write a Novel in 100 Days or Less to write my novel and took a break this summer after day 74. Imagine my surprise when I went to pick up where I left off only to discover that the site is down. Would you be willing to send me Days 75-100? I post what I’ve written on my blog. Sorry for the public post, but couldn’t find your email address. Many thanks,
    Jan Fishler

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