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Atop the U.S. embassy in Tunis on Sept. 12, 2012, a man watches with binoculars as Tunisians demonstrate to demand the closure of the embassy and the departure of the ambassador. (Hassene Dridi/AP)
Atop the U.S. embassy in Tunis on Sept. 12, 2012, a man watches with binoculars as Tunisians demonstrate to demand the closure of the embassy and the departure of the ambassador. (Hassene Dridi/AP)

Michael Bell

U.S. envoy’s death is a stark cue for chaos Add to ...

The killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans sends a sobering message to Western countries respecting their diplomatic representation abroad, particularly in the Middle East, where new and fragile regimes are coping with radical groups once suppressed by the old autocrats. Jihadists now feel they have a golden opportunity.

New risks for Westerners abroad will now be coupled with the politics of the autocrats in Iran who have yet to find any equilibrium in dealing with foreign representatives. Such representatives have become alien symbols, as the perpetrators see it, of a corrupt and threatening value system. One hates to think of the potential for chaos when Syria is freed from Bashar al-Assad and a newly empowered but fragile opposition takes charge.

Disturbing evidence mounts: the takeover of the British embassy in Tehran, the invasion of the U.S. chancery compound in Cairo, the killings in Libya, the siege of Israel’s Cairo chancery. And it doesn’t necessarily take much to set things off: an obscure American film allegedly defaming the Prophet Mohammed is judged sufficient cause to vent years of suppressed anger on the streets and against foreign representatives. Recall those Danish political cartoons seen as reviling Mohammed.

These incidents stem from deep cultural misunderstanding: that the U.S. government could simply prohibit a film because such is their experience at home. The film is perceived by jihadist movements, wallowing in conspiracy theories, to be the direct result of Washington’s intent. The U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as Christian crusades designed to undermine Islam. (And there may be some substance in the latter case. Under George W. Bush, the neo-conservatives’ naive goal had been to export so-called American “exceptionalism” to the Middle East, thereby creating democracies based on the U.S. model.)

Aside from lives lost, bodies maimed, societies destroyed and debt accumulated, already pervasive resentment in much of the Muslim world was reinforced particularly among jihadists who, since the Arab Spring, have increasingly enjoyed the freedom to speak out and strike back. This attack on the West is what we see today, where a simple walk down the street seemingly exposes Westerners to risks – something, for instance, I never once encountered in Cairo during four years there.

Such attacks, as seen by those already suspicious of Western intent, now have increasing legitimacy. And they’re unlikely to be a one-shot affair now that the cat’s out of the bag. They will be exacerbated by what are felt as Western challenges to Islam. Despite widespread dislike, even hatred, among Sunni Arabs for Iranian Shiites, an Israeli attack on Tehran regime’s nuclear sites, for example, would incite the street across the region, such is the power of symbolism among the radical ideologues, no matter how few or many they may be. It’s their sense of humiliation that matters.

Things are going to change for diplomacy on a global scale, particularly if such dramatic hypotheticals as an attack on Iran become reality. Even with what we might see as insubstantial gestures, there will be new risks. Western representatives will be more exposed to physical threats. New ways will have to be found to conduct business. Many U.S. embassies in the region are already fortresses designed to protect and, consciously or not, isolate those within.

Criticism of the Canadian government’s closure of our embassy in Tehran will now be perceived as far-sighted by many Canadians. Western nations will have to think twice about the consequences of highly public positions they take, even if events such as the Danish cartoonists’ unsettling portrayal of Mohammed are the work of individuals, not states.

Western countries are unlikely to close their missions abroad en mass and move back home on the basis of the risks we take and who we like and who we don’t. Such lack of communications would be untenable. But there will be a rush to abandon normal housing and workplace situations for diplomats living in potentially hostile environments. There will be a rush to get behind walls, putting public servants still further out of touch with the societies in which they live. Compounds will be the norm. Diplomats will be even further removed from those with whom they should be in regular contact.

This compound model exists in Saudi Arabia (for much different reasons) but is likely to now leapfrog. Plans are already well advanced to build a Canadian compound in Cairo. Although probably conceived as an economy measure for a sometimes penny-pinching government, there will be no stopping it now.

This sad outcome may well be unavoidable, but what other options are there?

Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.

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