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Diplomacy's sometimes dangerous world becomes more dangerous still

"Diplomats don't sign up to be soldiers," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird observed to reporters on Wednesday. But the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi has made the sometimes dangerous work of Canadian diplomacy more dangerous still.

A volatile world in which manufactured provocations spread through social media inflaming the easily inflamed is made potentially more dangerous by the Harper government's strong support for Israel, confrontational approach toward Iran, years of fighting in Afghanistan and high-profile contribution to unseating Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

"I don't think these policies are cost free," Paul Heinbecker, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations believes. "It does open you up to greater risks."

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Although for the most part, he adds, "I don't think the mob in the street give a damn about what the Canadian embassy has done."

Two forces contributed to the violence against U.S. missions in Cairo and Libya, Mr. Heinbecker observes. One is the so-called clash of civilizations multiplied by the speed of the Internet. An idiot in the United States posts a video calculated to insult and provoke Muslims. Social media amplify its effect, sending people into the street, some of them thugs.

The second contributor to this violence is the decline of the autocrat – especially in the Muslim world since last year's Arab spring.

Whatever one could say about Mr. Gadhafi – and it isn't much – mobs didn't burn embassies unless he wanted them burned. The Egyptian government couldn't possibly have wanted the U.S. embassy stormed.

The hardening of the Canadian government's attitude toward non-democratic states in the Middle East, especially those antagonistic to Israel, potentially exposes Canadian diplomats to risks that are exacerbated by the fact that most Canadian missions around the world aren't as secure as their U.S. or British counterparts.

The five Canadians at the embassy in Tripoli are particularly vulnerable. A retaliatory strike by the United States against those they identify as responsible for killing U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three others could lead to escalating violence.

Rick Roth, a spokesman for Mr. Baird, said the government does not discuss security at its embassies. "We are monitoring events closely and taking appropriate security measures" in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, he said by e-mail.

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The federal government has been assessing and upgrading security at embassies, chancelleries and residences around the world.

"We've made major strides over the past 10 years in the department to meet these goals, but there are still areas where there's room for improvement," Mr. Baird said from India, where he was on an official visit, "and obviously we are seized with the importance of this."

Ultimately, the greatest protection for Canadian diplomats is Canada's relatively minor role in world affairs. The United States, and to a lesser extent the former colonial powers, especially Great Britain and France, are the obvious targets of angry demonstrators, no matter where they are to be found around the world.

But Canada is no less immune than the United States to some home-grown provocateur posting a video calculated to enrage. And street protests can take unpredictable and violent turns at any moment.

Diplomats don't sign up to be soldiers. But too often they bear the same risks.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More


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