Just How Important Is a Good Ambassador?

And answers to other questions about the Libya consulate attack.

The attack on the American consulate in Libya may have been a response to an anti-Islamic movie trailer

Photograph by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Protesters entered the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Tuesday and armed militants attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. ambassador John Christopher Stevens. The tragedy raised a number of questions.

Hours after the attack, President Obama ordered increased security at U.S. facilities overseas. Who is responsible for providing beefed-up security at embassies and consulates?

The Marines. When ordinary defenses at an embassy fail, an elite unit of Marines known as the “Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team” responds. Each platoon consists of approximately 50 Marines trained in urban combat, counter-surveillance, and martial arts. Securing besieged embassies is one of their most common missions. They responded to the 1998 attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, and assisted in the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Macedonia during a 2001 ethnic insurgency.

President Obama called Ambassador Stevens a “courageous and exemplary representative of the United States.” How much of a difference does a skilled ambassador make in international relations?

It depends on the country and the situation. You could be a pretty decent ambassador to the Bahamas or Canada by being friendly with the national leaders, following State Department instructions to the letter, and never making any controversial public statements. At the very least, the host government would be unlikely to declare you persona non grata and expel you.

Many diplomatic posts, in fact, require so little diplomatic know-how that around 15 percent of them have historically been filled by campaign donors. In 1971, Richard Nixon told his chief of staff that “anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000.” A 1980 law was supposed to end the handing out of these patronage ambassadorships, but it has made very little difference. President Obama’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, for example, was so prolific a fundraiser that the British press referred to him as the “vacuum cleaner.” Cynthia Stroum, President Obama’s ambassador to Luxembourg, was a major donor who resigned after the State Department’s Inspector General called her leadership bullying and directionless. She was accused of spending $3,400 on alcohol just to use up her annual allowance, and buying a new mattress without department authorization.

Fortunately for U.S. foreign relations, ambassadors to hot spots like Egypt and Libya are typically career foreign-service officers, esteemed academics, or experienced politicians. Although they receive State Department instructions, their relationship with Foggy Bottom is more of a two-way street. They regularly question their instructions, and often decline to follow them altogether until the Secretary of State herself intervenes. In the run-up to Mozambican elections in the 1990s, for example, U.S. ambassador Dennis Jett refused to sign an aid agreement favored by the State Department until the government demobilized the military. The more active ambassadors also preempt bad advice and bypass Washington gridlock by writing their own orders: They inform Foggy Bottom what course they intend to pursue, and say they will move forward by a certain day if no contrary instructions are received.

The attacks may have been a violent response to an anti-Islamic movie trailer allegedly made in the United States depicting the Prophet Mohammed having sex. Have Christians ever rioted in response to an offensive film?

Yes. The 1988 Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ incited several acts of violence.* In Paris, a Catholic group firebombed a cinema during an early screening, and Orthodox Christians rioted in Athens. Last year, French Catholic fundamentalists stormed an art gallery in Avignon, damaging the controversial photograph “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano. In late 2011, a pair of men were arrested while attempting to disable the security system in a Paris theater set to stage Golgota Picnic, by Argentinian playwright Rodrigo Garcia. Riot police were called in for the performance, but no serious violence occurred.

The controversial anti-Islamic movie trailer that led to yesterday’s attacks is far from the first to undermine American diplomatic efforts. As far back as 1922, an American colonel referred to films as the United States’ worst ambassador, and a Columbia University professor proclaimed that “The American motion picture has … done more to blacken the reputation of the white race in general and the United States in particular than all the malice and libel of the most savage anti-American propagandists.”

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Correction, Sept. 13, 2012: This article originally misspelled Martin Scorsese’s last name. (Retrurn to the corrected sentence.)