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SONENSHINE: Personifying America outside the perimeter

Diplomats gamble with their lives to win friends

- - Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September brings a change in seasons and a chance to remember. A dozen years have passed since the day the twin towers fell, but we never look at a bright-blue, clear September sky quite the same way, and certainly each September 11 anniversary gives us pause. With so much global agony, including conflict in Syria and throughout the Middle East, this is a good time to remind ourselves about the value of our diplomacy, particularly public diplomacy, and to remember those working overseas so that we can feel secure at home. Let's not get lulled into a false sense of security or dare to forget those who are keeping us safe.

This September 11 is particularly painful for the family of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others who lost their lives one year ago in Benghazi, Libya. The work of our diplomats often means exposure to danger because part of the mission is public: interacting with ordinary citizens, as Stevens did — beyond the embassy compound — to share American values and build confidence in civil society.

The public piece of diplomacy is important and often overlooked. We don't see on our television screens the process of relationship-building that diplomats do with ordinary citizens in extraordinary places, particularly interactions with youth overseas whose ideas and perceptions of America will influence how they behave and the degree to which we can sustain robust trade and interactions with other nations.

Our government does more than just negotiate treaties. It keeps America engaged, involved and influential at a time when those connections undergird our economy, security and safety. Reaching out to people in conflict zones, especially, is tough work.

Yes, Stevens realized the dangers of traveling outside the embassy compound to meet journalists, students, politicians and shopkeepers in Tripoli, Libya, or beyond the capital. His postings throughout the Middle East had taught him that diplomacy is often effective when conducted in short sleeves and tennis shoes. He understood the power of people-to-people engagement to build bridges.

Like so many other diplomats, he understood the fundamental principle of global engagement: At the end of the day, you may not move governments, but you can move people — sometimes one by one through personal exchange, educational exchange and human interaction.

Another diplomat to remember is Anne Smedinghoff. She was, in many ways, a young Chris Stevens, working miles away from Benghazi in Kabul, Afghanistan. A 25-year-old second-tour officer, Smedinghoff was dedicated to learning public diplomacy in difficult places. Part of her mission was to interact with ordinary citizens — young Afghans — to bring them the fruits of democracy, such as books and materials about culture and history.

On the fateful morning of April 6, 2013, Smedinghoff ventured out of the safety of the embassy compound to bring Scholastic readers to Afghan elementary schoolchildren. A bomb blast shattered her dreams. Along with Smedinghoff, a Department of Defense civilian was also killed, and four others were badly injured. She would have turned 26 this month — just a week after the anniversary of September 11.

Both Stevens and Smedinghoff were engaged in a kind of diplomacy whose benefits are often not immediately visible and whose work deserves greater appreciation. It takes years to build strong personal relationships overseas that lead people to trust Americans despite the religious tensions, cultural clashes and physical security obstacles that inhibit interaction between U.S. officials and local citizens. Both worked on the kind of diplomatic outreach that can make the difference between peace and conflict.

Embassies build relationships around the world that echo. The relationships that our public diplomacy officers build with local religious figures, for example, are invaluable in a crisis when you need to tamp down anti-American feelings.

In Washington, we often lose the context. What Stevens and Smedinghoff did gets more attention because of the events that surrounded their deaths than the work that animated their lives — particularly in the case of Libya.

Public service is hard. Venturing outside fortified embassies to meet ordinary citizens in conflict zones is risky. However, if we lose that invaluable tool of outreach, if we dissuade our diplomats — young and old — from participating in the societies in which they operate, we become irrelevant at best and insecure at worst.

Regardless of political debate, let us remind ourselves why we want our sons and daughters to go overseas. Let us honor the memories of our diplomats by ending the partisan bickering over the past and moving on to the present and future of America's global engagement in the world.

Tara Sonenshine served as undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2012 to 2013, and is now a distinguished fellow at George Washington University in the School of Media and Public Affairs.