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Explainer: Who Guards U.S. Embassies on High Alert?

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Published on Sep 14, 2012

Protests erupted this week at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and armed militants attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. ambassador John Christopher Stevens and three others. Afterwards, President Obama ordered increased security at American facilities overseas. Who is responsible for that?

The Marines. Specifically an elite outfit known as the Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team. Each platoon has about 50 Marines trained in urban combat, counter-surveillance, and martial arts. These units responded to the 1998 attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and helped evacuate the U.S. embassy in Macedonia during an ethnic insurgency in 2001.

The President called Ambassador Stevens "courageous and exemplary". How much difference does an ambassador make in international relations?

It depends on the situation. You could be a winning ambassador to the Bahamas or Canada merely by being friendly with the national leaders, following State Department instructions, and never making controversial public statements.

Many posts require so little diplomatic know-how that around 15 percent of them have historically been filled by campaign donors. In 1971, Richard Nixon famously told his chief of staff that "anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000."

But ambassadors to hot spots like Egypt and Libya are typically career foreign service officers, academics, or experienced politicians. Although they receive State Department instructions, they regularly decline to follow them.

In the run-up to Mozambican elections in the 1990s, a U.S. ambassador refused to sign an aid agreement favored by the State Department until the government demobilized the military. The more independent ambassadors 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. Which works fine, as long as the Secretary of State gets the memo.

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