Back in 2007, when post-Saddam Iraq was at its most violent, I spent a day shadowing the British Ambassador, Dominic Asquith, as he went on his rounds in Baghdad. He had the most formidable personal security I’ve ever seen for someone who wasn’t a serving head of state. We travelled around in an armoured 4WD capable of withstanding not just machine-gun fire but a rocket-propelled grenade attack, and were guarded at all times by six Royal Military Policemen, all armed to the teeth.
Showing a classic Foreign Office mixture of stiff upper lip and diplomatic reserve, HMG’s man in Baghdad brushed aside the danger. Just part of the job, he said, when I asked if he ever got scared, no point in fretting about it anyway. What did irk him, though, was how much harder it made his work.
As ambassador, part of his job was to listen as much as possible to the ever volatile “Arab Street”, a task he was well qualified for as a fluent Arabic speaker. But in that environment, dropping into Baghdad’s tea houses or cafes to canvass opinion was never really a possibility. Instead, many of his meetings had to be conducted in the safety of the so-called Green Zone, the US-guarded diplomatic compound in the city centre. Which was fine for hearing the views of Iraq’s politicians and powerbrokers, but not much use for seeing whether they were shared by the ordinary man in the street. As he remarked to me: “It makes it hard to check everything I’m told.”
Five years on, Mr Asquith is facing much the same challenges in Libya, where he was relocated not long after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi, and where his US counterpart, Chris Stevens, was killed on Tuesday in an attack in Benghazi. Indeed, Mr Asquith himself survived a similar attack back in the same city only three months ago, when his convoy came under rocket propelled grenade attack, injuring two of his security guards. It’s fair to say that the Benghazi of 2012 is still not as dangerous for Westerners as the Baghdad of 2007. But in the inevitable security review that will follow Mr Stevens’ death, Mr Asquith and other foreign diplomats will doubtless find their movements becoming ever more restricted.
Which matters a lot, if you are in the business of keeping your ears to the ground. Just like foreign correspondents, diplomats in countries where reliable information is hard to come by depend a lot on meeting as many different people as possible, relying on an aggregate of opinions to work out some rough idea of the truth. And for insights into a country, it is often the casual encounter in the cafe, local shop or street that tells you as much as anything in a high-level meeting. Anyone who listens to the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent will know what I’m talking about here. Many of the best and most telling pieces revolve not around encounters with local bigwigs, but everyday dealings with neighbours, shopkeepers or taxi drivers.
Sadly, for many in the Foreign Office – especially the so-called “Camel Corps” in the Middle East – living any kind of normal life on a foreign posting is no longer really possible. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, trips outside the compound wire routinely require an armed escort, and therefore are largely restricted to needs-must business appointments. Where this really hits home is not on the Ambassador or his deputy, who may have a security detail on personal call at all times, but on their ranks of junior staff, the ones who are normally the Embassy’s massed eyes and ears. Security details cost too much to be provided to junior staff at all times, and while many would normally be happy to risk venturing out alone, modern health and safety culture allows little discretion in “high risk” zones. As a result, they often spend much of their postings confined to their compounds.
While working in Baghdad as a freelance reporter between 2003 and 2005, I met junior diplomats who had hardly ever ventured out of the Green Zone, much to their despair. When I once bumped up into a bunch allowed out to a hotel for a drink, they had the excited air of boarding school pupils on a rare school outing. It was funny, until one remembered that these were people making decisions about one of the most volatile and complex countries on the planet.
On another occasion, at a drinks party in the Green Zone, a junior diplomat even asked me: “So what’s it like out there?” Flattering though it was, it would be a worrying day for Britain were HMG ever to have to rely on the likes of me for information.