When former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker heard about his colleague's death in Libya, his first reaction was disbelief. He had known Christopher Stevens for two decades.
"I ... just felt that punch in the stomach. He was a good friend. We're a pretty small tribe," he tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.
The bodies of the four Americans killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, including Stevens', were received by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday.
After his initial shock, Crocker's thoughts turned to the country's loss.
"That we'd lost a truly great diplomat, and that the American people had lost a tremendous representative, and the Libyans a great friend," he says.
Stevens was sent to Libya when the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi began in 2011. He was based in Benghazi, acting as the U.S. envoy to the rebels. In May of last year, he was named ambassador to Libya.
Crocker most recently served as ambassador to Afghanistan, from 2011 to 2012 (he stepped down in July). Before that, he headed up embassies in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
As far as security goes, Crocker says, U.S. Marines can't protect all diplomats all the time.
"The reality is, while all of our embassies are protected by Marines, most of our consulates are not. We simply do not have enough Marine guards to go around," he says. "So even places in vulnerable zones, like Libya, the norm would be to have diplomatic security, which is U.S. and host-country protection."
The attack on the consulate in Benghazi was led by a mob, which Crocker says is particularly dangerous. "I've seen this up close and for real: One of the most terrifying and the most lethal and the hardest to defend against — Marines or no Marines — is a mob," Crocker says.
Yet, violence comes with the territory.
"The reality is we do business in dangerous areas. We can manage risk, but we can't prevent it if we do our jobs," he says.
The challenge for diplomats is balancing security with the need to reach out to the local people, interacting with them outside of fortressed walls.
"I've served my career in some pretty tough places. In three of those postings, a predecessor of mine as ambassador was assassinated," Crocker says. "That makes it all the more important — not less — to have a direct sense of what the mood is."
He says there are ways of working with security to minimize risk while maximizing face time, like making spontaneous visits to public places, rather than planned ones.
Still, diplomats will always face risk, including death. He says the attack in Libya has raised these issues in Americans' consciousness.
"So out of the enormous tragedy of Chris' loss, I hope my colleagues will take some heart in that his death has brought a better understanding and awareness of what America's foreign service does to keep the country safe, secure and to advance our interests."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Back now to this week's tragic events in Libya.
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SIMON: Yesterday afternoon, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton paid tribute to four Americans who died there. The president stood by four draped coffins at Andrews Air Force Base and said their sacrifice would not be forgotten.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They knew the danger and they accepted it. They didn't simply embrace the American ideal, they lived it.
SIMON: We turn now to Ryan Crocker, one of America's most famous diplomats. Mr. Crocker was most recently U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. Before that he headed up the U.S. embassies in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Mr. Crocker joins us from his home in Spokane, Washington. Mr. Ambassador, thanks for being with us.
AMBASSADOR RYAN CROCKER: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: What went through your mind and heart when you heard the news about Ambassador Stevens?
CROCKER: My first reaction was this didn't happen. I, you know, just felt that punch in the stomach. He was a good friend. We're a pretty small tribe and I've known him for two decades. And then that we'd lost a truly great diplomat and that the American people had lost a tremendous representative and the Libyans a great friend.
SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, now that - alas with the advantage of some hindsight, let me raise some of the practical questions people have this week. Should that consulate have been better protected, especially on September 11th?
CROCKER: The reality is, you know, while all of our embassies are protected by Marines, most of our consulates are not. We simply don't have enough Marine guards to go around. So even places in vulnerable zones like Libya, the norm would be to have diplomatic security, which is U.S. and host country protection.
The second point I'd make is - and I have seen this up close and for real - one of the most terrifying and the most lethal and the hardest to defend against, Marines or no Marines is a mob. The reality is we do business in dangerous areas. We can manage risk, but we can't prevent it if we do our jobs. And, you know, we lose diplomats. We just lost a great one.
SIMON: You have represented the United States and several other countries where demonstrations and mob actions going on now. Recognizing all situations are different, obviously, but what does is your judgment (technical difficulties)
CROCKER: I think there are a number of motivations that drive mobs. One of them, obviously will be the issue of the day, in this case the video, but there are often are factors that go well beyond that. In the case of Syria, again, when I was there in the '90s, in addition to evidence of the Syrian government hand in organizing the demonstrations, demonstrators knew well that, you know, we might gas them, tear gas.
And we did. But their government would shoot them. So it's a way of, you know, of expressing anger and hostility, but not catching a bullet in the process.
SIMON: I found myself this week thinking about a number of U.S. ambassadors I've known in conflict zones who seem to make a point of getting out and talking to people. How do ambassadors address the necessary concern for their security and yet not wanting to appear as if they're surrounded by an armed camp?
CROCKER: You know, I've served in my career in some pretty tough places. In three of those postings, a predecessor of mine as ambassador was assassinated. That makes it all the more important, not less, to have a direct sense of, you know, what the mood is. And the way you do that is you work with your security, not against them. There are ways to do it. To get out and still minimize your risk, but we have lost people. Frankly, you know, we're going to lose others if we're doing our job right.
SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, any words, thoughts you would like to send out to U.S. diplomatic personnel, especially maybe in zones of concern, if I might call it that way this weekend?
CROCKER: To all of my former colleagues, I'm with you, but I've been struck by the way Americans have responded to this, you know. Diplomacy is not practiced in a vacuum, so out of the enormous tragedy of Chris' loss, I hope my colleagues will take some heart in that his death has brought a better understanding and awareness of what America's foreign service does to keep the country safe, secure and to advance our interests.
SIMON: Ambassador Ryan Crocker speaking with us from Spokane, Washington. Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much.
CROCKER: Thank you, Scott.
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SIMON: And to hear more of our conversation with Ambassador Crocker, you can go to our website, npr.org. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.