When Sorry is Not Enough: US Calls on Tunisia to Bring Embassy Attackers to Justice

On October 14, the one month anniversary of the attacks on the U.S. embassy and American school in Tunis, the US Ambassador to Tunisia Jacob Walles released a statement calling on the Government of Tunisia to bring the perpetrators to justice. While the statement lauds the 200 year relationships between the two countries — the first agreement of friendship and trade was concluded between Tunisia and the United States on March 26, 1799; the United States was the first major power to recognize Tunisian sovereignty and established diplomatic relations with Tunisia in 1956 following its independence from France — it also reminds Tunisia of its obligation to protect its “guests.” Excerpt below:

“One month ago on September 14, 2012, a group of violent extremists attacked the U.S. Embassy and the American Cooperative School of Tunis.  These violent attacks endangered the lives of the American and Tunisian employees who were inside the Embassy during the attack. The attackers inflicted millions of dollars of damage to the Embassy compound, burned more than 100 vehicles, most of which belonged to the Embassy’s Tunisian staff, and also destroyed private property in the area near the Embassy.  At the American Cooperative School of Tunis, the attackers destroyed, looted, and burned books, musical instruments, and computers used to educate young minds from more than 70 countries.  One thing the attackers did not damage is the strong bond between the American and Tunisian people and the commitment of the United States to support Tunisia’s transition from an unjust dictatorship to a free and tolerant democracy that provides security, economic opportunity and freedom to everyone who calls Tunisia home.
I am proud of this long history of partnership, but continued cooperation and investment in Tunisia requires a safe and secure operating environment.  The Tunisian government has an obligation to provide security for its citizens and its guests – and I call on the Government of Tunisia to carry through with its investigation and to bring the perpetrators and masterminds of this attack to justice.  I also look to the Tunisian people to speak out against violence and terror and to play an active role in shaping the future you so richly deserve.”

Read the full statement here.

Here are a few things that the United States has done the last many months since the Arab Spring according to the Tunisia Fact Sheet,:

  • Since the January 2011 revolution, the U.S. has committed more than $300 million to support Tunisia’s transition, focusing heavily on technical and financial assistance to Tunisia’s economy and private sector.
  • The United States provided $100 million to pay directly debt that Tunisia owes the World Bank and African Development Bank, allowing the Government of Tunisia to instead use an equal amount for its priority programs, and to accelerate economic growth and job creation.
  • The United States is providing assistance to more than 4,500 Tunisian youth in market-relevant skills training, job placement, and access to start-up business resources.
  • A $50 million Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC)  franchising facility providing working capital to Tunisian franchisees interested in working with American, European, and Tunisian franchisors; ultimately creating an estimated 10,000 local jobs for Tunisians.

You’d think that perhaps all that and more would have generated a tad of goodwill, even just enough to make people stop and think before they go berserk over there.  Alas, not. The angry protesters were not satisfied with shouting or throwing rocks. They went over the embassy walls, torched cars, set fire to several facilities within the compound, destroyed the children’s playground and even tried stoopidly to set fire to the embassy pool. And the rampage did not stop after an hour or two. It went on for hours on end.

To be blunt — it is the host country’s international obligation to protect foreign diplomats and diplomatic premises. If a country is slow or unable to provide such protection, should be even be there?  We also must wonder if this is for lack of resources, or if the host government is complicit in the attacks or indifferent to the outcome. It took several hours before local authorities were able to control the situation, after several structures within the compound have already been torched, after over 100 cars were already burned to the ground.

There has to be consequences for such abrogation of responsibility; otherwise this will happen again.

On September 21, just a few days after the embassy attack, the Tunisian Foreign Minister Abdessalem was in the Treaty Room of Foggy Bottom and said:

“I’m also here to express our regret and full and strong condemnation for the storming of the American Embassy and school in Tunisia last Friday. This event does not reflect the real image of Tunisia.[…] We already taken the necessary measures to protect the American Embassy, the American schools, and all diplomatic presence in Tunisia, members of foreign communities. It is our duty, and I’m sure that we have the ability and the capability to protect all private and public institutions in Tunisia.”

That’s good talk, too bad nobody saw this in action on September 14.

The question remains — did elements of the host country government allow the attack to happen thinking it would be a harmless demonstration only to have it spin out of control? We must not forget that the Tehran embassy takeover started as a “harmless” demonstration on a February day, and when the actual hostage taking occurred in November, the protesters knew exactly how to get in.

Say what you will about fortress embassies, but if Embassy Tunis was less than fortified, how many more flag-draped coffins would have arrived at Dover AFB that week?

As in Benghazi, there are somethings “sorry” can’t fix.  It must be said that Embassy Tunis was lucky not to have any casualty given the size and ferocity of the crowd that day.  But we might not be so lucky next time; and that next time may not be very far off.