Service of Consuls and Consulates

October 18th, 2012

Categories: Consuls, Government


My husband, Homer Byington, who, like his father, grandfather and great, great grandfather, once served as a consular officer, has experience to share which sheds light on an issue that’s being used as a political football–inappropriately as you will read. He’s been bursting to share his thoughts with you.

He writes:

carahomermemay2010-005Whether this campaign issue in the current presidential election is good for the country or not, that is what the recent assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stephens in Benghazi, Libya, has become.

As a consequence, we are subjected from all sides to a bombardment of misinformation about consulates and consuls. As a former vice consul, who twice experienced being inside a locked up, battened down consulate under siege by a mob, this annoyed me sufficiently that I decided to ask Jeanne whether I might do a piece for her blog.

Of course, it took just a touch of superficial digging to discover that we do not now, and as far as I can tell, never did have a consulate in Benghazi, a place I’ve actually been a few times. Our facility there, which the Libyan militants attacked, couldn’t have been an embassy either as ours is where it ought to be in Tripoli, on the other side of the country.

The facility was something very different. Indeed, we only just recently assigned a “real” consul to the country, and he’s stationed at the embassy.

I realize that this makes knowing what purpose consulates usually serve sort of irrelevant, at least to the presidential campaigns, but I’ll go ahead anyway.

ancient-rome1Consuls, a title derived from ancient Rome, have been around for centuries. They work in consulates. Unlike diplomats who work in embassies, they are not entitled to diplomatic immunity, and what they do is not diplomacy. They are officials of a foreign government, “licensed” by a host government to reside in its country to look out for, foster, and protect the interests of their country and their fellow citizens who travel, live, or do business there. The one thing they are not supposed to be is spies.

passportAs part of their job, consuls perform a host of commercial and legal functions, such as issuing visas, replacing lost passports, providing their nationals born abroad with the equivalent of birth certificates, taking depositions, and notarizing documents. They also stand ready to help their fellow citizens when they find themselves in legal or other trouble, can recommend reliable local lawyers, doctors and other professionals if they are needed, and follow up by monitoring the appropriateness of the treatment they receive at the hands of local authorities.

On the commercial side, our consulates promote American business interests and provide American businessmen doing or seeking to do business with or in their host country with nuts and bolts advice, as well as background on local business and economic conditions. Conversely, they do the same when foreigners seek to import from the US.

usseamen1Lastly, American consuls traditionally have always also been charged with looking out for and protecting U. S. seaman who are in trouble.

While consulates, unlike embassies, [as I mentioned above], do not have diplomatic immunity, host governments may provide them with special protection and privileges such as the right to import or buy their personal and office needs duty and tax free. (Any New Yorker will have noticed the police cars parked outside of consulates around the city, and if you have ever sold anything to a consul, you probably didn’t charge him or her sales tax.) For this reason, traditionally, our consulates, unlike our embassies, did not have detachments of marine guards assigned to them.

In past centuries, the best of our consuls dedicated many years to learning languages and understanding the local customs of the countries where they were serving. They lived and made friends in the community. (These days, for reasons of security as well as economy, our consular personnel abroad are often housed together in self-contained and self-sufficient compounds.) Over time they established reputations locally not just for integrity and efficiency, but also for fair-mindedness and straight dealing. spyThe favorable impressions they made frequently created much good will. As well, many of them often become encyclopedically knowledgeable about local affairs, and undoubtedly became useful as sources of local intelligence.

Times and the world have changed, but we have lost an ambassador, killed in the line of duty, doing what we do not know, but the implication is that it was something different than what ambassadors conventionally do.

Might it not be appropriate to rethink what we are accomplishing by meddling clandestinely (or openly as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan) in the affairs of sovereign, if hostile, foreign nations? Might we not be better served by reverting to the traditional means of carrying out our foreign policy?


10 Responses to “Service of Consuls and Consulates”

  1. Martha Takayama Said:

    This an exquisitely logical and clear article which should be mandatory reading for current candidates for any office, all politicians, newscasters, pundits, and all manner of students. The general public would benefit from it being disseminated wherever possible.

    Since when did the American public come to think that foreign policy constitutes meddling and then telling all in the manner of a tabloid?

    I hope this reaches those who would most benefit from it. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I think that one of the most striking points Homer made was the fact that there was no consulate in Benghazi. So how could we protect a building that was neither a consulate nor an embassy? And what was our Ambassador doing in this place?

    I don’t believe that I and other citizens should know everything…as it can kill security. But if a citizen such as Homer can put two and three together by listening to the news, seeing congressional committees on TV and reading….why isn’t the public given the facts? Why is the conversation about who announced what, when and how? I suggest to clients and colleagues if things go amiss, “tell the truth and get on with it.” I say the same to our government.

  3. Martha Takayama Said:

    It is not necessary for any and every U.S. citizen to know all the workings of our various governmental departments, least of all those engaged in matters of high security. However, it would seem to be the responsibility of those who purport to report and or evaluate the “news” to know what they are talking about!

    Lack of knowledge is not an excuse for spreading misinformation under the aegis of a professional credential as a journalist of any sort or as a politician attributing to himself the right to speak for or pass judgment on government. We need basic facts and appropriate discretion with regard to the function of diplomacy!

    The prevalent attitudes toward this matter have bordered on theater of the absurd, with a total disregard for reality!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Increasingly I notice that if the American public hears something often enough, regardless of whether or not it has any relationship to fact, they believe it. The Congress and public were tricked into a war in this way and the whole concept of winning an election is tied to the media budget and how much TV time a candidate can afford to repeat a message or a lie about the opponent.

    I can’t help but guess that before radio and TV and digested news that the public was better informed and duped far less.

    Anything that can’t be explained in a few sound bytes is off the table. Bill Clinton is one of the few people able to explain complicated concepts in simple terms that don’t put his audience to sleep.

    And there’s something else. Our business and political models don’t have room for negative news. Sugar coat that report. Don’t tell that to the client. People who walk around an office looking sad or upset are reprimanded. Always say you’ve met your goals. We are so used NOT to hearing bad news that we’re not good at hearing it so we don’t. You know what they say about the messenger.

    So much for the public. But that doesn’t let off the hook those on the appropriate Congressional committees and in the State Department who know the score and allow things to happen that shouldn’t.

  5. Frank Paine Said:

    So there is no consulate in Benghazi! Hmmmm! So the obvious question is, if it’s not a consulate, what the heck is it? Of course, that’s one of the questions you are asking. And nobody in Washington is correcting the misinformation that it is a consulate, which suggests that what it actually is, is something the powers that be would prefer not to acknowledge. Not good!! Not good at all!!

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Homer should have been at the debate/town meeting at Hofstra this week however I doubt, if this was his question, if he would have been selected.

  7. Deirdre Said:

    Homer: Thanks for explaining this. I now feel that the truth behind this event will be much different than I expected. I’ll be looking at the reporting with a more informed eye.

  8. DManzaluni Said:

    Whether we did or didn’t theoretically have a consulate there isn’t the real issue here, is it?

    The revolution that toppled the ruler who ruled from Tripoli was commenced, coordinated and run by a sort of provisional government operating out of Benghazi. For that reason, this ambassador was the point man assisting the rebels in Benghazi up to and including the day Ghadaffi died from the ‘natural causes’ we all saw in the videos.

    There are lots of important towns in Libya, some still supporting the former regime, some supporting any way the wind blows some run by Al Quaida containing recruitment camps and training grounds. (most of those seem to be bits of desert due south of Benghazi and not really near any other towns of any significance)

    For the moment, the major reliable city in the country outside the capital is Benghazi? Shouldn’t the US continue to have the presence there which was so important during the revolution?

    Thanks Homer for the illuminating description of the status of a consul and their interesting lack of diplomatic immunity: For more on this and to see when it can become important to meddle in the internal affairs of another country, see

  9. Homer Byington Said:

    I well realize that the world has radically changed, and that “the ends now justify the means” now more than ever before. I also realize that the traditional conventions governing the relations between countries were largely Western European in origin and that the 19th century European colonial powers also largely ignored them when forming and administering their colonies around the world. However, I question the wisdom of this country now modeling itself after those colonial powers, which it seems to be doing.

    Yes, whether “we did or didn’t theoretically have a consulate there” is part of a supremely important issue: Is our government, and for that matter, the extended power elite, including the media, which actually runs this country,justified in lying to the people under some circumstances, or by doing so, does it compromise its integrity?

    This issue leads to the far more profound question: If we are a country, which prides itself on conducting its affairs in accordance with the rule of law, are we justified in doing what we please, like overthrowing their governments, when dealing with sovereign nations with who we are not at war? Or are some nations more sovereign than others?

  10. DManzaluni Said:

    I appreciate your comments about whether the US should have annexed Hawaii after Britain had carefully set up a civil service, schools, hospitals, granted it independence and entrenched an obviously completely odious constitutional (well, actually, historical) monarchy there. You clearly have more experience in international diplomacy than I do and know more about the background to taking away all the queen’s possessions and property and throwing her out.

    But are you seriously suggesting that the various consulates of countries like Bulgaria, Iran, Japan, Switzerland etc etc shouldn’t have intervened in getting those in peril out of Nazi-occupied territories pre (-or for that matter post) -1939?

    This discussion is especially interesting in the light of the AMAZING new version of the flaccid old Upstairs Downstairs. Which must be the only example in history of a sequel/re-visit being better than the original. But do you believe that anyone in the Chamberlain administration, especially anyone who had anything to do with the Munich accords (and especially anyone who had anything to do with Halifax!!), had any belief that Hitler was as bad as he was? Or that anyone in such position took in or helped jewish refugees (from what I assume you would call in 1938 a foreign friendly nation)?

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