The mob that had gathered at a soccer stadium descended on the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, determined to avenge Washington's recognition of Kosovo -- a Serbian province until five days earlier -- as an independent state. On that day in February 2008, the Serbian riot police stationed in front of the embassy at the request of U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter conveniently vanished just before the hundreds-strong horde arrived. "The police marched away, got on buses, and drove away, so when the hoodlums came there was no one there," Munter recalled.
A part of the embassy was soon ablaze. "One of the protesters who was drunk managed to get in and burned himself to death," Munter said. Several others climbed the fence. The U.S. Marines guarding the compound had every right to shoot, but they managed to drive the intruders away with warnings and instructions instead. "I was very impressed that the Marines knew how to make judgment calls as well as to be defenders," Munter, a Foreign Service officer since 1985 and until recently the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, told me in an early 2012 interview in Islamabad.
U.S. diplomats saw the embassy attack coming. And as a result of their preparations, no Americans were hurt during the incident. Only a small crew, including the ambassador, was still in the building at the time of the assault. As soon as the protesters tried to penetrate the compound, some of the Americans began destroying millions of dollars' worth of communications equipment, which is a standard procedure in such cases, Munter said. The next day, about three-quarters of the embassy staff and all family members were evacuated out of Belgrade. "We were fairly sure there would be an angry reaction" to the recognition of Kosovo "and had made all necessary preparations," he said. "We had already arranged for hotel rooms and space at the embassy in Zagreb," the Croatian capital. "We even had space at the American school in Zagreb for our kids."
Most diplomats, however, aren't so lucky. Preparing for a specific attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility overseas is almost never possible, and evacuations are rarely as orderly as the one in Belgrade. The events in Libya on the night of Sept. 11 this week were a tragic reminder of that reality. When the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi came under attack, Ambassador Christopher Stevens was trapped in the burning building and reportedly died of smoke inhalation. Three other U.S. officials were also killed during the assault. A breach of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that same day did not result in any deaths, but the incident significantly heightened tensions between the White House and the Egyptian government.
Munter, who didn't abandon his embassy in Belgrade in 2008, wanted those responsible for the attack to be punished. Once evidence surfaced that Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had personally approved the assault, Munter decided that he was "going to ensure the prime minister was gone" and that "the best revenge was making sure this guy lost the next election," which was less than five months away.
Munter determined that the key to weakening Kostunica's 2008 reelection chances was taking away the support of the Socialist Party of Serbia, once led by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Its new leader was Ivica Dacic, who had once challenged Milosevic for the top post. "We got him to flip over and join the pro-Europeans," Munter said. "We didn't pay him off; we just persuaded him. What he really wanted was international legitimacy. So we got [José Luis Rodríguez] Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister at the time, and George Papandreou, the future Greek prime minister, who ran Socialist International at the time, to invite Dacic to visit them abroad, where they wined and dined him. They told him they would let him in [to the Socialist International] if he joined the pro-European forces, and he did. He put a knife in Kostunica's back."
Munter got his revenge: Kostunica's party lost the election. Dacic's party didn't join Socialist International, the global organization of left-of-center political parties, but he became deputy prime minister and rose to prime minister four years later.