Critics Question Closed Embassies

A few days ago I wrote about the Obama administration’s decision to shut down 19 embassies in the Middle East and North Africa for the remainder of the week in response to what officials are calling a serious and credible threat.  The State Department has since reaffirmed that some embassies will remain closed until further notice while others will reopen on Monday.  We already know that the threat causing the shutdown came from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, but we’re still in the dark in regard to what the threat actually entails.

That hasn’t stopped the media from speculating about the threat.  What started out as reports that the threat was found in communications between two al-Qaeda operatives in the Arabian Peninsula quickly turned into reports that the NSA’s surveillance programs had successfully picked up a conference call involving 20+ members of the terrorist organization.  Nothing is official yet as government officials are staying off the record, so some have even guessed that the embassy closings came as a result of a new explosive created by al-Qaeda’s scientists that would turn an ordinary shirt into an explosive device by dipping it in chemicals.  For now it seems like the most plausible explanation as to why the government decided to close its embassies is the conference call theory.  I guess it’s possible that all three theories could be true.  The NSA could have picked up on a conference call and heard a discussion between two particular al-Qaeda operatives about a new type of explosive.  But rumors will keep flying until someone from the government goes on the records and puts this to sleep.

Anyway, al-Qaeda and other anti-western organizations are already claiming success, viewing the closed embassies as a sign that America is running scared.  One Jihadist posted on an online forum, “[t]he mobilization and security precautions are costing them billions of dollars. We hope to hear more of such psychological warfare, even if there are no actual jihadi operations on the ground.”  Jihadists aren’t the only ones who seem to think that closing our embassies is a sign of weakness.  Criticism is coming from current and former government officials who claim that closing the embassies was an overreaction that will play right into the hands of America’s enemies.  Former State Department counterterrorism expert Will McCants told The New York Times, “I think since Benghazi the administration has been in a defensive crouch, and they are playing it as safe as they can.”  Others are questioning the wisdom in validating an al-Qaeda threat after the Obama administration has been discounting the organization’s overall threat to the US for the past few years.

I can see validity in those arguments.  The whole point of terrorism is to terrify and disrupt, and that’s what al-Qaeda has accomplished.  They were successful by definition.  But let’s think about the big picture for a minute.  Essentially everyone was enraged (and rightfully so) by the way the Obama administration handled the Benghazi incident.  I can’t tell you how many people I heard calling for President Obama to resign from office.  And here we have what literally everyone involved is calling a credible and legitimate threat, and the same administration is being lambasted for taking action to protect our diplomats?  Can we at least try to be consistent with our criticism?

Look, nobody wants to look like a coward and admit that they’re vulnerable.  But are we really going to say that al-Qaeda won this round?  I’d personally rather see our diplomats (who are pretty important in maintaining relations with the Middle East) safe and alive than see the US ignore a credible threat and end up experiencing another deadly attack against one of our embassies.  It’s not like we’re shutting down our embassies for good.  We haven’t cut off all relations with the Middle East.  We received a threat, determined that it’s credible, and are keeping our personnel safe.  It doesn’t mean that al-Qaeda won, and it certainly doesn’t mean that America has lost.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

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