The United States closed 21 of its embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa on Sunday, and most of those facilities will remain closed this week.
As usual, our government seems incapable of speaking with one voice on exactly why it has taken such a step. The State Department says the closures are “out of an abundance of caution” and not in response to a new threat, whereas talking heads on the Sunday shows said the closures were in response to the most serious threat identified by intelligence-gathering efforts in several years. There also has been an apparent intelligence leak disclosing that the United States reportedly intercepted an exchange of messages between al Qaeda leaders about a plot against an embassy.
Although I wish our government could get its act together on messaging, I don’t see a viable alternative to closing the embassies. If we have received credible intelligence information that our embassies and consulates in the Muslim world are targets of an impending attack, there are few options. Physical security arrangements can’t be enhanced overnight; far better to get our people out of harm’s way until better information about the threat is developed. Although some people may criticize that course as showing weakness, it seems like the only prudent option. We don’t need another Benghazi-like situation.
The deeper issue here is what this apparent threat means about al Qaeda itself. With the killing of Osama bin Laden and the publicized deaths of countless “high-ranking al Qaeda leaders” over the years, we’ve been led to believe that al Qaeda has been severely diminished. If al Qaeda is capable of attacking an American embassy, that fact suggests a resurgent organization — or one about whom the reports of decline have been greatly exaggerated. If the former is true, how much of the resurgence is due to the bad feelings generated by the continuing American presence in the Middle East and our aggressive use of drones?
The recognition of substantial al Qaeda capabilities that is implicit in the decision to close the embassies is sobering, to say the least.