The Benghazi Effect: Embassy Closures Could Do Lasting Damage

U.S. struggles to prove it made the right decision in shuttering 21 diplomatic posts.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pounds her fist as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pounds her fist as she testifies on Capitol Hill about the Benghazi attack, Jan. 23, 2013.

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America's diplomats face greater attention abroad at a time when the U.S. is trying to withdraw from ground wars in the Middle East while also demonstrating it is not willing to allow another deadly attack like the assault in Benghazi.

They must also contend with an increasingly divided and unpredictable enemy in al-Qaida, competing with the United States for a favorable opinion among locals in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and other reaches of the Muslim world.

The State Department's decision to close 21 diplomatic facilities worldwide has achieved both sides' goal of drawing attention to the security of these installations. But the question remains whether the U.S. has brought lasting damage to its foreign doorsteps.

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"We need to pay attention to how this is being processed abroad," says Edward Turzanski, a retired intelligence official and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Center for the Study of Terrorism. "Particularly in those countries where al-Qaida operates and we are competing with them for people's confidence and people's perception."

Any decision to close a diplomatic facility, but especially 21 of them at once, must come from information that shows there is an unavoidable threat of loss of life with no way to mitigate it, he says.

"There is a tremendous cost. We have done this on such a wide scale," he says. "You can call it an orderly withdrawal, but it's still a retreat. There's no doubt that's happening."

Closing the embassies shows the U.S. is not willing to risk another Benghazi, says Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a professor of international and Muslim law at Emory University.

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"But to think of the world's superpower being intimidated or forced into a position of closing diplomatic missions, it is humiliating, whether it's perceived as a precaution or to preserve life."

"You shouldn't be required to do this after spending all this money on forces and global initiatives," he says. "To see [that] the so-called enemy is still able to strike and create such anxiety, the U.S. would be better served by reconsidering it's [war on terror]."

Others in diplomatic circles appreciate the temporary efforts that keep America's diplomats alive to continue their work.

"On a military battlefield, if someone is firing at you, it is prudent to keep your head down," says P. J. Crowley, an Air Force veteran and State Department spokesman from 2009 to 2011. "If you strike an air of defiance and stand up from behind your barricade, you're likely to get yourself killed."

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Britain and Germany have also temporarily closed their embassies in some of these countries, such as Yemen.

The State Department has made a pledge to Americans around the world that it will share with them any security information it has that can affect the well-being of diplomats. Neglecting to publicize the kinds of threats that would close embassies and consulates worldwide violates the agreement the U.S. has with its citizens abroad, Crowley says.

"It's part of this difficult calculation," he says. "There are tough decisions made in difficult parts of the world."

The decision for shutting the embassies has been met with mixed reviews from members of Congress. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., referred to the intelligence that prompted the closures as "the most serious threat I've seen in the last several years," reports Business Insider. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, counters that the decision makes the U.S. look like "a bunch of cowards," according to NewsMax.

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America's top priority abroad is to protect its citizens and interests, whether they are soldiers on a battlefield or diplomats and their families. Embassies have always been seen as potential targets, so closing them temporarily can be a prudent move to prevent a more serious incident, such as the attack in Benghazi, or previous attacks in Nairobi in 1998 or Iran in 1979.