Why U.S. Embassy Closures Will Keep Coming

Unable to fully secure most facilities, but unwilling to shut them down, State chooses to shut them down temporarily in risky situations

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Khaled Abdullah / REUTERS

An army trooper sits beside a machinegun that is mounted on a patrol vehicle at at checkpoint in Sanaa August 5, 2013.

The U.S. shuttered 22 of its embassies this week across the Middle East and North Africa due to “credible threats” from al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations, a phenomenon that is likely to become the norm rather than the exception.

In the age of terrorism, U.S. embassies have become appealing and symbolic targets. Following twin attacks in 1998 on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed hundreds of people, funding for embassy security rose 1,000-fold to a high of $2.6 billion in 2012. And yet, that was still not enough to save the lives of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September. Since then, Congress has made yet another push to beef up embassy security, doubling Marine guards and allotting more money to building walls, barriers and in some cases even moats.

State is in the process of implementing all 29 recommendations of the Accountability Review Board, which was set up to review the failures that allowed the Benghazi attack to succeed. And money for the most part has been flowing in ways not seen since post-9/11 years. Some 150 new diplomatic security personnel have been added or are in training. President Obama requested money in his 2014 budget to retrain Marines to protect personnel in addition to top-secret documentation, which was until recently the Marines’ primary objective in deploying to the 270 diplomatic posts the U.S. maintains around the world. New alarms and cameras are being installed, with new abilities. Some cameras even give off alerts when they detect a car going the wrong way down an adjacent one-way street.

But in the meantime, no amount of security is going to be able to protect all embassies and U.S. personnel 100% of the time. And despite the risk to American lives, it is diplomacy in the most dangerous of places that yields the greatest reward. “If we are going to bring light to the world, we have to go where it is dark,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the Foreign Service Institute’s Overseas Security Seminar in May. As the Arab Spring roils on, the State Department has decided shuttering embassies when there are serious threats is a preferable compromise to closing them permanently, or walling them off in ivory towers. “Retreating behind the wire,” Kerry said, “cannot be the way that we do business.”

So the current U.S. policy is to strike a balance, with temporary closures in high risk areas, and a permanent presence in parts of the world where U.S. officials know they will not be able to always conduct regular business every day.

With reporting by Qhelile Nyathi and Katie Harris in London.