How the GOP Libya Witch Hunt Made us Close our Mideast Embassies and Crippled US Diplomacy

About those US embassy closures in the Middle East: they make the US look like a wimp.

The United States is still the world’s primary superpower, for better or worse, and it has the potential to influence the world in both positive and negative ways. At one extreme, its unique geopolitical position allows it to violate international law with impunity and do things like invade and occupy Iraq in the teeth of opposition from the UN Security Council. At the other extreme, the US can play a positive role, as when it helped achieve an agreement between the UK, the Irish Republican Army, and the Republic of Ireland, in 1996. Or when President Eisenhower told then French President Charles De Gaulle that France would just have to get out of Algeria since colonialism was over with. On another level, US AID has saved millions of people from malaria.

As with George Mitchell and Northern Ireland, the most effective uses of American power have been diplomatic. But hawks in Washington always want to drag us into foreign wars, in part to benefit their buddies in the arms industry. The current GOP is divided on the issue of US power abroad, with Libertarians like Rand Paul viewing foreign wars as a waste of money and a fruitless enterprise, but hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham failing to discover a potential war that they don’t just love to death.

But the GOP is inadvertently pushing the US into a posture of dangerous diplomatic weakness. This weakness is clear in the unprecedented closing of 21 US embassies in the Middle East this weekend because of a vague terrorist threat apparently emanating from “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” based in Yemen.

The Obama administration most likely took this weird step to insulate itself from any further witch hunts of the sort the Republicans launched over the tragic attack on a CIA safe house doubling as a US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2011. That a radical extremist cell should have attacked in this way was a surprise, since the radicals had been persecuted by Muammar Gaddafi, and the US had helped overthrow the dictator. I was in Benghazi in summer of 2011 and was told that personal security was not so bad (you wouldn’t be mugged as an individual), but that militias might steal from, e.g., a company. The existence of a set of terrorist cells that would and could kill ambassador Chris Stevens and three others was not clear. When the surprise attack was launched, the Libyan government organized a special forces unit to extract the remaining dozens of Americans and get them to Tripoli, with it did without further loss of life. There is no reason to think that the Obama administration behaved inappropriately through the crisis.

But the constant innuendos on the Hill that some sort of malfeasance occurred in Benghazi has pushed the Obama administration to cover its collective behind. So the Tunisian and Libyan embassies are skeleton crews, with very few personnel, and their families have been sent back to the states. An embassy can’t be effective like that. But the embassies are less vulnerable to becoming Washington scandals if there is almost no one there, reducing casualties if there were another attack.

In 1983 the US embassy in Beirut was blown up, and the Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress didn’t try to impeach Ronald Reagan about it, or force Reagan into closing down embassies lest he be crucified by the other party. The Dems in Congress actually agreed to Reagan’s request after the bombing to give Lebanon $225 mn in aid! It didn’t occur to them to try to impeach Reagan because an embassy got blown up on his watch.


US embassy Beirut, 1983

So at a time when Tunisia and Libya facing the greatest popular turmoil since 2011, you have American embassies barely functioning and not able effectively to engage in diplomacy, suggest compromises, push for moderation. The GOP produced this sad situation by forcing the administration to protect themselves from further invidious inquisitions.

Now the Benghazi Disease has spread from Tunisia and Libya to the whole Middle East. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a few hundred guys out in the boondocks of Yemen (and that is really the boondocks). They have a pathological fascination with the non-metallic explosive PETN, which is why we all have to get naked at the airport while scanners look for pouches of it, since it wouldn’t set off the metal detectors. They did try to attack the US Embassy in Sanaa in 2008 and killed 6 of their own guys. As far as I can tell they have a dearth of successful operations.

It is inappropriate to give AQAP the idea that they can push around a superpower this way. And it isn’t as if the US embassies have nothing to do. The diplomats of the State Department need to be representing the US in the region at this parlous time, not in an overbearing or interventionist way, but simply offering their advice and their good offices for settling disputes. If the Egyptian military goes after the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt the way it has announced it wants to, it could push that country into a long term low-intensity war. Shouldn’t the US embassy be trying to forestall that outcome? Of course, both sides in the current struggle blame the US for supporting the other. But that ridiculous outcome is only possible because the embassy isn’t putting in its two cents and is, like, closed.

It is true that the closings were for two days (or most were–some may be for a week, and some may be repeated), and that on the weekends when the diplomats might not be that busy. But Sunday is a work day in much of the Middle East, and in some places both Saturday and Sunday are.

Beirut, Amman, Sanaa, Manama– these are not quiet places these days. They are places where US diplomats need to be able to do their jobs.

CBS News reports on the closings:

This embassy closure business is so bizarre and hysterical that many Americans on the left have concluded that it is a piece of misdirection by Obama to take the focus off the National Security Agency’s monitoring of ordinary Americans en masse and the abrogation of the Fourth Amendment.

I can’t rule out that the administration is playing that kind of politics with our diplomacy. But as you can tell I think the story is a different and sadder one. The Republican Party is now so Raptor-like that it is preventing an entire Department, the one first headed by Thomas Jefferson, from doing its job at a time of turmoil and danger in a strategic part of the world.

19 Responses

  1. It seems to me that “diplomacy” and statecraft actually are undertaken and performed by individuals, not some personification called “the US.” You got the Dulleses, those gritty, squint-eyed, skulduggerous Realists, and the people who formed ranks around them, a pretty small part of the polity, but somehow self-selected from those who had the drive for power and the connections and means to grab it, sending us down the Cold War Rat Hole for a generation or more, playing off their opposite numbers in “the Soviet Union” and elsewhere, all in the wake of the whole Great Game juggernaut’s fireworks in WWs I and II. A relatively few individuals thinking “empire” and “hegemony” and being able to say, and mean, like little kids on the playground, “I AM the boss of you!”

    The bulk of us, also individuals, who yet can be moved as “interest and affinity groups” by various manipulations and appealing falsehoods, go along with the mystiques of ballot-or-conquest-accorded “legitimacy,” and because it is occasionally “our turn” to do the grabbing, acceding in an idiot’s reciprocity to what is only the parasitism of the Fews under our “spoils system.”

    And all of this activity is catalyzed and facilitated by the flow of wealth to the Imperial center — whether that wealth is the REAL stuff that working people create, or just lots of IOUs written by other individuals who have figured out how BS and complicated math can let them create Bespoke Suits out of iMaginary Fraudcloth. And of course by other people who put their smarta__ little heads together and come up with corporate slogans like “We Never Forget Who We’re Working For,” ol’ Lockheed-Martin’s owners’ and bosses’ “patriotic” declaration, right out front if deliciously deceptive, “stealthy” you might say, of their “loyalties.”

    Guess what? In the Great Game, which the Game of RISK! so poorly byt seductively models, the lesson is that increasingly often, “strength” — the apparent strength of massive military and industrial concentrations — is really weakness, and the admonitions of Sun Tzu and Mao and others about reeds bending in the tornado prove truer than the dictums of Clausewitz and Petraeus and the like.

    Seems to me that dictators and authoritarians and oligarchists and kleptocrats of all nominal birth-stripes are finding, if not actually learning, that the principles that underlie the reality that “we,” any Bigness, cannot win “4th Generation Wars,” apply to eventually thwart them, if not, unfortunately, to educate and illuminate the Rulerships into better serving the basic individual and family NEEDS that, in being served, establish the legitimacy of the rulerships. Not that the lessons will change any of the behaviors that actually count, before the oopsie of climate collapse or some “miscalculation”-induced “release” of all those still-hair-trigger nuclear weapons…

    Keeping in mind that the idiots that run the Giant Ponderous Global Inter-Inoperable Network-Centric We Rule The World Battlespace thing cannot even define some fundamentals, like what constitutes “winning,” and what the goals of the game are other than transferring “civilian” wealth to the global MIC thingie and maybe making “wogs” either say “Uncle Sam” or just die, or what “the national interest” is, other than advancing their individual careers and getting naming rights for Dogmas and Strategies and keeping the oil flowing to the benefit of another small and evil and stupid “I want my life back” set of individuals up in their private jets or out on their racing yachts… (Go ahead — search the DoD Dictionary or the enormous, expensive and growing bulk of publicly available DoD publications, for any definition of “win” or “victory” or “success.” “Mission Accomplished!”? What was the mission, again, sir?)

    It’s all about procurement, logistics, and process, predicated on the “victory” of individual generals and staff over opposing branches and competing powers to define the parts and play of the Game. And the patent inability to even, via what our expositors of the New American Century smugly expect is “overwhelming force,” to win a war game where a retired one of their own number sinks an entire US fleet, link to rense.com, followed by a post-hoc change of the outcome by the kind of behavior that smarta__ rich kids pull in hacking the university computers to change their failing grades.

    We got all those nukes, and we can’t even use them! What kind of Game is that, anyway?

  2. I’m one of those who think this is entirely a diversion to take eyes off the NSA. After all, Obama has been able to keep the Republicans at bay on Benghazi. These embassy closings are so the Obama administration can say in a few days that thanks to their monitoring of the terrorists they were able to thwart some terror plots and keep us all safe.

  3. “This embassy closure business is so bizarre and hysterical …” I was wondering if ‘hysterical’ referred to some panicky response by the Government to threats it perceives as being credible or if ‘hysterical’ should be thought of as producing ‘uncontrollable laughter,’ as in a response to something extremely humourous. Given the bizarre nature of the closings, it seems that the latter would be indicated because of the absurdity of the actions.
    That the embassies and consulates might be closed does not necessarily mean that there is a work stoppage. The facilities are just not open to the public. One might see this as a sign to the countries affected that the United States (among other ‘Western (imperialist)’ nations will not be available to serve anyone, in effect discontinuing access by those who might view the U.S., et al, as conduits to some other objectives such as travel, employment, or some other official capacities. In other words, the message to the countries in which the closures are occurring is: “Either control your people or you can do without us.”
    Conversely, this could be a message to the naysayers and would-be prophets of doom (the ‘Grand Old Obstructionist Party (GOOP),’ e.g.), the intent of which is to show what happens to the U.S. (and other ‘Western’ nations*) if their missions are idle due to some overreaction to words or actions seen as threatening. Showing what happens when the nations ‘wimp out’ would be instructive, demonstrating the effects of inactivity or inaction in the face of more pressing issues, most prominently providing essential raison d’être services.
    Any foreigner hailing from countries seen as imposing on the indigenous peoples is at risk and not just at one time each year. Knowing the histories of the ‘West’ over the course of centuries, there must be a surplus of anniversaries that can be observed with benevolent or violent actions at almost any time. Egyptians on both sides of the coupvolution will recognise the 3rd of July for who knows how long. One can pick any day on any calendar – even to a particular time of day – to recall some event worthy of action. And on any given day and time, the object of veneration or vengeance is vulnerable.
    Work will continue albeit without access to the compounds. Modern electronic technology has allowed people to communicate without having to meet face-to-face. For those of us who have lived in countries experiencing internal difficulties, exercises are conducted periodically to ensure that no one becomes complacent. Whether this time is considered ‘for real’ or ‘pretend’ is something we may never know or fully understand. In any case, the emphasis will allow those directly involved to develop information and corresponding policies and procedures for when things become really serious.
    Thomas Paine offered, “The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime, makes the ridiculous; and one step above the ridiculous, makes the sublime again.”**

    * link to hurriyetdailynews.com
    ** link to en.wikipedia.org

  4. In four and a half years, through some much-more difficult political stories than anything that his happening now, the administration has never used terror warnings as a distraction. Not during the 2010 election season, not during any of the terrible economic reports that have sometimes come in, not during any of the scandal stories, nothing. Not once.

    During the previous administration, when they were changing the color on the National Mood Ring every few months, with highly suspicious political timing, such speculation would have been warranted, but this administration has no such pattern of behavior.

    Leaping to the conclusion that this must be a political ploy is a real stretch.

    • There’s always a first time…

      link to commondreams.org

      Or maybe a second or third time. “No such pattern of behavior”? Gee, in our new world of UNtransparency, it is so hard to know anything, isn’t it? The Administration you so often plump for has never lied to the rest of us, or mis-led us, or been caught doing things that are maybe not so very good for most of us?

      Thoughts from elsewhere:

      link to examiner.com

      • Following up “The Administration you so often plump for has never lied to the rest of us, or mis-led us, or been caught doing things that are maybe not so very good for most of us?” with a statement from the oh-so-reliable Pakistani intelligence services is weak even for you, JT. Is there anything you don’t gullibly swallow, as long as it supports your point?

        And no, the terror alert is not based on a threat from the non-Nusra Front factions of the Syrian opposition. That is an embarrassingly stupid argument, and only makes sense if you buy into an “all those people look alike” view of the Muslims.

  5. If this is an example of damage done by the Republican Party, then I would say it reflects less badly on the Republican Party than it does on a Democratic administration which has allowed itself to be so thoroughly cowed by the opposition that its actions are dictated by fear of what the opposition might do. If fear of the opposition is preventing the State Department from doing its job, then we should not be criticizing the opposition so much as we should be utterly condemning the State Department.

  6. I have to say I don’t view it as the Republicans forcing the Administration to do anything. This is a choice Obama and co. are making for whatever reason, but if it is as a political calculation, that is, indeed, wimpy. That the bleating of Republican morons such as Issa and the rest should have any impact on what our embassies and diplomats are doing would be a pretty major fail on the part of the Administration. The type of uninformed critic for whom “Benghazi” is a code word should be told to pound sand by Obama and Kerry.

  7. It is telling that after the announcement of the closures that the initial press interviews on NPR were with senior Republican members of the Inteligence Committees.

  8. The neocons are using Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a role model. Mr. Ahmadinejad used fear of the Great Satan as an excuse to justify otherwise unpopular domestic policies and maintain the loyalty of their conservative base – and the neocons use fear of Iran and al Qaeda for the same purpose.

  9. While I very much share your views on the Benghazi Witch hunt and like you have no way of knowing what various Administration actors may or may not have urged in this decision making, I very much doubt either Benghazi fear or political gamesmanship were determinative

    Bush’s failure to act in the face of 9-11 most likely provided all the incentive need to justify action. Indeed,I found it ironic that GOP Sen. Chambliss admitted as much in his comments yesterday.

    Though I have no idea whether the underlying threat justifies the closings, I am dead certain that it is going to be some time before any US president isn’t tempted to over-react to

  10. Excellent Comment, Sir. I could not agree more. I start my days by reading your blog. Thank you for the service to us all.

  11. Come on. The President overreacted. There’s plenty of Hawks among us Democrats – and 100% among the Obama Administration. Don’t put that on the GOP.

  12. You Decide: Threats or Sting, or Both?

    The 19 embassy shutdowns. Sure there’s gotta be fire underneath all that smoke, but just think of all the dotted i’s and crossed t’s the metadata watchers are gathering and analyzing in response to the super-publicized closures. The digital connections unearthed and confirmed around this unprecedented event are going to be significant enough that, if someone had conceived of it entirely as a means of trying to bring the bad guys out of the electronic woodwork, it would have been justified in misleading the world just to get the information that would be discovered by doing so.

    As it is, I think there were actual threats or at least belief in threats to be followed by extremely close coordination with the metadata folks to watch as the digital blips of light are illuminated and the analysts narrow down the searches for the plotters and would-be plotters just that much more.

    If any of this is true, it would remind me in a way of local police departments mailing “you may already be a winner” coupons for free steak knives and I-Pads to criminals with outstanding warrants to get them to show up at a predetermined location to pick up their prizes and thereby expose themselves to identification and arrest.

    Not entirely paranoid and not entirely likely, but somewhere inbetween. Much like the news itself.

    Brought to you by The Sixth W of Journalism:
    Who? What? When? Where? Why? And WTF?

  13. Shows Al-Qaeda’s learning curve. At one point closing a US Embassy would have required mobilizing human resources, explosives, gathering data on embassy vulnerability, strategic planning, practice runs, etc. Then the US began gathering all kinds of signals intelligence, sweeping up huge amounts of data regarding “chatter” or communications, and we heard boasts about how this would enable us to track and disrupt threats.

    Result? Al-Qaeda learned it may not need to do something, just talk about it, and the US propensity for over-reaction, out of miscalculation or panic, will accomplish its purpose. A few phone calls and e-mails and the US shuts down much of its public presence across the Arab world for a week. From time to time a minor event to keep the US on edge and as a result a half-dozen operatives can assure confusion and embarrassment in 20 countries.

    • It’s the kind of crap that “our” jackals and operatives have been doing for decades, to stir the many pots and foment regime disruption and all that. It’s not like the textbooks and manuals for how to do it are not readily available on the ‘net.

      Blowback, one little part of that greater notion called karma, sure can be a, can I use the word without being “politically incorrect?”, “bi__h”…

  14. So, just to be perfectly clear, the universal assumption here is that a threat to American embassies on the anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks on two Americans embassies must necessarily be bogus.

    Of course. Because al Qaeda isn’t really a threat or anything, just a bunch of harmless fuzzy bunnies.

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