For those of us who have lived in countries when embassies close, it can be a very isolating feeling. The first time it happened to me I was reminded that the purpose of a U.S. Embassy is NOT to be there for Americans abroad as a primary focus. In the list of goals for an embassy, one will not see “caring for American citizens” as high on the list. An embassy’s most important function is to represent the American government and promote U.S. interests. When there is a chance of attack on the Embassy or Embassy personnel, other Americans living in the country are not usually considered as overly important.
So this week when 19 embassies were closed and I heard television pundits wondering what the Americans living in these countries would do, I was amused and said aloud, “Go to the Canadian Embassy. They always help us!” Which is true. Many years ago while living as a non-Embassy person in Cairo, there was a riot and the U.S. Embassy closed and didn’t even answer the phones. The Canadian Ambassador got the word out to all of us that if an American needed help, his home was open and he would protect us. Since he had a lovely pool and it was extremely hot, it was an offer that couldn’t be refused if you could find your way there.
The big issue for many regarding the closures was whether it was really needed. Arguments were made on both sides. One view was it is better to err on the side of caution and preservation of American lives. The other argument was that it was overreacting since there was no specific target mentioned, just chatter about a potential event somewhere in the world. Now that we have gone almost a week with no incident, the naysayers seem to be the louder voice. Since none of us on the outside of the government have any idea of how strong a threat existed, no one is going to win this discussion. What is worrisome is what will the reaction be to the next threat – will the government under or over react? Benghazi was not treated seriously enough in real time and it could be that this week was handled on the too extremely cautious side.
These decisions are never easy and unfortunately it usually takes years for declassification to tell the general public what was actually the thought process behind the decision. From what I have witnessed during the past five years, this Administration seemingly has a problem with a coherent pattern of behavior when it comes to the Middle East. Maybe that will change now that we have across the board chaos in the region. Perhaps that will get the attention of enough people that an overall plan for the region will be put in place.
NOTE: Since this post was written, it was announced that 18 of the 19 embassies will reopen tomorrow, August 11. Yemen’s embassy will remain closed.