The American government has taken the extraordinary step of closing its embassies in a wide swathe of the Muslim world for a week, and there’s no way of knowing for sure if it’s a good idea. The information that prompted the decision is classified, what has been leaked to the press has no doubt been leaked selectively and reported incompletely, and even in those in the know can’t say with any certainty what might happen next.
This hasn’t stopped the criticism, of course. Some are arguing that even if the terror threat is real it sends a dangerous signal of weakness to be seen hiding from it, and that the better response would be heightened security and defiance. Others are making a case that the temporary closings only force the terrorists to delay their plans for a week, and that if measures can be taken in such a short span of time to thwart the plot they should have been undertaken earlier. Still others are contending that the threat isn’t real, and has been manufactured by the administration for political reasons.
There is no hard evidence for the lattermost school of thought, but the cynicism is understandable nonetheless. At this point any base motivation for the administration’s actions seems all to possible, and the countless lies told about the deadly attack on a consulate in Libya last September 11 prove that president and his advisers regard even matters of national security as subordinate to the political considerations. To further fuel the speculation the embassies are being closed at a time when the country is debating the administration’s invasive intelligence-gathering techniques, with even more controversial details slowly emerging, and the claims of an imminent terror plot have become a talking point for the administration’s defenders in both parties. The talk of a terror plot also comes at a time when the president’s poll numbers are in decline and could use a boost of rally-round-the-president sentiment, leading to the now obligatory talk of a “wag the dog” scenario.
Although plausible, these theories strike us as unlikely. Closing so many embassies for such an extended period of time is a far more elaborate response than a political ploy would require, and hiding Americans away hardly seems calculated to bolster the president’s reputation for boldness. A strategy of shrugging off any controversy as a “phony scandal” has worked well enough for the administration, too, and the debate about the National Security Agency’s methods wasn’t even the most damaging brouhaha afoot. More convincingly, an eminent threat of a serious terror attack is not the sort of lie that President Obama likes to tell.
All of the lies told about the Benghazi debacle, as well as the conceit that the Fort Hood massacre was an act of “workplace violence” committed by overstressed soldier, and that the bombings at the Boston Marathon were caused by the alienation felt by two immigrants who had been insufficiently embraced by American society, were all in service of a bigger lie that the terror threat had receded. During his re-election campaign the president constantly boasted that al-Qaeda was “on the run,” and after it proved a successful pitch he has made the claim that the war against Islamist terrorism was winding down. The president no doubt wishes it were so, as it would vindicate his accommodationist instincts, justify the defense cuts he has always desired, and allow him to spend the money and his time on the domestic initiatives that are most dear to his heart. He might even have believed it, but the embassy closings are an unmistakable admission that Islamist terrorism remains at least as deadly a threat as ever.
Admitting this unpleasant fact creates more political problems for the president than it could ever solve. The administration’s response to terrorism has been a strange brew of drone strikes and apologetic speeches, scanning the phone records of millions of average Americans while failing to heed warnings about specific Muslim suspects, “kill lists” of suspected terrorists in some countries while arming Islamist revolutionaries in others, and it’s suddenly harder to make the case that it’s working.
— Bud Norman