Yemeni soldiers inspect a car at a checkpoint Saturday on a street leading to the U.S. and British embassies in Sanaa, Yemen. Eighteen U.S. diplomatic outposts closed because of a terrorist threat will reopen Sunday, but the U.S. Embassy in Yemen will remain closed due to ongoing concerns about potential terrorist attacks by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. (Hani Mohammed / AP)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama seems determined to make sure he doesn’t have another Benghazi.
Pilloried by Republicans in Congress for its handling of last year’s attack, his administration is responding with extra caution now that intelligence suggests a possible al-Qaida strike is in the works.
Even as the threat may be subsiding, U.S. officials say they are taking no risks less than a year after militants killed four Americans in the eastern Libyan city and with Republicans poised to pounce on any misstep.
After closing 19 diplomatic posts across the Muslim world for almost a week, the United States added to the global uneasiness Friday.
It ordered nonessential staff out of Lahore, Pakistan, and warned Americans to avoid traveling to the country. The action appeared unrelated to the al-Qaida threat stemming from Yemen, but mirrored a missive earlier in the week to U.S. embassy staffers in that country.
The stated reason for all the recent security measures: “An overabundance of caution.”
Come Sunday, all but one of the 19 embassies and consulates will reopen, the State Department announced late Friday. The exception: the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. In addition, the consulate in Lahore was to remain closed. A department spokeswoman did not cite a reason for the decision to reopen the 18 missions.
Obama said at a White House news conference Friday afternoon that al-Qaida’s core has been decimated by U.S. counterterrorism efforts such as the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan. But the terrorist network’s affiliates continue to threaten the U.S.
“Although they are less likely to be able to carry out spectacular homeland attacks like 9/11, they have the capacity to go after our embassies,” Obama said. “They have the capacity to go after our businesses. They have the capacity to be destabilizing and disruptive in countries where the security apparatus is weak. And that’s what we are seeing now.”
“We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism,” he said. “What we can do is to weaken it and to strengthen our partners so that it does not pose the kind of horrible threat that it posed on 9/11.”
Obama didn’t talk specifically about the threat or the embassy closings.
But U.S. officials familiar with internal discussions acknowledged that last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi was playing a role in the decision-making. They said the White House, in particular, was insisting on handling the situation with extra caution, and only reopening embassies and consulates to the public when no meaningful threat persisted. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk publicly about the deliberations.
Extended closures have consequences for U.S. diplomacy. It means would-be tourists and those traveling on business have to wait for visas, pickpocketed Americans can’t get new passports and fewer personnel are at work promoting human rights, facilitating trade deals or coordinating with foreign governments on issues vital to U.S. security and economic growth. It also takes a toll on the U.S. image in countries with anti-American sentiment already.
The shutdown order for diplomatic facilities from northwest Africa to Bangladesh stands in sharp contrast to the approach the administration favored last September under different circumstances.
The current danger across much of North Africa and the Middle East concerns a potential al-Qaida attack stemming from lawless Yemen, while the Pakistan closures relate to a flurry of deadly militant attacks there. The threat a year ago was more amorphous and even less predictable, focusing primarily on a flood of protests from West Africa to the Philippines over an amateur, anti-Islam film made by an Egyptian living in the United States.
At the time the administration was hesitant to close its embassies and consulates. Even after the Sept. 11 Benghazi assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, and as demonstrators besieged U.S. posts across the region, Washington tried to keep its offices in most places open for business.
When the U.S. took action, it was narrower in scope and in geography.
After protesters marched on the U.S. compound in Cairo, scaled the walls and replaced the American flag with the black banner favored by Islamists, the State Department shut down visa offices for a week and suspended emergency services for Americans for several days.
The building remained in operation, as did the U.S. Embassy in Yemen after similarly violent scenes days later.
The night of Sept. 11 proved most violent of all, though the administration no longer says the events there were connected to any demonstrations.
Since the two-step attack of the Benghazi diplomatic post and then a CIA compound across town, no U.S. diplomats have returned to the city. Yet even inside Libya, the response was targeted. Nonessential staff was ordered out of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, the capital, while senior diplomats remained.
Protests elsewhere at the time had repercussions.
The U.S. shut its embassy in Sudan after the government refused to authorize extra Marines as part of a protection force. The U.S. closed facilities throughout Pakistan on Sept. 21 for a national holiday dedicated to the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. But in dozens of other places where demonstrations took place, the State Department maintained a semblance of normality.
Washington bolstered security at facilities, instead of closing them down. In some places, that meant Marines; in others, local authorities stepped up. Armored vehicles, police cars and surveillance teams immediately became more conspicuous next to U.S. compounds from Nigeria to the Philippines.
Over the past week, the U.S. has erred far greater on the side of caution.
On the military side, U.S. drone strikes have killed 34 suspected militants in Yemen in the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press count provided by Yemeni security officials.
And even though there has been no public manifestation yet of the al-Qaida threat, the administration continues to openly warn about the ongoing danger and the need to limit U.S. exposure while taking action against terrorist groups.
Somewhat lost in the response has been the importance of persisting with diplomacy in dangerous places — a theme stressed significantly a year ago.
“Even as voices of suspicion and mistrust seek to divide countries and cultures from one another, the United States of America will never retreat from the world,” Obama said at a ceremony for the victims of the Benghazi attack.