On Tuesday of this week, demonstrators waving al-Qaida flags stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, removed the American flag from its pole, and set it on fire. At roughly the same time, a terrorist cell attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and assassinated U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his senior staff members. The embassy in Yemen was breached the next day. In the wake of all this, the biggest question isn’t what Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama should say on TV. The most important question is: why weren’t our diplomats able to defend themselves and the overseas property of the United States?
U.S. embassies usually have Marines on hand for protection, but the only security at the Benghazi consulate was provided by Libyans. As for the security detail at the Cairo embassy, according to Nightwatch, several U.S. Marine Corps bloggers claim that Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, wouldn’t allow them to carry live ammunition. “She neutralized any U.S. military capability that was dedicated to preserve her life and protect the U.S. Embassy,” they wrote. “She neutered the Marines posted to defend the embassy, trusting the Egyptians over the Marines.”
I can’t verify the truth of these claims. I talked to two different staffers at the State Department’s press office and asked about the current rules of engagement when our embassies and staff are under attack, but no official, senior or otherwise, got back to me. Mark Thompson at Time magazine asked about Marine protection at the consulate in Benghazi, and he, too, reports that “senior U.S. officials decline to discuss it.” A Marine spokesman at the Pentagon reportedly denies the claim.
It’s frankly bizarre that these incidents were even possible. U.S. embassies in the Middle East look to me like they’re ready for war. Entering one can be an intimidating experience even for American citizens. The first time I approached the embassy in Lebanon I sensed that I’d have a gun pointed at me if I made a single move that looked even slightly threatening.
There’s a good reason for that. The embassy in Beirut was destroyed by a Hezbollah suicide bomber in 1983 and later rebuilt in the mountains outside the capital. The U.S. was keenly aware that something catastrophic might happen again, so the embassy was turned into a hard target guarded by America’s finest killers. It has been secure ever since. But by the end of this Tuesday, after the Cairo and Benghazi incidents, our diplomatic posts appeared no more impregnable than shopping malls, so it’s not remotely surprising that demonstrators breached the walls of the embassy in Yemen on Wednesday.
CNN quotes Yemeni human-rights activist Ala’a Jarban, who was startled by the compound’s vulnerability, especially after what had just happened in Egypt and Libya. “There were calls on social media to protest today in front of the embassy,” he said, “so I expected there might be some violence and clashes, but didn’t expect it would be that easy to break into the embassy. I’ve been there—it’s one of the most protected places in Yemen. To break in that easily was a shock to me.”
Breaking into embassies is an inherently violent act—technically an act of war. Assassinating our ambassadors and their staff is a brazen act of war that could trigger an invasion if carried out by a government. Yet our embassies no longer look like the outposts of a superpower. To the Middle East’s seething malcontents and predatory bin Ladenists, they appear to be wide open and staffed with cringing pacifists. Reactionaries with guns and grievances have every reason to believe they can assault one of our embassies without meeting any resistance from American security forces.
Terrorists constantly probe for weak points. You can bet that al-Qaida leaders took copious notes on our newly exposed vulnerabilities. Our overseas staff had better be prepared when they come again—and they will, for we sent the wrong signal this week. We need to send a new message, and fast, that attacking our embassies is as dangerous as drawing down on a cop: you should expect to be shot.
Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at City Journal. He is the author of Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.
The U.S. must make clear that future attacks will carry the highest price.