OWLS HEAD, Maine — Two dozen US diplomatic posts were closed this past weekend because of a threatened attack by Al Qaeda's offshoot in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP), and the vast majority will remain shuttered through the rest of the week.
This unprecedented reaction by President Barack Obama received strong bipartisan approval by Congress — which in itself is cause to question the administration's action.
After all, Congress thought the Iraq war was a nifty idea; Congress continues to give vociferous bipartisan support to Israel regardless of how hardline its government becomes, and just this past week, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation that would substantially tighten the sanctions against Iran, a kick in the face to Iran's relatively moderate new president.
When it comes to the Middle East, doing the opposite of what Congress wants is almost always the best policy.
The embassy closings were prompted by an apparent plot intercepted in phone conversations between the current Al Qaeda head and his counterpart in AQAP. In the aftermath of last year's Benghazi attack, and the body blows Republican congressmen delivered to the White House, preventing another fatal attack against American government offices abroad must be a top priority. Still, the number of embassies and consulates hunkering down for an extended period raises all sorts of questions.
If an overheard phone conversation can force the US government to close a large number of its Arab embassies, might high-ranking Al Qaeda operatives make sure in the future similar-sounding plots are discussed over easily intercepted communications?
And if so, will the US continue to respond to such threats with blanket embassy closings, presumably for ever longer periods of time? At what point will the US consider that, for ongoing safety reasons, it has to greatly reduce the number of personnel in embassies in Muslim countries?
Nor is it impossible that the whole episode was in fact a plot designed to mislead. Al Qaeda is well aware of US intercept capabilities and typically uses couriers for exchanges between high-ranking terrorists. Purposely transmitting conversations they know are likely to be picked up could have tested how the US would react to a specific threat; alternatively, open transmissions could be a distraction while they plan a different operation.
Even if the intercepted conversation does indeed represent a failure of Al Qaeda's security, the US reaction is certainly an acknowledgment — to Americans, of course, but also to the rest of the world — of Al Qaeda's apparent strength. Is that not a substantial propaganda victory for Al Qaeda?
Reacting as it did is obviously a serious inconvenience to the US. At a time when the country has repeatedly acclaimed the success of its drone campaign in Yemen, one is forced to ask what exactly that success has achieved.
Nearly 12 years after 9/11, two wars, tragic losses of life, trillions of dollars, an Arab world with waning American influence, airport security still driving travelers mad, citizens' phone calls copied and stored for posterity, and now a score of US diplomatic posts closed by Al Qaeda threats: if the battle is Al Qaeda versus the US, who's winning?
Drone attacks often succeed in killing the intended target, but the collateral damage from even successful attacks serves as one of Al Qaeda's best recruiting tools. Are drone victories then merely short-term, and pyrrhic?
Certainly, they only add to the underlying problem, which is the growing unpopularity of the US in most of the Arab world. The best place to see the failure of American policy firsthand is in today's Egypt, where the US is damned equally by both the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers, and the secularists who encouraged the army overthrow of Mohamed Morsi's Brotherhood government.
The supporters of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his new military regime believe the US actively supported the Morsi government, because the US ambassador and other embassy officials met with its officials and accepted it as legitimate. Muslim Brotherhood members, meanwhile, believe the refusal of the US to condemn the coup against its democratically elected government confirms its support for Morsi's overthrow. Bipartisan condemnation.
In fact, in dealing with the Morsi government, the US was merely practicing standard diplomatic behavior; it was doing exactly what it should have done. Had it done otherwise, and the Morsi government remained in power, US ability to advance its interests, including reinforcing the peace between Egypt and Israel, would have been negligible.
The negative reaction of Egyptians, right-wing and left, Islamist and secular, shows that in the new chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring, US popularity, and hence influence, is in steep decline.
For too long, the US backed Mubarak's undemocratic and corrupt regime, and the military that kept him in power. Those officials had little interest in economic growth; their interest was staying in power and enriching themselves while the country remained poor. And the US bought into it.
Moreover, the US alliance with Israel further explains unpopularity with Arab men and women in the street.
Secretary of State John Kerry's quixotic attempt to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem seems a fool's errand, unless he has somehow persuaded Obama to bring unyielding pressure on Israel. But he's dead right that it's an issue that continues to undermine US interests in Arab countries and broader parts of the Muslim world.
Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism is unlikely to decline in the near future. As the Syrian chaos spreads, so too will Al Qaeda influence. With asymmetrical warfare, as we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deck is stacked against the US. It will be increasingly difficult to protect US interests, and even lives, as instability in key Arab countries grows.
Responding to what intelligence analysts considered an imminent threat by closing nearly two dozen US embassies may have seemed the best immediate response. But, long term, appearing weak against Al Qaeda in order to prevent short-term damage is a losing strategy.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.