James Carafano, Heritage’s vice president for foreign and defense policy and the E. W. Richardson Fellow, sat down with us to answer some frequently asked questions about the recent terrorist threats, embassy closures, and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs.
Q. Is the threat against U.S. embassies credible?
A. Yes. Embassies and U.S. officials overseas have long been a favored al-Qaeda target, going back to the bombings at two American embassies in Africa before 9/11. It’s an al-Qaeda practice to come back to proven tactics. The successful assault on the U.S. compound in Benghazi demonstrated the attention an attack can attract. That strike allowed al-Qaeda to proclaim it was back in business in North Africa.
Q. What does the uncovering of this plot tell us about U.S. foreign intelligence surveillance programs like PRISM?
A. Not much. Foreign intelligence is obviously important in combating transnational terrorism. It is a concern to see government officials “leaking” or “sharing” information with journalists on the sources and methods used to track terrorists. This might compromise the effectiveness of these procedures. On the other hand, such disclosures don’t get at the real issue: Is our government running these programs in accordance with the law? That answer can come only from appropriate and conscientious oversight from Congress. They wrote the laws under which these programs operate. It’s their responsibility to assess whether the Administration is doing its job right.
Q. What does this latest plot tell us about the Obama Administration’s counterterrorism strategy?
A. It’s hard to reconcile the latest threat with the Administration’s rosy assessments of its progress in taking on al-Qaeda. The Administration doesn’t acknowledge that it’s facing a global Islamist insurgency. Rather, the Administration seems preoccupied with scaling back its counterterrorism programs to “prove” that it’s winning. U.S. strategy has, in practice, helped give al-Qaeda an opportunity at a second life.
Q. Did the Administration take appropriate action in shutting down the embassies?
A. Perhaps; the U.S. should not put our personnel needlessly at risk. On the other hand, this is not a sustainable strategy. America’s interests can’t be defended from a foxhole or hiding behind a sandbag. Only a proactive strategy will keep these threats from popping up at will. This Administration has become increasingly risk-averse when it comes to protecting U.S. interests overseas. The lesson it seems to have learned from Benghazi is to do as little as possible. Al-Qaeda and the world interpret Obama’s policies as a leader and a nation in retreat.
Q. Where do we go from here?
A. Our President has failed to craft a responsible, prudent course that finds a middle ground between the extreme caricatures of foreign policy—isolationism and invading every country we don’t like. Without a strong and focused approach to national security that provides for a strong national defense, a proactive strategy to combat a global Islamist insurgency, and a confident foreign policy that puts safeguarding U.S. interests first, this latest threat will just be one of many more warnings that we are losing ground.