• Why Evacuating an Embassy is a Political Act

    February 19, 2015

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Military, Syria, Yemen

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    The American Embassy in Yemen is closed and the American staff evacuated. Houthi officials say the evacuation was unnecessary and claim it is largely a political act seeking to undermine their legitimacy. Is closing an embassy a political act? What happens when an embassy is evacuated? What happens to private Americans in-country?



    A Political Signal

    The decision to close an embassy rises to the Secretary of State for approval. An embassy evacuation really is a virtual chess match that some State Department critics say is as much about political signals as it is about the safety of America’s diplomats. In cases where the United States wants to support the host government, an embassy closure cuts off most interaction and will eliminate on-the-ground reporting. An evacuation can trigger the fall of the host government based on the perceived loss of American confidence, or may encourage rebels to attack private American citizens seen as less-protected. In that one point of having an embassy at all is symbolism, closure is without a doubt a political act. Reopening the embassy brings up all those factors in reverse.



    How Do You Close an Embassy?

    The mechanics of closing an embassy follow an established process, with only the time line varying.

    All embassies have standing evacuation procedures, called the Emergency Action Plan, that are updated regularly. A key component is the highly-classified “trip wires,” designated decision points. If the rebels advance past the river, take steps A-C. If the host government military is deserting, implement steps D-E, and so forth.

    Early actions include moving embassy dependents out of the country via commercial flights. Incoming staff can be held in Washington and existing tours cut short. Non-essential official personnel (for example, the trade attache, who won’t be doing much business in the midst of coup) are flown out. Some sort of public advisory must be issued by the State Department to private American citizens under the “No Double Standard” rule. This grew out of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight, where inside threat info was made available to embassy families but kept from the general public.

    These embassy draw-down steps are seen as low-cost moves, both because they use commercial transportation, and because they usually attract minimal public attention.

    The next steps typically involve the destruction of classified materials. The flood of sensitive documents taken from the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 remains a sore point inside State even today. Classified materials include mountains of paper that need to be shredded, pulped or burnt, as well as electronics, weapons, encryption gear and hard drives that must be physically destroyed. Embassies estimate how many linear feet of classified paper they have on hand and the destruction process begins in time (one hopes) to destroy it all.



    Send in the Marines

    Somewhere in the midst of all this, the Marines come into the picture. Embassies are guarded only by a small, lightly armed detachment of Marines. As part of their standard Special Operation Capable (SOC) designation, larger Marine units train with their SEAL components for the reinforcement and evacuation of embassies. They maintain libraries of overhead imagery and blueprints of diplomatic facilities to aid in planning. Fully combat-equipped Marines can be brought into the embassy, either stealthily to avoid inflaming a tense situation, or very overtly to send a message to troublemakers to back off. Long experience keeps Marine assets handy to the Middle East and Africa.



    Private Americans

    What is done to support private American citizens varies considerably. Planning and putting into action support for our citizens was a major part of my work at the State Department. The rule of thumb is if a commercial means of departure exists, private citizens must utilize it, sometimes with the assistance of the embassy. Loans for tickets can be made, convoys organized and so forth. In cases where the major airlines refuse to fly but the airport is still usable, the State Department can arrange charters. In extreme cases only (Yemen is not such a case) the Marines conduct a Noncombatant Evacuation Order (NEO) to pull citizens out of the country using military assets. At times Americans are simply told to “shelter in place” and ride out a crisis. State will ask a neutral embassy in-country, such as the Swiss, to look after them to the extent possible.



    Sorry, Local Staff

    Almost always left out of the mix are the embassy local staff, the cooks, drivers, and translators. Rarely are they evacuated, and are usually left to make their own way in what can be a very dangerous environment for someone seen as an American collaborator. Some have compared this to the poor treatment military translators from Iraq and Afghanistan have received trying to secure visas and refugee status to the United States.



    We Failed

    Closing an embassy is often a tacit admission that America’s policies toward the host government failed. For example, Yemen represents the third American embassy in an Arab Spring country, following Syria and Libya, now closed. Images of an empty embassy are not what the American government looks forward to seeing spreading across social media. A closure is indeed a political act.



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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...

      1

      “Images of an empty embassy are not what the American government looks forward to seeing spreading across social media.”

      It’s a foreclosed sign of the times: overpriced properties its owners can’t afford.

      02/19/15 12:38 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      2

      02/19/15 1:05 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      3

      Jen Psaki- America’s own Baghdad Bob- says it was not a frenzied and disorganized retreat. You can bet the locals who worked at the Embassy there are in peril. They are on their own trying to escape the wrath of the “new bosses”.

      02/19/15 1:46 PM | Comment Link

    • Avery said...

      4

      “Yemen represents the third American embassy in an Arab Spring country, following Syria and Libya, now closed.”

      Nice “springtime” we got going here

      02/19/15 3:24 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      5

      02/19/15 3:32 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      6

      quote”They maintain libraries of overhead imagery and blueprints of diplomatic facilities to aid in planning. Fully combat-equipped Marines can be brought into the embassy, either stealthily to avoid inflaming a tense situation, or very overtly to send a message to troublemakers to back off. Long experience keeps Marine assets handy to the Middle East and Africa.”unquote

      ummm..it appears the Marine assets “handy” to Benghazi didn’t get the memo. Although, I know they weren’t closing the Embassy..but jeeezus..if I were in Yemen..I’d be ..ah…worried.

      02/19/15 5:41 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...

      7

      The assets are always there. The decision to use them is not always there.

      02/19/15 5:53 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      8

      PVB So, can we assume that the RSO will not be given a bonus and promotion for his outstanding performance?

      02/19/15 6:55 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      9

      wemeantwell said…

      “The assets are always there. The decision to use them is not always there.”unquote

      Oh. That explains it. Gottcha. If anyone would know, you would Peter. Thanks.

      bartender..one bottle of that special craft beer.. LetEmDie ..and a double shot of 100prf. -27Tonight

      god..I must be passing the threshold between Curmudgeon into RowRowRow Your boat.

      02/19/15 11:04 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      10

      ps..and then again..once in a while, thanks to the Internet..you come across a tidbit of insight that explains more in one webpage, than you learn in a year of search.

      http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2015/02/15/putins-net-worth-is-200-billion-says-russias-once-largest-foreigner-investor/

      fuck

      02/19/15 11:42 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      11

      Come on Pitch- give Putin a break! For years he had to fake being a Communist/Socilaist/Collectivist so you can’t blame him for wanting to make up for lost time. Prick a commie and the blood of a predatory capitalist leaks out. That certainly should not be a shock to anyone.

      02/20/15 1:49 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      12

      “A(fore)closure is indeed a political act.”

      A(chicken)pox on both their houses: Bush v the Bush

      “Content to hold majorities in both houses of Congress, it could be the Republicans don’t really want the responsibility of governing – because then they’d have to come through on their promises to actually reduce the power of government and solve the country’s problems. And Hillary Clinton isn’t that far from Jeb Bush when you get right down to it: Common Core, immigration, a more efficient welfare state – and, most importantly, an interventionist foreign policy that has us invading countries and “enforcing peace and stability” from Libya to the straits of Taiwan. Better to block someone like Sen. Rand Paul than to actually win a presidential election.”

      02/20/15 12:13 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      13

      Bush v the Bush – Jeb v Hillarious: What difference does it make? Absolutely NOTHING

      02/20/15 12:16 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...

      14

      The hostage-taking of our officials in Iran still looms large. Mrs Clinton recently wrote a saccharine tribute to Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post. This is inspite of the hostage-taking crisis which, in part, resulted from actions Kissinger took or didnt as the case.

      Foreign Service officers who dared cabled back to Washington prior to the revolution that the country was going to hell in a hand basket found themselves drummed out of the foreign service. No mention of this in the ode to Kissinger. The Dissent Channel, which was created because of the situation that occurred in Iran, was meant to provide a safe way for foreign service officers to raise critical concerns without fear for the jobs. Under Mrs Clinton’s tenure, this feature was allowed to die; it was a problem that occurred in the prior administration too.

      The hostage crisis in Iran might have been avoided if State didnt allow the stifling of warnings by its own employees. Meanwhile this ‘ghost’ looms behind considerations in our modern era, a consequence the rest of us have to deal with even if dismissed by higher ups with no conscience

      02/21/15 4:57 PM | Comment Link

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