The Cable

What Happens During an Embassy Shutdown, Anyway?

The State Department has closed a total of 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa and has ordered the U.S. Embassy in Yemen evacuated. But what exactly does that mean for U.S. missions and U.S. citizens abroad? To find out, we talked to a current State Department Foreign Service officer ...

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SANAA, YEMEN: (FILES) -- File picture dated 15 March 2002 shows unidentified security men walking at the main gate of the US embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. The United States shut its embassy in Yemen 09 April 2005 for what it called "administrative work" after Britain suspended operations at its mission, citing a "credible security threat". A Yemeni security source brushed off the alleged threat, although the country has witnessed a series of Al-Qaeda-linked attacks in recent years. (FILM) AFP PHOTO/Khaled FAZAA (Photo credit should read KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images)

The State Department has closed a total of 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa and has ordered the U.S. Embassy in Yemen evacuated. But what exactly does that mean for U.S. missions and U.S. citizens abroad?

To find out, we talked to a current State Department Foreign Service officer who is on detail at the American Foreign Service Association, a union for diplomats. Although he requested anonymity, he was happy to share some pertinent details about this week’s closings, given his experience serving in hot spots around the world.

Q: What are all the diplomats doing during the closings?

A: What’s important to keep in mind is the difference between a temporary closing and an evacuation. When it’s a closure, like what we have this week, you’re not talking about moving people out of the country. The building is not opened to the public. But people are staying home, and in some cases, people continue to work at the embassy.

Q: And for evacuations?

A: That’s a different extreme. When I was in Munich in 2006, the conflict in Lebanon caused us to pull a number of people out of Lebanon and facilitate an evacuation. We had diplomatic personnel all over the place that were deployed to assist American citizens getting out of the place. Obviously, it requires a lot more activity than a closing.

Q: What if an American citizen really needs help. Do embassies leave them out to dry?

A: If there’s an emergency, we’re not going to sit on our hands. If an American citizen gets arrested or, God forbid, is killed, we’re going to go into action. You’re not going to be able to just walk up to our door, but we’ll find a way to service their needs.

Q: The State Department says the security situation in the embassies is constantly being re-evaluated. What’s that process like at the embassy level?

A: A lot of decisions are being made. All over at every single post, you’re evaluating the situation. Emergency Action committees meet; the deputy chief of mission is there; they’re talking; they’re providing input. With so many posts being closed, these conversations are happening across the affected regions. There’s also a conversation in D.C. at State. These conversations eat up a lot of people’s time.… But everyone is asking the same question: When can we go back to normal operations?

Q: Will there be a substantial backlog of work when all is said and done?

A: Any visa appointments will need to be rescheduled, but that’s something visa sections deal with all the time. Our consular services are very good at dealing with these externalities. Their flexibility is a hallmark of our service.

Q: Do these closures tend to rattle foreign diplomats at all?

A: It’s worth taking a moment to remember that foreign-service officers recognize that openings, closings, and evacuations are part and parcel of the foreign-service life. Most of us know we’re going to serve at an unaccompanied post, meaning no family members. It’s something that people accept as part of the life.

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