08/06/2013 06:59 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Next Time We Hear Chatter, Let's Shut Down New York City

The decision to close as many as two dozen American embassies and consulates, based on intelligence reports about an upcoming al Qaeda attack (or attacks), is nothing less than a public relations and recruiting bonanza for them.

Yes, I understand the caution of a post-Benghazi world. But is the best way to deal with a tragic and embarrassing failure to tell hundreds of diplomats to pack their wheelies and get out of town, fast?

When the world's most powerful nation has no choice but to bolt the door and head for the hills, unable to protect its diplomatic representatives, what does that say about the unstoppable, heroic power of your adversary? (Not to mention whether it tells the ever-patient leaders of Al Qaeda to wait it out.)

Meanwhile, for a place where not a single person has been told to leave town -- no matter how intense the threat level -- just consider New York City. Since 9/11, according to Ray Kelly, there have been more 14 identified plots to attack the Big Target, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Federal Reserve, Citicorp and the New York Stock Exchange. Ray Kelly and the NYPD were obviously all over them, but no one was told to stay home or head for their weekend houses in Quogue or Rhinebeck. And in fact, for all too obvious reasons, the risk was immeasurably greater than in the 20-odd embassies where you can hear a pin drop.

We know that Internet videos are the most effective recruiting tool Al Qaeda has. It doesn't take much to imagine the powerful video that they could construct from this news:

Open on montage of news clips and headlines showing evacuation of U.S. embassies. Heroic music in and under. A voice-over announcer intones: "America is a cowardly nation. Despite all their power, they're afraid of us. They run like frightened children. They closed 24 embassies and locked their doors because they know what we've done already. And they know what we're capable of doing. Join us and show America -- and the world -- what's next." {Standard jihadist clichés to follow.}

While both parties have joined in non-partisan support of the closures, the extent of the reaction is inconsistent with what the president has been saying about terror threats.

For those with Internet-era firefly memories, it was only as long ago as May 23rd, in his major speech on re-engineering our approach to terrorism, that President Obama put forth the argument that the threats we face today are categorically different than those of 9/11. In doing so, he minimized the damage that Al Qaeda affiliates can cause, saying:

...while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based. And that means we'll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria, in which local operatives -- perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks -- launch periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies, and other soft targets...

But what we're hearing from Washington is the invocation of 9/11 as a reference frame for the decision to close our embassies. According to Congressman Ruppersberger, who is the top Democrat of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the chatter has picked up warnings of what "high-level al-Qaeda members are calling a 'major attack.'"

Similarly, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, compared the intercepted chatter to data picked up before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that there isn't a time when it's simply too dangerous for our diplomats to remain in their posts. And it's also clear that in some places, we simply lack the ability to protect them on foreign soil; for example, last September, protesters in Yemen "breached the embassy compound in Sanaa, but were driven back when Yemeni troops fired guns into the air and used water cannon and tear gas."

But Yemen is just one of more than 20 places where we left a forwarding address. We're not nearly as vulnerable and exposed in all of them. So let's hope everyone is safe when the threat is lifted, but let's also hope that this massive reaction doesn't create a long-term perceptual victory that gives more disaffected youth the promise of joining a winner.