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The right's logical dilemma over embassy security

With the U.S. set to move its Vatican Embassy, conservatives are once again up in arms over the Obama administration's handling of American diplomatic outposts.
A group of nuns in St Peter's Square before the start of the Inauguration Mass for Pope Francis on March 19, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.
A group of nuns in St Peter's Square before the start of the Inauguration Mass for Pope Francis on March 19, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

“Why would our president close our embassy to the Vatican?” Jeb Bush asked this week on Twitter, adding, “Hopefully it’s not retribution for Catholic organizations opposing Obamacare.”

The former Florida governor and prospective 2016 GOP candidate was repeating a canard circulated by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In fact, the U.S. is not closing its Embassy to the Vatican; the embassy is merely moving, as of January 2015, into a building adjacent to the U.S. Embassy to Italy, located, enviably, on Rome’s chic Via Veneto. The principal reason for the move, in the wake of the Benghazi attack, is enhanced security.

Here's the irony of the the conservative attack: the same Jeb Bush who was so quick to pillory the president for “closing” the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican criticized Obama last year for tolerating insufficient security at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. “The consulate had been attacked twice in the previous months, which was clearly known,” Bush said several weeks after the attack. “And then there were pleas for extra security, which were ignored.” As a result, Bush said, “our enemies are emboldened.”

What Bush doesn't appear to realize is that you can politicize the embassy security issue in Benghazi or you can pooh-pooh it in Rome--you can't logically do both.

Before it became a playground for fantasists, the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was a tragedy. It left four people dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and many practical questions about how to defend against such attacks in the future. Following the attack, a State Department report recommended the following: “All State Department and other governmental agencies’ facilities should be collocated [i.e., consolidated in one location] when they are in the same metropolitan area, unless a waiver has been approved.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a single, consolidated U.S. compound in Rome will be easier to protect than three far-flung ones. (The Via Veneto compound will also include the U.S. mission to the United Nations’ Rome offices.)

But wait, didn’t “collocating” in this instance mean removing the U.S. embassy from Vatican City? No, because—have a look at Vatican City—it’s very small.

“There are no embassies from any country to the Holy See that are actually located within the Vatican City city-state,” an unnamed embassy official said in a press briefing held two days before the NRSC and Bush weighed in. The new embassy will be slightly closer to Vatican City than the current one, which is a former private residence on the Aventine Hill (southernmost of Rome’s seven) that was built in the 1950s and acquired by the U.S. only in 1994.

The Vatican usually prefers that its embassies be in separate locations from Italy’s, to underscore that Vatican City exists separate and apart from Rome (where it’s located). But it isn’t objecting in this instance—possibly in deference to the security issues, possibly because the embassy to the Holy See will get its own building and its own entrance, or possibly because the Vatican simply has better things to do. The U.S. isn’t setting any sort of dire precedent with the move -- the United Kingdom, Israel, and the Netherlands already “collocate” their embassies to Italy and the Vatican.

According to the State Department, the new embassy will actually be bigger than the current one, and the consolidation will reportedly save $1.4 million per year. If the U.S. Embassy to Italy and the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican occasionally share a Xerox machine, the Roman Catholic Church will surely survive.

It may be too much to hope for that Rep. Darrell Issa and Sens. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham -- all first-class Benghazi demagogues -- will join this crusade, because doing so would expose them as hypocrites on the issue of embassy security. But such considerations didn’t deter Bush and the NRSC, nor such right-wing news outlets as the Washington Times, Fox and Friends, and The Daily Caller, all of whom shamelessly politicized the Benghazi attack. Their extreme concern for the safety of embassy workers, we may now conclude, is fraudulent.