How security obsession harms America’s image

IT WAS a great idea — a programme to build bridges between young Arab modernisers and Americans. The Arab and American Action Forum, launched last September at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, is an exercise in soft power, bringing together 100 young Arab leaders from all walks of life and introducing them to a similar group of Americans.

By Fareed Zakaria

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Published: Thu 22 Feb 2007, 8:14 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:09 AM

The goal was to begin a dialogue, build trust and create joint projects for both peoples. The group’s Arab organisers are pro-business and pro-American, many with degrees from US colleges and fond memories of their time in America. Aside from Bill Clinton, the forum is backed by the two leading modernisers in the Middle East, Dubai’s ruler, Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

As I said, it was a great idea, until these young Arab leaders landed at John F Kennedy airport. The first group of participants, mostly CEOs of large companies, were pulled out of the regular immigration lines and made to stand for two to five hours while Department of Homeland Security officials grilled them as to why they were coming to America, whether they had any experience using weapons, what they thought of the Iraq war and other such questions. Half a day into their trip, before they had even left the airport, they were angry and humiliated. So much for improving America’s image in the Arab world.

"We seem to have lost the ability to think rationally about security," says Stephen Flynn, among the foremost US experts on homeland security and the author of the new book "The Edge of Disaster." "We’ve created an incentive system for border checks in which all the emphasis is on stopping, screening, double-checking. There’s little scope for common sense, discretion and judgment." The result is an extremely expensive system that ties up Americans, wastes resources and is making the United States a place people try to avoid.

The State Department insists that things have improved, but incremental changes have not altered the basic picture. The visa process is now so cumbersome that many foreigners have simply stopped trying. The Saudi chapter of the Young Arab Leaders passed up the meeting because it was being held in America. "They refused to go through what has become an extremely demeaning process for visa applications," one of the conference organisers told me. And remember, these are Saudi liberals and moderates, whom we should be supporting, not insulting. The next meeting of the Young Arab Leaders, to be held outside America, is expected to draw a much larger number of participants.

This is not simply an Arab problem. Conferences in several industries and academic specialties are being moved out of the United States because of the hassle and humiliation factor. Discover America, a group set up by the tourism industry to encourage travel to America, polled 2,000 randomly selected international travellers this winter and asked them "which one location on the map is the worst" in terms of visa hassles and nasty immigration officials. The United States topped the list by far. And this is not an anti-American bunch. When asked their basic view of the United States, 72 per cent replied "favourable."

As the world has been opening up, the United States is closing itself off. Total international arrivals into the United States declined 10 per cent between 2000 and 2004. One survey shows that business travel into the United States has declined by 10 per cent in the last two years, at a time when places like London, Singapore and Dubai are showing strong increases. Once No. 1, the United States has dropped to third as a travel destination, behind France and Spain. Over the last 14 years, global tourism has been thriving, having increased by 52 per cent. But America’s share has been declining, down 36 per cent in that same time frame. The Discover America group points out that travel and tourism is the third largest industry in the United States, employing 17 million people and generating $105 billion in tax revenues.

The American Council on Education issued a report last fall that pointed to a similar phenomenon for foreign students. Even though the drop in student enrollment that began after 9/11 has been arrested, America is still losing ground to other countries. The United States increased its foreign-student enrollment by 17 per cent between 1999 and 2005. But during the same period, enrollment grew 28 per cent in Britain, 42 per cent in Australia, 46 per cent in Germany and 81 per cent in France. International students contribute about $13.5 billion in tuition and expenses to the American economy, not to mention the many other benefits they bring.

This is much more than a dollars-and-cents issue. America as a place has often been the great antidote to US foreign policy. When American actions across the world have seemed harsh, misguided or unfair, America itself has always been open, welcoming and tolerant. I remember visiting the United States as a kid from India in the 1970s, at a time when as a country, India was officially anti-American. The reality of the America that I experienced was a powerful refutation of the propaganda and caricatures of its enemies. But today, through inattention, stupidity and bureaucratic cowardice, the caricature is becoming reality.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. Write to him at

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