Thursday, June 21, 2007

Visa Bias

Washington Post Editorial
Thursday, June 21, 2007; A22

A relic of the Cold War galls America's stalwart allies.

AS PRESIDENT BUSH is reminded practically every time he travels abroad, America's once-sizable reserves of international affection and respect have been badly depleted by his administration's knack for highhandedness. A major exception has been Eastern Europe, where even Mr. Bush's maladroit diplomacy has not undone the warmth and admiration for the United States felt by millions of former Warsaw Pact residents to whom America was a beacon of freedom during the Cold War. But now America's reputation is being bruised even in those countries, especially among younger people. The culprit: Washington's arbitrary and blatantly discriminatory visa policies for tourists, businesspeople and other travelers.

About half the visitors to this country each year come from 27 generally friendly countries whose citizens need nothing more than a valid passport to travel to the United States. They include most of the wealthy Western European states plus a handful of affluent Asian and Pacific ones. But in a dozen other up-and-coming European countries, including former Warsaw Pact members, people who want to visit America are required to pay a $100 visa application fee, appear at U.S. consulates and submit to interviews -- despite their governments' pro-American orientations, commitment to democracy and generally robust economies.

Thus it's no surprise that popular resentment toward the United States is growing in those countries, which include some of America's most stalwart friends and NATO allies. This second-class status has been particularly galling to Eastern European nations, many of which have sent troops to serve in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; to them, the American rules are a moldy relic of the Cold War. This wrongheaded approach to visa policy is partly the result of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, after which heightened security concerns froze out nations that had hoped to join the visa-free travel club. The results include some glaring disparities. Take the Czech Republic and Portugal, countries with nearly identical populations, incomes, and levels of U.S. trade and investment. As Daniel T. Griswold of the Cato Institute has noted, Portugal sends more than twice as many visitors each year to the United States as the Czech Republic, and no wonder: the Portuguese can come here visa-free while Czechs cannot. The result: Czechs travel to Western Europe, where they are welcome as full members of the European Union. Over time, says Mr. Griswold, a trade expert, the United States will pay the price not only in diminished esteem overseas but in lost business opportunities.

To its credit, the Bush administration wants to waive the visa requirement for South Korea and for a dozen more European countries. (In addition to the Czech Republic and Poland, they are Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia.) At the same time, it is pressing for tougher rules covering passports, passenger watch lists, airport security, air marshals and so forth. The administration's approach makes sense, and not only for the countries hoping to join the visa-free list. After all, none of those nations poses an acute security threat; one could argue that they are less threatening than some countries whose citizens already enjoy visa-free travel to the United States.

But in the Senate, the administration's proposal is embedded in a broader homeland security bill that, for reasons unrelated to visas, Mr. Bush has threatened to veto. In addition, the bill has been amended in ways that would keep in place visa requirements for millions of Eastern European travelers, including Poles. That may leave the hard work of dismantling the unfair visa rules to the House, where many representatives wrinkle their noses at any suggestion that travel to the United States should be easier. They shouldn't. If the United States insists on keeping its friends at arm's length, pretty soon it will discover it doesn't have any.

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