Overly broad travel warnings matter. They undercut diplomacy and diminish soft power when America needs it most. They inflate insurance costs and dissuade investment, writes Michael Rubin
Berbera, Somaliland — To depart Mogadishu’s heavily-armed international airport — Somalia’s “green zone” — is an expensive prospect. Decades of lawlessness and instability in Mogadishu make insurance almost impossible. Few foreigners will pass outside the airport’s heavily fortified walls without armored cars and multiple personal security contractors. Most diplomats in Somalia (including America’s and Europe’s) are either sequestered inside the airport or remain in Kenya.
But Berbera is a different story. The main port in the northern region of Somaliland is thriving. New hotels are opening. Locals and foreigners intermingle on the beach, and both men and women gather on doorsteps and in tea houses in the evening to watch football, gossip, or shop. In Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa, money changers leave bundles of cash unattended as crime is so low. While al-Shabaab repeatedly strikes deep into Mogadishu and Kismayo, there has not been a terrorist attack in Hargeisa in more than a decade. While President Bihi’s government in Somaliland controls approximately 50,000 square miles of territory, President Farmajo in Mogadishu has secured only around 50,000 square feet, equivalent to the grounds of Villa Somalia, Somalia’s heavily-fortified White House.
According to the State Department’s travel warning, there is no difference between the two regions. “Do not travel to Somalia due to crime, terrorism, kidnapping, and piracy,” it warns. It declares violent crime pernicious across regions and continues to warn about piracy, even though Puntland’s pirates have not captured a single ship in more than two years, and Somaliland’s coast guard has never permitted piracy off its 450-mile coast.
Inaccurate and imprecise State Department warnings are not limited to Somalia. The State Department’s Iraq warning neither acknowledges Iraqi Kurdistan’s decades-long security nor the dramatic drop in Baghdad violence. The United States recently got a taste of its own medicine when Uruguay issued a travel warning citing “growing indiscriminate violence, mostly for hate crimes, including racism and discrimination” as a reason to avoid travel to the United States, even as most towns and cities — let alone rural America — remain safer than ever.
Overly broad travel warnings matter. They undercut diplomacy and diminish soft power when America needs it most. They inflate insurance costs and dissuade investment. In effect, the State Department’s embrace of travel warning inaccuracy risks ceding entire countries to Russian, Chinese, Turkish, or Iranian influence as their businessmen sink roots while their American counterparts are absent.
There are other second-order effects. Many universities now forbid students to study or research in areas subject to travel warnings. The irony here is that the countries where there are warnings are arguably the areas in which the United States most needs specialists.
They also breed corruption. I watched food shipments arrive in Berbera supervised by the World Food Programme. Because the UN, like the United States, does not differentiate between Somalia and Somaliland, the UN employees receive thousands of dollars of bonuses monthly due to supposed hazardous conditions which, in reality, do not exist. In short, it’s an expensive scam which costs American taxpayers. U.S. diplomats likewise receive similar danger pay and hardship bonuses, undermining the State Department’s already limited budget.
The reasons for such inaccurate warnings are complicated. Part of the problem is no security officer wants to loosen restrictions fearing that they could become a scapegoat in case of any future terrorism. This is why, more than a quarter-century after the end of the Lebanese civil war, U.S. diplomatic security parameters remain largely unchanged. The Benghazi tragedy has also led the State Department to double down. Regional Security Officers feel the best way to protect staff is to hold them in gilded prisons, never mind undercutting any effectiveness.
Sometimes policy interferes. Since 2015, the State Department has refused to treat Somaliland differently than Somalia so as not to reinforce its separatism. That fiction not only undermines the veracity of all State Department warnings but also cedes Somaliland to Russia or China.
Indeed, it can be a vicious circle as overly broad warnings become a reason to dissuade diplomatic visits necessary to reassess the real situation, and they can even stand in the way of Congressional delegations and oversight.
Make no mistake: It’s essential to keep America’s diplomats and Americans safe, but inaccuracy and the State Department’s penchant for playing games with warnings risks undermining the reception of legitimate warnings and undermines the broader U.S. mission.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches Arab politics, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, terrorism, and Turkey. He concurrently teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion, and history for US and NATO military units.
A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq, and he spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books exploring Iranian history, American diplomacy, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016), “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an M.A. in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a B.S. in biology.
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