Blinken Must Reform the State Department’s Travel Warnings

Blinken Must Reform the State Department’s Travel Warnings

The ramifications of broad, expansive travel warnings are detrimental to regional security, U.S. relations, and future national security.

My nine-year-old daughter was excited. It was winter break and, knowing that I could not use her school attendance as an excuse, she badgered me into letting her accompany me on a work trip to Somaliland. At first glance, it might sound like a crazy choice for a school vacation. “Violent crime, such as kidnapping and murder, is common throughout Somalia, including Puntland and the Somaliland region,” the State Department travel advisory reads. “Terrorists continue to plot kidnappings, bombings, and other attacks in Somalia. They may conduct attacks with little or no warning, targeting airports and seaports, government buildings, hotels, restaurants, shopping areas, and other areas that attract large crowds and are frequented by Westerners, as well as government, military, and Western convoys.”

We were not worried since I visit Somaliland frequently and know that the State Department’s travel warning is more fiction than reality. My daughter had a grand time. She played with goats, visited a camel farm, saw some of the best Neolithic cave paintings in the world, visited a school, sat at the controls of an old Antonov an entrepreneur converted into a restaurant, bodysurfed in the Gulf of Aden, and indulged her love of meat and seafood.

That the State Department publishes such inaccurate warnings should embarrass the building. Yes, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu is unsafe for Westerners, but it is 900 miles by road away from the Somaliland capital Hargeisa. To paint them both with the same brush is equivalent to warning visitors away from Martha’s Vineyard because of murders in Camden, New Jersey. The last terrorist attack in Hargeisa was in 2008. Piracy in Puntland ended almost a decade ago. Concerns about violent crime are so low that money changers leave pallets of cash unguarded when they take their siesta; no one in Hargeisa will steal it. Trust reigns supreme. After we had trouble with online booking, Somalia’s Daallo airlines sent us the tickets in advance and asked us to visit an office to pay when we reached our destination. And, while diplomats questioned security at air and seaports without ever having visited them, U.S. Africa Command has in recent months surveyed both the Port of Berbera and the newly refurbished airport nearby, gave them their most favorable assessment, and recommended a permanent U.S. presence in the city as an alternative to Djibouti.

Somalia and Somaliland are not alone in falling victims to inaccurate and overly broad State Department travel warnings. On principle, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) favors more open and permissive immigration and opposes the return of Iraqis who illegally overstay visas or have committed crimes in the United States to their home country. While litigating their opposition, however, ACLU lawyers used travel warnings to take a racist approach to Iraq. Citing the State Department warning that, “Terrorist and insurgent groups regularly attack both Iraqi security forces and civilians. Anti-U.S. sectarian militias threaten U.S. citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq. Attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) occur in many areas of the country, including Baghdad,” they argued that any Iraqi who returned—especially Christians, women, or Iraqis with long residence in the United States—could expect detention and torture, if not summary execution, upon return. To the ACLU, every Shia was essentially a violent militiaman.

In court, many seemed surprised when confronted with United Nations (UN) statistics that showed that civilian deaths from terrorism or political violence declined 90 percent between December 2016 and December 2018. These numbers are now so low that the UN no longer keeps track. Still, the three dozen deaths in 2018 were tragic but equal to the number of murders in Hartford, Connecticut last year, a city with one-fortieth the population of Iraq. Perhaps, if the ACLU is true to its principles, it should oppose extradition to Hartford.

To paint Iraq with a broad brush is lazy. Certainly, certain Baghdad neighborhoods like Sadr City remain dangerous, as well as some areas of Mosul and Kirkuk. However, the inner-neighborhoods of Baghdad have undergone a renaissance. Families sample the latest restaurants, take children to amusement parks, hang out in malls, or stroll the cornice. Former hotbeds of insurgency like Fallujah and Ramadi are rapidly catching up to Iraqi Kurdistan in terms of development and infrastructure. To walk around the Kurdish cities of Erbil or Sulaimani requires no more security than a walk around Istanbul or Abu Dhabi.

Nor is the problem limited to the Middle East. Cartagena, Colombia, is a vibrant tourist destination and a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization world heritage site. Yet, the State Department urges all visitors to Colombia to “exercise increased caution due to civil unrest and kidnapping,” two problems that simply do not apply to the city or its environs. The State Department even warns against visiting France. “Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in France. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, local government facilities, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, parks, major sporting and cultural events, educational institutions, airports, and other public areas,” the Department’s travel advisory reads. This makes France equivalent to Tajikistan in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s view. No offense to Tajikistan: I resided there for more than four months and fell in love with the country. Still, Dushanbe is not Paris.

To be fair, in recent years, the State Department has begun to be more precise in certain countries. While it discourages travel to Panama, it differentiates between high crime areas and a general warning that Covid-19 rates are high elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile in Turkey, the State Department warns people to avoid going within six miles of the Syrian border. The warning for Israel differentiates between Israel proper and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, whose differences are as stark as those between Somaliland and Mogadishu.

Why it Matters

The ramifications of broad, expansive travel warnings are detrimental to regional security, U.S. relations, and future national security. The United States seeks to develop and expand relations across the globe. Business is the glue that binds, but an expansive and inaccurate travel warning hikes up insurance rates to the point where the United States must cede the playing field to China, Russia, or Turkey. That does not mean that the State Department should ever falsify advisories or downplay threats for the sake of business. Accuracy would be enough. In some cases, it is just a matter of the ambassador and regional security officer authorizing his country team to travel outside the embassy walls. The inaccuracy of the Somalia travel warning in relation to Somaliland simply reflects that the embassy has been too long on auto-drive. That the advisory does not reflect Somaliland’s safety is more a testament to former U.S. ambassador Donald Yamamoto’s desire to ingratiate himself to former Somali president Mohamed Farmaajo who was hostile to Somaliland than to any ground truth in the country. 

Still, countries like Iraq, Panama, and France are right to be annoyed at their shoddy and lazy treatment by the State Department. Secretary Blinken and President Joe Biden are sincere about their declaration that “diplomacy is back,” but not being Donald Trump is not enough if they allow the bureaucracy to annoy and insult allies gratuitously and with inaccuracies.

Personally, I am most worried about the impact on the next generation of policymakers. I still remember the paternalism of Yale University administrators (none of whom had any background in the region) who worried about the American Jew researching in Iran and the American of Syrian Palestinian background heading to Egypt. The irony, of course, was that the greatest problem that year was with the Icelander who visited archives in the United Kingdom where the Cod Wars were too recent a memory. I was lucky to have an advisor who encouraged me to ignore the bureaucrats. That would be impossible today: Many universities have linked funding and, even course credit, to the absence of any State Department travel warning. Fear of liability trumps academic research. The locations where there are travel warnings are the very locations that students should study; the world needs more Iraq and Sahel experts, not specialists in the Bahamas or New Zealand.

Certainly, some warnings make sense, as the murder of Otto Warmbier by North Korean authorities and hostage diplomacy in China, Iran, and Yemen show. But Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Colombia, and Somaliland are different stories. The impediment is not safety, but skittish administrators and indifferent diplomats. Simply put, if diplomacy is back now and in the future, it is time for Secretary Blinken to demand diplomats know their host countries well enough to write travel advisories with precision. The process may seem routine, but the importance of getting warnings right has ramifications far beyond filling “copy” on the Department’s website.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: Reuters.