Why We're Not Paying Enough

Tuesday, May 6, 2008; 12:00 PM
Josef Joffe astutely asks what price America has paid for our government's more stringent homeland security policies. Undoubtedly, these measures have prompted some would-be visitors to rethink their vacation plans, led students to study somewhere else, or have offended those whose esteem we value. Perhaps we are indeed paying a "fear tax," as Joffe suggests, for our post-9/11 protectionism. But in his attempt to diagnose our condition, Joffe has identified the wrong symptoms.

Increased airport security and scrutiny of foreign visitors are not the primary causes of America's global image problem. The excesses of Abu Ghraib, the existence of the Guantanamo prison (which all the presidential candidates say they want to shutter) and our controversial and passionately debated interrogation practices have done more to diminish our global standing than some gruff Customs officials or aggressive airport security personnel. Whether you think our foreign policies have been rational and just or extreme and paranoid, no one can deny that they've precipitated a hefty blowback, most notably in the foreign press, but even at the official level among our allies.

When it comes to our domestic security, the idea that the U.S. government is tossing money at the Homeland Security Department will surprise a lot of department watchers. Indeed, a more common criticism is that not enough resources are devoted to one of the biggest departments in the federal government. Homeland Security's 2009 budget request was about $50.5 billion. For some comparison, the Defense Department requested more than ten times that amount, and its increase over 2008 was more than $35 billion.

Many of the department's most consistent critics and ardent supporters agree that what's critical is how wisely it spends money. The government has devoted billions to airline passenger and explosives screening, because history shows that terrorists try to hijack planes and plant bombs on them. Yet Homeland Security has spent far less on rail security, when we know from the attacks in Madrid, and from common sense, that passenger trains are attractive and easy targets.

We are paying a price for our increased security in lost tourism, but about 24 million overseas visitors came here last year, two million more than in 2001. We have not climbed back above pre-9/11 levels, and some data suggest that America hasn't attracted its expected share of the greater numbers of people traveling all over the world. But our visitor deficit is shrinking. Overseas visitors last year also spent $96.5 billion in the United States -- the largest amount since 2000 -- according to the Commerce Department and the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. Perhaps the weak dollar is overcoming strong security.

Even more encouraging news comes from the Discover America Partnership, which Joffe consulted for some of his research and which reports that 63 percent of people who travel to the United States feel "more favorable towards the U.S." because of their visit. Nearly three-quarters report that "once they get past government officials at the border, the U.S. travel experience is 'great.'"

I don't mean to discount the decline of America's foreign prestige. But I worry more about what Americans think about the United States. When it comes to domestic security, we should all ask, as Joffe does, "What is in the national interest?" Too often, we have posed that question and failed to meaningfully answer it.

It took more than four years after 9/11, for instance, for the extent of the government's electronic surveillance efforts to be publicly disclosed. Now, more than two years later, members of Congress and the administration still approach important questions about protecting our civil liberties and tracking terrorists from partisan positions. The current drive to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has stalled over transparent attempts by members of both parties to score points during a campaign season. Many of those who have tried to blaze a path of compromise and consensus -- and, make no mistake, many of them have served in the administration while others have gone to battle with it -- have been sidelined, silenced or marginalized.

Washington's polarized atmosphere can drive people away from active participation in the political process. Our national security policies are complex, and reducing them to sound bites or slogans discourages critical thinking about them at the public level. As a result, we tend to devise policies that don't serve all our interests. If we are going to have common sense and workable policies, more Americans have to be engaged in the process. That seems to be happening now, as evidenced by the high level of turnout in the presidential primaries and caucuses. More than a drop in foreign visitors, we should be striving to stanch an exodus of Americans from the policy-making process. Most of that burden falls to the current administration, which, after all, enforces the security rules. But ultimately, this responsibility tax is one that we all must bear.

If we're going to present a friendlier mien to the world, I suggest we start by healing our own divisions. In the meantime, there's reason to be confident that we're recovering some of our lost tourism revenue, jobs and, at least among those people who spend time here, our reputation. That's good news. The best public diplomacy we can hope for comes from those who have seen the merits of our people and our politics first hand.

Shane Harris is the intelligence and homeland security correspondent for National Journal.

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