My nine year old daughter was excited. It was winter break, and realizing I could not use her attendance at school as an excuse, I was tempted to let her accompany me on a business trip to Somaliland. At first glance, it might seem like a crazy choice for a school vacation. “Violent crimes, such as kidnapping and murder, are common throughout Somalia, including Puntland and the Somaliland region,” the State Department’s travel advisory said. Terrorists continue to plan kidnappings, bombings, and other attacks in Somalia. They may launch attacks without or without warning, targeting airports, seaports, government buildings, hotels, restaurants, shopping areas, and other areas that attract large crowds frequented by Westerners, as well as government, military, and Western convoys.”
We haven’t worried since I’ve been to Somaliland frequently and we know that the State Department’s travel advisory is more fiction than fact. My daughter is having a great time. Played with goats, visited a camel farm, saw some of the best Neolithic cave paintings in the world, visited a school, sat under the control of an old business Antonov-turned-restaurant, dine in the Gulf of Aden, and immersed yourself in it. Her love for meat and seafood.
The State Department’s publication of such inaccurate warnings should embarrass the building. Yes, the Somali capital Mogadishu is unsafe for Westerners, but it is 900 miles by road from the Somaliland capital Hargeisa. Painting them with the same brush is the equivalent of warning visitors away from Martha’s Vineyard for the Camden, New Jersey murders. The last terrorist attack in Hargeisa was in 2008. Piracy in Puntland ended nearly a decade ago. Concerns about violent crime are so low that cashiers leave cash unattended when they are taking a nap. Nobody will steal it in Hargeisa. Trust prevails. After we had trouble booking online, Daallo Somali Airlines sent us tickets in advance and asked us to visit the payment counter when we arrived at our destination. While diplomats questioned air and port security without ever visiting them, US Africa Command in recent months has surveyed both the port of Berbera and the nearby newly renovated airport, given them their best assessment, and recommended a permanent US presence in the city as an alternative to Djibouti.
Somalia and Somaliland are not the only victims of the State Department’s overly broad and inaccurate travel advisories. In principle, the ACLU supports more open and tolerant immigration and opposes the repatriation of Iraqis who have illegally overstayed visas or committed crimes in the United States. But while litigating their opposition, ACLU lawyers used travel warnings to take a racist approach to Iraq. Citing the State Department’s warning that “terrorist and insurgent groups regularly attack Iraqi security forces and civilians. Sectarian anti-US militias threaten US citizens and Western businesses throughout Iraq. IED attacks are occurring in many areas of the country, including Baghdad,” They said that any Iraqi who returned—especially Christians, women, or long-term Iraqis in the United States—could expect arrest and torture, if not summary execution, upon return. For the ACLU, all Shiites were essentially violent militiamen.
In court, many seemed surprised when faced with United Nations (UN) statistics that showed civilian deaths due to terrorism or political violence fell by 90% between December 2016 and December 2018. These numbers are now so low that the UN no longer keeps track of them. However, the 36 deaths in 2018 were tragic but equal to the number of murders in Hartford, Connecticut last year, a city of forty-one. Perhaps, if the ACLU was true to its principles, it should oppose extradition to Hartford.
Drawing Iraq with a broad brush is lazy. Certainly, some Baghdad neighborhoods such as Sadr City are still dangerous, as are some areas of Mosul and Kirkuk. However, Baghdad’s inner neighborhoods have experienced a renaissance. Families sample the latest restaurants, take the kids to amusement parks, hang out at the malls, or take a stroll on the Corniche. Previous insurgencies such as Fallujah and Ramadi are quickly catching up with Iraqi Kurdistan in terms of development and infrastructure. Getting around the Kurdish cities of Erbil or Sulaymaniyah doesn’t require more security than getting around Istanbul or Abu Dhabi.
The problem is not limited to the Middle East. Cartagena, Colombia, is a vibrant tourist destination and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site. However, the State Department urges all visitors to Colombia to “exercise extra caution due to civil unrest and kidnapping,” two problems that simply do not apply to the city or its suburbs. The State Department even warns against visiting France. Terrorist groups continue to plan possible attacks in France. Terrorists may attack without or without warning, targeting tourist sites, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, local government facilities, hotels, clubs, restaurants, houses of worship, amusement parks, major sporting and cultural events, educational institutions, airports and other public places,” the department’s travel advisory states. It makes France equivalent to Tajikistan from the point of view of Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken.No offense to Tajikistan: I have been there for more than four months and have fallen in love with the country.However, Dushanbe is not Paris.
To be fair, in recent years the State Department has started to be more accurate in some countries. While it discourages travel to Panama, it differentiates between high crime areas and public warning that Covid-19 rates are high elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile in Turkey, the State Department is warning people to avoid going within six miles of the Syrian border. The warning from Israel differentiates between Israel itself and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, whose differences are as stark as those between Somaliland and Mogadishu.
why does it matter
The ramifications of broad and expanding travel warnings are detrimental to regional security, U.S. relations, and future national security. The United States seeks to develop and expand relationships around the world. Business is the glue that binds, but the broad and inaccurate travel warning raises insurance rates to the point where the United States must cede the playing field to China, Russia or Turkey. This does not mean that the State Department should at any time falsify warnings or downplay threats in order to act. Accuracy will be sufficient. In some cases, it is simply a matter of the ambassador and regional security officer permitting his country’s team to travel outside the walls of the embassy. The inaccuracy of the Somalia Travel Warning in relation to Somaliland simply reflects that the Embassy has been too long on motorized driving. That this warning does not reflect the integrity of Somaliland is a testament to former US Ambassador Donald Yamamoto’s desire to admire former Somali President Mohamed Farmajo who was hostile to Somaliland more than any ground truth in the country.
However, countries like Iraq, Panama and France are right to be alarmed by their poor and slow treatment by the State Department. Secretary Blinken and President Joe Biden are honest about their declaration that “diplomacy is back,” but not being Donald Trump is not enough if they allow the bureaucracy to unduly and indiscriminately humiliate allies.
Personally, I am deeply concerned about the impact on the next generation of policy makers. I still remember the paternity of Yale University officials (none of whom have any background in the region) who were concerned about the orientation of Jewish-American research in Iran and the Palestinian-American-Syrian background to Egypt. The irony was, of course, that the biggest problem that year was with the Icelander who visited the archives in the UK where the Cod Wars were very recent. I was fortunate to have a consultant 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 warning about travel. Fear of responsibility trumps academic inquiry. The sites with travel warnings are the same sites that students should study; The world needs more experts in Iraq and the Sahel, not those in the Bahamas or New Zealand.
Certain warnings make sense, as the murder of Otto Warmbier by North Korean authorities and hostage diplomacy in China, Iran and Yemen shows. But Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Colombia and Somaliland are different stories. The obstacle is not safety, but fickle administrators and indifferent diplomats. Simply put, if diplomacy returns now and in the future, it is time for Minister Blinken to ask diplomats to know the host countries well enough to write accurate travel instructions. This process may seem routine, but the importance of getting the warnings right has repercussions far beyond filling out a “copy” on the department’s website.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.