Thursday, August 19, 2004

How to Make Enemies and Alienate Allies

This man's description of his visa ordeal with the American Embasssy in London rings true to life, and it illustrates just what is so deeply infuriating about American foreign policy: it always seems as if the US takes its friends for granted unless they start acting difficult and uncooperative.

It must have been around the fifth hour of internment during my visa ordeal on Tuesday when the quiet, controlled anger of my little gang of fellow visa seekers hardened into rebellious contempt. It was hot, there was no water to drink, and the US embassy vending machine was not working.
Then, a young US Marine in fatigues and flashy desert combat boots, kitted out as though he was just back from patrol in Najaf, sauntered through the waiting room, with a military baton swinging from his belt.
We despondent huddled masses, who had been queueing in Grosvenor Square since just after dawn for a stamp in our passports to allow us to go to America, looked in utter bewilderment at this preposterous show of force.
I declare an interest here. Normally, I am absurdly, unquestioningly pro-American. I lived in Washington for seven happy years. I have many American friends, and a 10-year-old American god-daughter who is as delightful as she is precociously intelligent.
When my Leftie friends refer to George W Bush as a grinning monkey, I rebuke them and tell them to show more respect to the leader of the free world. I take the "War on Terror" seriously, even if I think the term is daft. I reached for the sick bag when, at the end of a showing of Michael Moore's tendentious Fahrenheit 9/11 at our local cinema, the audience rose as one to give it a burst of sanctimonious applause.
Yet even I find I am enraged by the current attitude of America in its disproportionate approach to defending the homeland. Too many friends and colleagues report horror stories of being held in rooms, separated from their children, for trivial, easily explicable visa violations.
This week, The Daily Telegraph reported that the American authorities will no longer shackle foreigners whose visas have expired. I suppose we should be grateful for this concession, but I have come to loathe the voice of post-September 11 American officialdom, the bogus politeness you hear in visa and immigration lines: "Sir, please don't put your foot on that line, Sir." Go to hell!


What is baffling is why America is doing its best to alienate those who are its natural allies around the world - those who want to go there to study, or work, like the Home Counties businessman sitting next to me on Tuesday who suddenly wondered if he really did want to take his young family out to America for a year.
Anyone who wishes to go to the US to work or study is required to set up an interview by dialing a £1.30-a-minute premium telephone line, as though you are seeking hot lesbian sex.
Then you join a queue outside the embassy at 7.30am.


Seven hours after I joined the queue outside the embassy, I was summoned without apology or explanation to be fingerprinted like a common criminal. No doubt my dabs will be stored in perpetuity on some gigantic computer in Washington, and passed on to David Blunkett in due course to be incorporated in his exciting new ID card.
"I'm glad to say, your application has been successful," the woman told me after inspecting my application form for 30 seconds, in a voice suggesting I had won the lottery. But, of course, I could not take my passport home with me. That cost me another £10 for the courier service, the only way you can get your passport back.
Why are we forced to jump through these ridiculous hoops? My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that shortly before the September 11 atrocities, the Bush administration relaxed the rules for Saudi nationals so that they no longer had to appear in person to pick up their American visas.
This turned out to be embarrassing when 15 of the 19 hijackers were later identified as Saudis. So now everyone has to suffer, whether it be a Daily Telegraph journalist going to cover the Republican convention, a post-graduate student wanting to study at Princeton, or the Home Counties businessman rethinking his decision to take his family to the Midwest.
The thinking behind America's understandable concern about homeland security seems to be that the next terrorist attack will be exactly like the last.(emphasis added)
This guy gets what so many hysterical people seem not to. The whole business stinks of ass-covering.

PS: This column by Cathy Young is also worth reading. Especially disturbing is the new visa requirement for journalists; does it mean that if one were to take notes while on holiday in the US, and one subsequently were to write them up as a story on returning home, one would have committed a crime of some sort? This is pure lunacy.