The TSA’s announcement that citizens of fourteen countries – Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – will be subject to intensified airport screenings before being allowed to fly to the United States, and that flights originating in or passing through one of these nations will also face extra scrutiny, is both a problem and an opportunity.
The problem is that, on its own, this measure will achieve relatively little. As James Carafano points out, any effort to erect Maginot Line defenses at every airport will fail. The best defense is not more intensive passenger screening in an airport: it is disrupting plots before they reach the airport. And many of the most effective ways to do this, as he points out, revolve around better information sharing, both inside the U.S. government and between the government and its international partners in an expanded Visa Waiver Program.
But the TSA’s announcement is also an opportunity. Civil rights groups immediately charged that the announcement “treats people differently based on what country they are from.” Apart from the fact that the U.S., like many other countries, already does this, this complaint reflects a failure to grasp the underlying problem. The real problem is that too many of the states in the so-called international community do not fulfill their basic duty of providing effective governance.
Some nations – like Holland – make mistakes, but are well-governed and friendly. When they err, the appropriate U.S. response is to seek closer cooperation. That is all the more vital because the TSA’s fourteen countries do not necessarily align with the threats we face: Al Qaeda operates worldwide, and is extremely likely to put a terrorist on a plane that does not originate from a country on the TSA’s list.
But the U.S. cannot cooperate with all states, because some states, like Lebanon, are not well-governed, and some, like Iran, are hostile. With these states, the U.S. cannot rely on their domestic governments to cooperate in good faith. It therefore must protect itself by assuming the worst about passengers and flights from these states. That is not discrimination against individuals: it is a correct response to the failure of their governments. This response can end only when the governments demonstrate that they effectively police their territory, and that they have the ability and the desire to cooperate fully with the U.S., and other democratic nations, in preventing terrorist attacks.
In that need for cooperation between the world’s democracies rests the opportunity. The U.S. has the right to act as it has done. But on its own, U.S. scrutiny of the fourteen countries will achieve less than it could. It would be better for the U.S. to take a leadership role in working with its democratic allies around the world to establish the principle that states – such as those on the TSA’s list – that do not fulfill their basic responsibilities, at home and abroad, are not full members of the international system.
This principle should have wide-ranging policy implications. In the realm of anti-terror efforts, it would mean effective information sharing between the democracies, and the application of measures such as the TSA’s intensified screenings against the non-democracies. In the realm of U.S. diplomacy, it would mean refusing, for example, to accept that states such as Saudi Arabia – which is both on the TSA’s list and a current member of the U.N. Human Rights Council – have any role to play in pronouncing on human rights.
Though the TSA likely does not realize the fact, the TSA’s announcement is based on a principle that contradicts much of the administration’s engagement-based diplomacy, which relies on hoping for the best from the world’s most ill-governed states. The way to advance this valuable principle, to which the administration has now committed itself, is to apply it more broadly, and to show international leadership in encouraging our friends and allies around the world to do the same.