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What U.S. newspapers are saying

Nov. 2, 2001 at 10:30 AM   |   Comments

New York Times

As the airstrikes in Afghanistan near the end of their fourth week, American military planners need to step up preparations for what is almost sure to be the next phase of the conflict, an intensified ground campaign against the Taliban's main urban strongholds and the hillside hideouts of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Al Qaida.

The Pentagon took some useful steps in that direction this week by bombing Taliban front lines outside of Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and providing the opposition Northern Alliance with several score American advisers to help identify appropriate bombing targets. Much more needs to be done, however, to establish favorable conditions for an effective ground campaign.

Washington has no intention of repeating Moscow's disastrous mistake of two decades ago and committing large numbers of its own ground forces to the fight for Afghanistan's cities. Instead the United States and its allies should work to strengthen armed Afghan opposition groups like the Northern Alliance and help them from the air. Special operations forces from the United States, Britain and other allied nations should be used mainly to hunt down the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which could involve tracking them to remote hideaways and hillside caves.

Initial American bombing strikes against front-line Taliban forces have not been as accurate or effective as Washington hoped. Increasing the number of American advisers should help. Meanwhile, Northern Alliance forces need to be expanded, resupplied and better trained. Until very recently, the alliance's prospects were not promising. Its leading military commander was assassinated just before Sept. 11. In recent years, its forces -- some of which operate on horseback -- have been unable to advance beyond the home regions of their local commanders. The alliance's military capacity to bring the war to the Taliban remains untested.

In an encouraging development, Turkey announced yesterday that it would send 90 of its own elite troops to help train and assist Northern Alliance forces. Turkey is the only Muslim country in NATO, and has ethnic ties with some of the groups that make up the Northern Alliance.

Opposition forces are closest to Mazar-i-Sharif, though not yet in a position to capture it. If they eventually succeed there, it would provide a major boost to opposition morale and could induce Taliban defections. The main battlefields of this war, however, lie elsewhere, in southern Afghanistan, particularly the region around Kandahar where Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, have their headquarters.

The ethnic base of the Afghan opposition needs to be broadened through the recruitment of credible leaders from these southern areas where the Pashtun ethnic group predominates. It is here that the ground war must ultimately be won. Persuading Pashtun commanders to join forces with the Northern Alliance has proved particularly difficult. Success will require active support from Pakistan, itself home to a large Pashtun population.

The lack of dramatic progress on the ground and mounting civilian casualties from errant bombs have brought calls from some Muslim countries to wind down the war. No one is for prolonging the agony of Afghanistan's people. Rooting out international terrorism from its Afghan sanctuaries, however, will require considerable time and careful preparation. Involving Muslim allies like Turkey and Pakistan in efforts to strengthen the Afghan resistance can also help sustain the international coalition against terrorism.


Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Federal authorities have detained 1,017 people thus far in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks and, in most cases, have refused to disclose the names of those arrested, what crimes they are charged with and where they are being held.

The government may have legitimate reasons for this secrecy, but even in this period of heightened security concerns, the concealment raises questions about possible violations of civil liberties. It erodes public confidence in the belief that the United States is not a country in which people can go "missing" as they did in Chile under dictator Augustus Pinochet.

Although the Justice Department has provided a running tally of the arrests, it declines to give names or details, saying that in some cases it is prohibited from doing so and shuttling aside the fact that the prohibition comes as a result of its prosecutors' requests to the courts that records be sealed. In other cases, the department has said it isn't required to disclose such information.

At most, the department has supplied general information: that a small number of those arrested are considered material witnesses, that about 180 are charged with immigration violations, that the rest are being held on charges unrelated to the attacks and that most remain in custody. Some are believed to have some connection to terrorist activities, but not directly related to those on Sept. 11.

While federal authorities must do their best to prosecute those who may have taken part in the attacks, they must operate within constitutional boundaries. Despite repeated assurances from Attorney General John Ashcroft that the government is doing nothing improper, it is impossible to gauge the veracity of that contention.

Democracy demands transparency. If the government's investigation has been consistent with the law and protections of the Constitution, there should be no reason why it cannot answer basic questions about people it has detained.

After being rebuffed by the Justice Department and by FBI director Robert Mueller, a coalition of civil liberties organizations has decided to file a lawsuit demanding disclosure. It is disturbing to American sensibilities of fairness and liberty that they should be forced to take such action.


Washington Times

The Pentagon's decision last week to delay three missile-defense tests confirmed how much the restrictions of the anachronistic 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty are constraining the Bush administration's anti-missile testing program. A Pentagon treaty-compliance review board had concluded that the tests would violate the ABM Treaty. As a result, one test will be altered, while the others have been postponed indefinitely.

In an ideal world, the Bush administration would jettison the ABM Treaty in a one-step process, exercising its treaty-sanctioned right to withdraw after providing six months notice. This course of action has been advocated on these pages. An even better alternative, of course, would be to convince Russia to jointly -- and immediately -- abandon the treaty, an option Russian President Vladimir Putin is, unfortunately, unlikely to embrace today.

However, with the United States now at war as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the American homeland, the notion of an ideal world has been dealt a severe blow. In the meantime, Mr. Putin, who was the first world leader to telephone President Bush following the terrorists' attacks, has been playing an important role as a U.S. ally. Under these circumstances, now may not be the best moment for the United States to exercise its right to withdraw from the ABM Treaty -- provided the pursuit of national missile defense can resume without being constrained by the treaty. Recent events indicate that may be so.

Aware of Mr. Bush's determination to pursue national missile defense, Mr. Putin, appearing next to the U.S. president in Shanghai last month, announced that the two nations had an "understanding that we can reach agreements." His comment was widely interpreted to mean that the two men would likely reach an agreement soon that would permit the United States to go forward with its ambitious testing program. Four days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced the testing delay, noting, "We have said we will not violate the treaty while it remains in force." However, one day after that, in an interview with the New York Times, Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, suggested that Russia would drop its objections to the Pentagon's proposed testing plans. Other administration officials indicated to the Times that they were now operating under the assumption that Russia might agree to permit the tests. In return, Mr. Bush would postpone his decision to abandon the ABM Treaty.

It is important to keep in mind that the ultimate goal is the development and deployment of an effective national missile defense system at the earliest possible moment. Jettisoning the ABM Treaty has been viewed as an indispensable intermediate goal. That remains the case today. However, if Russia does not seek to obstruct the Pentagon's pursuit of the ultimate goal, delaying the eventual abandonment of the ABM Treaty may be a worthwhile bow to today's geopolitics.


Washington Post

Officials are scrambling to determine how Kathy Nguyen was exposed to the deadly anthrax spores that killed her this week. They worry because there is no obvious connection to the factors common to earlier anthrax exposures and deaths: no clear link to the mail or to the media. Her death could signal a new front in the attacks or reveal another weakness in authorities' understanding of how this microorganism is operating. So they have launched into the detective work that's become all too familiar in recent days: tracing her movements, interviewing co-workers, swabbing her workplace for anthrax spores. The drumbeat of developments is riveting, but there's a danger that the emerging routine of briefings and test results will obscure something fundamental to these attacks, as to those of Sept. 11: the heinous nature of this assault on the innocent.

These are the victims of this unsigned attack: Ms. Nguyen, a quiet 61-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, riding the subway each day to and from her job in a hospital stockroom, bringing cheer to her neighbors with a smile and a greeting. Robert Stevens, a newspaper photo editor and avid fisherman. Thomas Morris Jr., a 28-year veteran of the postal service who loved to bowl. Joseph Curseen Jr., the president of his neighborhood civic association, who never once called in sick during 15 years at the post office. Like the waiters in the World Trade Center and the file clerks in the Pentagon and the fathers on the hijacked jets: hard-working, decent, ordinary citizens going about their business, never expecting they were in harm's way.

While the United States pursues its campaign against the international terrorist network it holds responsible for the slaughter of Sept. 11, authorities can't begin to say who is to blame for unleashing the deadly anthrax spores. But the nature of the attackers is clear even if their identity is not. They have let loose a horror from which nations have recoiled; they have crossed into territory that despicable figures in history hesitated to occupy. The drive to bring them to justice must be as relentless as their crime is unfathomable.


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Given that "staying on message" is one of the points Washington media trainers stress even to veteran politicians, the Bush administration's seasoned hands must regard with some dismay the criticism that they are losing the propaganda battle in the campaign against terrorism. It's true that America is running behind in the war of words, and there are steps it can take to improve the quality of the message.

But only up to a point: At a fundamental level, this conflict is about right and wrong. The United States, having been attacked in criminal acts of war, is right to respond in a variety of ways to threats to its national security. America's enemies - Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida network, the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan that harbors them and others who align themselves with the terrorists' aims -- are wrong: Bin Laden & Co. have hijacked a religion, Islam, and bent it to their will, not to the will of Allah. American officials can repeat, and repeat again, that this is not a war on Islam, which it isn't, but a war on terrorism, which it is. But they cannot insist that bin Laden's sympathizers listen.

That said, U.S. officials can insist on a few things. They can do a better job of explaining to responsible Muslim leaders, clergy and intellectuals that it is in their self-interest to speak out against the corruption of their religion by the Taliban and bin Laden. This requires intervention by U.S. and other Western leaders at the highest level, which is one reason Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is visiting Central Asia and Russia this week, why British Prime Minister Tony Blair is visiting the Middle East and why Secretary of State Colin Powell and especially President Bush should be talking daily to key Muslim leaders.

American message managers cannot say often enough that the terrorists of Sept. 11 killed people from 70 or 80 nations and hundreds of Muslims and that Muslims in the U.S. can practice their religion with a freedom no other nation on earth accords them. Or that U.S. missions abroad in the 1990s often were in defense of beleaguered Muslim communities - in the Balkans, for instance, and in Somalia.

How the message gets transmitted also matters. For example, when Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite station, comes calling, U.S. officials should see it as an opportunity to speak directly to Muslims around the world, as Rumsfeld did on the station a couple weeks ago. And Congress should pass the bill, now in the House, that would create Radio Free Afghanistan, which would beam America's message to ordinary Afghans in their own languages.

But more than that, the United States needs to spit-polish and organize what it wants to say. The main government official charged with managing the message is the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Charlotte Beers, a successful executive who headed two large advertising agencies during her private-sector career. But she has no foreign-policy experience -- and certainly no background in the politics of the Middle East, Central Asia and the Muslim world.

These holes in her resume aren't necessarily disqualifying, but it may be that direction should come from a higher authority. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, writing in The Washington Post the other day, observes that extraordinary times require extraordinary steps in public diplomacy. He suggests a new office, similar to the Office of War Information created by President Roosevelt during World War II. "It must be run from the White House, the only place in Washington that can coordinate - by which I mean direct - public affairs activities of State, Defense, Justice, CIA, AID and others toward the Muslim world," Holbrooke says.

The nation may not need to go that far, although Holbrooke himself would be perfect for the job if it did. Somehow, a clear, consistent and convincing case for the U.S. position must be communicated to the Muslim world.


Boston Globe

A 23-year-old Afghan woman named Kokogol was killed last weekend when an errant U.S. bomb crashed through the ceiling of her house as she sewed a wedding dress for her brother-in-law's fiancée. Kokogol, her neighborhood in the village of Ghani Kheil, and a reported eight people killed in nearby villages have become collateral damage in America's war against terrorism.

Unintended civilian casualties are a fact of death in war zones and come as no surprise -- but the news resonates with an anguished sense of recognition and responsibility many Americans may not have felt as sharply before.

The woman sewing the wedding dress on the other side of the world on an October afternoon is one with the thousands of lives cut short on what had seemed like a typical September morning in America.

Growing up in a country at war and dying accidentally make her loss no less sudden, brutal, or agonizing for her family and friends.

"I really miss my wife," Merza Khan, Kokogol's 35-year-old husband, told The Boston Globe. "I will never forgive the Americans."

His pain and bitterness are echoed here as people mourn their loved ones taken in mid-stride and as some of these people extend their fury at the terrorists to the entire Muslim religion and Arab world.

Clearer heads see individuals, and so the image of a woman sewing a wedding dress is now indelible.

There is no comfort in remembering that we did not start the war that killed her or that she was killed by mistake while the American dead of Sept. 11 were targets or, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Monday at a press conference, that responsibility for civilian deaths here and in Afghanistan "rests at the feet of the Taliban and Al Qaida."

Rumsfeld added, "We understand what it means to lose fathers and mothers and sons and daughters."

But understanding it is not enough to prevent them from unloading the same devastation on unintended victims.

The American mind, steeped in technological wizardry, wants the machinery of war to be as precise as a desktop computer, going after the bad guys and saving the good guys - and making the world love us the way it was said to have revered the World War II generation.

Today the United States is trying to rally support from a shakier alliance, and civilian deaths weaken the resolve of tenuous friends.

Every misfire, particularly the double hit on the International Committee for the Red Cross warehouse in Kabul -- even though there were no injuries -- fuels home-front frustration with this new war in forbidding territory. And, since the home front is also a battlefield now, the killing of innocents is much more personal -- and unacceptable.


Chicago Tribune

One way or another, Argentina is likely to default on part of its $132 billion public debt within the next few weeks. This could not come at a worse time for either the country or the rest of the world.

Argentina's profound economic problems make it difficult to attract investment or otherwise raise the money needed to work itself out of a debt hole. And with the economic malaise afflicting the rest of the world, foreign investors are not exactly gobbling up emerging-markets debt -- particularly debt as shaky as Argentina's.

Then there's another possible solution: Uncle Sam running to the rescue once again by poking the International Monetary Fund or other international institutions into bailing out Argentina just one more time. But if previous bailouts, including a $40 billion package led by the IMF in December and an $8 billion advance in August, are any indication, another financial rescue won't solve anything except to buy Argentina's leaders some time during which to pray -- probably for another aid package.

During his campaign, some of President Bush's economic advisers rightly criticized the Clinton administration for running an international bucket brigade, dousing financial brushfires here and there throughout the developing world. Now the Bush team ought to stand firm, even if non-intervention triggers a default.

The temptation is great for international lenders to reach for the checkbook once again. American pension funds and investors are heavily involved in Argentina's debt. A default may rattle the huge economies of neighboring Brazil and of Chile, and may scare away investors and lenders from other wobbly economies like Turkey's.

The problem with that logic is twofold. One bailout tends to engender another, and bailouts ultimately allow the borrowing nations to postpone needed reforms.

To his credit, Argentine President Fernando de la Rua has tried to implement some tough austerity measures to reduce the country's deficit of approximately $5 billion by cutting pensions and government salaries. But then internal discontent with de la Rua's policies, which came through loud and clear in the Oct. 14 elections, has dampened enthusiasm for other badly needed reforms to combat corruption, cut off government subsidies to certain industries and implement reforms of work rules imposed over the years by the labor unions.

So the solution on the table right now is a debt swap that would induce investors to "voluntarily" trade in some of the debt coming due in the next few months. And to make the swap work--which some regard as a de facto default -- international lenders would have to extend additional guarantees, perhaps in the order of about $5 billion to $6 billion, to secure the proposed swaps. But for that to happen, the IMF and other international lenders would want the go-ahead from the Bush administration.

If the United States were to beg off this continuous bailout game, the result would be an outright default on the debt -- what The Wall Street Journal calls a "cold shower" for both Argentina and foreign investors. Losses would be significant for everyone, but such temporary debacle perhaps is the only thing that will persuade Argentines to get real with economic reform -- and get off the vicious cycle of financial brinkmanship, followed by a return to the familiar status quo.


Denver Post

We have nearly reached the limits of our patience with a certain fretful coterie of Beltway and electronic pundits who seem to think that the war against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies in Afghanistan has reached an impasse.

Almost any war is an open-ended commitment, and only an arrant ass would expect armed conflict to follow a fast-track timetable. War, by its very nature, is at the extreme limits of entropy. Whoever can function most deliberately in such a chaotic environment without losing his focus stands the better chance of achieving victory.

Yet some irascible dilettantes in the art of war and realpolitik have been implying in recent days that not enough is happening because, despite an intensive bombing campaign, Kabul has yet to fall. Television reporters and commentators, especially, seem to have grown impatient covering war from the sidelines.

It strikes us that such sophistry follows an unrealistic story board that calls for impressive, immediate military action, complete with a massive ground offensive with plenty of photo and video ops.

Real wars are not a video game or an epic movie on the lines of "Saving Private Ryan." Seldom is military might wielded as effectively and quickly as it was in the Blitzkrieg early in World War II or in the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel defeated its Arab neighbors in well-executed lightning strikes.

As brief as the ground combat phase of the Persian Gulf War was, the buildup of U.S. and allied forces in preparation for the liberation of Kuwait took several months.

It is also worthy of note that American armed forces in 1991 were considerably larger than the downsized military of today and many of Kuwait's oil-rich neighbors, nervous about their own heads, were only too happy to provide staging areas for the assembly of the U.S. juggernaut arrayed against Saddam Hussein.

Historically, wars that are quickly concluded with low fatalities are the exception rather than the rule.

Forward staging areas and infrastructure would have to be developed if there are to be ground operations in landlocked Afghanistan, and that will take time.

Hopes that the bombing campaign begun Oct. 7 might shatter the resolve of the ruling Taliban have proved over-optimistic, hence the discomfiture of those who expected a quick, bloodless "The End" in time for the holidays.

Meantime, public opinion polls in the United Kingdom show an ebbing of support for the United States, especially because of civilian casualties. Non-combatant deaths are a regrettable but often-unavoidable adjunct of aerial bombardment, which, for all the high-tech advances made in recent decades, is still far from surgically precise.

We would ask our stalwart British friends for a little forbearance and urge them to recall that only after Germany's cities and factories had been reduced to smoldering ruins was the Nazi war machine finally defeated.

World War II lasted nearly six years in Europe, and victory was achieved only after tremendous sacrifices by those in combat and on the home front. This time around, the distinction between the front lines and home front are even more blurred than in previous wars.

Hardly more than seven weeks have passed since the Sept. 11 attacks, and it's just plain unrealistic to expect an instant resolution in the war against terrorism.

Neither President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair or any other Western policymaker knows what the struggle will cost in terms of lives or resources.

We, as citizens, cannot not know as a certainty what we will have to sacrifice or what reserves of patience we will have to draw on to defeat the unreasoning legions of terror.

But win we must. Just as there was no alternative to defeating Nazi tyranny, there is none to vanquishing a terrorist movement that seeks to erase the human progress of the last 13 centuries.


Houston Chronicle

Many observers have remarked that the war against terrorism with roots in the Middle East cannot be separated from the enduring conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. More immediately relevant to the battle against Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida network, however, are the social turmoil in Saudi Arabia and troubled U.S. relations with its precarious government.

Deprived of his Saudi citizenship, bin Laden is of Saudi extraction, as were most of the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks against New York and Washington. These mass murderers have the support of a minority of Saudis but, according to U.S. intelligence officials, gain much of their financial support -- millions of dollars -- from Saudi businessmen who donate to front organizations out of either sympathy or fear.

Robert W. Jordan, the Dallas lawyer whom President Bush appointed U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, last month praised the Saudi government for its cooperation in the investigation of the terrorist attacks, but law enforcement officials say Saudi cooperation has been minimal or nil. Saudi reluctance to perform background checks and probe financial records no doubt reflects a fear that the trail might lead to further embarrassment or worse for the nation and its royal family.

U.S.-Saudi relations are based on mutual interests: the export of Saudi oil to the West and the import of U.S. goods and services to the desert kingdom. Ambassador Jordan told a Senate committee that the history of America's oil giants and the history of modern Saudi Arabia amounted to the same thing. However, the two nations do not hold the same truths to be self-evident.

So sensitive and sore is the bilateral relationship that U.S. diplomats are reluctant to discuss it. One State Department official in the Near East section, asked whether U.S. policy was to preserve Saudi Arabia's tyrannous status quo, said answering such a question would guarantee trouble. A State Department summary of U.S.-Saudi relations since World War II fails to mention the Saudi-led Arab oil boycott during the 1970s.

According to recent State Department reports mandated by Congress, Saudi Arabia's denial of religious freedom and human rights remains acute. Non-Muslims and members of minority Muslim sects frequently are subjected to harassment and battering by government-chartered religious enforcers and vigilantes. All Saudi citizens are required to be Muslims, and acknowledged conversion to another religion can be punished by death.

The words "tolerance" and "Saudi Arabia" are rarely joined. A State Department account says it was a breakthrough for Saudi Arabia's patriarchs to allow U.S. servicewomen to defend their nation against Iraq during Desert Storm.

Government-controlled media and religious schools foment resentment of Western values and culture. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal offered $10 million to aid New York's terrorist survivors, but had his gift rejected when he said the United States could prevent future terrorism by loosening its alliance with Israel. The prince said he was only calling for peace in the Middle East, yet when Egypt made peace with Israel, Saudi Arabia protested by cutting diplomatic ties with its Arab neighbor.

At the very least, U.S.-Saudi relations desperately need a dose of candor, however restrained by diplomatic nicety. Like the other nations of the world, Saudi Arabia must decide which side it is on, the civilized world's or al Qaida's.

If Saudi officials are covering up for the terrorists and their supporters, pretending that they are not will help neither the United States nor the corrupt and fearful regime that controls the oil spigots.


Los Angeles Times

President Bush's planned speeches and meetings with audiences foreign and domestic next week are a necessary part of the battle against terrorism. It's not enough to take action; the action must be explained and justified, not once but often.

The basic fact to be repeated is that nearly 5,000 people from scores of nations were killed in terrorist attacks on innocent victims Sept. 11. Time diminishes horror; it cannot be allowed to erase memory.

There are lies abroad that the U.S. counterattacks are a fight against Islam or against innocent Afghans. Rather, they are a fight against terrorists, with the first targets Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization. There are reasonable questions about strategy and tactics. Is the bombing of Afghanistan hurting the United States in the arena of public opinion more than it is helping in destroying bases of the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan who shelter Bin Laden? When bombs hit a Red Cross warehouse or fall on villages and kill innocent Afghans, what is done to prevent similar occurrences? Will continuing the bombing of Muslims during the month of Ramadan turn Islamic moderates against the United States?

Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday stressed the need for patience and reminded people that the war on terrorism has many components. Arresting suspects here and abroad, freezing bank accounts, persuading other nations to provide intelligence information all are important in the effort to disrupt hostile networks.

Bush's Sept. 20 speech was an effective explanation of what the nation confronted and what would be required. But there have been major developments since then: the bombing campaign, the spread of anthrax. Next week's speech will have to be every bit as good as the address to Congress, a blend of explanation, reassurance and rallying cry.

The president also will speak by satellite to officials from Central Europe gathered in Warsaw to discuss the war on terrorism. That's an opportunity to express thanks to nations supporting the battle and to remind them that terror can threaten any nation. Many countries knew that before Sept. 11.

Bush plans to meet with the leaders of several nations attending the U.N. General Assembly meeting next week, among them British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has done a good job articulating the allies' position on his trips to the Middle East. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is also on the meeting list. Both India and Pakistan have supported U.S. actions, yet the two nuclear-armed nations remain at each other's throats over the territory of Kashmir. Bush should assure Vajpayee that Washington values the friendship of a fellow democracy and urge that the quarrel with Pakistan not escalate.

The hiring of ad agency executive Charlotte Beers as the nation's spin-master will not persuade the world of anything. But spelling out U.S. reasoning is important in the new type of battle in which the nation finds itself. It needs to be done well and constantly.


New Orleans Times-Picayune

Of the 19 terrorists who hijacked American jetliners the morning of Sept. 11, 15 received their U.S. visas in Saudi Arabia. Even though these terrorists were far outnumbered by people seeking visas for legitimate reasons, the State Department should still do a better job of vetting visas in Saudi Arabia.

Over the years, Saudi Arabia has been a stronger backer of American policy in the Middle East than most of its neighbors have been, and no one should be surprised that visas are easier to come by in such a country than in ones whose governments have shown unremitting hostility to ours. While visa applicants in Iran and Iraq wait for a decision for weeks or longer, applicants in Saudi Arabia are rarely interviewed. Only 3 percent of applicants for U.S. visas in Saudi Arabia in 1999 were rejected, compared with 38 percent in Egypt.

But there are several good reasons for more scrutiny. When controls on U.S. visas are more lax in one country than in surrounding ones, the likely result will be consulate-shopping among terrorists who have the ability to move easily across international borders. It is difficult to tell whether the Sept. 11 hijackers did so; the ones who received their visas in Saudi Arabia claimed citizenship in that country, but they may have used forged documents to obtain their visas.

Moreover, terrorist leader and Saudi exile Osama bin Laden's reach -- both for money and recruits -- appears to extend into his former home country. Also, America's relationship with Saudi Arabia and its citizens increasingly looks troubled.

The kingdom's leaders have long cultivated close ties with American presidents, and it was the main staging area for American forces during the Gulf war. And in the present conflict, Bush administration officials have repeatedly assured reporters that Saudi Arabia is cooperating with American efforts.

Perhaps that is happening in private, but in public the kingdom looks anything but enthusiastic. And recent statements from Crown Prince Abdullah are not encouraging signs. According to The Wall Street Journal, the prince has written to President Bush to emphasize the two nations' "separate interests" and declared that "a time comes when peoples and nations part."

Moreover, it is important to consider the views of people not just in official circles but also in the street. Since Sept. 11 Americans have come to recognize the strain of anti-Western sentiment that exists in the country. Some of this sentiment results from the royal family's efforts to reduce pressure for political change by closing off all outlets for dissent except fundamentalist religion at home and supporting the likes of Taliban and al Qaida abroad.

As they reexamine the procedures for issuing visas in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, American officials must be careful not to succumb to xenophobia. Allowing tourists, students and workers from other countries into the United States is important to our economy and educational system, and it has long been a key way of exporting American values to the rest of the world. Even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, keeping all foreigners out -- or keeping all Arabs out -- would be a disastrous policy to follow.

It is also important to be realistic about the difficulty of isolating those visa applicants who wish Americans ill. Terrorists are unlikely to confess their involvement in violent plots during interviews with American diplomats. Even so, closer attention will make it harder for them to slip through.

Besides, the Saudi-U.S. relationship appears to be in flux, as are the domestic politics of Saudi Arabia. In its policy planning and in its scrutiny of visa applications, the State Department would be wise to acknowledge those changes.


Louisville Courier-Journal

Whatever investigators learn about the events and criminals of Sept. 11, this much is tragically clear: At least 19 young men were in the United States who should have been refused admission, expelled or closely monitored.

In that light, the Bush administration is certainly correct to move to toughen immigration controls. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has already taken some preliminary measures, will lead a task force that will make recommendations on how to carry out that mission, especially by tightening access at the nation's borders and by carefully screening applicants for American visas.

This reflects a change in direction. Prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush favored liberalizing immigration laws, and he was working toward allowing more Mexican workers and truck drivers into the country.

Particular attention will be focused on the 700,000 foreign students in the United States and the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who have temporary work visas. It is critical to make certain these visitors enroll in classes or begin employment as they had specified on their visa applications. And virtually all foreigners holding expired visas should be detained and deported.

Still, the administration's crackdown will generate controversy. Some complaints will be easily answered; others pose vexing dilemmas.

American universities, for example, have strongly objected in the past to tracking their foreign students' movements and study programs. But a country -- even a constitutional and democratic one -- that is under attack has a legitimate right to place reasonable controls on non-citizens.

Far more complex will be the government's efforts to set standards for disqualifying foreign students who undertake studies that may pose a risk to Americans, or for determining how it will decide whether a visa applicant has supported a terrorist cause or group.

This United States has flourished with the labor and vitality of each generation of immigrants, and America's role in educating young people from virtually every other country has extended the nation's values and cultivated goodwill.

Mr. Ashcroft is right that no visitor has the right to use America's hospitality to terrorize it. His considerable challenge is to define, precisely and fairly, the balance that makes America safer while keeping its doors open to the world.


(Compiled by United Press International.)

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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