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Time to Eliminate Visa Waivers?

I’ve written here before about some of the far-flung ramifications of the civil war in Syria spinning out of control. For example, Poles last month speculated that terrorists and militants holding European passports returning from Syria could strike soft targets across the Schengen Zone, those countries in Europe who have dismantled their customs and border checks effectively meaning entrance to one is entrance to them all. The result of that, of course, would be the end of the Schengen agreement and the return of passport checks at national borders.

Alas, the threat of European citizen terrorists will not be limited to Europe. Today, security has been ramped up for international flights heading to the United States because of credible threats of new terrorism using explosives not readily detectable by current screening technologies. The Syrian conflict is exacerbating the problem: Recently, a British citizen who has joined the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has posted a video bragging about the explosives training he has received in Syria and boasted that he would soon bring that know-how home.

Airlines are doing the usual ramping up of screenings and interviewing passengers, and press reports also suggest that American officials will fly to European airports to supervise screening of passengers and baggage.

If the threat is increasingly not only the potential for harder-to-detect explosives, but also the passport holders who might carry them, perhaps it’s time to bite the bullet and eliminate visa waivers. That would result in reciprocal action by mainly European countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

That does not mean that all embassies need to be flooded with applicants, but rather that the United States can begin applying more of an Australian model in which everyone must apply for a visa electronically so that their names and information can be passed through applicable databases. True, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security have the Electronic System of Travel Authorization, but that is simply a preliminary system to confirm visa waiver applicability. While it reserves the right to deny anyone entrance at the U.S. border, if anyone has malicious intent when boarding an airplane, waiting until they land is too late to offset a “man-made disaster.”

The visa system isn’t sacrosanct. There is much that is wrong with it and almost everyone, inside or out, sees the need for reform. That may be too much a job to do for a secretary of state who believes effectiveness is measured in frequent flyer miles and, like former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, ignore their executive responsibility to manage and reform the bureaucracies over which they preside. Rather than uphold the blanket right for countries with shifting demographics and a growing radicalism problem to have their citizens have the right to visa waivers, perhaps it’s time for increased preliminary screenings. It’s not too much of a hurdle for non-American travelers to apply directly online for a visa (so long as the interface isn’t designed by the good folks who brought us healthcare.gov) and potentially be informed of the need for a follow-up interview. It’s also not too much of a hurdle for Americans to then deal with applying for visas ahead of time should those countries insist on reciprocity.

Once again, the ramifications and reverberations of President Obama’s indecisiveness three years ago regarding the crisis in Syria grow. But given the impact of the president’s decisions—or lack thereof—countering the growing terror threat by Syrian-trained European passport holders is worth the price.



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