Beginning my first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2000, I stopped by the U.S. embassy in Ankara to talk to some of the diplomats who watched Iraqi affairs out of that embassy at their urging. The diplomats were quite talented and we had a useful back-and-forth about a region that was then isolated under a double embargo: The UN embargo against Iraq, and the Iraqi central government’s blockade against Iraqi Kurdistan itself. While I was by no means working on behalf of the U.S. government—I was funded at the time by a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs grant—the American diplomats urged that I keep in frequent touch and relay observations in a region difficult to cover from afar. As an afterthought, they asked that I stop by and “register” with the consular staff at the embassy.
That meeting was a shocker: I expected little more than a consular official to photocopy my passport and take down emergency contact information. Instead, I got a lecture from a pedantic bureaucrat who did not appear as if she had ever stepped foot outside the expatriate circle about how what I was planning to do was illegal for a U.S. citizen and could land me in prison since, she said, the United States strictly prohibited travel to Iraq. I explained that Iraqi Kurdistan was not governed by Saddam Hussein, but she said she could care less. I ignored her, and went anyway. Illegal or not, various folks at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department, and White House sought debriefings when I returned: While the consular official could not see the forest through the trees, others in government understood the big picture even if, by the letter of the law, the consular official was right.
Fast forward 14 years: Frank Wolf, a Virginia congressman, has proposed a bill that would effectively ban Americans traveling to Syria and would impose a prison sentence of up to 20 years for traveling to that war-torn state without first getting government permission. The problem Wolf hopes to address is real: the flight of jihadists into Syria and the certainty that some Americans have now moved to that war-torn state to join up with al-Qaeda. But does he expect those fighting in Syria to be honest on their entry forms when they return to the United States? And does Wolf believe that the only indication U.S. intelligence would have of Americans fighting in Syria would be their honesty on such forms?
If intelligence indicates that a person is fighting in Syria, then they should be prosecuted for their links to al-Qaeda (or to the Assad regime or Hezbollah) rather than simply for being in Syria. For what it’s worth, when I returned from Syria at the beginning of February, I listed on my entry forms that I had been in Iraq and Syria, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer at Dulles airport didn’t give me a second glance.
Wolf and his colleagues might also better support the security of the United States and its regional allies if he instead pushed efforts to force Turkey to stop allowing its borders to be a revolving door for jihadists. A CNN International documentary recently showed how jihadists simply pay Turkish border police $40 to cross into Syria unmolested. Some of the traffic goes two ways: Recent travelers through the Istanbul airport have overheard transiting jihadis chatting about fighting in Syria as they wait for their return flights to their countries of origin to visit family.
The problem is that there is plenty of reason to travel to Syria that has nothing to do with jihadism. Just as Iraqi Kurds effectively carved out a statelet in Iraq that was the polar opposite of what Saddam Hussein sought in Iraq, so too have Syria’s Kurds created a calm and relatively placid region that seeks to be both secular and democratic. Just as it was ridiculous for any U.S. official to punish assistance to the Iraqi Kurds in 2000, so too would it be counterproductive to prosecute assistance to the Syrian Kurds when what they seek coincides with U.S. interests. Wolf might argue that Americans could simply receive a Treasury Department waiver for travel into Syrian Kurdistan, but in practice officious employees uninterested in the fact that not all Syrians are the same would be more likely to sit on applications or say no rather than risk saying yes.
Empowering government to restrict travel in such ways simply undercuts liberty. That does not mean Americans should have free range to conduct illegal activities while abroad: Traveling to Iran with dual-use equipment in one’s suitcase should be illegal, as should be violating Cuba sanctions. Working with any al-Qaeda-affiliated group, be it in Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, or Somalia, should be illegal. But travel itself should not be. If U.S. intelligence capabilities are falling flat, then it is best to address that problem head on rather than recommending the legislative equivalent of slapping a bandaid on a sucking chest wound. Even the best intentions should not be an excuse to constrain American liberty.