What do an immigration advocate who claims that San Diego County is an open-air jail for Latinos and a radical Islamist who fights for the introduction of Shariah law worldwide have in common? Both have been chosen to participate in the State Department’s International Visitors Program (IVP).
The IVP has been used for more than 50 years to bring thousands of foreign politicians, scientists and other influential individuals to the United States in order to “experience America firsthand. Understandably, after 9/11, the amply-financed program has been focused on bridging the gap with Muslims worldwide and showing that the Islamic community in America also benefits from the freedoms that all Americans enjoy. However, while the program has scored some successes in achieving these goals, on more than one occasion it has proven to be poorly organized and even counterproductive. The State Department does not always appear to have a good understanding of who it is inviting to the U.S. and who it is choosing to represent America.
Last September, a group of seven Muslims from the Netherlands were chosen by the US Embassy in The Hague to tour America from coast to coast. The seven spent almost three weeks meeting with individuals and organizations that would expose them, according to officials at the Embassy, to “Diversity in America.” One of the invitees was Haci Karacaer, a Turkish national who happens to be the representative for the Dutch branch of Milli Gorus, an organization of interest to intelligence agencies throughout Europe for its strident anti-Semitic and anti-Western propaganda. German intelligence has described the group as a “foreign extremist organization” that is “anti-Democratic and hostile toward integration.” The Dutch branch of Milli Gorus, which is headed by Mr. Karacaer, organized the group’s 2002 European meeting, where former Turkish Prime Minister Nehmettin Erbakan declared (amidst the cheers of 20,000 adoring supporters) that “after the fall of the Wall, the West has found a new enemy in Islam.”
But Mr. Karacaer was not the only questionable choice. While the State Department’s guidelines describe the individuals who should be invited as “distinguished leaders from the public and private sector,” some of the seven Dutch visitors were twenty-something college students who have appeared on Dutch television to speak about immigration but have no position of relevance within the Dutch Muslim community. It is clear that the US Embassy in Holland did not check the members of the delegation with due diligence.
What is more troubling is that some members of the Dutch delegation overtly displayed the utmost contempt for America and its institutions from the very beginning of their tour. Arriving in the U.S. with the idea that they were visiting the Great Satan, they appeared determined to share their anti-American sentiment with anyone they encountered on the trip, uttering statements like “the world’s most corrupt country is the U.S.” and “American history is one of the nastiest of all times.” This continuous disrespect led their State Department-assigned escort, Daniel Paseiro, to complain to his superiors at Foggy Bottom.
Mr. Paseiro, who had escorted groups from the IVP for more than 21 years, was shocked to hear additional negative comments from some in the group about their home country of Holland (whose current prosperity was attributed by some members of the group to “profits from the slave trade”) and on Jews. In fact, when Mr. Paseiro explained to some in the group that there are only about 15 million Jews in the world, one of them, Famile Arslan, reportedly replied, “Even that number is still too many.” But the unpleasant surprises were not over for Mr. Paseiro. Following his complaints, he was shocked to realize that the State Department had no intention of taking any measure against the group and actually ordered him to be “more diplomatic” with them.
Unfortunately, this represents a common attitude at the State Department. The most shocking example of State’s hyper-sensitivity not to offend its guests came in the days immediately following 9/11, when the organizers of the IVP were faced with a controversy over what to do with a delegation of Chinese journalists who reportedly cheered and laughed while watching the attacks unfold on television. For days, State refused to suspend their program and only after the group’s escort threatened to leak the story to the media did it take some action. The suspension was officially attributed to “security reasons,” yet no other delegation was sent home during the days following 9/11.
The International Visitors Program is not intended to be a reward for people who have espoused pro-American sentiment; on the contrary, it is meant to win over the hearts of people who have negative views of the U.S. but have not necessarily had the opportunity to see the object of their contempt first-hand. Nevertheless, inviting members of extremist organizations or individuals that refuse a rational, civilized debate is, frankly, a waste of money. If, moreover, the Americans chosen to meet with the program’s foreign participants happen to be hard-line critics of the US, we have a recipe for disaster.
From Minneapolis to Atlanta, the Dutch group met with representatives of fringe organizations that only reinforced their idea that America is a racist and evil country. According to Mr. Paseiro, in San Diego, an ACLU immigration lawyer went so far as to tell the group that Hispanics are routinely stopped by INS officers and that the US Border Patrol has a policy of “shoot to kill” along the border.
In its noble attempt to improve relationships with Muslims worldwide, the State Department is reaching out to anybody who claims to be a Muslim leader, no matter if they have no following or if they have affiliations with radical or terrorist organizations. At the same time, the Americans who have been chosen to represent the country often harbor anti-American sentiments themselves and do not give a positive view of the US to the Muslim visitors they meet with. The IVP is, potentially, a very powerful weapon in the war for the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide, but the State Department is turning it into a boomerang.
Lorenzo Vidino is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington DC-based counterterrorism research institute.