Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Forget WikiLeaks: The Amusement of Public State Department Travel Warnings

I feel a bit guilty writing this post; after all, politics aside, I don’t believe that the State Department wishes the Lebanese tourism industry any ill will, nor do I think that worrying about my safety as a citizen is a bad thing.  I’m sure it goes without saying, also, that I recognize that there are genuine risks posed to individuals in traveling to certain locales.  Nevertheless, I am thoroughly entertained by what passes as State Department travel warnings nowadays.

Nearly four years ago, while living in Morocco, I would receive Embassy announcements every so often detailing this or that protest to avoid, or a crime committed against an American citizen. Mostly, I was appreciative; it’s good to know when a transportation strike is planned, even if it’s not exactly what I would consider a danger.

Around the time of the Mohammed cartoon debacle of 2006, however, I started to grow a bit weary of such warnings. “Demonstrations planned!” shouted the warnings from my inbox, with “anti-American in nature” and other generalizations sprinkled throughout the emails.

I never really checked the State Department’s warnings until last year, while I was planning a trip to Syria. The point of checking, really, was to prove to my naysayers that Syria was perfectly safe. Not so, warned the State Department – “anti-American” rhetoric apparently prevailed in this “axis of evil” country (no, the warning didn’t really use the latter term). I obviously went anyway.

Later that year, a trip to Beirut presented itself. I checked the warnings once again: “The Department of State continues to urge U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to current safety and security concerns.” Strong language for a country that actually has a U.S. ambassador (Damascus does not). I compared the warning to Syria, a country whose ties with the US have been incredibly weak since the Hariri assassination (the ambassador was pulled shortly after); U.S. citizens are warned about Syria, told to take caution, whereas they’re urged not to visit Lebanon. Interesting.

Downtown Beirut; photo by Luciana.Luciana

In fact, the warning for Lebanon remains the harshest, despite concurrent warnings for Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, the DRC, and Yemen. Here’s a sample of the language used in the first paragraph of each:

  • Afghanistan: The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to Afghanistan. The security threat to all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan remains critical.
  • Iran: The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran.
  • Iraq: The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens of the risks inherent in travel to Iraq and recommends against all but essential travel within the country given the dangerous security situation.
  • DRC: The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) (DRC), and recommends against non-essential travel to eastern and northeastern Congo.
  • Yemen: The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities.  The Department strongly recommends that U.S. citizens defer non-essential travel to Yemen.
  • Somalia: The State Department warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Somalia and recommends that U.S. citizens avoid all travel to Somalia.

Now, compare those to Lebanon: The Department of State continues to urge U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to current safety and security concerns. U.S. citizens living and working in Lebanon should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks.

Is this a case of editorial error, foreknowledge of an Israeli (or other) attack, or is Lebanon–modern, developed Lebanon–truly a more dangerous place than lawless Somalia?  The government warns against travel to Somalia, but urges against travel to Lebanon.  All but essential travel to Yemen is recommended against, while we’re not to go to Lebanon under any circumstances.

I’m genuinely curious – what gives?  Maybe there’s a leak out there to explain it…

Photo by Luciana.Luciana made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

7 Comments

  1. It strongly sounds like there’s a pro-Israeli lobby behind this. The strident hysteria one can detect behind the formal tone gives it away. I don’t think it’s possible that the State Department really believe their own warning, when Lebanon’s been exploding all over the press as the world’s top summer destination etc etc, and if they do, be very afraid, because that says something about how well-informed they are.

    • I’m not sure I agree with the point about the lobby; I would imagine that it’s in their best interest to support Lebanon’s Christian factions and Lebanese tourism, rather than isolate and anger the country…nevertheless, your latter point definitely resonates. I think Collin’s comment (below) is also a factor.

  2. In none of those other countries is the endangering party most likely to be a US ally. The lesson from 2006 (which I suspect is the origin of the statement) is that if something goes down, it will take State at least a week to bail you out.

    • That sounds about right, Collin – though this particular quoted statement is from within the past few months (but yes, I imagine they’ve rarely edited it since 2006).

  3. I still remember the times when Peru was part of that list…

  4. It strongly sounds like there’s a pro-Israeli lobby behind this. The strident hysteria one can detect behind the formal tone gives it away. I don’t think it’s possible that the State Department really believe their own warning, when Lebanon’s been exploding all over the press as the world’s top summer destination etc etc, and if they do, be very afraid, because that says something about how well-informed they are.

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