Not since the Vietnam war has international public opinion about America sunk so low. US officials praise "American values" when abroad, but they are competing with images of prisoner abuse and torture, and even Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's wildly successful anti-Bush polemic.
The best way to counter such negative views has been to encourage others to come and see for themselves the strengths of American society. But in this particular battle for hearts and minds, the US government is currently engaged in unilateral disarmament. By making admission of foreigners so difficult and intimidating, America is depriving itself of a formidable strategic advantage.
The US State Department issued 36 per cent fewer visas in the 2003 fiscal year than in 2001—cutting total visitors by almost 1m. The fall is almost universally attributed to the more stringent security procedures introduced after September 11, 2001. No one questions the need for measures to prevent terrorists entering US territory, but many question whether new entry procedures meet even minimum standards of efficiency and cost effectiveness.
Foremost among the sceptics are US research and educational establishments. Some 560,000 student visas were issued in 2001, but only 474,000 in 2003. US universities depend heavily on foreign graduate students and scholars - especially in mathematics, the sciences and engineering. In May, more than 20 professional associations representing some 95 per cent of the US research community made an unprecedented joint declaration describing the current visa-processing logjam as a crisis. Larry Summers, Harvard's president, warned in April that if visa procedures remained so complicated and lengthy, "we risk losing some of our most talented scientists and compromising our country's position at the forefront of technological innovation".
American business has been somewhat less vocal than the universities, but the fact remains that immigrants accounted for half the growth of the US labour force in the last decade. In addition, US companies are finding it harder to move international staff in and out of the US for meetings and assignments; potential business partners are discouraged from visiting to make deals and start new ventures. US business leaders say the new obstacles have cost them billions.
Casual visitors are also important to the US economy. The travel and tourism industry, catering to US residents as well as foreign visitors, employs one of every eight people in the US civilian labour force. Visitors spend more than Dollars 80bn (Pounds 43bn) a year on travel to the US and once there generate extra sales and tax revenue in excess of Dollars 90bn.
The State Department has moved to expedite visas for students and scholars. But a much more focused, government-wide effort aimed at all kinds of visitors is needed. Special procedures for "low-risk" repeat visitors should be created. The visa process needs to be streamlined and properly staffed, its costs to applicants reduced, its technological tools upgraded and its consistency assured through clear guidelines.
Issuing visas remains the classic entry-level job for young foreign service officers—a relic of the days when it was considered a function in which one could do little harm. The US needs a professional corps of visa officers, who can accumulate knowledge and experience.
If the steps taken are inadequate, many more potential visitors undoubtedly will decide to go elsewhere—to Australia or Canada or Europe—for leisure, study or business. Universities in the English-speaking world, in particular, have a serious opportunity to fill the gap left by America's obstacle course. Rather than ratcheting up fees for foreign students, they should be courting the world's best and brightest to join their science and engineering faculties and then move on to research institutions and companies.
After the second world war America grew to world-beating prominence in part by attracting talent from all over the world to its critical nodes of scientific research, entrepreneurship and industry. Its post-September 11 failure of nerve may be a moment of high opportunity for Europe and other countries. The US is not the only country to have suffered at the hands of terrorists, but it seems to be uniquely intent on supplementing them with wounds of the self-inflicted variety.