In a series of advisories unprecedented in geographic scope, the State Department has been ordering or strongly urging U.S. citizens to leave numerous countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
The broad reach of the advisories reflects the government's concerns about the region-wide consequences of a possible conflict between Iraq and the United States and the State Department's heightened awareness of safety issues following its failure to issue a warning against travel in Kuwait in the days prior to the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion, according to State Department officials.
"At the time we knew that that was something we should have been doing, but that wasn't our decision, it was for higher-ups," said a consular affairs spokeswoman, referring to the lack of a Kuwait advisory. "Everyone's consciousness about travel advisories has been raised" since then.
The State Department came under heavy criticism from families who later became hostages in Iraq and Kuwait and who contended that they should have been warned of the problems there. The department has said it did not issue a travel warning because it did not believe Iraq was preparing to invade Kuwait.
Yesterday the department authorized the departure at government expense of dependents of its U.S. employees in Israel and recommended that the tens of thousands of Americans living there consider leaving because of the growing possibility of a Middle East war.
The decision to advise U.S. citizens to leave a foreign country where they live and work or to refrain from travel often presents a tough choice between being overly cautious and creating undue panic and inconvenience, said State Department officials and European diplomats in Washington.
"We are reluctant to advise people to leave a country; you don't want to advise them unless it is absolutely necessary," said a British Embassy spokesman. "It's very difficult to get it right."
And it can be tragic when they get it wrong.
The U.S. and foreign governments were criticized for not making passengers aware of terrorist threats against a Pan Am flight that was subsequently bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.
In the past several weeks, the State Department has ordered the departure of nonessential U.S. government employees and all dependents in Jordan, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen because of tensions caused by the Persian Gulf conflict. It has also said it will pay for the departure of any nonessential U.S. government employees and dependents who wish to leave Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan and Tunisia and for dependents only in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
In a statement issued yesterday, the State Department reiterated its reasons for the travel advisories, saying "increased tensions due to Iraq's failure to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions may lead to demonstrations, terrorist attacks and other hostile actions" against Americans and the U.S. government.
The notice advised U.S. citizens already in the region "who do not have essential reasons for staying" to consider departing and for others to defer travel plans into the areas.
To facilitate air travel out of the region, the government has also "taken steps to ensure continued insurance coverage" for U.S. airlines that normally fly to the region, some of which have recently discontinued their routes because of steep increases in insurance rates.
Travel advisories are almost always a warning, usually specific to one country, telling citizens to defer nonessential travel or to consider deferring nonessential travel. Advisories also tell citizens what official American policies are, such as paying for the voluntary departure of dependents or ordering the departure of nonessential personnel.
Asked whether the issuance of a warning, such as yesterday's, could itself be part of the effort to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the U.S. threat of war is real, a State Department official said: "One would not turn one's back on the fact that it would have that effect. But it is first and foremost part of a responsible and prudent concern for the welfare of American citizens overseas."