Not winning any friends

The United States is spending millions on public diplomacy to make ourselves look likable and agreeable in the eyes of the world, but we keep botching it in ways that even the ministrations of Karen Hughes, President Bush’s designated international image-maker, cannot repair.

Goverdhan Mehta is a distinguished Indian scientist; president of the Paris-based International Council for Science, an association of national academies; director of the Indian Institute of Science, and a science adviser to the prime minister of India, with whom Bush is to meet next week.

Mehta has been a frequent and welcome visitor to the United States and a one-time distinguished visiting professor at the University of Florida, where he had been invited to return to address an international conference.

U.S. consular officials in India have denied him a visa.

According to The Washington Post, the rejection and the manner in which it was done have “triggered heated protests in that country and set off a major diplomatic flap on the eve of President Bush’s first visit to India.”

Mehta’s version, which he seems to have freely shared with the Indian press, is that he and his wife had to travel 200 miles to one of the handful of visa-issuing consulates in that vast country, wait three hours and then have their passports stamped “visa refused,” which is tantamount to blacklisting, because consular officials thought his specialty, chemistry, might be a threat. He was told to fill out a more detailed questionnaire and to try again. Mehta described the whole process as humiliating and degrading.

The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi issued a statement of regret, according to the Post, and invited Mehta to reapply. Mehta said he’s not so sure he wants to risk being insulted again and, in any case, he’s not filling out more questionnaires.

This kind of nitpicking really damages us abroad. A State Department official defended the consulate’s action as “standard procedure.” Well, then, the standard procedure is wrong.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)

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