- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What exactly constitutes a good ally? Good allies are a bit like good friends; you only really know them in your time of need. After September 11, the United States needed friends to stand with us. The countries that have done so faithfully deserve to be recognized.

This question of the value of friendship has been raised recently in the debate over the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, problems with which were recently discussed in a column in this space. Only residents of 27 countries can at this time travel without visas to the United States. Meanwhile, the program excludes many of our dependable allies in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as some in Asia. Needless to say, this rankles with those who are excluded.

To recap: An amendment to the Senate immigration bill recently introduced by Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland has proposed to grant exemptions to the normal rules of this program to allies of the United States who are members of the European Union and who have contributed “material support” (defined as a battalion) to Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

The normal rules include a visa refusal rate of no more than 3 percent and a rate of no more than 2 percent on overstays on 60-day visas. Those rules, however, were written in the days before the global war on terrorism. Today, there are other factors that should influence how this program works.

Currently, this profile fits just one country: Poland. Romania is not far behind, however, pending its membership of the European Union. While the legislation is undoubtedly well-intentioned and while Poland and Romania alike have been staunch friends of this country, this amendment defines too narrowly what it means to be a good ally of the United States.

Other countries — Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, which feel the squeeze of being shut out of the Visa Waiver program — have also made significant contributions, especially if you consider their commitment relative to the size of their populations. All of these countries are members of the EU and NATO, where we have no problem working with them. All of them signed onto the letter of support for the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 that got them in hot water with the government of France, which opposed the war. Furthermore, this spring Vice President Dick Cheney felt on sufficiently friendly ground in Vilnius, Lithuania, to launch a rhetorical attack on the Russian political leadership and its undemocratic ways. Due to their experience under communism, the Central and East Europeans often show a special rapport with the United States that West Europeans do not.

Each of these countries has troops in Iraq: Hungary 300, Latvia 120, Lithuania 118, Slovakia 102, Czech Republic 80 and Estonia 31. This compares to some 2,400 for Poland and 700 for Romania, but on a per capita basis or as a percentage of military forces, the numbers are not so far off.

In Afghanistan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Czech Republic have volunteered assistance. This includes medical teams, dog teams, engineering units, etc. In the Balkans, where Europeans have largely taken over from American peacekeeping forces, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia each have 100 personnel on the ground in Kosovo on a rotating basis. This has freed up American forces for deployment elsewhere.

Haggling over the value of friendship seems an odd way to write immigration legislation. Yet, at least the Santorum amendment has brought the discussion out into the open and caused some thinking on how the problem can be fixed. This can be done by either an adjustment in the criteria for eligibility that would be more inclusive or by rethinking the basis for the Visa Waiver Program altogether, outdated as it has clearly become. It is worth noting, by the way, that not one of the countries in question is agitating for allowing illegals to stay in the United States, but they are offering to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement.

We are living in world more unpredictable than it used to be. At least let us try not to alienate countries that want to be on our side.

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