By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts
ASPEN, COLO. – The Aspen Ideas Festival assigned a panel of high-powered experts to contemplate the challenges of globalization. Each listed their most important concerns. None mentioned the word terrorism.
As the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, no American has forgotten the trauma and tragedy of that day. President Bush insists that defending the homeland is still the overriding mission of his presidency, and his single-mindedness is understandable.
But as those experts here in Aspen reflect, memories are fading and priorities are shifting. Preventing another terrorist attack remains a critical national focus, but it’s not the only one. America faces many other threats from abroad, and the panelists highlighted one of them: foreign countries are stealing some of the world’s best students, scholars, scientists and innovators away from the United States.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, one of the panelists, told us: “You don’t have to come here anymore. We are in a marketplace, and if we don’t provide the services, they’ll go elsewhere.” Added James Steinberg, dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs: “We are getting badly hurt, we are losing a lot of talented people.”
At least one of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the United States on a student visa, and the president reflected a bipartisan consensus when he reacted to that attack by imposing tough new limits on foreign degree-seekers. “The country must stay on alert,” Bush explained at the time, “our enemies still hate us.”
But now, says Powell, it’s time to “change the rheostat,” to recalibrate the costs and benefits of that policy, to “take more risks” and accept more talented foreigners. The national interest, America’s competitive standing in the world, demands it.
While the administration has made some positive moves – applications from Pakistani students are up 20 percent this year – the toll on American universities is still devastating. “I could give you horror stories,” said Powell, and offered one example.
A young woman from a royal family in Asia arrived in America for college. Her visa said she could only enter 30 days before classes started and she was five days early. She was arrested, placed in ankles shackles and thrown in prison. No wonder, noted Powell, “we lost her, she went to Australia.”
Other countries see an opening and are moving into it. The European Commission has started a major campaign, called Erasmus Mundus, to recruit foreign students. Australia is doing the same thing. Their lure: lower costs, less red tape and in some cases, the promise of citizenship after graduation.