President Trump vows to restructure his travel ban for seven mostly Muslim countries – and consider a “safe zone” in Syria – but those ideas create more risks than they eliminate, says Ivan Eland.
By Ivan Eland
Although Donald Trump had good inclinations on some foreign policy issues during his campaign and transition period — for example, staying out of unneeded brushfire wars, reexamining U.S. alliances, and pushing wealthy allies to do more for their own security — his policy toward “radical Islamic terrorism” always needed some work.
Now, having been president for only a short time, this policy — including slamming the door shut on the legal immigration of refugees (including desperate Syrians fleeing from the country’s civil war) and entry of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries — needs a lot of work.
In the meantime, to show that he is doing at least something for Syrian refugees, he is talking to Arab allies not affected by the ban — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — about setting up safe zones in Syria to keep refugees there.
Trump somehow believes that such tough policies will prevent Middle Eastern terrorists from attacking the United States. Yet refugees coming to the United States are already vetted thoroughly, and an average American citizen’s chances of ever getting killed by a “refugee-gone-wild” is very remote. In fact, the radical ISIS group has had little luck recruiting people to come to America to attack, thus requiring the group to rely on “inspiring” untrained people already here to conduct largely incompetent, amateurish attacks.
Therefore, one must conclude that the security gains from this ill-conceived, chaotic, and likely illegal and unconstitutional executive order (the U.S. Constitution says that only Congress, not the president, will establish a uniform rule on naturalization). On the other hand, such demagoguery allows the President to throw political red meat to his populist base by fulfilling a campaign promise.
Because that promise was originally advertised as advocating a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and now covers seven predominantly Muslim countries while giving preference to Christians and other minority religions in Muslim nations, the Islamic world can be forgiven for assuming he is accelerating the American post-9/11 “war on Islam.”
And although Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama claimed they were not conducting such a wide war, they were both attacking or bombing at least seven Muslim countries. These wars continue to this day and roughly coincide with the seven Muslim nations covered by the immigration ban, including Iraq, a U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS.
Because the United States depends on Muslims worldwide to get information, ground forces, and other assistance to use against the small percentage of radical Islamist terrorists, this immigration ban will probably prove as disastrous as U.S. torture at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons did to the “war on terror.” Trump has made noises about bringing back such practices abhorrent to American values.
A Macho Image
Trump has a macho image, which his loyal followers eagerly gobble up, yet seems so scared of the remote probability that an already comprehensively vetted refugee will misbehave.
Shouldn’t America instead be courageous and say that we’ll take the (very low) risk to help people desperately fleeing turmoil in countries, including those that happen to be largely Muslim, such as Syria? For most of our history, welcoming immigrants has been seared into the American identity, and we even think of ourselves as “a nation of immigrants.”
However, Trump could be initiating another one of the periodic dark periods in which immigrants were treated very badly. For example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for political gains, turned away a ship full of persecuted Jews during the Holocaust, refused to increase immigration quotas for such Jews during that horrible period, and threw Japanese residents, and even Japanese-Americans, into concentration camps during the same period. The indefinite ban on desperate Syrian refugees may very well become a similar stain on America’s legacy.
And a “safe zone” created in Syria will not make up for it. The underlying message is “keep those undesirable Muslims over there, not accept them here.” Besides, a safe zone may require the United States to get sucked into escalating the type of brushfire war that Trump, in the campaign, said he wanted to avoid. Setting up a safe zone could very well require the insertion of U.S. ground forces and the tangle of American air forces with those of nuclear-armed Russia.
Thus, Trump’s is the opposite of a sensible policy, which would be: Increase the amount of already thoroughly vetted Syrian and other refugees accepted into the United States and forget about creating a safe zone in Syria, which is much riskier for the United States than admitting some more refugees.
Using American armed force in Islamic countries, such as Syria, in the decades since World War II and getting the reputation for treating Muslims unfairly is the main reason the United States and its Western allies are targets of Islamist terrorist attacks, such those on 9/11, in the first place.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. [This article was also published at the HuffingtonPost.]