Trump’s Irrational ‘Travel Ban’

President Trump has used the three iterations of his “travel ban” as a dog whistle to his “base,” which he thinks harbors hatred toward Muslims, but there is no logic behind the policy, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The Trump administration’s travel ban is in its third version, and it still does not respond convincingly to the ostensible need it was supposed to address. The supposed purpose itself is unclear. The latest version introduces additional confusion about the ostensible objective, even without getting into the real motivations behind it.

President Donald Trump touches lighted globe with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman at the opening of Saudi Arabia’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology on May 21, 2017. Saudi Arabia and Egypt contributed most of the 9/11 hijackers but are not on Trump’s “travel ban.” (Photo from Saudi TV)

Most administration statements on the subject, including the more formal ones as well as less scripted defenses of the ban, center on the idea of keeping bad guys out of the United States by restricting travel from countries in which such guys are presumed to live. The disconnect between justification and reality that has existed ever since version 1.0 is that there is little or no correspondence between the countries listed in the ban and where terrorists gunning for the U.S. homeland have come from. Over the past four decades, no Americans have been killed in the United States by foreign terrorists who came from any of the countries in either the original version of the ban or the latest version.

Moreover, the whole idea of a ban on entry to the United States overlooks how much terrorism within the United States, even when it has involved foreign-born individuals, has not involved crossing of borders to commit the act. According to a study by the New America Foundation, all the perpetrators of post-9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States were U.S. citizens or legal residents and would not have been stopped by the travel ban. The evident ethnic targeting of the ban is likely only to increase the resentment, suspicion, and alienation — and thus the propensity to resort to extremist violence — of members of the communities who feel kinship with those targeted.

Other rationales that administration officials have offered for the ban have mentioned cooperation or lack of cooperation on counterterrorism from governments of the countries involved, especially in sharing information about possible terrorists. Although this rationale is still about terrorism, it is quite different from the question of where bad guys are most likely to come from. Countries with cooperative regimes are not necessarily the same as countries with nonviolent, peace-loving citizens. The result is new confusion about exactly how the measure is supposed to make Americans safer.

Tossing in Venezuela

The latest version ban goes clearly beyond terrorism-related considerations of any kind. This is true of the addition of Venezuela, evidently put on the list as just one more way to express disapproval of the Maduro regime, with Venezuela having replaced Iraq in the old axis of evil.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. (Photo credit: Valter Campanato/ABr)

This is also true of North Korea, where any legitimate policy motivations have to do with weapons proliferation, not terrorism, and with the search for new ways to punish or condemn Pyongyang. Given that there are almost no North Koreans other than diplomats (who are not affected by the ban) traveling this way, the listing of North Korea has no practical effect.

The true principal motivation for this measure is the one that has been all too obvious all along: it is a Muslim ban, just as Donald Trump had been calling for. This observation isn’t something that needs to be confirmed in a court of law. With the replacement of an earlier temporary ban, which had been the focus of a lawsuit, by a newer permanent one, the courts might not weigh in on this anyway. The observation follows from the words of Trump himself, such as his request to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for advice on how to erect a Muslim ban “legally.”

The selection of which Muslim states to target has had much less to do with terrorism than with other reasons Trump has had to pick on some states but not others. The most glaring omissions in a measure supposedly designed to keep would-be terrorists out of the United States are the countries from which the 9/11 hijackers came: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and especially Saudi Arabia. All are ruled by regimes whose side Trump has taken in regional rivalries.

The deletion of Iraq from the most current version of the ban also is hardly consistent with the idea of listing the countries where anti-U.S. terrorists are most likely to be found. Iraq is one of the two countries where the so-called Islamic State has been ensconced for the past three years, and where many former members of the group no doubt still dwell. The contrived addition of Venezuela and North Korea hardly removes all the other evidence of the primary and original intent.

The Muslim travel ban is another instance of Trump playing to his base and acting out the rhetoric of a demagogic campaign, with all the prejudices that entails. The shuffling and revising after the original proposal constitute an effort to ward off inevitable and well-founded objections to an ill-motivated measure.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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12 comments for “Trump’s Irrational ‘Travel Ban’

  1. Joe Tedesky
    September 29, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    The United States of America in November of 2016 decided to put the Divider and Chief in charge, and with that Americans officially put a face to the knuckle dragging ideology of our country’s worst kind of mindset.

  2. john wilson
    September 29, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    As far as I know most, if not all people wanting to go to America have to first get a visa from the American Embassy. Surely if the Americans don’t want individuals to travel to the states all they have to do is refuse them a visa? I don’t see the need for a blanket travel ban.

  3. mike k
    September 29, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    Xenophobia is the reverse side of American Exceptionalism. Everyone else is inferior to us White Americans. Trump has simply played to this preexisting meme in our culture, dog whistling Yankee Doodle Dandy…..

    • USTaxpayer
      October 12, 2017 at 10:43 pm

      mike k and your travel experience is which nations or include working and study, too! Please expound, thank you!

  4. mike k
    September 29, 2017 at 10:07 pm

    Trump seems to have learned a lot from his bedtime reading of Hitler’s speeches. Like how to get the angry masses behind you in hating some minority groups.

  5. hatedbyu
    September 30, 2017 at 9:04 am

    the instinctive wailing about this ban from the left is to be expected. if you believe that donald trump or republicans hate everybody but white people then there is no logic with which to have a conversation.

    if there is one thing the constitution really gives the government power to do is protect the border. and i would much prefer the money spent on foreign wars be put towards a safer border.

    it is not a muslim ban. if it was there would be other countries on the list with much larger muslim populations. and was expanded from the previous administrations visa restrictions from the same countries.

    the point of the temporary ban is to develop better vetting techniques for safety reasons and was based on . not sure if this is happening as the stories about the ban never seem to go there. if i were a reporter, that would be my first task. who, what , when , where, and why. since i never see this happening from any media source, i have to conclude that it doesn’t matter to the mainstream narrative. or from our trusty former cia author.

    i could see some logic in the ban but i see logic in not having it too.

    playing to the base. yeah, sure. there’s that. but who’s right. can there be more done to stop terrorism. i suppose. does the base have a right to ask the government to secure their saftey? seems that there is a huge security apparatus in place to do so.

    of course my suggestion would be to stop bombing the people in those countries. or stop helping other countries to do so. it would go along way toward fixing the problem.

  6. Tannenhouser
    September 30, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Just another example of Trump ‘destroying’ anything to do with Barry. Just a guess mind you. I also tend to agree with hatedbyu on this.

  7. ADL
    October 1, 2017 at 1:49 am

    “as a dog whistle to his “base,” which he thinks harbors hatred toward Muslims,”

    Thank you Ray. Actually he (T) doesn’t think – he knows his base harbors hatred towards Muslims. And all of those ‘others’ – all those low lifes out there who are not white, not christian. It’s what got him elected and still drives millions of his supporters.

    But he is hardly alone – it’s no different than the ‘dog whistle’ used since 1965 by the Repubs. Their #1 political agenda has been to overcome the demographics staring them in the face. They never ever try to WIN OVER those ‘others’, those black and brown and non christians. They only work to gerrymander, implement Jim Crow voting laws, and to constant fearmonger. To deny. To exclude. To keep whites, and men, in power.
    But you don’t have to believe me – just look at the political numbers – look at all the diversity in the Repub party. Outside of a few tokens they are as white as the KKK robes. And Male. All the women Repubs, the women T supporters, they just keep ensuring their own exclusion and suppression. Just like that alcoholic who won’t quit, at some point you just lose any sympathy for them.

    • Tannenhouser
      October 3, 2017 at 9:37 am

      First off I’m not a trump supporter, that being said. Is it not possible Trumps ‘base’ is people tired of war from both political spectrums? His campaign rhetoric was decidedly anti war as well as re establishing by the people for the people. The alcoholic allegory reminds me of another political party in the states and their ‘Russia did it meme’ , as well as the apartheid nation and supposed singular democracy in the ME.

      • USTaxpayer
        October 12, 2017 at 10:41 pm

        Tanner…etc. Have you talked to a Russian lately whom still resides in Russia…?

    • USTaxpayer
      October 12, 2017 at 10:42 pm

      ADL…and you attend meetings of which international groups?

  8. USTaxpayer
    October 12, 2017 at 10:40 pm

    8 out of 47 MUSLIMS countries…what is your point?

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