In my last post, I questioned the wisdom of cutting off funding for international family planning agencies in an effort to reduce abortions. Since organizations like Planned Parenthood help women avoid the unwanted pregnancies that often lead to abortions, impeding their work is more likely to increase abortions than reduce them. In public policy, good intentions are not enough. Political leaders also need the expertise to assess the real-world consequences of ideas that sound good in speeches or fit neatly into some political ideology.
Experts on terrorism are raising analogous questions about President Trump’s executive order, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” No one questions the goal of protecting Americans against terrorism. Whether a ban on immigration from seven Muslim countries is an effective way to do that is questionable.
The administration issued its executive order hastily, apparently without much consultation with our own government agencies and experts. Although one of the objectives was to allow time to develop better vetting techniques, the administration did not conduct any review of existing vetting procedures before concluding that they are failing. The order was so broad and vague that it appeared to apply to green card holders who were already living in the country legally, but happened to be traveling abroad when the order was issued. The legal basis for the order is murky, since one federal law gives the President the authority to suspend the entry of some classes of aliens in the national interest, but a later federal law bans discrimination among immigrants on the basis of national origin.
The order singled out the Muslim countries of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for a 90-day ban on visas. In addition, it halted refugee vetting and admission for 120 days for all countries, but indefinitely for Syria, where the refugee crisis is particularly acute. Critics noted that the list of countries did not include any from which the 9/11 terrorists had come, such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt. According to Scott Shane’s analysis in the New York Times, “Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, no one has been killed in the United States in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from or whose parents emigrated from…the seven countries targeted….” As Shane and many others have noted, the list also did not include any Muslim countries in which Donald Trump has business interests. The order may be something of an overreaction, because only 123 out of 230,000 US killings since 9/11 have been attributed to Muslim terrorists. Better vetting of Americans buying guns would probably do a lot more to save lives than keeping foreigners out, but the Trump administration is ideologically opposed to that.
Supporters of the ban defend it as a preventive measure. Even if immigrants from these troubled countries have not killed any Americans yet, they might in the future. Although we cannot rule out that possibility, we can reasonably ask whether the proposed solution alleviates or aggravates the problem it intends to address. Middle Eastern terrorists are political extremists who often try to justify their actions with an extreme interpretation of Islam. The United States cannot fight terrorism in Iraq or Syria–or at home for that matter–without the cooperation of the more moderate majority of Muslims. That’s why both George W. Bush and Barack Obama took pains to say that we are not at war with the Muslim religion itself. The new administration denies that this order is a ban on Muslims as such, since many Muslim countries are not included. But that distinction is likely to be lost on many in the Muslim world, since Trump is on record calling for a Muslim ban, and the executive order does make a religious distinction by exempting religious minorities (no doubt intending Christians) within the Muslim countries. Trump has expressed far more sympathy for the Christian victims of ISIS than for the larger number of Muslim victims. He has even claimed that Muslim refugees have been getting into this country easily while Christians have been kept out, but the actual numbers admitted are nearly the same for both religions. The order lumps all the Muslims together in these war-torn countries–the radicals and the moderates, our enemies and our allies, the terrorists and their victims, the adults and the children–and sends a message loud and clear that none of them are welcome here. Extremists can then use that message to advance their anti-Western agenda.
Alienating our friends and reinforcing our enemies’ talking points sounds like a formula for further radicalization, conflict and insecurity.