Trump’s Travel Ban: Responsibly Vigilant or Fear-Driven?

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

On June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided that the Trump administration’s decision to place entry restrictions on the nationals of eight foreign states “whose systems for managing and sharing information about their nationals the President deemed inadequate” is within the constitutional powers of the executive branch.

SCOTUS noted, “In September 2017, the President issued Proclamation No. 9645, seeking to improve vetting procedures for foreign nationals traveling to the United States by identifying ongoing deficiencies in the information needed to assess whether nationals of particular countries present a security threat.” This decision was preceded by an interagency review involving US law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomatic authorities, who determined that Chad, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen were deficient in meeting US security requirements. The administration subsequently removed Chad and Iraq from the list, which will be reviewed every 180 days. The proclamation includes a provision for case-by-case waivers.

The court noted, “Plaintiffs allege that the primary purpose of the Proclamation was religious animus and that the President’s stated concerns about vetting protocols and national security were but pretexts for discriminating against Muslims.”

Numerous commentators have also described the travel restrictions imposed by the administration as a “Muslim ban.” Indeed this is exactly what candidate Trump promised to impose if elected. There were forty-nine Muslim-majority countries in the world as of 2011, however. Two of the six countries remaining on the list—North Korea and Venezuela—have miniscule Muslim populations but are aligned with the US’s nemesis Iran.

Of the remaining four Muslim-majority countries, Iran has remained at the top of the US intelligence community’s lists of state sponsors of terrorism for years across Republican and Democratic administrations alike and doesn’t even have official diplomatic relations with the US. Neither country has an embassy in the other and therefore must engage diplomatically through intermediaries.

Tensions between the US and Iran are at their highest in years after the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and resumed efforts to economically pressure the Iranian public to replace their hostile and repressive government. Iran’s intelligence apparatus is undoubtedly seeking to infiltrate its operatives throughout the US in order to retaliate in the event of a determined US effort at regime change. Given the Trump administration’s probable intentions toward the Iranian government, one could reasonably theorize that this is the primary rationale for its travel ban.

Syria’s inclusion on the list bolsters this theory. It remains mired in a hellish civil war, the battlefields of which have been dominated by Islamist extremists, its vicious dictator is hostile to the US after years of efforts under the Obama administration to pressure him from power in response to his brutal war crimes, and its regime remains dependent on Iran for its survival.

Yemen is also embroiled in a horrific civil war, does not have a functional government, and the insurgent forces attempting to consolidate control over the country have aligned themselves with Iran. To what degree this is based on genuine ideological affinity versus the need for a more powerful outside patron to supply them with weapons remains a matter for debate among experts. US support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ bombing campaigns against the Houthis and the flourishing of Al Qaeda-affiliated networks in Yemen in the midst of the civil war—a longstanding problem—makes Yemen a real security risk to the US.

Libya also remains caught in civil war and its dueling governments have struggled to extend their writ over the country’s political institutions, critical infrastructure, and major cities, let alone the interior of the country. Although the security situation in Libya is not as dire as in Yemen or Syria, it is unsurprising that Libyan authorities are having challenges meeting US security requirements.

Nevertheless, President Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims, much of which has been imprecise, irresponsible, gratuitous, cynical, and despicable, is part of a pattern of bombastic, uncivilized, and xenophobic behavior that has undoubtedly contributed to the casting of his travel restrictions as a target on Muslims. That the Supreme Court majority didn’t weigh his rhetoric in their decision on his travel ban, as it did “inappropriate sentiment” in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, is reasonably perceived as a double standard.

Americans should understand that pre-existing security measures were effective, according to many highly credentialed national security experts, who caveat that they should be complemented by improved efforts to prevent homegrown extremists (whether driven by their interpretation of the Quran, the Bible, white supremacist propaganda, or whatever the case).

These travel restrictions do impose real hardships on the families of their fellow citizens and there are arguably ways of alleviating those hardships while appropriately mitigating security risks—including by recommitting to constructive diplomacy with Iran, however frustrating its government is to engage.

Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, Energy Security and Climate Initiative, notes that Trump’s travel ban “blocked [Iranian] women’s rights activists, victims of torture by [Iran’s security services], and other human rights defenders from entering the United States and shattered the hopes of many others who saw the United States as a beacon of hope and freedom.”

Moreover, “The millions of tourists, students, immigrants, and refugees who have come to the United States from Iran since 1979 have contributed greatly to American society and to the US economy, assuming leading roles in arts, science, business, and even politics.”

The potential for these visitors, residents, and citizens of the US to contribute positively to improving relations between Iranians and Americans and ultimately our two governments over the longer term should not be underestimated.

We as Americans arguably have a moral responsibility to help, at the very least, the families of those who, whatever their religion, have risked their lives to establish more liberal democratic governments in the Middle East. The value of what they would be able to learn from and teach us as well as their countrymen suffering under oppressive regimes should also not be underestimated.

It’s critical in this time of high tension that Americans reestablish a healthy poise between maintaining their vigilance and preserving their humanity. The president of the United States should lead the way with emotionally disciplined rhetoric and measured policies reflective of poised leadership.