Paul Pillar

The Muddled Travel Ban

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.

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.

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.

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 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. 

Image: Reuters