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January 30, 2017
Tailors understand the necessity of measuring at least twice before cutting.  Good leaders and managers customarily apply the same procedure to decision-making.  “Act in haste, repent at leisure” is not just an aphorism.  It is a lesson often learned the hard way by those who cut carelessly.  Although White House reactions to the confusion and fear propagated by an executive order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” has been both defiant and defensive, the betting here is that a lesson is being learned and that regular order will, before long, return to the executive branch of the United States government.

Much has been written about how the executive order contradicts the ideals and undermines the security of the United States.  The view here is that the order is defective on multiple levels and that corrective action will be forthcoming very quickly on some of them.  Officials in the Departments of Homeland Security and State are now dealing with the consequences of hasty work and bad staffing.  Clearly the political imperative of getting something out there for voters genuinely concerned about terrorism outweighed the duty first to nail down implementation guidance for departments and agencies of government.  Very senior American officials are now scrambling to do that which should have been done before placing a piece of paper before the president for signature.

In terms of the executive order’s substance, much is objectionable.  On the one hand it is perfectly understandable that many Americans fear the export of terrorism from the Middle East to North America.  In the wake of what has happened in places like Paris, Brussels, and Istanbul, this fear is not unreasonable.  In the wake of horrific acts of domestic terrorism committed by demented individuals in the name of Islam, it is not accurate to place all or most of these concerns in the category of Islamophobia.  Yes, there are hateful racists in the United States just as there are in every country.  Yes, there are people even in the White House who may not yet fully appreciate the sacrifices of Muslim Americans in our armed forces and the necessity of working hand-in-glove with Muslims around the world to defeat Islamist extremism.  But none of this erases the genuine belief of many Americans that terrorists based in the Middle East will use any means at their disposal to replicate in the United States what has been done in Nice, Berlin, and Ankara.

President Trump made it his business to address this concern during the presidential campaign.  Again: statements about banning Muslim immigration notwithstanding, he effectively tapped into something that is real.  He did not manufacture the issue.  Now he feels obligated to do something about that which worked for him during the campaign.

One can only hope that the chaos of this past weekend, featuring the gratuitous suffering of many people counting on the protection of the United States, will produce an expeditious reconsideration of the executive order.  It is in the national security interests of the United States to do so.

In Syria, for example, the Obama administration thoroughly soiled its own reputation and that of the United States by refusing, over five-plus years, to protect a single Syrian from Assad regime mass homicide.  Will we now double-down on that disgraceful performance by singling out Syrian refugees as being particularly dangerous to American national security?  Will we deny, by implication, the contributions Syrian immigrants have made to the United States for the better part of 150 years?  Ideally President Trump will be informed that the vetting process for Syrian refugees already goes above-and-beyond that which is prudent and reasonable.  Ideally he will become familiar – perhaps with the help of church leaders – with the contributions Syrian victims of Assad regime brutality are making to their new American communities.  Ideally the interagency can offer two or three symbolic vetting tweaks to the system enabling him to claim victory. 

In Iraq, American servicemen and women are working closely with the Iraqi army to defeat ISIS (ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh) to retake Mosul.  Was the issuance of the executive order preceded by careful thought and discussion of force protection implications?  As the United States works for a stable and prosperous Iraq strongly predisposed to cooperate with Washington in the region and beyond, was proper analytical due diligence accomplished on the question of how Iran might, in Iraq, spin the executive order to the detriment of American interests?  Was the Iraqi government consulted in advance and its views taken into account?

Not long ago the Hariri Center and Atlantic Council released the report of the Middle East Strategy Task Force, authored by Stephen Hadley and Madeleine Albright.  The report pulled no punches.  And it put “Keeping America – and Americans – safe from terrorism” as number one in its list of vital American interests.  Above all, this report – which is in the hands of key Trump administration officials – called for a close partnership between the United States, its allies, and the peoples and states of the Middle East: a partnership to end the region’s wars and set the region on the road “from state failure and civil war toward a stable and peaceful order of sovereign states.”

President Trump’s first responsibility is the security of Americans.  As he and his advisors settle into office they will likely see that threats emanating from the Middle East cannot and will not be adequately addressed absent an American policy featuring partnership.  And partnership will be unattainable if the dignity of actual and prospective partners is discounted.  The fabric of American national security requires careful measurement before the scissors are applied.

Frederic C. Hof is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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