Trump’s Travel Ban: A Self-Inflicted Wound

US President Donald Trump’s executive order that prevents refugees from around the world and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States has triggered warning calls from critics about the damage it could inflict on US interests, values, and national security.

“The ban not only provides fuel for the radicals, but it also undermines American diplomacy, American business, and the ability of our military to operate abroad,” said Lawrence Pintak, a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, where he focuses on the US relationship with the Muslim world and the media’s role in shaping global perceptions and policies.

“Trump just handed [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] a gift. Anwar al-Awlaki, the late American-born al Qaeda propagandist, predicted that one day the United States would turn against its Muslim citizens. In extremist social media chatrooms today, his followers are calling this a ‘blessed ban,’” he added.

Pintak, who described the ban as ill-considered and poorly-implemented, said: “Even if you support the idea of tightened immigration regulations, to impose such strictures without consulting experts or even warning the relevant authorities betrays a shoot-from-the-hip approach to policy-making that has very troubling implications moving forward.”

Trump’s order blocks refugees from any country from entering the United States for the next 120 days; indefinitely bars refugees from Syria; and prevents citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—from entering the United States for at least ninety days. The order was drawn up and rolled out without consulting senior members of Congress or key cabinet officials.

Richard LeBaron, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and founding coordinator of the interagency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, said the manner in which the ban was conceived and executed calls into question the judgment and skill of the Trump administration.  

“It has almost no impact on ‘keeping America safe’ but does send the message that the United States is at war with Muslims,” he said, adding, “It puts our allies in the Middle East in a difficult position and will diminish any trust that might have been built with American Muslims.”  

The Iraqi parliament promptly responded with its own ban on visas for Americans, however, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Iraq will not retaliate against Trump’s order.

“Any policy has to weigh costs and benefits. In this case, the costs far outweigh the benefits,” said LeBaron. “We have managed to demonize populations of whole countries at a time when we have the ability to be much more precise in our identification of terror threats by groups or individuals. From a communications standpoint, the administration sent not a message of toughness, but one of incompetence and prejudice.” 

Pintak pointed out that former US President George W. Bush’s comment soon after the September 11, 2001, attacks about the United States being on a “crusade” against terrorists still reverberates in the Muslim world. “[T]hink how this [ban] will be viewed,” he said, adding: “And what local is going to want to work as a translator or informant for the American military or intelligence after seeing those who helped us in Iraq turned away?” Trump’s ban has impacted foreign Muslim translators who risked their lives and the lives of their families to help US troops in war zones.

The ban has sparked large protests across the United States and spread chaos and confusion abroad. Former US President Barack Obama has praised the protesters, noting in a statement: “Citizens exercising their constitutional right to assemble, organize, and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.”

At the State Department, over a thousand US diplomats have signed a “dissent” memo criticizing the order. White House spokesman Sean Spicer responded with a demand that the diplomats either “get with the program” or resign. Evidence that the new administration will not tolerate dissent briskly presented itself on January 30 when Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she refused to defend his ban.

LeBaron, a former US ambassador to Kuwait, said it is important that State Department officials have the ability to provide their best advice on how to pursue US national interests. “This incident is awkward because one of the key elements of the Dissent Channel is that the communications should be confidential, thus not embarrassing the president or secretary of state and not exposing the authors to any form of retribution,” LeBaron said.

A Muslim ban?

On the campaign trail, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” but he has denied critics’ claims that his immigration order is in fact a Muslim ban.

“Few in the Muslim world believe this is not aimed specifically at Muslims,” said Pintak, adding that as a result the ban plays right into the hands of the extremists.

“‘RI Regrets Trump’s Muslim Ban’ was the headline on the front page of the Jakarta Post. That’s a recruiting poster for [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] ISIS,” he added. Indonesia is officially known as Republic of Indonesia (RI).

The ban has also had a chilling effect in Muslim communities across the United States.

“That is precisely what the extremist groups want to happen. They want American Muslims to be alienated so that some small sub-set will become angry enough to be radicalized,” said Pintak.

“ISIS wants to ‘eliminate the gray zone’ inhabited by moderate Muslims in the United States and polarize relations between Islam and the West,” he added, noting that ISIS predicted in the February 2015 issue of its English-language magazine Dabiq: “‘Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands.’”

‘Radical Islamic terrorism’

As president, Obama chose not to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” because he wanted to avoid associating Islam with terrorism. Trump was a harsh critic of this approach.

“This has already gone far beyond the question of semantics,” said Pintak, pointing out that only some Muslims are Islamists and only some Islamists are violent extremists.

Contending that the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is not, in and of itself, incorrect, he added: “The problem is the Trump administration’s attitude, rhetoric, and policies. Talk of a Muslim ‘Trojan horse,’ of the registration of Muslims, and the claim that Christians will be excluded from the immigration ban all send a crystal clear message that Trump and his team don’t distinguish between radical extremists and all other Muslims.”

Pintak said that if Trump wants to build bridges with Muslim communities both in the United States as well as around the world, Trump must jettison his Islamophobic advisors who consider Islam “a cancer” and spread wild conspiracy theories about a plot to impost Sharia law on America.

“This isn’t about [public relations], public diplomacy, or empty gestures, it’s about restructuring the president’s fundamental worldview,” he said.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and Richard LeBaron

Image: People protested US President Donald Trump’s executive order travel ban at Los Angeles International Airport in California on January 31. (Reuters/Monica Almeida)