Donald Trump’s proposal is politically, morally, and strategically wrong. It also doesn’t make any sense.
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
Donald Trump is a big hit with Republican voters. And his mastery of reality TV tactics isn’t the only reason. He’s also made quite a splash with his policy proposals.
He’s stirred up particular enthusiasm with his vow to ban all Muslims — all of them, including tourists and casual visitors — from entering the United States. Poll after poll shows that his supporters love the idea. In New Hampshire, 66 percent approved of it. Seventy-eight percent of Republican primary voters in Alabama and Arkansas gave it a thumbs-up.
It’s easy to imagine why. Many Americans, and Republicans in particular, are obsessed with terrorism. The main threat, they assume, comes from Muslims — so just shut off the flow of Muslims into the country. Problem solved.
Trump first mentioned this idea in December. Commentators dismissed it in passing, apparently not deeming it worthy of serious discussion. But the intervening weeks — and the latest primaries — have shown that it’s still a hit with Republican voters. And given that Trump increasingly looks like the front-runner for his party’s nomination, this is a good time to take a fresh look at the policy. I’m probably being overly optimistic here, but I’d like to think that proper analysis might help people to understand why it’s a really, really terrible idea.
First, it would cause incalculable damage to the global standing of the United States. A country that has long prided itself on its openness, tolerance, and diversity would suddenly shut itself to an entire class of people — about 1.6 billion of them, in fact, roughly a quarter of the world’s population — on the basis of their faith.
I understand perfectly well that a lot of Trump fans probably don’t care at all how people in other countries view us. Even so, I feel duty-bound to point out that his policy would totally screw up our counterterrorism efforts. It would create problems just as tangible as guns that don’t fire or planes that can’t fly.
The war on jihadi terrorists, like the Cold War, isn’t just about guns and bombs. It’s also a war of hearts and minds. What few Americans appreciate is that the jihadists aren’t only trying to kill us — they’re waging war on other Muslims, those who reject their views. And Washington’s biggest partners in this struggle aren’t the Europeans, it’s the people and governments of Muslim states who are fighting for their own lives against the extremists. This civil war within Islam offers us natural allies in our fight against the terrorists.
Small wonder that the U.S. military is training and assisting government forces in such Islamic countries as West Africa and Afghanistan. Probably the most effective fighters against the Islamic State on the ground are the Kurds, who are also mostly Muslims. We need them on our side — especially if we don’t want to send the U.S. Army in to do the job for them.
So just imagine what a gift we’ll be making to the Islamic State’s propaganda arm the day President Trump announces his ban. “They ask you to fight and die against us for their sake,” the terrorists will say. “But you’re not good enough to enter their country. They claim they’re not fighting a war against Islam. But they reject anyone who’s a Muslim. Do you really want to help these people?”
I can imagine that most Trump fans won’t care. “We need to show the bad guys who’s boss,” they’ll say. “We need to project strength.”
OK, fine. But policies only project strength when they work. And this one won’t.
The most important thing about The Donald’s idea is that it will be impossible to implement. The reason is simple: We’d have to screen people who want to come to the United States by their religion. And that’s not just wrong. There’s also virtually no way to do it effectively.
Trump’s supporters apparently think it’s just a matter of blocking travelers from a few select “Islamic” countries. We’ve already tried that, more or less. After 9/11, we imposed especially stringent checks on visitors from a bunch of countries that seemed like likely sources for terrorists. Even now, you’ll have an extremely hard time getting a visa to the United States if you’re from Iran, Iraq, or Syria (and yes, that totally includes refugees).
The thing is, though, that no one ever seriously considered banning visitors simply by virtue of their religion. And there are good reasons for that. First of all, it’s pretty hard to find a country that is “purely” Muslim. Even the biggest majority Muslim countries contain large non-Muslim minorities. Egypt, for example, is 10 percent Christian, while 13 percent of Indonesians are non-Muslims — that’s about 33 million people. And foreign governments often don’t track the religious affiliations of their citizens. How would American officials be expected to determine who’s who?
The simplest expedient, presumably, would be to ban everyone from the country in question. So what about, say, India? There are 180 million Muslims there. Yet Indian identity documents don’t record the religion of the bearer, meaning that the only effective option would be denying visas to every Indian in order to ensure that no Muslims get to our shores.
What’s more, the Indian government — answering to its own indignant citizens — would have every reason to reciprocate, forcing any Americans who want to go there to apply for visas in their turn. An intricate web of family ties and personal relationships, billions of dollars in trade, complicated diplomatic and political links — all of that would be caught up in a huge bureaucratic train wreck. The cumulative costs would be astronomical.
Just imagine what would happen if we declared tomorrow that admission to the United States is closed to everyone from Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The Migration Policy Institute’s Doris Meissner, a former top official at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, mapped it out for me. The United States is connected with these countries through an elaborate web of contacts: family visits, business trips, student exchanges. Foreign students alone bring billions of dollars to the U.S. educational sector each year, she notes. Many jobs in the U.S. defense industry depend on sales to these countries — and the countries that buy our stuff send pilots, soldiers, and mechanics to us for training. As Meissner notes, “We’d be telling them, ‘Go buy it from France.’”
And what about the 38 countries whose citizens are allowed to travel to the United States without visas at all? Among them are 23 members of the European Union, including Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands. All of these countries have large Muslim populations, numbering in the millions. None of them tracks its citizens by religious faith. To exclude all of the Muslims we’d have to examine every single traveler at the border. And we wouldn’t be screening them for some objective external trait, like hair color. We’d be trying to figure out their innermost beliefs.
And how would we do that? Faith-sniffing dogs? Cleverly phrased trick questions? Laser-interferometer Islam detection kits? (And no, sorry, the presence of a turban or a headscarf does not a Muslim make.)
How, precisely, would U.S. officials on the front lines cope? Last year more than 60 million foreigners entered the United States. Are we really going to sift through the life history of each visitor who shows up at the airport? Just picture what that would do to the lines at JFK or Dulles. It’s easy to imagine that the entire border-control regime of the United States would collapse on the first day President Trump implemented his policy.
One option would be to get rid of our visa-waiver programs altogether — to demand, in short, that all foreign travelers have to apply in their home countries for permission to come to the United States. To process all the applications, we’d need a massive increase in personnel in the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, costing billions. And the countries affected by our change in policy would have no choice but to retaliate by canceling their own programs allowing Americans to visit them without visas. We’d lose one of the great advantages we have as American citizens — the ability to travel to most places in the world with just a passport.
Americans would find themselves increasingly isolated – not to mention pissed off. Can you imagine having to apply for a visa for your spring break trip to Cancun? Or a two-day work trip to London? Our economy, which vitally depends on overseas trade, would take a gigantic hit. And the terrorists would trade high-fives. How does any of this help us? “What’s really in our interest is to demonstrate to the rest of the world that what they hear about us is indeed wrong,” notes Meissner — and we do that most effectively by maintaining our openness to the world. “That’s how we won the Cold War.”
Let’s make one thing clear. The president of the United States has extremely wide latitude to deny entry to any foreign national. Foreigners who want to come to the United States don’t have due process rights. (Trump hasn’t said whether his ban would apply to U.S. citizens of Islamic faith returning home from overseas — something that would almost certainly be unconstitutional.) A president can theoretically close the country’s borders to anyone he or she wants.
You’d hope, though, that the president would start by balancing the gains from such a policy against its disadvantages. And a Trump-style ban that aimed to prevent all and any Muslims from entering would cause far more problems than it solves. To be sure, a few terrorists might find it harder to get into the United States. But that’s a goal that can be achieved using the right application of tools we already have. (Is it worth mentioning that we’ve already spent hundreds of billions on preventing terrorist attacks inside the country since 9/11, and that we’ve by and large been pretty successful?)
The costs of Trump’s policy — political and economic — would be huge. (Or should I say “yuuuge”?) The terrorists’ aim is to make us weak and isolated. Why should we doing their work for them?
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