The White House seems to be backing away from aspects of President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Chief of staff Reince Priebus explained Sunday morning that green card holders from the seven countries specified in the order—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—would not be prevented from returning to the United States.
That will do little to please the opponents of the executive order, thousands of which have protested at airports around the country. Even Trump supporters find fault with the execution of the directive. It appears that the White House failed to consult sufficiently with the federal agencies tasked to implement the policy and other agencies affected. For instance, did the National Security Council staff or the Pentagon have a chance to weigh in on how turning around Iraqi nationals might affect counter-terrorism operations carried out alongside the Baghdad government?
And what about allies apparently eager to work with the new administration? The big news of the week coming out of the White House should have been about Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to Washington. Instead, the fact that U.K. dual-nationals from the list of seven will also be denied entry has put May in a bad spot, and has perhaps made it more difficult for her to cooperate in the future.
That among those stopped and held at U.S. airports was an Iraqi translator who worked with American troops is an unforced error. At the very best it suggests that Trump is continuing the policies of his predecessor, who limited the number of visas for Iraqi and Afghani translators and then held them up.
Still, some clarity is called for. The executive order, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” is not, as much of the press has come to call it, a “Muslim Ban.” Rather, it suspends issuance of visas to nationals of the seven countries of concern for a period of 90 days, during which the government will undertake a review of visa issuance processes. The executive order also suspends for 120 days the Refugee Admissions Program, while the application and adjudication process are reviewed “to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States.”
The seven states listed, as some, including Trump in a statement Sunday, have already noted, come from legislation signed Barack Obama into law in December 2015, as the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act. The bill restricted access to the Visa Waiver Program, which allows foreign nationals visiting the United States for less than 90 days to enter without a visa.
Why did the Obama administration, first, and now the Trump White House identify these seven countries? Because they are either sponsors of terror, listed by the U.S. Department of State—Iran, Sudan, Syria—or they do not have functioning governments—Libya, Yemen, Somalia—or are countries with a formidable terrorism problem, like Iraq where Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish terror organizations operate, in addition to the free reign the Baghdad government gives to Iran’s expeditionary unit, the Quds Force.
Some critics of the executive order have noted the exclusion of states like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, whose nationals engineered the 9/11 attacks. Indeed after 9/11 it was hardly unusual for Saudi students to be detained upon arrival in U.S. airports for several hours, as long as many of those detained Saturday. That changed in 2009 when Saudi Arabia became part of the Advanced Passenger Information system, which provides American agencies and commercial carriers reams of information on passengers before they even board the plane. That agreement was only possible because the two countries enjoy a bilateral relationship in which interests and information are shared, and which would be seriously damaged by withholding intelligence vital to each other’s national security. No such relationship exists with, for instance, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The point of the executive order, as Trump explained in a statement Sunday, is not to ban Muslims, but, to review the visa issuance process because right now there is no procedure for American agencies to know at least as much as we do with Saudi or Turkish nationals who or what we are dealing with when we issue visas to nationals of those seven countries.
Some counter-terrorism and Middle East experts are concerned that the order will fan the flames of extremism. In other words, denying entry to passport holders from states that either sponsor or incubate terror will in fact create more terror. “Extremist groups will trumpet this order to spread the notion, today more credible than ever, that the United States is at war with Islam rather than targeting terrorists,” the New York Times wrote in an editorial. Former Obama administration Daniel Benjamin told the paper of record that the policy will ‘feed the jihadist narrative’ that the United States is at war with Islam, potentially encouraging a few more Muslims to plot violence.”
There are many chapters in the “jihadist narrative” designed to attract followers, some fanciful—like the prospect of winning the love of many virgins in the afterlife—others theological, historical, sectarian, etc. It is unwise to give ground, after the fact or before it, to grievance-based rationales for terrorism. Some of the very same people who rightly believe it’s obscene to explain away the slaughter of Israelis as the inevitable result of a preponderance of West Bank checkpoints now argue that what’s most likely to push alienated Muslim teens over the edge is an executive order. In fact, the United States has the right to make decisions concerning its immigration and national security policies without having to consider what will encourage a handful of sad and damaged people to kill themselves and murder others.
Has Trump’s directive driven a wedge between the United States and the Muslim world? It seems not. According to sources, senior level U.S. officials have been meeting with their counterparts from allied Muslim states. Trump himself spoke today with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, presumably about the executive order, though AFP reports that the main topic was safe zones in Syria and Yemen. Put another way: Trump may be looking for ways to protect the refugees he won’t shelter, at least for four months. Further, establishing safe zones puts the new administration in a potentially adversarial posture toward Iran, and in Syria against Russia.
The real divide is domestic and that was almost surely intentional. Should Trump have given two-weeks’ notice that the executive order was going live? Sure, it would’ve made life much easier on a lot of students, businesspeople, and others who enrich our society and make America truly great. But Trump and his advisers must have anticipated the countermeasures enacted Sunday—like federal courts ruling against parts of the executive order. Two weeks, the Trump team likely thought, would give opponents occasion to postpone the executive order indefinitely. Then the new White House would have appeared to be full of talk, and no follow-through.
It’s not clear whether Trump’s actions are further dividing the country nearly two months after his election, or if they are simply highlighting a huge already existing split concerning the direction and shape America. In either case, this weekend both sides dug their trenches deeper.