By Jonathan Stevenson, Senior Fellow for US Defence; Editor of Strategic Comments
US President Donald Trump’s new travel ban – imposed by executive order purportedly as a counter-terrorism measure ‘to protect the security and interests of the United States and its people’ – would permanently prohibit the entry into the United States of most citizens of seven countries: Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Chad and North Korea. Citizens of two other countries, Iraq and Venezuela, will be subject to elevated scrutiny and restrictions.
The ban was devised with the cynicism and wilful obliviousness to facts that we have been getting used to since 20 January 2017. North Korea and Venezuela, which do not have Muslim majorities, were plainly included as cover to evade the inference that the ban specifically targets Muslims. Several federal courts suspended earlier versions of the ban on constitutional grounds, and courts in Hawaii and Maryland have likewise blocked this incarnation. (The US Supreme Court is now reviewing a lower court judgment, though it may hold that the new ban and ruling render the appeal moot. But it would then hear an appeal of the new ban.) Very few North Koreans seek admission to the United States, and the restrictions on Venezuelans apply only to government officials and members of their families. In this light, it is clear that the new ban is intended primarily to bar Muslims from entering the United States. The sop to President Trump’s largely white, Christian base is evident.
The travel ban is as factually baseless as it is religiously and racially biased. It is by now well known that there is no correlation between terrorist acts in the United States and the entry of citizens from any of the five Muslim-majority countries. Not a single such citizen has executed a fatal terrorist attack in the US for over 20 years. The United States already subjects visa applicants to extraordinarily intense scrutiny. The risk that an admitted Iranian, Libyan, Syrian, Somali, Yemeni or Chadian national would commit a terrorist act is negligible, and, as one federal court suspending an earlier ban noted, the Trump administration has offered no evidence that the current vetting procedures are inadequate or that national interests would be harmed without the ban.
Beyond the travel ban’s flagrant mismatch between means and ends, and its derogation of the United States’ strong tradition of generous immigration and refugee policies, the ban perversely impedes sound foreign-policy objectives. These include forging links with dissidents and members of opposition movements in the countries covered by the ban. It is precisely those people who tend to seek admission to the United States with the greatest vehemence and vigour. From a political and intelligence standpoint, never mind the humanitarian one, it would make sense for the United States to embrace those whose countries it finds problematic so as to gain insights about them.
These considerations seem especially salient with respect to Iran. Although Iran has, of course, sponsored anti-American terrorism outside the United States, no Iranian has ever committed an act of political violence on American soil. Save for an inept, half-baked plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US easily thwarted by the FBI in 2011, it appears no Iranian attack in US territory has ever even been planned. At the same time, the United States objects strenuously to Iran’s destabilising conduct in the Middle East, and seeks to moderate it. It also views Iran’s theocracy as undemocratic and inimical to American interests, and wants to encourage internal political reform. These goals would be best served by welcoming fully vetted Iranians to the United States, whether to live or simply to share their views about bilateral and international relations with American counterparts. But Trump is as incurious as he is obdurate. By pointedly alienating all Iranians, he is only compounding the gross strategic error he is making in groundlessly refusing to certify the Iran nuclear deal.