November, 2015, the Islamic State mounted devastating attacks in Paris, gunning down more than a hundred people at a rock concert, in restaurants, and outside a soccer stadium. In response, Donald Trump, then preparing for the Iowa caucuses, fulminated about the radical measures he would impose on Muslims seeking to enter the United States, if he were elected President. Trump was hardly alone in announcing rash proposals; on the subject of counterterrorism, it was a time of competitive opportunism among Republican Presidential candidates. Yet, in his nativism and bellicosity, Trump was already separating from his opponents. He began by making a series of loose comments during television interviews, including a suggestion that he might force American Muslims to register in a database. The following month, after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, he issued a formal statement promising “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
It would likely be unconstitutional to ban people from America on the basis of their religious faith, and so, as the campaign progressed, Trump refined this proposal, or at least the terms he used to describe it. (Rudolph Giuliani has said that he advised Trump on how to make a Muslim ban more difficult to overturn on constitutional grounds.) Last June, following a massacre carried out at an Orlando night club by Omar Mateen, an American citizen of Afghan descent, Trump promised to “suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe, or our allies until we fully understand how to end these threats.” He said he would lift the ban “when, as a nation, we are in a position to properly and perfectly screen these people coming into our country.” Muddying his prospective constitutional defense, he told Bloomberg, “I want terrorists out. I want people that have bad thoughts out.” He did not elaborate about how his thought police might operate.
A few days later, Politico asked retired Marine General James Mattis, then a private citizen, what he thought about the talk of a Muslim ban. Mattis said that it had caused allies of the United States in the Islamic world to think “we have lost faith in reason…. They think we’ve completely lost it. This kind of thing is causing us great damage right now, and it’s sending shock waves through this international system.”
Last Friday, as Mattis, now the Secretary of Defense, stood behind him, Trump signed an executive order suspending travel to the U.S. by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. According to many news accounts, Trump relied on the views of a small group of White House advisers, including his senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, and his senior counsellor, Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News. They have relished the opportunity to “shock the system,” as another adviser, Kellyanne Conway, put it last week. Bannon has made plain that he seeks upheaval; in that respect, he once mentioned Lenin as a model, however facetiously.
Bannon is like the sorcerer’s apprentice; he may want chaos, but he doesn’t know how to control the chaos he creates. He may not care. Since Friday, Trump’s travel order has caused large public protests; forced the White House chief of staff to go on television and announce major changes to the policy’s scope less than two days after it was enacted; attracted criticism from world leaders and allies; and led to the defiance, on principle, of acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who had been appointed by Obama. Trump fired her on Monday night.
In its furious efforts to spin a defense, the Trump Administration has argued that it was just building on Obama Administration policy after the Paris attacks. This is a slightly complicated form of nonsense. To understand the scale of Trump’s departure from past policy, however, requires a short tour through recent visa-policy history.
In 1986, Congress established the Visa Waiver Program. It allows citizens from approved countries to travel to the United States without a visa, for business or pleasure, for as long as ninety days. Britain was the first country to join. Today, there are thirty-eight participants, mainly in Europe, but also including Asian allies such as Japan and Australia. No Muslim-majority country is a participant. Neither is Israel.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush Administration tightened scrutiny of Visa Waiver travellers, mainly by deploying technology. It required Visa Waiver travellers to have machine-readable or biometric passports. Later, the Bush Administration set up an online registry system that allowed for screening of such travellers before they flew to America.
In December, 2015, after the Paris attacks, President Obama signed into law the Visa Waiver Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act. The law sought to address the problem of Belgian, French, and other European-passport holders, who had volunteered by the hundreds to fight for ISIS, and who might be able to fly into the United States, under Visa Waiver, without being noticed.
The new law said that if a traveller from a Visa Waiver nation had, at any time since March, 2011, visited a country compromised by terrorism he or she would have to attend an American consulate to apply for a regular visa and submit to an interview, as many other travellers to America from the around the world do routinely, rather than simply entering visa-free. Early in 2016, the Obama Administration named seven countries as destinations that would disallow subsequent use of the Visa Waiver program. They were Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, and Yemen—the same seven named in President Trump’s order, as Trump’s spokespeople have often pointed out this week.
The Obama list, though, was not a ban but a chance to ask more questions. Syria, Iraq, and Libya host significant numbers of Islamic State volunteers from Europe. If a Belgian kid travelled to those places, it would be prudent to ask why he had done so before he turned up in New York. Somalia is the home of Al-Shabaab, a regional terrorist group that has attracted international volunteers. Yemen hosts an Al Qaeda branch that has attempted attacks on U.S. soil. The inclusion of Iran and Sudan was less persuasive, yet both countries, along with Syria, are on the State Department’s official list of state sponsors of terrorism, so that provided a rationale for including them. The most notable omission was perhaps Pakistan, the locus of a number of terrorist groups with records of cross-border attacks, including a fizzled attempt to set off a car bomb in Times Square, in 2010.
Donald Trump and his advisers received this inheritance not as counterterrorism technocrats but as political opportunists. Trump’s order on Friday went far beyond the policy set last year. First, Trump’s order was not limited to Visa Waiver travellers from Europe or Asia who might have visited the flagged countries. In its initial formulation, the order apparently covered everyone born in those seven countries who was not a U.S. citizen. Nor did it merely require the designated travellers to attend a consulate to apply for a regular visa. It banned all travel to the U.S. for at least ninety days, while the Trump Administration worked out its plans for “extreme vetting.”
After the weekend’s furious reaction, the Administration has now said it will not halt travel by permanent residents of the United States, unless they are thought to pose a specific security risk. British and Canadian leaders announced they had won exemptions for their citizens. But it is doubtful that Customs and Border Protection officers will have a clear idea anytime soon about how they are supposed to proceed, given the contradictory statements by the Trump Administration.
Back in 2015, Mattis outlined the greatest failings of Trump’s proposal as counterterrorism policy. Its blanket exclusions—of women, children, the elderly, and the disabled—were all but scripted for the Islamic State’s propagandists. These elements remain in the executive order. Trump’s statements that he will prioritize Christian travellers over Muslim ones are likely to have a similar effect. An initiative so reviled and so easily caricatured across the Islamic world will inspire terrorists to action and invite various forms of retaliation against Americans. It will make shaky governments in Muslim-majority countries that coöperate with the United States—from Morocco to Indonesia—vulnerable to domestic protests and political pressure to break ties with American counterterrorism programs. The policy’s rollout has combined, in one act, all of the features of the Trump Administration’s startling first eleven days: it places political theatre before considered policy; it threatens constitutional principles; it reflects incompetent and hasty decision-making; and it is plainly dangerous.
Photo: Trump’s team has argued that his executive order on immigration built on Obama Administration policy after the Paris attacks. This is a slightly complicated form of nonsense.Photograph by Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty
Steve Coll, a staff writer, is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and reports on issues of intelligence and national security in the United States and abroad. More