“Terrorism is not an existential crisis for America. But our reaction to it might be.”
-Michael Hayden, former CIA/NSC Director under President George W. Bush
These words should ring in our ears — particularly now as President Trump publicly seeks to defend his third attempt at a travel ban on nationals from six predominantly Muslim countries, along with the recent additions of Venezuela and North Korea, two countries picked from what is the policy-equivalent of a Bingo machine selection process.
As in the previous two executive orders, Trump justifies the Muslim/refugee ban as necessary to safeguard America from terrorists who would seek to use our asylum system to infiltrate the United States. However, for anyone familiar with the refugee resettlement process, this argument is not credible. Innumerable national security and refugee policy experts — including government officials in the highest levels of the Departments of Defense and State — have advocated on behalf of U.S. refugee resettlement and voiced their confidence in the rigorous vetting that refugees must go through in order to receive asylum in the United States. Former Department of Homeland Security officials, including former Secretary Michael Chertoff and officers involved in the vetting system, have publicly added their voices in defense of the process, and I have attempted to explain the long and crushing road to resettlement.
Having co-founded a refugee resettlement legal clinic in Egypt, I know too well that an overwhelming number of refugees will never be eligible for resettlement — fewer than 1 percent of the world’s refugees will ever be considered. Moreover, what is little understood is that a refugee cannot simply apply for resettlement; they must be selected and invited to pursue resettlement by overseeing bodies, such as the United Nations. To put it this way, a terrorist seeking refugee resettlement as a tactic for U.S. infiltration is similar to you seeking to strategize for your retirement by winning the lottery — except that if your name is pulled, you then would need to pass through the world’s most rigorous security-vetting by six separate security and intelligence agencies in order to claim your winnings. You are seven times more likely to be admitted as an undergraduate to Harvard than to have your name pulled, and being interrogated by six security and intelligence agencies is existentially dangerous to anyone seeking to do harm.
National security voices have also spoken out about the value of refugee resettlement in furthering strategic partnerships with those in the fight against terrorism. In 2015, 20 national security leaders, including retired General David Petraeus, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Leon Panetta, and Michael Chertoff wrote a letter noting that “resettlement initiatives help advance U.S. national security interests by supporting the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees.” Given such a letter, claims made by Trump’s political appointees that national security is the reasoning behind the Muslim/refugee ban seem to reveal the ban more as political policy rather than national security policy.
However, Trump is right that there is a foreign infiltration of a kind: With anti-refugee and religious-test policies such as these, America is adopting the very illiberal policies that terror networks seek to incite in its targets.
For terrorist networks, the “success” of an attack is not determined by the immediate and tragic casualties of an attack. Instead, the attack’s “success” is determined by its ability to move a government, military, and society to react — ideally, to overreact in a way that leads to a self-indicting cocktail of public hypocrisy, cruelty, and weakness.
Trump’s latest Muslim/refugee ban combines all three. For instance, it undermines the most powerful international legacy of America: the promise of American refuge. It is also nearly universally seen — especially in the international community — as cruel amid the global refugee crisis. To our allies in the region, it is an oft-repeated sign of America’s lack of steadfastness as a partner on crucial security issues — especially among those international partners who have taken on exponentially more refugees than the United States.
In essence, terror networks have successfully operationalized American fear; policies like this ban are foreign terrorist goals, and we are internally executing them. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and retired Admiral Michael Mullen wrote this morning, “The battle against violent extremism must be fought with guns, but also with ideas. Slamming the door on refugees is a significant strategic blunder.”
The Muslim/refugee ban and the president’s move to decrease refugee admission goals to the lowest in its history — like many of his executive decrees, whether by letterhead or tweet — offers Trump supporters what he can’t provide them in legislative action: a public victory. But for those who believe that this policy, as well as the attacks on other types of immigration, are the illogical rambles of rudderless administration, think again.
Trump’s senior advisors share a common public and often disturbingly sensational animus towards Muslims, Islam, and immigration of any kind, often taking on a West vs. the Rest zeal in their attempted political end-runs. While Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon have been the chosen fall guys for one executive failure or another, Stephen Miller, an anti-immigration protégé, and Michael Anton — the ghostwriter of the closet thing to a Trump intellectually-corralling manifesto, “The Flight 93 Election” — remain safely by Trump’s side.
So although we can and must credibly demand for legislators from both sides of the aisle to loudly defend refugee protection by appealing to their better nature, appealing to Trump’s nature offers little promise. Americans across the political spectrum should mobilize against the genuine and existential threats to religious freedom and basic American principles that this administration purposefully exploits. The motivations behind every manifestation of this ban are shared by those in Trump’s inner circle, which are, as his senior foreign policy advisor Anton put it, to stop “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty that [would mean] the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every [election] cycle.“ He goes so far as to suggest that to prevent such a future, the party should use extraordinary measures, even as far as “charging the cockpit and taking over the plane.”
One must take heart that the Trump Administration is constrained by the same political realities we all are, and the White House needs legislators to drive its policy forward. All citizens, whether Democrat or Republican, have one mission: to tear at every spoke and every axle of this racist, xenophobic policy caravan, and to defend national security and American moral integrity by reminding legislators of the costs, both existential and electoral, of adopting the illiberal roadmaps of terror networks. This starts with protecting refugee resettlement policies, and it continues with faithfully protecting American principles and our fellow citizens, especially our Muslim colleagues, friends, neighbors, and family members.
Susannah Cunningham is the co-founder of Only Through U.S., a new nonprofit initiative that seeks to protect American principles from corrosive reactionary politics that follow in the wake of terrorist attacks and empower a smarter, safer, and more moral American national security strategy. In 2008, Cunningham co-founded the Resettlement Legal Aid Project (RLAP), a Cairo-based legal clinic created to serve Iraqi refugees fleeing persecution because of their work with Coalition Forces and American organizations. Cunningham is a Security Fellow with Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are her own.