President Trump's executive order banning all refugees and nationals of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States has been criticized on many grounds, including the constitutional and the humanitarian. But one of the central arguments the critics make, and one the ban's supporters seem to have no answer for, is that it makes America less safe by playing into terrorists' argument that the West in general and the United States in particular are at war with Islam. By making it seem like we have a desire to exclude Muslims motivated by bigotry, we make it harder to recruit allies — both at the governmental and individual level — and we give ISIS a propaganda victory. Some of the people affected are those who literally risked their lives to help Americans in Iraq. The next time we need their help, it'll be much harder to come by.
But what if that isn't just something the Trump administration isn't concerned about, but something it is actively seeking? What if alienating the Muslim world isn't a bug of this policy (and others to come), it's a feature?
We have no idea whether the ban will provide any long-term benefit to ISIS, which is fast losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But we know they're pleased. "ISIS has been openly celebrating the ban. They've even coined a phrase for it," Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times reports from Mosul. "The Blessed Ban." And while the administration may claim in court that it isn't the "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" Trump advocated for during the campaign, it's a good start. And there's no reason why, if it ends up being upheld, the administration won't keep adding more and more countries to the list.
So why would I say that alienating the world's 1.6 billion Muslims might be the whole idea? Because there's little evidence to suggest that Trump and his key aides want anything else.
First, it's obvious that Trump views Muslims with suspicion, even contempt. He spread a false story about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks on rooftops, no matter how many times it was pointed out to him that it never happened. He suggested putting mosques under surveillance. Like his primary opponents, he repeated endlessly that the words "radical Islamic terror" would be a magical incantation that when spoken by a president would banish such terror from the world. And he went farther than any of them did, proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.
But perhaps more importantly, some of Trump's closest aides seem downright eager for a conflict with the Muslim world — not just with a country or two, but with the entire religion and its adherents. Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, has a whole string of blatantly Islamophobic statements and writings to his credit. "Islam is a political ideology" that "hides behind this notion of it being a religion," he has said, comparing it to "a malignant cancer." "Everybody, above all most living Muslims," Flynn wrote last July, "knows that the Islamic world is an epic failure, desperately needing economic, cultural, and educational reform of the sort that has led to the superiority of the West."
While Flynn certainly has the president's ear, even closer to Trump is Stephen Bannon, his chief adviser. Bannon — whom Trump put on the "principals committee" of the National Security Council, a first for a political adviser — is a true visionary, who for years has been promoting the idea that the Christian West is in a clash of civilizations with Islam. "There is a major war brewing, a war that's already global," he said in a speech at the Vatican in 2014. "Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is — and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it — will be a day where you will rue that we didn't act." He has also suggested that Islam is even more threatening than Nazism was. "You could look in 1938," he said on his satellite radio program, "and say, 'Look, it's pretty dark here in Europe right now, but there's something actually much darker. And that is Islam.'"
If that's what you believe, you aren't exactly going to be looking for opportunities for compromise and cooperation with Muslim nations, even those that are our allies. You're going to be looking for conflict. What form would that come in? It's hard to say, but it would seem foolish to hope that at some point this administration won't initiate some kind of confrontation in the Middle East — or quickly escalate one that begins there. Trump may have an oft-stated distaste for nation-building, but that hardly precludes some vigorous bombing campaigns, or even a war or two, so long as we aren't interested in sticking around afterward to pick up the pieces.
And that's where the contrast with the last Republican administration is so stark. George W. Bush had a vision for the Middle East that was spectacularly grandiose and naïve in its own way, but which was radically different. Bush and his allies believed that once we took out Saddam Hussein and quickly turned Iraq into a thriving liberal democracy, a wave of liberty would wash over the region, leaving it prosperous and peaceful for all time. Muslim nations would be our allies and partners in a glorious new world we'd build together.
You may recall that things didn't quite work out that way.
But the vision of Trump and his advisers could be just as catastrophic as Bush's was, if not more. They aren't looking to build anything, and when they look at Muslims they see only enemies. So telling them that they're alienating America from Muslims all over the world isn't going to upset them. It may be just what they're after.