President Trump’s executive order placing a temporary ban on refugees coming from some countries has sparked intense reactions spanning the ideological and emotional spectrum. But the debate about the ban is missing a much bigger story. The ban is likely the first move in the development of the Trump administration’s foreign policy toward refugees and the Middle East, which may surprise critics and confound supporters with its interventionist bent. The order is just the first step in Trump’s move to build what he promised in 2015, “a big beautiful safe zone” for Syrian refugees.
First, regarding the ban itself, both defenders and critics have broken through the hysteria to offer vital perspectives.
Defenders of the move, including David French at National Review Online, make three key points:
1) There’s nothing jingoistic about a president wanting to improve upon the system of vetting refugees. In fact, President Obama placed a temporary ban on Iraqi refugees from entering the country in 2011. Yes, the circumstances were different but there was no backlash against Obama.
2) The ban is temporary (120 days in most cases) and it’s not a blanket Muslim ban (only seven Muslim-majority countries are included).
3) The number of refugees the Trump administration will allow in the country (50,000) is roughly between the Bush and Obama administration averages.
Critics, however, also make a powerful argument. Benjamin Wittes argues the ban was incompetent and political. It was overly broad and misapplied to green card holders while not being targeted at countries with close ties to terrorists like Pakistan and Egypt (home to 9/11 hijackers). Wittes, quoting an immigration attorney, says the ban was something “an intern came up with over a lunch hour.” The order wasn’t designed to mitigate any real security threat and was instead intended to beat up on Muslims.
Both camps have a point. The decision may have been based on a principled and prudent desire to review existing methods. Still it was implemented in an overly political manner. Regardless, the debate about the ban is missing the larger story. The episode may be about Trump being tough so he can go soft.
In truth, though, setting up a “big beautiful safe zone” is anything but soft. First, declaring a safe zone carries with it the implicit threat of the use of force against any actor — a terrorist or nation-state — that would make such a zone unsafe. Russia, through its comically overwrought Russia Today (RT) news outlet, has already condemned Trump’s call for a safe zone. RT argued:
Perhaps Donald Trump has been asleep these past six years. How else to explain the extent of his ignorance of the conflict in Syria. To remind him, it is a conflict that has involved the Syrian people and government, in conjunction with their Iranian and Russian allies, writing a new page in the annals of determination, courage, and tenacity against the most brutal and barbaric menace the world has seen since the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s — a menace supported by US regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. And it is a struggle they have waged, and in which thousands have given their lives, in defense of Syria’s independence, freedom, and national sovereignty.
Does President Trump really believe the Syrian people or Russia would stand by while Washington attempts to impose “safe zones” on Syrian territory in violation of international law? To ask this question is to answer it. What Trump is advocating here places the US on a collision course with Russia, thus ending any illusions that his election may have marked a rejection of the ‘might is right’ fantasies of the neoconservative hawks who went before.
Here RT accuses Trump of being a neoconservative, implies Russia would challenge a safe zone and ridiculously describes the Assad’s regime as a beacon of independence and freedom. The media has downplayed this tension with Russia because it doesn’t advance their narrative of Russia interfering with our election on Trump’s behalf.
Second, the safe zone is a big deal because it requires multilateral engagement, serious diplomacy and a sustained long-term commitment to the region. Trump has already reached out to Arab leaders to set up a zone. These actions are important because they define Trump’s “America First” foreign policy not as neo-isolationism but as pragmatic realism that looks at foreign policy challenges on a case-by-case basis through the lens of enlightened self-interest. You can’t set up a safe zone and walk away. The process involves the United States in the region in a way we ought to be engaged. After all, safe zones aren’t just for refugees. They’re for us. They create — through foresight, wisdom, and the threat of force — a security umbrella that neutralizes threats before they materialize.
Third, the safe zone is the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective (most refugees just want to go home rather than resettle in another country) and it’s a much more aggressive and compassionate move than anything attempted by President Obama. Still, Democrats like Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut offered this sanctimonious lecture to his colleagues while tweeting the heartbreaking image of a drowned Syrian boy: “To my colleagues: don’t ever again lecture me on American moral leadership if you chose to be silent today.”
The tragedy was President Obama and many of his allies were silent for every step of that boy’s journey but his last
The tragedy was President Obama and many of his allies were silent for every step of that boy’s journey but his last. Democrats who were silent while Assad gassed his own people are now among those most vocally lecturing Trump. They forgot that human rights and human dignity begin before someone is declared a refugee, not after.
President Trump’s foreign policy will be defined by his actions not by his words. Russia is right to be concerned about a safe zone because Trump has so far shown that he means what he says. If he sets up a safe zone, it will be safe, or he shouldn’t bother.
Somewhere in Syria there’s a boy making his way through the rubble of foreign indifference. If Trump’s intervention helps that boy find his way home, that journey will be in everyone’s interest.
John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.