Politics & Policy

Five Myths of the Debate over Trump’s Refugee Executive Order

(Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
Before rushing to defend or excoriate Trump’s actions, we should all know the facts.

Rarely has it been more important to consider all sides of a debate than in the last four days, as anger has raged over Trump’s executive order on refugees. Our atomized political discourse has led to parallel reactions of euphoria and fury that are far out of proportion to the contents of the order itself. Myths abound, and if you believe any of these myths you’re simply losing the truth and slipping into an alternate political reality. Here, in no particular order, are five of the most dangerous.



Myth One: The executive order will “Make America Safe Again.” Truth be told, it’s barely even a start. Cut through the sound and fury, and we’re talking about an order that caps refugees at numbers slightly above Bush administration levels and only slightly below the levels of Obama’s first seven years in office. It bans entry from just seven countries that are either actively jihadist or torn by jihadist violence for only 90 days.

This is not a significant immigration reform. Indeed, it’s not even a true ban: The AP reports that the Trump administration is admitting 872 refugees because of hardship concerns. A pause is important and wise, but the next moves will be far more important. What happens after the pause? What will new security measures look like?

Furthermore, immigration policy is but one part of a much larger overall problem. What can we do about radicalization of communities and individuals already here? What can be done to introduce a degree of stability back into the Middle East to prevent future refugee crises and ameliorate the existing disaster? The executive order was the tip of an iceberg’s worth of decisions and policy changes.

Myth Two: The executive order will make America more dangerous. Every single time a Republican makes a move to escalate the war against jihadists, you can count on multiple Democrats to claim that move has handed terrorists a “recruiting tool.” At this point, after decades of unrelenting terrorist violence through seven successive American administrations, why are we still having this debate? Have jihadists really struggled with recruitment through the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump administrations?

In 1979, jihadists helped touch off the Iranian revolution. In the 1980s, they blew up an American barracks, kidnapped Americans, blew up night clubs, and downed an airliner. In the 1990s we fought the Battle of Mogadishu, al-Qaeda gained strength, and Bill Clinton’s efforts toward Middle East peace were rewarded with the second Intifada, embassy bombings, and the near-sinking of the USS Cole. All that’s happened in the years since, from 9/11 onward, speaks for itself.

There is an ocean of jihadist hate for Israel, the United States, and our Western allies. Does anyone think that ISIS is capable of hating us more? Of trying harder to kill Americans? These are people motivated to fight a thousand-year war, not to detonate themselves in protest of American executive orders. It’s shocking that some Americans still can’t understand that sobering truth.

Myth Three: The goal of American foreign policy is to “help people.” It’s interesting to see the level of unthinking sentimentality online. Pictures of crying parents and bloody kids circulate across the web, and the argument that the policy “hurts people” is treated as ironclad evidence that it’s wrong.

But even liberals who think hard about this construct understand that it breaks down on closer examination. The goal of American foreign policy is to protect the national interests of the United States. Make no mistake, it’s in our national interest to seek and achieve a degree of international stability built around the rule of law and respect for individual liberty, but that doesn’t mean that America’s foreign policy can be reduced to “helping people.”

The goal of American foreign policy is to protect the national interests of the United States.

Indeed, if America’s foreign policy is merely to “help people,” then few presidents have failed to execute it as spectacularly as Clinton and Obama. The Rwanda genocide happened on Clinton’s watch. The Syrian and Iraqi genocides happened on Obama’s watch. In both cases, there were concrete actions America could have taken to fulfill the world’s alleged pledge of “never again.” In both cases, Democratic administrations largely stood aside while men, women, and children died by the hundreds of thousands.

When the Obama administration finally did move, it did so with half-measures that have prolonged suffering in jihadist-dominated regions. The counter-offensive against ISIS has been agonizingly slow. The number of refugees that the “compassionate” Obama administration decided to admit into the United States was never more than a trickle, a mere drop in an ocean of suffering.

Most of those pictures of crying women and bloody children were taken during the Obama administration, and you can’t fault Trump for “reversing” an open-arms refugee policy that was never Obama’s to begin with.

Myth Four: Terrorism is our only concern when evaluating prospective immigrants from the Middle East. This is perhaps one of the most consequential misunderstandings in the entire debate. The media treats the immigrant population from jihadist nations as if it’s a vast sea of wonderful people contaminated with a tiny few terrorists. But the concern isn’t just about finding the deadly needle in an otherwise-benign haystack. It’s also about whether we’re admitting people who will assimilate into American life or those who will import many of the dysfunctions and problems of their home countries.

America is far better at assimilating immigrants than Europe, but the European example does cause concern. The degree of homegrown terror in Europe is most assuredly not an argument in favor of importing more people from nations with intensely tribal cultures that have proven to be uniquely susceptible to the jihadist message. Not every Muslim country is the same. Not every Muslim culture is the same. Ironically enough, that truth is often lost on a multicultural left that takes pride in its worldly wisdom.

Myth Five: It’s the ideas that matter — execution can always be fixed. The incompetence of the executive order’s rollout truly staggers the imagination. Indeed, it was so bad that one wonders if Steve Bannon was simply being malicious — if his alleged decision to shut the door on green-card holders was an effort to signal exactly who was large and in charge. Wrap your mind around this truth, Republicans: Terrible execution can completely discredit even the best of ideas.

During the campaign, Trump vowed that he’d surround himself with the best people. During the rollout of an executive order that he knew would likely be the most controversial act yet taken by his new administration, solid reporting from multiple sources indicates that he shut out his best people — men like Jim Mattis and John Kelly — in favor of his worst.

Do you want to discredit solid immigration reform for another decade? Put malicious, incompetent people in charge of its implementation. If you’re an American who wants Trump to govern wisely, it’s vital that you not circle the wagons reflexively around Trump and his team, in this case or any other. It is already clear that there are members of his inner circle who have to get better or get gone.

Our nation is less than two weeks into a minimum four-year ideological and tribal war fought over Donald Trump. Given the intensity of the polarization and the mindlessness of much of the rhetoric, it’s clear that Americans are going to have to fight to find the truth. And the truth in this case is that Trump’s executive order is far less consequential than either side seems to believe. All the really hard work is still yet to come.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Most Popular


Thursday Links

It's William Shatner's birthday: Here he is in 1978 'singing' Rocket Man, plus a Star Trek/Monty Python mashup. Sold: Isaac Newton’s Notes on the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a long time before anyone admitted that he was interested in alchemy. High-tech forgery: Computer-generated 'Rembrandt' ... Read More

Korea: A Deadly Question

Olympic Games often have political significance, as in 1936 and as in the Olympics just past -- the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Those Games seemed as much political as athletic. I talk about this with Michael Breen on my latest Q&A. Breen is one of our best Korea-watchers, one of our soundest ... Read More
Film & TV

Superannuated ‘Idol’

In the pilot episode of Fox’s American Idol, Simon Cowell defined the show’s thesis: “We are going to tell people who cannot sing and have no talent that they have no talent. And that never makes you popular.” The show’s producers and its three judges -- Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson -- kept ... Read More