Trump’s travel ban is a counterterrorism Maginot Line: A fortress of arrogance that ultimately proves impotent.
Trump is preventing travel to the U.S. from seven terrorist-friendly nations. But just as the Maginot Line was circumvented by a Nazi blitzkrieg through Belgium, terrorists in the EU can circumvent Trump’s ban and attack America.
For an EU citizen who is not on a watch list, the visa-waiver program, which allows citizens of certain countries that have good relationships with the U.S. to enter without visas, makes traveling to America easy. ISIS is aware of this, and takes great effort to teach attackers it directs (the Paris plotters) and attackers it inspires (Omar Mateen) how to avoid detection when traveling between and within Western countries. As with 9/11, by the time an individual gets to the Customs line, it’s often too late. At that point, U.S. officials have few means of discovering whether a visitor is coming for vacation or to commit violence. ISIS and al-Qaeda not only understand this, they are existentially hateful towards America and are determined to attack us.
Don’t get me wrong. My argument is not that EU citizens should be included in Trump’s ban. My point is that the ban’s seven-nation-spray-from-the-hip approach is not a strategy.
And we should be under no illusions — Trump is spraying from the hip. While EU citizens holding dual citizenship from any of the seven listed nations are, apparently, banned from U.S. entry, dual citizens from countries not on the list are not. Notable absences include the former French colonies of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco (which yield a disproportionate number of terror suspects among French dual citizens) and Pakistan (the key source of dual-citizen British terror suspects).
And consider what would happen if EU citizens successfully attacked America. The impact would be immediate. The U.S. would introduce major new security requirements for visitors from the EU, and the EU would likely retaliate in kind. Tourism, trade, and diplomatic relations would all become casualties. (Incidentally, such potential second- and third-order effects explain why Putin delights in the destabilization ISIS represents.) It’s not improbable that such an attack would occur. In 2006, U.S.-U.K. counterterrorism services narrowly prevented the execution of a plot by British citizens to bring down multiple transatlantic passenger jets. One successful such attack would cause painful reverberations in Western relations. Again, our enemy knows this and desires to drive a wedge between Western allies.
In 2014, in the absence of a major attack on the West, former Clinton-Bush counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, suggested in a discussion that I was exaggerating the threat of ISIS attackers traveling to Europe or the U.S. using Western passports. Paris proved him wrong. We can’t afford to imagine that we aren’t threatened in a similar way.
Of course, Trump is correct not to ban all E.U. citizens. He understands that the costs of such a policy in diplomacy and economics and morality would simply be too high. But Trump should apply those same considerations of the costs to his current ban. Because he has alternative steps he can take. For one, rather than setting foreign Muslim populations against their U.S.-allied governments, Trump could double down on defeating Daesh.
Second, Trump should work to improve foreign counterterrorism-related intelligence sharing. After all, a year after the Paris attacks, with the exception of the U.K. and a few other nations, E.U. countries’ intelligence sharing with America remains disorganized and limited. (Even more problematic, EU nations often still fail to share intelligence on terrorist movements with each other.) This is inexcusable. And it’s unfair: The U.S. already shares a great deal of life-saving intelligence with nations such as Belgium. This area is ripe for Trump “the dealmaker.”
Third, Trump could admit only mother and child refugees. Alongside enhanced vetting, that policy would balance morality with security.
Ultimately, President Trump is right to recognize that countering terrorism requires a bold strategy. But it also requires introspection and careful implementation. The Maginot Line failed because the French government chose populist grandstanding over clear thinking. Trump must not make the same mistake.