The Muddled Travel Ban

by Paul R. Pillar

The Trump administration’s travel ban is in its third version, and it still does not respond convincingly to the ostensible need it was supposed to address. The supposed purpose itself is unclear. The latest version introduces additional confusion about the purported objective, even without getting into the real motivations behind it.

Most administration statements on the subject, including the more formal ones as well as less scripted defenses of the ban, center on the idea of keeping bad guys out of the United States by restricting travel from countries in which such guys are presumed to live. The disconnect between justification and reality that has existed ever since version 1.0 is that there is little or no correspondence between the countries listed in the ban and where terrorists gunning for the U.S. homeland have come from. Over the past four decades, no Americans have been killed in the United States by foreign terrorists who came from any of the countries in either the original version of the ban or the latest version.

Moreover, the whole idea of a ban on entry to the United States overlooks how much terrorism within the United States, even when it has involved foreign-born individuals, has not involved crossing borders to commit the act. According to a study by the New America Foundation, all the perpetrators of post-9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States were U.S. citizens or legal residents and would not have been stopped by the travel ban. The evident ethnic targeting of the ban is likely only to increase the resentment, suspicion, and alienation—and thus the propensity to resort to extremist violence—of members of the communities who feel kinship with those targeted.

Other rationales that administration officials have offered for the ban have mentioned cooperation or lack of cooperation on counterterrorism from governments of the countries involved, especially in sharing information about possible terrorists. Although this rationale is still about terrorism, it is quite different from the question of where bad guys are most likely to come from. Countries with cooperative regimes are not necessarily the same as countries with nonviolent, peace-loving citizens. The result is new confusion about exactly how the measure is supposed to make Americans safer.

The latest version ban goes clearly beyond terrorism-related considerations of any kind. This is true of the addition of Venezuela, evidently put on the list as just one more way to express disapproval of the Maduro regime, with Venezuela having replaced Iraq in the old axis of evil.

This is also true of North Korea, where any legitimate policy motivations have to do with weapons proliferation, not terrorism, and with the search for new ways to punish or condemn Pyongyang. Given that there are almost no North Koreans other than diplomats (who are not affected by the ban) traveling this way, the listing of North Korea has no practical effect.

The true principal motivation for this measure is the one that has been all too obvious all along: it is a Muslim ban, just as Donald Trump had been calling for. This observation doesn’t need to be confirmed in a court of law. With the replacement of an earlier temporary ban, which had been the focus of a lawsuit, by a newer permanent one, the courts might not weigh in on this anyway. The observation follows from the words of Trump himself, such as his request to Rudy Giuliani for advice on how to erect a Muslim ban “legally.”

The selection of which Muslim states to target has had much less to do with terrorism than with other reasons Trump has had to pick on some states but not others. The most glaring omissions in a measure supposedly designed to keep would-be terrorists out of the United States are the countries from which the 9/11 hijackers came: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and especially Saudi Arabia. All are ruled by regimes whose side Trump has taken in regional rivalries. The deletion of Iraq from the most current version of the ban also is hardly consistent with the idea of listing the countries where anti-U.S. terrorists are most likely to be found. Iraq is one of the two countries where the so-called Islamic State has been ensconced for the past three years, and where many former members of the group no doubt still dwell. The contrived addition of Venezuela and North Korea hardly removes all the other evidence of the primary and original intent.

The Muslim travel ban is another instance of Trump playing to his base and acting out the rhetoric of a demagogic campaign, with all the prejudices that entails. The shuffling and revising after the original proposal constitute an effort to ward off inevitable and well-founded objections to an ill-motivated measure.

Photo: Protest at JFK Airport, January 2017 (Wikimedia Commons).

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. It was never a “Muslim travel ban” it was a temporary restriction on travel from several countries, mainly ones the US is at war with, which are Muslim. It is quite usual to limit travel from warring countries, in fact in the past the US has put Americans with ethnic roots in warring countries, in concentration camps (especially tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans). In regard to the “Muslim ban” (not) the largest Muslim counties, Indonesia India and Pakistan, were not affected.

  2. The inclusion of Chad makes no sense. In the past five years, the US Embassy has issued a grand total of 250 visas to Chadians. The nation is 50% Christian. In the war against Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), the Chadian Army has been the best performer. Chad itself is not a source of ISIS recruits. The US military has advisers there. They are full of praise for the Chadian counterparts. The biggest investor there is EXXON that is producing 200K barrels a day. Is Chad democratic. Absolutely not. But that is not an issue in this particular exercise.

  3. First who will find out if the list of banned countries is true and no Entry Visa to US will be issued in these countries? Secondly none of the named countries are at war with the US? In fact it is the other way around and if there’s war it is imposed by the US upon them and in their lands! And Last but not the least, the countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan which brought their war to America with the help of their proxies are NOT included in the list! So it is nothing but a joke!

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