Foreign Policy

For a Study in Failed Foreign Policy, Look at the Seven Countries in Trump's Refugee Ban

The dissonance between the countries the Trump EO primarily affects and countries associated with 9/11 is embedded in U.S. foreign policy.



President Trump's executive order temporarily suspending refugee admissions worldwide and indefinitely suspending refugees from Syria also imposed a temporary ban on any immigrant or nonimmigrant entry from seven "countries of concern," all of which are predominantly Muslim. Combined with a directive to give preference to refugees who are religious minorities, many took to calling the order a Muslim ban.

Some news outlets noted the fact that the seven countries primarily affected by the order—Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen—did not have business ties with the Trump Organization, with the New York Daily News calling it conspicuous and pointing out no Americans were killed by nationals of those countries while thousands were killed by nationals of Saudi Arabia, which is not one of the countries of concern but where the Trump Organization does do business. The Daily News said it raised "alarming questions" about how the decision was made.

The list, however, is not of Trump's making. The dissonance between the countries of concerns and the countries from where major terrorists and terrorism ideologies originate is embedded in US foreign policy. The list comes from a 2015 immigration law that designated those countries as "countries of concern" which required additional visa scrutiny, and exempted from visa waivers dual nationals from those countries who also held passports from countries the U.S. did not require a visa.

Of those seven countries, all but Iran have been the target of some kind of military action in the last twenty years.

The Obama administration committed the U.S. military to intervention in Libya's civil war in 2011, helping to depose Col. Moammar Qaddafi and plunging the country into chaos. Today, a number of terrorist groups, including ISIS, operate in Libya when they did not exist in the country before 2011. Between 2011 and 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the U.S. accepted just seven refugees from Libya. There's no indication that changed in 2016. U.S. troops returned to Libya last year to join the campaign against ISIS.

Trump becomes the fifth consecutive U.S. president to preside over military operations in Iraq. While Ronald Reagan helped arm Iraq during its decade-long war with Iran, his successor George H.W. Bush led an international coalition against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait. Bill Clinton spent his administration bombing Iraq on-and-off, as well as maintaining sanctions estimated to have killed more than half a million children by 1995. In 1998, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which made it official U.S. policy to support regime change in Iraq. After 9/11, George W. Bush set his administration's sights on Iraq, eventually invading the country in 2003 over weapons of mass destruction that were not found. Weak connections to 9/11 promoted in the run up to the war totally fell apart after. In 2008, the Bush administration negotiated a status of forces agreement to end the Iraq war. After trying and failing to renegotiate that agreement, Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. He took credit for the move during his 2012 re-election campaign, but when ISIS emerged as a major force in Iraq, he backtracked, insisting it was not his decision. Eventually, U.S. troops returned to Iraq under Obama, in a campaign against ISIS that never received specific congressional authorization. They remain there today, although U.S. operations in Iraq will be complicated by a travel ban the Iraqi government imposed on U.S. citizens in retaliation for Trump's order. Both exempt diplomatic and government travel.

Trump himself pointed to a 2011 review of refugee admissions from Iraq as precedent for his actions, although the 2011 move did not keep legal permanent residents from entering or leaving the United States. Nevertheless, critics in Congress challenged the Obama administration, expressing concern about leaving Iraqis who collaborated with the U.S. military behind as the U.S. withdrew forces from Iraq. A number of such people were caught in transit to the U.S. when Trump's executive order went into effect.

Iran is the only of the seven countries not to have faced U.S. military action in the last twenty years, although not for lack of interest by warmongers in the U.S. In the mid-2000s, the Bush administration appeared interested in pushing for war. In 2008, John McCain sang "bomb Iran" on the campaign trail. And even as Obama participated in negotiations over Iran's alleged nuclear program (according to U.S. intelligence Iran has been months way from a nuclear bomb since 2000), his administration included travels from Iran as among those deserving of extra scrutiny, undermining the notion that the U.S.'s beef is with the Iranian government not the Iranian people, as government officials regularly insist.

Of the seven "countries of concern," the U.S. accepts the most refugees from Somalia, a country into which the U.S. sent troops in support of a United Nations peacekeeping effort in 1993 after the government of Siad Barre, a tin-pot dictator who turned to the Soviet Union and then to the United States for aid during the Cold War, collapsed. The last year that the U.S. accepted more Muslim refugees than Christian refugees was in 2006, when it began to accept larger numbers of Somalis. Around that time, the U.S. also ramped up its involvement in Somalia, assisting in an invasion by Ethiopian forces to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had begun to impose its order on Somalia. After this invasion, the youth wing of the ICU broke off in disgust and became what is known today as Al-Shabaab. Throughout, the U.S. has used airstrikes to hit alleged terrorists, many of whom the government can't even identify.

The most recent public U.S. military action in Sudan was the 1998 missile strike on a pharmaceutical factory it said was tied to Al-Qaeda—the Sudanese government and the owner of the factory disputed this assertion and the government never produced compelling evidence for its claims. In recent years, the U.S. has been a major supporter of independence for South Sudan, which became the world's newest country in 2011. It descended into civil war after that. In 2015, the U.S. accepted 1,578 refugees from Sudan and 79 from South Sudan.

The U.S. has spent several years arming various rebel groups in Syria it insists are "moderates," and insisting a solution to the Syrian civil war required Bashar Assad to step down as president. The U.S. accepted 66 refugees from Syria between 2007 and 2010, the year the civil war and subsequent refugee crisis started. But the U.S. did not begin to accept significant numbers of refugees from Syria until very recently, despite being involved in the civil war and arguably contributing to its destabilization. In 2016 the U.S. dropped more bombs on Syria than on any other country. But between 2011 and 2014, the U.S. accepted just 201 refugees from Syria. In 2015, it accepted 1,682 and in 2016, after significant international and domestic political pressure, the U.S. accepted about 10,000.

And then there's Yemen, the location where the U.S. killed its first citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a drone strike after accusing him of being a terrorist leader, and later killed his teenaged son in another strike. This weekend, the U.S. launched its first ground counter-terrorism operation in Yemen since December 2014. A U.S. commando was among the dead, according to the U.S. military, and according to local reports al-Awlaki's 8-year-old daughter was also killed. It is the first U.S. counterterrorism operation (aside from airstrikes) since the country descended into civil war in 2015. Before that, the Obama administration touted Yemen as an example of a model U.S. counterterrorism campaign, limited involvement and low risk. But many U.S. targets were fed to the U.S. by the authoritarian government in Yemen, the one that was overthrown in 2015. While the U.S. is not directly involved in the civil war, it provides arms to Saudi Arabia, which is fighting in Yemen to re-establish the U.S.-backed government. An effort by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) late last year to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, after a series of controversial bombings including of a hospital, failed in the Senate. Despite contributing to the destabilization of Yemen, the U.S. has not accepted many refugees from the country. It took in just 16 in 2015. Yemen was not mentioned a single time at any of last year's presidential debates, nor were either candidates asked about Yemen by any of the press that followed them around the country for more than a year.

The "countries of concern" primarily affected by Trump's travel ban have little to do with the attacks of 9/11 that sparked the war on terror. Yet in many of them, the U.S. military operates under the auspices of the post-9/11 authorization of the use of military force (AUMF). Congress has never revisited this AUMF, which received only one no vote, from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). The Congress played a crucial role in formulating the list of "countries of concern" Trump used in his executive order, while their abdication of war-making powers has permitted the executive branch to wage a war on terror across the entire Muslim world, stoking just the kinds of fears exploited by Trump on the campaign trail and in his executive order.