The man of the hour in the nation’s war on terrorism is not President Obama, but Donald Trump. His proposal to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the United States met with near-unanimous opposition from the political establishment, but it is not a stretch to say that it spurred action on other proposals that would establish high-risk categories of people who should be barred, or given extra scrutiny.
President Obama’s post-San Bernardino address to the nation was replete with “we will continue … ,” “working with …,” “cooperating with…,” “begun to establish a process,” basically referencing on-going or post-Paris-attack steps which obviously didn’t work to prevent the San Bernardino massacre. Reaction to Obama’s speech was not as negative as the Boston Globe’s 1980 headline, “More Mush from the Wimp,” about a speech by President Carter. Nevertheless, Obama’s Oval Office address, only the third of his presidency, landed with a resounding “plop.”
“Obama’s ISIS response stirs Dem angst about 2016,” was the headline in The Hill newspaper, which reported that Democratic insiders were highly critical of the President’s speech. Party strategist Hank Sheinkoff was typical, describing the President’s speech as “weak and unclear… What is the plan of action?”
The political figure who ignited a flurry of anti-terrorism activity was not the President, but Trump, with his ham-fisted proposal to impose a temporary ban on Muslims entering this country. This proposal is based on the belief that not all Muslims are terrorists, but that most terrorists are Muslims.
Given its broad sweep and its appeal to plain old religious prejudice, virtually no prominent figure on the right or left endorsed Trump’s comments. Nevertheless, Congress immediately began to propose additional restrictions on persons traveling to the US, restrictions that, while not as broad as Trump’s, still label some visitors more at-risk to the nation’s safety than others. These alternatives are more sensible, with less chance of igniting anti-Muslim bigotry or behavior, and more chance of keeping out terrorist-prone Islamists.
Thus, the House, by a vote of 407 to 19, passed a proposal to increase intelligence sharing with the 38 countries currently in the no-visa program, with a view to weeding out those who have visited countries where they might have been in touch with Islamist radicals.
Democrats, underwhelmed by President Obama’s Oval Office address, voted overwhelmingly for the House measure. In the Senate, Democrat Dianne Feinstein did not wait for the State Department and Homeland Security review of the US visa system that the President requested in his Oval Office speech, but introduced a visa/waiver reform bill, along with Republican Jeff Flake. This bill uses a different approach,
preventing anyone who has traveled to Iraq or Syria during the past five years from entering the US via the no-visa program.
Recent polls show that, despite the bipartisan piling-on that Trump has undergone since he announced his opposition to Muslims entering the country, he continues to lead the Republican presidential field. Moreover, his Muslim/ban plan also polls well among Republicans and makes a respectable showing among voters at large.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of adults showed 57% opposed to Trump’s plan to 25% who favored it. But among Republican primary voters, 39% opposed the proposal to 38% who favored it.
A Bloomberg poll of likely voters, which is usually more accurate than the catch-all “adults,” showed that 50% of all likely voters opposed his plan to 37% who favored it and 13% who weren’t sure. Given the barrage of negative reaction his proposal got, the “undecideds” may well hide some support.
Among likely Republican primary voters in the Bloomberg survey, however, 65% favored Trump’s proposal to 22% who opposed it and 13% who weren’t sure. This, in spite of near universal condemnation of the plan by GOP leaders across the nation and across the party’s ideological spectrum.
Moreover, everyday some new information comes out about Islamist terrorism that makes Trump seem prescient, rather than prejudiced. The latest is that ISIS has captured passport-making equipment and can produce fake passports at will, giving the traveler whatever geographical or biographical background that fits the occasion. Thus, background checks, such as they have been, could be all but useless.
Contrast President Obama with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who visited the US earlier this month. “Of course a large majority of Muslims completely reject Daesh-like [ISIS] jihadism and the terrorism which comes with it,” Blair said in an address at the Library of Congress. He added, however, that “Clerics who proclaim that non-believers and apostates must be killed or call for jihad against Jews have Twitter followings running into millions … The ideology has deep roots. We have to reach right the way down and uproot it.”
In an address in New York, Blair said, “There are millions of schoolchildren every day in countries round the world – not just in the Middle East – who are taught a view of the world and of their religion which is narrow-minded, prejudicial and therefore, in the context of a globalized world, dangerous.”
Blair made clear the seriousness of the war-on-terror that this nation and the West now face with a stark clarity that the President’s comments lacked. Trump paints his proposals with too broad a brush, but he shares with Blair a stark clarity the nation hungers for just now. Stay tuned.