By Mohamed A. El-Erian
Some bold and simple policies have merit; Friday’s executive order that temporarily bans the citizens of certain countries from coming to the US, and stops indefinitely the entry of Syrian refugees, is not one of them.
As designed and implemented, there are genuine doubts about the order’s effectiveness in meeting its stated objective of preventing terrorism. It also risks a lot of collateral damage and unintended consequences that ultimately could prove counterproductive and harmful to national security, the economy, and America’s moral authority, values and standing in the world. Even the order’s merits as a domestic signal are in doubt, and it risks damaging the credibility and effectiveness of future policy initiatives from the White House.
The travel ban is succinctly stated: “To protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” With immediate effect, it forbids entry for specified periods of time to citizens from seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen).
But this is an extremely blunt approach to an important issue. Early reports on its application suggest that even long-time holders of multiyear visas for the US, together with green card holders and dual nationals, are are being refused entry at airports or being prevented from boarding planes destined for America. This includes people who have been living in the US legally for many years, have been vetted, and are productive and integrated members of their local communities. Judging by Google, which stated that more than 100 of its employees traveling abroad are impacted by the order, it also covers tax-paying US-based workers who productively contribute to national growth and, as of this weekend, were on business trips or holidays abroad. They may now be stranded.
It is not clear whether the travel ban also applies to those working at the international institutions that the US hosts, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The uncertainty is enough to stop some staff from traveling abroad on business, thereby reducing the effectiveness of these institutions. Then there are the students at US educational institutions, some of whom are still in the process of returning for their new terms.
No wonder so many people from across the political spectrum are questioning the executive order—and deploring its highly discriminatory nature and the related threats to what makes the US so special and so admired. The ban risks undermining the US’s moral authority, along with its standing and the respect it commands. In turn, this can undermine the credibility of President Donald Trump’s administration, creating potential headwinds to the effectiveness of its future measures in a wide range of areas.
I suppose that some may feel that all this would be warranted if the ban can deliver on its objective. But here, too, there are problems.
Several people have already pointed out that none of the terrorist incidents suffered by the US in recent times, including the horrible Sept. 11 attacks, were perpetuated by citizens from the seven designated countries. The ban could have other harmful consequences. Some have noted that it applies to people who fought alongside American troops in dangerous situations, and includes some who acted heroically, saving our men and women in uniform. This is but one of the adverse signals that the executive order transmits to the many supporters and fans of the US living in the named countries.
I understand, and very much share, the desire to reduce terrorist risks. As currently designed and implemented, the travel ban is not a good way to do so.