Donald Trump seems to regard a terrorist attack almost anywhere in the world as an opportunity to take to Twitter to tout his domestic political agenda. Instead of further straining relations with key democratic allies, the president would be better off reconsidering his own policies that are making terrorism worse.
First, Trump has realigned U.S. policy in the Middle East to give uncritical support to authoritarian regimes whose repressive policies fuel grievances that are exploited by violent extremists. Governments like Saudi Arabia also promote extreme, intolerant interpretations of Islam throughout the world on which terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qa’eda base their worldviews. If Trump were serious about reducing the threat from terrorism, he would confront his authoritarian allies about the hateful incitement spread by preachers and religious and educational institutions in their countries, and about the direct support that still flows to violent extremist groups in Syria and elsewhere. He would also urge U.S. allies to govern in a way that provides hope to the millions of young people across the region who are squeezed between repressive, corrupt authoritarian rulers and violent extremists who claim to offer the only alternative. Instead, Trump condones the harmful practices of his authoritarian allies, remaining silent about their violations of human rights while offering lavish praise and arms sales.
Second, the Trump administration has taken sides in the ancient sectarian rift between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims that has helped fuel conflict in Syria and elsewhere and created conditions in which terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qa’eda thrive. Exploitation of sectarian divisions by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and their proxies has been one of the chief drivers of terrorist violence in the Middle East in recent years, such as the bombings in Baghdad last week, which killed dozens. Trump is encouraging U.S. allies to step up sectarian conflict in Bahrain and Yemen while issuing threats against Iran, steps that vindicate and embolden sectarian extremists in Tehran. Terrorist attacks in the Iranian capital, immediately claimed by ISIS, received only perfunctory condemnation from the White House. The White House statement, which seemed to blame the victims for the assault, has received widespread condemnation. This hopelessly one-sided approach to violence against civilians will only fuel resentment and more violence. To reduce the threat of terrorism, the United States must work to ease sectarian conflicts in the region. Trump is making them worse.
Third, Trump continues to push a travel ban against six majority-Muslim countries, even as more and more federal courts declare it unconstitutional. The president’s single-minded pursuit of this discriminatory policy supports the narrative of violent extremists who claim that Muslims are unwelcome in the West. The travel ban abets recruiting efforts in another way as well: by fomenting distrust of law enforcement among American Muslims, thus reducing the chance that violent extremists might be reported to authorities.
Fourth, Trump’s and his administration’s harsh rhetoric against Muslims, enthusiastically backed up by his cheerleaders in the media, gives license to bigots whose actions benefit ISIS and other extremist groups. Hate crimes against Muslims have jumped, perhaps by half, since Trump began his campaign for the presidency, and he has little to say about this alarming trend. The spread of bigoted attitudes towards Muslims fuels divisions that are be exploited by violent extremists.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the Trump administration is not providing leadership on universal human rights and therefore failing to offer any constructive alternative to the hateful, nihilistic ideology of the terrorists. The Trump administration has pledged to put America first and secure American interests in a world “where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” Terrorists are only too pleased to confront the United States in such an amoral world, one without universal values or common interests and with no sense of global community.
By turning its back on these values, the Trump administration is unilaterally giving up the United States’ greatest strength, and making it easier for terrorists to spread division, fear, and violence.