We will eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth,” thundered President Donald Trump in his inaugural speech after taking oath on January 20. A week later, President Trump signed an executive order implementing the core of his doctrine by introducing “new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out.” The order, blocked by federal judges in New York and Virginia, had suspended the entire refugee admission system for 120 days, suspended the Syrian refugee programme indefinitely and banned entry from seven Muslim majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan — for 90 days. Earlier, President Trump had signed an executive order that announced an intention to build a wall along the border with Mexico, to quit Trans-Pacific Partnership and called for the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).
What is the Trump doctrine and how will it affect American society, US foreign policy and the world at large? Will it transform the US from a multicultural society to an intolerant and racist country? Will the Trump doctrine meet its fate if American people reject steps taken by the president and restore their country’s core values which, according to the former American president Barack Obama, are at stake?
The history of doctrines proclaimed by different American presidents starts from President James Monroe in his presidential address before the US Congress on December 23, 1823, in which he had warned European powers not to meddle in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. The post-World War II doctrines by various American presidents primarily reflected ‘cold war’ politics and East-West rivalry. Doctrines such as those of presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush depicted policy statements issued by American presidents on the occasion of ‘State of the Union’ messages. But the Trump doctrine is entirely different from his predecessors’ because it specifically mentions radical Islam as a major threat to America, the menace of immigration particularly from Mexico and calls for ‘making America great again.’ The slogan “America First”, repeated a few times by Trump in his oath-taking inaugural speech, also reflects his resolve to stop “American carnage ... right here, right now.”
Will America become great by closing doors to people on the basis of their race and religion?
No American president in recent history has become as controversial in less than 100 days in office as has Trump. During the election campaign and in the post-election period, he has been consistent in his approach and policy on issues which he thinks are critical and pivotal for the present and future of the US. Trump’s capacity to open several fronts at the same time — such as imposing a ban on immigration from seven Muslim countries, squabbling with Iran and Mexico and confrontations with the judiciary and media — reflects his aggressive personality traits and behaviour.
Three major characteristics shape the Trump doctrine. First, it is not the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric of Trump which shaped the discourse of his election campaign, but his mindset to change America and rid the country from all people who are perceived to be “bad people” and a threat to the US security. His views on curbing immigration from Muslim countries and erecting a wall along the 3,200km-long American-Mexican border are also shared by Steve Bannon, appointed by Trump to the National Security Council, and Stephen Miller, senior adviser and former communications director for Trump’s choice for Attorney General.
Trumpeting what they term “Judeo-Christian” civilisation and protecting America from the threat of radical Islam, the troika hopes to reverse the process of diluting white American tutelage. Michael Flynn, a retired general who recently resigned from the post of National Security Adviser, is also known for his anti-Muslim views. As quoted in The Guardian Weekly (February 3-9, 2017), Flynn stated: “I am totally convinced that without a proper sense of urgency we will be eventually defeated, dominated and very likely destroyed. Do you want to be ruled by men who eagerly drink the blood of their enemies?”
If America is changing under the influence of Trump, Bannon, Miller and Flynn, it will not be difficult to gauge the implications of transforming the United States into an inward-looking, parochial and suspicious country, preventing the flow of talent and enterprise from different parts of the world, particularly from Muslim countries.
Second, Trump’s obsession with Islamophobia is not a myth but a reality. His call to the civilised world to unite against what he calls ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ motivates ultra-conservatives and white supremacists to deepen their attack on the Muslim community without distinguishing between radical Islamists and moderate Muslims. On December 7, a month after the American presidential elections were held, Trump called for “total and complete shutdown of Muslim immigration.”
During his election campaign he repeatedly termed Islam a threat to America and such a threat, according to him, could only be diluted by preventing immigration of Muslims and by forcing Muslims living in the US to conform to the American way of life. After taking oath, he made it clear that he had no quarrel with those Muslims who love America, but certainly that Muslims having a deep bias against his country could not be tolerated. Trump’s assertion about those Muslims who live in the US, want to take all the benefits and privileges of American society and yet resent American culture, society and way of life is perhaps understandable. But the rhetoric manages to tar all Muslims with the same brush.
The “Muslim card” used by Trump has managed to get support of those Americans who share his perceptions about Islam and Muslims. After the release of the executive order banning travel of people from seven Muslim countries, the Economist (London edition of February 4, 2017) reported: “A Reuters/IPSOs poll released on January 31 found 43 percent of those questioned supported the ban on people from Muslim countries as a precaution against terror. Among Republicans the support was 73 percent.” So, it is not just the lunatic fringe in the shape of Trump, Bannon, Miller and Flynn who possess negative or rather hostile feelings against Islam and Muslims, but a sizeable segment of (mostly white) Americans share such feelings.
Third, the Trump doctrine has been able to convince unemployed and low-paid white Americans that the real threat to their lifestyle and values is from Muslims’ inability to assimilate in the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture. The Muslim drive to maintain their cultural identity while living side by side with fellow white Americans by following a separate dress-code and diet, tends to irritate people sharing the perceptions held by Trump and his supporters. The Guardian Weekly’s cover story (of February 3-9) quotes Steve Bannon: “We are at the beginning stages of global war against Islamic fascism.”
In American society, there is no dearth of people like Steve Bannon but it becomes a matter of concern when such people reach the corridors of power and try to implement their thoughts and ideas as governmental policies. This is exactly what is happening in the US these days.
George W. Bush was also considered a neo-conservative but had to eat his own words when, in the aftermath of 9/11, he talked about “crusades”, referring to mediaeval-era wars between Muslims and Christians. Despite the Republican Party’s tilt in favour of white Americans, in his cabinet there were two noted African-Americans — General Colin Powell as Secretary of State and Dr Condoleezza Rice as the National Security Adviser. In Trump’s cabinet there is no significant African-American and almost all his close associates are white American males.
However, there is also a counter-narrative challenging the Trump doctrine amidst division within Republican leaders on the manner in which the travel ban and visa suspension policy were introduced. This created a lot of chaos and resulted in court battles and embarrassment for the US at the international level. The counter-narrative to the Trump doctrine challenges the position taken by Trump about the threat of Islamic radicalism. For instance, Sir Jeremy Greenstock — a former chair of the UN Security Council’s counter-terrorism committee — argues: “I don’t think Islamic terrorism is an existential threat to Western democracy. Western democracy has other kinds of problems, in population, in reaction against globalisation, in the fragmentation of political cultures, in the rise of the local over collective, I would put existential concerns.”
Likewise, Mustafa Bayoumi, professor at Brooklyn College and author of How Does It Feel To Be a Problem? says: “It’s clear that Trump uses Islam as a kind of rhetorical prop to feed his populism.” Furthermore, the Council on American Islamic Relations has filed a lawsuit arguing that the travel ban on passengers from seven Muslim countries conflicted with the first amendment of the American constitution which guarantees the right of freedom of religion.
Furthermore, according to a report of the Cato Institute, a conservative American think tank based in Washington DC, “Of the nearly 3.3 million refugees admitted to America between 1973 and 2015, only 20 have attempted a terrorist attack. In those attacks three Americans were killed.”
Trumpism, which is the essence of the Trump doctrine, will not be stopped simply by the force of a counter-narrative held by his opponents who consider his policies detrimental to US interests. People sharing Trump’s vision of America are determined to use power to restore what they call the ‘glorious past of America’ which was dominated by white Anglo-Saxon males. Now, the inner circle of Trump consists of almost entirely white males. The greatness of America emanated from its resolve to welcome talent from all over the world irrespective of people’s race and religion. In that context, American democracy is certainly threatened by Trumpism.
(Dr Moonis Ahmar is Professor of International Relations, University of Karachi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 19th, 2017