Donald Trump’s speech on Monday about the war on “radical Islamic terrorism” was indifferently delivered and in many ways familiar. But there were some new elements — including an alarming suggestion that the Cold War offers a useful lesson in how to combat Islamic State.
Again Trump said that he had opposed the war in Iraq; again he attacked President Obama for opening the way for (if not “founding”) Islamic State by precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from that country; again he disdained “nation-building and regime change”; and again he disparaged Hillary Clinton’s work as the country’s chief diplomat, this time adding the grace note that she lacked the “mental and physical stamina” necessary to deal with Islamic State.
Trump also promised to “temporarily suspend immigration from some of the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism” — the latest variation on his notorious proposal last year for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” There are too many immigrants coming in from the Middle East to perform adequate screening, he argued. But even if that’s true, many of the terrorist attacks he cited in Europe and the United States were conducted by people who wouldn’t have been subject to such scrutiny because they held European or American passports.
Trump said he would call for an international conference on halting the spread of radical Islam and described an alliance comprising NATO (which he claimed had decided to focus on terrorism at his suggestion), Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Russia. Never mind that something similar already exists under the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council, although Russia seems more interested in propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad than in defeating Islamic State.
More interesting — and alarming — was Trump’s description of how he would combat “radical Islamic extremism” at home. Essentially, he would seek to promote liberal values, such as autonomy for women and tolerance for gays and lesbians, by adopting the conservative tactics of the 1950s.
“In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test,” Trump said. “The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today.” Instead of excluding immigrants with communist views, he suggested, a Trump administration would bar immigrants “who have hostile attitudes toward our country or its principles — or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law.” (How he would test for such attitudes — and why those who harbored them wouldn’t conceal them — went unexplained.)
And where the House Un-American Activities Committee delved into the alleged disloyalty of Americans during the Cold War, Trump would establish a Commission on Radical Islam that would “expose the networks in our society that support radicalization.” Trump said that “reformist voices in the Muslim community” would be invited to take part — an invitation unlikely to be accepted.
The goal of these initiatives, Trump suggested, would be to promote assimilation of Muslims and spare the United States the sort of alienation that has produced violence in Europe. What he apparently doesn’t recognize is that Muslims are far better assimilated in America than they are in the European countries that have been victimized by Islamist terrorists.
Obviously Americans aren’t immune to the siren call of Islamist extremism; witness the attacks in Boston, San Bernardino and Orlando, all of which Trump mentioned. Screening of potential immigrants and asylum-seekers for possible connections to terrorism is a matter of common sense as well as national security.
But ideological litmus tests for immigrants and a national commission to study “radical Islam” could be catastrophically counterproductive. Requiring assent to a checklist of values would punish thoughts rather than deeds and might encourage newcomers to dissemble about their beliefs. A commission designed to expose radicals could bring back the days of blacklists and guilt by association. These are frightening ideas. It’s no surprise that they have been proposed by Donald Trump.