• Victor C. Bolles

What's More Important Than Safety?


President Donald Trump’s executive actions to insure the safety of Americans (plus his off the cuff commentary) have stirred up worldwide controversy. First, there was the wall and who would pay for it. Next was the ban on US entry from some (but not all) Muslim countries. And there were also televised comments about his acceptance of the use of torture and waterboarding (although he deferred to his Secretary of Defense Gen. Mattis on this matter who is opposed). President Trump said our enemies use these techniques and that we have to be smart and tough in order to keep Americans safe. You will note that he did not say that we have to be principled or that we have to honor American traditions and Western values. He must think that these attributes are only for losers. And he hates losing.


His rationale for spending around $10 billion to erect a wall between the United States and Mexico (and have Mexico pay for it) is based on the assumption that this will keep out illegal immigrants and especially criminals. But the land border between the US and Mexico is 1,989 miles while total US border and coastlines are 19,894 miles. The Mexican border represents only 10% of the potential for illegal entry (17% if you eliminate the 8,178 miles of Alaskan borders and coastline). While it is true that criminals cross the southern border to commit crimes and import drugs because it is easy, it would be naïve to think that a wall would deter them when there are so many other opportunities available (and the wall wouldn’t stop the tunnels they like to dig). Add in the fact that about 30 to 40 percent of illegal immigrants entered the US legally and have overstayed their visas and you will realize that the wall is at best only a partial solution. There are much better, smarter ways to solve this problem in a way to improve US security. Electronic tracking of visas and Social Security linked ID cards would make it difficult for illegals to hide out or get employment. Nothing is absolute but there are a lot of things we can do to mitigate the problem without building a wall. A wall is a simplistic approach to a complex problem (and it will destroy the views from Big Bend National Park).


The rhetoric about forcing Mexico to pay for the wall is already backfiring. The method for extracting payment from the Mexicans has not yet been determined so it is moot to go into a detailed discussion of the possible repercussions but it is safe to say that Americans will also suffer from the eventual policy. But is treating Mexicans like dirt likely to enhance our security? It is stupid to think that Mexicans will say, “Somos mexicanos. Nos encanta ser tratados como la suciedad (We’re Mexicans. We love being treated like dirt.).” People deserve dignity. Don’t you think our security would be enhanced by having a friendly, prosperous neighbor on our southern border than an angry neighbor forced into alignment with our other international antagonists. Then we might really need a wall. We could call it “Maginot”.


While it is reasonable to increase scrutiny of people coming to our country from war zones and state sponsors of terror, does an outright ban on all citizens from seven countries (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Yemen) increase our safety and security? The US is an international center for business, finance and diplomacy and many of the people coming to our shores are businessmen and diplomats with valid visas (many international institutions such as the UN, the IMF and the World Bank have employees from all over the world working in the US but if you want to kick out all those institutions, what the heck!). Many other travelers have relatives that are citizens and legal residents. I guess if all these people look like nails then all you need is a hammer. But banning citizens from these and potentially other countries undermines our ability to be an international anything. I can understand the urge to consider America First but I would be afraid of America Alone.


President Trump has publicly endorsed the use of waterboarding and other unnamed torture techniques in order to make America safer provoking domestic and international outrage. Secretary of Defense Mattis rejects those techniques and states that skillful interrogation can obtain better intelligence than the use of torture. I would agree, given sufficient time. But when time is of the essence, does waterboarding or torture save lives? No better authority than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed says that any jihadi who provides useful intelligence without being forced by torture is condemned to eternal hell. And former head of the CIA Michael Hayden says that they had obtained useful intelligence from waterboarding of KSM and two others. But does the use of torture make America safer? While the use of torture might prevent certain specific acts of terror and save American lives, its use will undermine America’s standing in the world as the leader of the West and the champion of Western values and ideals. It was these values and ideals that included the ban on torture in the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration’s legal dance to differentiate between torture and enhanced interrogation notwithstanding, the use of torture is prohibited by our Western ideals and values no matter how efficacious it might be. The breakdown of the international order established by the US in the wake of World War II would jeopardize many more American lives than could be saved by the use of torture.


These proposals to insure the safety of Americans are an example of President Trump following through on his campaign promises (something which politicians rarely do). But many of those campaign promises were made off the cuff in the heat primary battles as then-candidate Trump spoke at his famously unscripted rallies. Following through on campaign promises might be considered an honorable thing to do but one would hope that now-President Trump would take the opportunity to study and understand the more complex realities of these situations and the possible consequences of these actions.


President Trump does not view things on a principled basis but on a transactional one. In business you bargain hard to get a deal done but if it doesn’t work out you pass on it and move on to the next deal. As the Swiss say, money has no smell. Its just business (bidness here in Texas). No harm no foul.


But that’s not how it works in international relations. The Mexican people and their government are going to remember this wall incident for a long time no matter how it is resolved (as Mary Anastasia O’Grady noted in her column they still chafe at the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and that was 169 years ago). And people from the Middle East and the Muslim world are not going to think that travel bans and enhanced interrogation are examples of America being tough and smart but that our professed Western values are nothing but a sham that we shed when convenient.


Our Western values have evolved in fits and starts over a period of two thousand years. There have been periods of cruelty and horror such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, colonialism and genocide of indigenous peoples. But over time we have matured as a culture although we are still imperfect. After the convulsions of two world wars we have had a period of relative peace for 70 years because Western values under American leadership have governed international relations. This may seem counter-intuitive to some of you but remember that all the casualties of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq pale in comparison the losses of those world wars. Not all the world agreed with our Western values but have been (relatively) content to live under those concepts because they have worked. The world is now a more peaceful and prosperous place than ever before. But this peace has become more fragile as America under President Obama stepped back from its leadership role. President Trump, citing its costs, is urging a further reduction of our leadership role. More than that he is urging us to turn our backs on our Western values and adopt the methods and strategies of those that hate America and its values. By ignoring the principles on which America was founded, President Trump is doing the work of those that oppose us.

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