Osama bin Laden has been lying at the bottom of the Indian Ocean for almost six years, but, remarkably, this week has marked his greatest triumph.
Bin Laden knew that his terror could not inflict a grave blow on a strong country like the United States. The logic of the 9/11 attacks, however, was to cause America to harm itself by allowing fear to overcome our judgment and abandon what has made us the most successful nation in the history of the planet. That is what is happening to the United States today. The Trump Administration is harming America in ways that bin Laden never could have never achieved himself.
Bin Laden’s No. 1 goal on 9/11 was to drive a wedge between Muslims and the West. The 9/11 attacks backfired in this regard. They caused virtually every Muslim majority government in the world to align with the United States in opposition to al Qaeda and other like-minded groups, as they have now against ISIS as well. Bin Laden’s popularity among Muslims dropped into the single digits.
But Donald Trump’s disastrous immigration executive order has now accomplished what 9/11 and 15 years of terrorist attacks could not – cause a genuine estrangement between the worlds’ Muslims and the United States.
The message to Muslims from this order is clear: Trump’s America does not want you. Why else would the visa ban apply to only Muslim majority countries? Why else would an exception be made for Christians fleeing those countries? Why else would women and children escaping the brutalities of the Syrian civil war who were approved for U.S. entry by the FBI be turned away at our airports?
Most of the world’s Muslims will weep at despair from this turn of events. But inevitably, some will heed the call of bin Laden and those who have succeeded him, that the United States is evil and must be defeated. What a self-inflicted wound.
Bin Laden also tried to use to terrorism to undermine American confidence in its world leadership, which bin Laden saw as an obstacle to his objectives in the Middle East and elsewhere.
That didn’t work either. Despite some difficulties over the past 15 years, America leadership has remained paramount.
We fight extremism around the globe hand in hand with our vast array of allies; we build up the counterterrorism forces of other nations so they can take the fight to the extremists; we collect intelligence on extremist movements and share it with those who are threatened; we stand with our close ally Israel and we lead a global effort to counter the false and dangerous ideology that al Qaeda, ISIS and others use to justify their carnage.
To lead the world, however, you have to show that you are a partner in solving the world’s problems; that you stand by your allies and treaty obligations, and that you believe in the common decency of all humankind.
But by closing America’s doors to wartime refugees, Trump is undermining America’s ability to lead.
You cannot lead if you don’t participate in relieving the Syrian refugee crisis. You cannot lead if you shut your doors to Iraqi citizens who aided the U.S. military or who are fighting and dying in Mosul in the battle against ISIS today. Nor can you lead if you disparage alliances built up over 70 years as if they were simply a real estate deal gone bad.
Finally, bin Laden sought to damage America because the success of our pluralistic, religiously diverse, dynamic country stood in such stark contrast to the narrow, backward-looking theocracy he advocated. Bin Laden knew he could never compete for the heart and soul of today’s Muslims when the modern world – led by the United States and West – provided such a rich combination of social, civic and economic opportunities.
The 9/11 attack inflicted about $40 billion in direct damages. But that is pocket change compared to what our turn inward – brought about in part by 9/11 – will cost over the long run. In less than a fortnight we have forsaken the possible economic benefits of the TPP; laid the groundwork for a trade war with China, injured our mutually beneficial relationship with Mexico and harmed America’s best companies, which do business all over the world, by insulting and demeaning the 20 percent of the world’s population who practice Islam.
Bin Laden always said he was playing the long game. But even he would have been surprised about how quickly the new American president is bringing his strategy to fruition.
David Schanzer is a professor of public policy and the Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University.