I am not an expert on the US constitution, nor am I a lawyer. However, after 11 years working in the UK Parliament, I have observed politics at a pretty close level. All of that being true, it is not for me to say whether or not President Trump’s executive order restricting the immigration into the US of people from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – is legal or constitutional, though I am dubious of the arguments that it breaks US law (but that is argument for another day).
So let’s look at the politics of this. Restricting immigration from countries which have produced jihadist terrorism is fulfilling a (perhaps reckless) campaign pledge, but it is also not difficult to see an argument on the basis of national security. Even the most ardent anti-Trump protestor would be hard-pushed to maintain that Iran, Iraq and Libya don’t contain people in some numbers who wish the US ill. Describing them as “bad dudes” was crass and tin-eared, but then The Donald is not famed for his oratory. He says the first thing that comes into his head, and, as a friend of mine remarked the other day, he doesn’t work with nuance.
The executive order is many things. It was rushed, it was poorly explained, it will probably not be as effective as Trump’s supporters hoped, and it may, who knows, be unconstitutional. But there’s one thing it is not. It is not a #MuslimBan. It does not specify that various people cannot enter the United States because of their religious belief. That the majority of those who fall under its purview are, indeed, Muslims is entirely true. In Trump’s mind, that may even be why they are being banned. He did, after all, promise during the election campaign last year to ban Muslims coming into the US. So where’s the ban on immigration from Indonesia, or Saudi Arabia?
Now, the omission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from the terms of the executive order is important. If you want to ban potential terrorists, say Trump’s opponents, why not include Saudi, which was the origin of the 9/11 hijackers? Well, one obvious counter to that is the old retrort: follow the money. The US does good business with Saudi Arabia. It’s no coincidence that the Royal Saudi Air Force maintains the world’s third-largest fleet of F-15s, after the US and Japan. Built and serviced by Boeing. Ker-ching. Saudi is, without doubt, the USA’s, and the West’s, most important, influential and significant ally in the Arab world. We discover today that Trump has reached an agreement with King Salman that the Saudis will help to create and protect safe zones for refugees in Syria and Yemen: keeping refugees safe as close as possible to their point of origin is obviously sensible, and means the crisis is in some small part contained within the region.
None of this is to say that US-Saudi relations are without their stresses and strains. In December 2013, a poll found that 57% of Americans polled had an unfavourable view of Saudi Arabia, and opinion in the other direction is equally divided. Saudi Arabia certainly supports militant Islam in several countries which the US opposes, and the Saudis’ intervention in the civil war in Yemen has fostered an humanitarian crisis of tear-inducingly horrible proportions.
For all that, the US needs Saudi Arabia. So, too, does the UK. In Westminster, there has been heated debate about whether the UK should continue to sell arms to the Saudis, given what’s happening in Yemen. But the Government has not imposed even a moratorium, because the strategic relationship is a cornerstone of British foreign policy. Consider this from General Sir Simon Mayall, who was deputy head of the UK armed forces:
“I have always contended—I have been very vocal and consistent about this—that the Gulf is an area where our security and prosperity agendas really overlap, in part of the world that is notoriously unstable and requires a collective effort to keep it stable, both on a position today that is largely to do with security, and through long-term stability, based on the type of reforms that our partners out there absolutely understand are critical for their long-term survival.”
That’s why the Saudis weren’t included in the travel ban. The US, and the UK, need to maintain a close relationship. However, part of the argument which has been articulated, and this brings me (you’ll be relieved to hear) to my point, is quite false. The idea that Saudi Arabia is our most important ally in the region. Hang on, you’ll say, didn’t you just say that was true? No, I said that KSA was the West’s closest ally in the Arab world.
The most important all of the US, the UK and the West in general, in the Middle East is Israel. Why? Well, you can follow the money too. It’s no secret that the pro-Israel lobby in the US is a very powerful one. And there’s the defence connection, too. Like Saudi Arabia, the Israeli Air Force operates F-15s, and is also re-equipping with the F-35 (unless President Trump cancels the project, which is a moot point…). But it’s deeper than that. Israel is the only functioning, pluralistic democracy in the Middle East. Israel shares the values of the West. You might not like Prime Minister Netanyahu, but he can be voted out of office. King Salman won’t be on the receiving end of a democratic boot any time soon.
Israel was, of course, founded by European refugees, born out of the unimaginable horrors of the Shoah. So its fellow-feeling with the West is inevitable. David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir were both born in Russia; it wasn’t till Yitzhak Rabin that Israel had its first home-born Prime Minister. It’s more than that, though. The West clearly has important economic interests in the Middle East, so we keep in with the suppliers of the oil. But if the US and western European democracies mean anything when they profess the values of freedom, choice and human rights, we have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel. Not uncritically, of course; a friend who can’t tell you when you disagree is no friend at all. We must be firm friends nevertheless. Need an ally who can tell you about the existential threat of Islamofascism? Ask someone who lives in Sderot. You have less than 60 seconds to take cover when the alarm goes off. (I’ve been in Basra with the British Army when rockets have been launched. I don’t care how crude or inaccurate they are – it’s still scary.)
I’m not a blind flag-waver for Israel. The conflict with the Palestinians obviously goes on, and there has to be a solution which is equitable for both sides. For me, it probably means some kind of two-state settlement, however difficult that is. And if the West believes itself to be a force for good, for democracy, for pluralism, for human rights, for freedom, then there are sometimes stern words to be said about the fate of the Palestinians, many of whom undoubtedly live a miserable existence, under a toxic combination of a military blockade and domestic gangsterism of the most hateful kind.
Still, alliances are – should be – about the way you look at the world. The US and the UK, whatever our faults (because we have them just as much as anyone else) believe in the rule of law and electing your political leaders. So do Israelis. We are threatened by terrorists who have interpreted Islam as some kind of zero-sum-game death cult. So are Israelis. We need to hold out our hand. We get it. We understand. And we need your help.