By Barbara Slavin
In the aftermath of the terrible bombings in Brussels, the knee-jerk reaction among some American politicians is to close borders to immigrants and hit harder at the Middle Eastern enclaves of the Islamic State.
The last thing the United States should do at a moment of such peril to Europe is withdraw from treaty commitments to democratic allies. Trump’s approach of building higher walls around the United States and intensifying bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq will do little to address the root causes of terrorism.
That policy will likely make the situation worse.
Meanwhile, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest competitor for the Republican presidential nomination, called for U.S. law enforcement “to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized” – a sure formula for deepening resentment and boosting ISIS recruitment.
Europe urgently needs to assemble a fuller database of suspected militants, to improve cooperation among security and intelligence services and within European Union member states.
As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted the EU “needs to reinvent its security system. It needs to break the stovepipes that prevent sharing information, enforcing borders and protecting citizens,” much as the United States had to do following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
A common database could help apprehend ISIS fighters of Western origin who travel to the Middle East for training and then return to home. Nearly 40,000 foreign fighters are believed to have gone to Iraq and Syria since 2012, including 5,000 from Europe and nearly 500 from Belgium, the largest number per capita.
In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, President Obama tacked on a few words about the tragedy to a major speech he gave in Cuba on the first visit of a US president to the island nation in 88 years.
“We will do whatever is necessary to support our friend and ally, Belgium, in bringing to justice those who are responsible,” Obama said. Unlike Trump and Cruz, the president said the attacks were “yet another reminder that the world must unite, we must be together, regardless of nationality, or race, or faith, in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.”
While Obama has used force to kill extremists around the world, the heart of his foreign policy is engagement with former adversaries such as Iran and Cuba. The United States has profound differences with these countries over issues including human rights—which the president underlined in his speech in Havana broadcast live to the Cuban people—but can cooperate on matters of grave national and international concern.
Cuba, with extensive contacts in Africa from the days when it sent troops to help insurgencies and doctors to treat the sick, may have intelligence about Muslim and other extremists there. Cuba also has an extensive network in Latin America that might be of use to combat a global jihadist threat.
Rather than retreating from the world, the next American president must work even harder to build ties to former foes and to reinforce relations with traditional allies. Bombing and bigotry cannot replace the hard work of diplomats and intelligence professionals in keeping us as safe as possible.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.