There are many reasons to cringe at President Donald Trump’s decision to reinstate the ban on transgender people in the military. It’s un-American to exclude a whole group of people who are willing and able to serve. It plays to the base instincts of the president’s core supporters. It marginalizes Americans who in the last few years have made great strides to achieving legal equality.
But in addition to all of this, Trump’s decision Wednesday is a strategic error in the current war against jihadis. Think about it like this: The enemy seeks to re-create a caliphate where homosexuality and gender bending would be punishable by death. They advertise this all the time.
When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that same-sex marriage was legal, sympathizers of the Islamic State responded on Twitter by posting (with the hashtag “#lovewins”) gruesome video of gay men being thrown off buildings in Syria. Demonizing the “decadence” of the West has been a staple of jihadi propaganda for decades.
It’s not something to be underestimated. Muslim fundamentalists, like any radical movement, must project momentum. This is why it’s so important to take territory from groups like the Islamic State, to puncture its image of conquest and expansion. But it’s also important to counter the group’s ideological momentum. An American military that includes gay, lesbian and transgender people implicitly proves the superiority of inclusive liberal societies — every time a jihadi is killed or captured by that superior, inclusive military.
Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who helped target al-Qaida leaders, put it like this: “An army that is inclusive and shuns bigotry not only demoralizes jihadists, but flies in the face of everything they promote.”
Not so long ago, Trump himself seemed to understand this. He campaigned as the most openly pro-gay Republican in U.S. history. After the June 2016 slaughter at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Trump made a speech defending his proposal for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration with an appeal to gay rights. “Remember this,” he said. “Radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-American.”
Now it’s true that Trump too often conflates the religion of Islam with its radical strain. It’s also true that Trump has backed away from his Muslim ban since becoming president. But his point about radical Islam is a strong one and should have informed his deliberations on reversing the 2016 policy that has allowed transgender people to serve openly.
Imagine if Trump had leaned into the military’s recent policy instead of reversing it. Perhaps, with a little luck, a transgender special operations officer would be on the team that captures Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of the Islamic State. Or maybe a transgender drone operator would be the one who fired the missile that rid the world of al-Qaida’s boss, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Think of the opportunities. The Pentagon could tweet the image of Baghdadi on his knees with his hands tied behind his back, or Zawahiri’s exploded compound, with just a simple hashtag: #lovewins.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.