President Trump, flanked by Vice President Pence, left, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, speaks after signing executive orders on Friday at the Pentagon in Washington. (Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Opinion writer

The image of President Trump, flanked by Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis, signing an executive order that (among other things) excludes Syrian refugees from the United States, is indelible. Three powerful American leaders, targeting and dehumanizing some of the most vulnerable people on Earth. A picture of bullying. A picture of cruelty. A picture of national shame.

It sits in my head beside images of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, bewildered by the loss of their old lives, assets depleted, living (in some cases) eight to a room, exploited by human traffickers. Many families feel compelled to put their boys to work and their girls into early, forced marriages. “My home is all broken in Syria,” a girl of 6 told me while coloring a picture of helicopters and bombs. Trump is a champion at punching down, but seldom this far.

This executive order is a security measure that very few actual security professionals would prioritize, given that refugees are some of the most carefully vetted people who enter the country. Meanwhile, the downside of (in effect) targeting foreigners by their religion is immediate and considerable — worrying American Muslims and embarrassing the United States’ Muslim friends and allies in the world. When some radical cleric in, say, Central Asia, says, “The new American president hates Islam,” he does not require a conspiracy theory to support his claim. And all of this may have been done with no security upside at all, given the utter incompetence with which the order was drafted and the likelihood that the courts will prevent its implementation.

Trump came to power promising that masterful leadership would replace the “stupid” kind. This action was malicious, counterproductive and inept — the half-baked work of amateurs who know little about security, little about immigration law and nothing about compassion.

(Dalton Bennett,Erin Patrick O'Connor,Katherine Shaver,Monica Akhtar,McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

There is more systematic thought, however, behind Trump’s attempt to recast the United States’ global role — presumably the guiding influence of his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. In his inaugural address, Trump asserted the “right of all nations to put their own interests first” and promised that “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” Trump’s version of the United States is a normal nation, like the Netherlands or Ghana, concerned with its own borders and business, and generally indifferent to the “way of life” chosen by others. Our national identity — as for other nations — is ethnic and cultural. Trump’s America is vaguely Christian. Vaguely 1950s. Vividly white.

A number of policies emerge from these convictions: a walled country, a closed economy and highly restricted immigration. Traditional U.S. commitments — to the special relationship with Britain, to a strong and growing NATO and European Union, to the United States’ Pacific security umbrella — seem up for grabs. The trumpet always calls retreat.

Every U.S. president since World War II has disagreed with the stunted and self-defeating view of the country now held by Trump. Over the past century — in some ways from the beginning — the United States has been a cheerfully abnormal nation. American identity (in this view) is not based mainly on blood or soil, but rather on the patriotic acceptance of a unifying creed. American leaders, Democratic and Republican, have believed that a world where the realm of freedom is growing is more prosperous and secure; a world where freedom is retreating is more dangerous. The reason is not mystical. Dictators tend to be belligerent. Governments accountable to their people are generally more peaceful.

It is the lesson of hard experience. The United States found — twice — that it could not avoid the bloody disorders of Europe by ignoring them. It found that a Pacific dominated by a single, hostile power is a direct threat to its economy and security. It found that Russian aggression in Europe is like Newton’s First Law — moving until some force stops it.

And the United States has often accepted refugees, reflecting its deepest values and building reserves of trust and respect. The Soviet Union or Cuba under Fidel Castro were not working out unique and special “ways of life.” They were producing fleeing victims who would be imprisoned or murdered at home. It is in the United States’ nature to offer at least some of them a home and refuge. The same should be true for Bashar al-Assad’s victims, including the children of a broken country.

This is the difference a creed can make: When Ronald Reagan spoke on foreign policy, tyrants sat uneasy on their thrones and dissidents and refugees took heart. When Donald Trump speaks on foreign policy, tyrants rest easier and dissidents and refugees lose hope.

(Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Read more from Michael Gerson’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook .