The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Being Smart with our Compassion

Stung by the image of a Turkish rescuer carrying the body of a three-year old Syrian boy, drowned when the boat bearing has family to Europe capsized, Chris Hayes last night denounced US immigration policies that will allow only eight thousand Syrians to immigrate next year.

Hayes drew a stark comparison with Germany, where Chancellor Merkel has promised to accept nearly a million refugees next year. Looking at the relative sizes of our two nations, Hayes suggested a target number of at least 100,000 for immigration to the US. Echoing “Black Lives Matter”, Mr. Hayes went on to insist that every presidential contender should be forced to make a declaration of policy on the issue.

I agree that the plight of the refugees is inexcusable, but would respectfully suggest that Mr. Hayes is looking at the problem too narrowly. The US accepts millions of refugees every year from Latin America. Yes, most of those come into our country illegally, but most come to find work, and many of them will be nationalized.

Latin American refugees are driven to the US by political tyranny and criminality rampant in their native countries. The conditions in Syria are more extreme and intense, but the basic problem is the same: the failure of governments to create security and stability for their people. So if Germany is held up as a paragon of compassion on the international stage, we should ask “How many Latin American refugees does Germany accept each year?” Almost none, it would appear from the foreign population statistics (see figure 3).

Now the high-minded will complain that US regional policy – including support for fascist regimes during the Cold War and the ongoing War on Drugs – makes us culpable at least in part for the instability in Latin America. But no less so is Europe responsible for instability in their back yard. The Tutsi genocide in Rwanda at the hands of the Hutus was not an outgrowth of ancient ethnic hatred. The Hutu-Tutsi divide was created by the French, who handed out identity cards to create an exploitable ethnic divide based upon wealth. Elsewhere in Africa, the colonial occupiers created national boundaries to exacerbate existing ethnic tensions, thereby ensuring that the natives were unlikely to rally against their European overlords. Those ethnic tensions continue do bedevil Africa to this day, and the residue of these policies is also evident in the Middle East.

Finally, we should focus on the wealthy nations of the Middle East themselves. The region is awash in oil money. Where are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Dubai in the relief effort?

I am aware of at least one program that responds to the humanitarian crisis emanating from Syria. The Shia community in the south of Iraq is allocating religious charity to the support of Iraqi Sunnis displaced by ISIS/Daesh.

Given this context, I believe that Mr. Hayes has no moral case that compels us to take the extreme measure of relocating hundreds of thousands of refugees to America. And considering the logistics, it would appear that the most effective way to support the relief effort is to provide financial support to regional efforts. I would hold this as the litmus test for American involvement, but it is from the region that the request should come. When Europe comes forward with a plan for managing the crisis, that is the moment for us to pony up to support the effort. If we are to be outraged, it should be that our allies allowed the problem to fester until it became a disaster.

What’s Foreign about Success?

When President Clinton’s team left office, they warned the incoming Bush Administration that some military response had to be mounted against Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the Cole bombing. The Bush security team, dominated by Cold War hawks, dismissed the warning as a Clinton albatross, and set off to renegotiate the arms treaties with Russia to allow construction of a nuclear missile shield.

The rest, of course, is history. Osama bin Laden, encouraged by U.S. flaccidity to believe that one last strike in the heart of America would cause us to curl up in a fetal position, set about planning the 9/11 attacks.

In the Middle East, we face a similar situation with Israel, still living in the memory of the Holocaust, and even after 60 years unable to build a lasting peace with its neighbors. They turn to America again and again for financial and military aid, but do not heed our requests to negotiate a lasting peace. Instead, as recent perusal of the Jerusalem Times reveals, they rewrite the history of Israel to present themselves as victims rather than armed aggressors.

I agree that the state of Israel should survive, but the conditions of that survival have to reflect the realities of the politics of the Middle East. That means, if we are going to pursue conflict against those that seek to destroy it, we must establish impeccable moral credentials. That means talking to the leaders of Israel’s enemies, and giving them the opportunity to participate in the success that comes with liberal economics. It means eroding the “American + Israel = Axis of Evil” rationale for suppressing Iranian dissent. Simply beating Iran down because Netenyahu says so is going to inflame the entire region against American involvement, bring terror back to us at home, and – given the asymmetrical practical realities in the region – ultimately result in Israel’s destruction.

So, people of Israel, you need to elect a different leader. And Republicans in Congress – you need to stop playing politics with Israeli lives.

The situation in Russia has similar characteristics. Arguably, Vladimir Putin is criminally psychotic, having recently awarded medals of honor to two members of the personal hit squad that has assassinated those attempting to document the costs to Soviet society of Putin’s psychosis (Metsov being the most recent). But the very fact that Putin caters to these men is a revelation of weakness. Where once he was heralded as the guarantor of economic stability in Russia, recent military adventurism (in Georgia as well as the Ukraine) has caused the West to unite in economic sanctions against Russia, and stimulated weaker neighbors to seek NATO membership. The oligarchy recognizes this, and so Putin is left with only one tool for managing opposition: murder.

The Soviet Union experienced such a reign of terror under Stalin, and one of the causes of Russia’s declining global influence in the ’70’s and ’80’s was the creation of a Politburo that ensured no one man would ever again wield that kind of power. Russians have experience with this kind of tyranny, and while it may take time, the oligarchy will not allow Putin to purge them as Stalin purged his foes. Putin’s adventurism is the death knell for his regime.

That President Obama defers to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel in this matter should be considered a blessing to us at home. It allows us to focus on the worsening situation in Syria and Iraq that is fanning sectarian tension and generating powerful sympathy for Iran among Iraqi Shias. That Merkel counsels against providing advanced lethal assistance to Ukraine reflects her nation’s experience in winning the Cold War. It was economic power that brought Germany back together, and it is economic power that will eventually hold sway in the Ukraine.

So, again, Senate Republicans, try to be good neighbors. Stop playing politics with the lives of our allies.