National Security & Defense

Syrian Refugees: The U.S. Should Do More

Refugees crowd a bus station in Istanbul, Turkey. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty)

The unannounced policy of the Obama administration of progressively withdrawing from much of the world, while it has been riddled with inconsistencies and been the subject of endless dissembling, is starting to incite regional powers to fill part of the resulting vacuum.

The most positive recent example of this is the long-awaited determination of the Japanese parliament (diet) to approve the dispatch of Japanese military forces beyond immediate Japanese territorial limits, even if Japan itself is not under attack. For the first time in the 70 years since the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, after having been driven back 2,000 miles in the central and southwest Pacific and flung out of the Philippines, after losing its entire navy, and after enduring the only two military applications of the atomic bomb, Japan is resuming its role as one of the world’s great powers. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has explicitly predicted much closer cooperation between the Japanese navy (self-defense force) and the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but has made no secret of the fact that the increased assertiveness of China has been the principal motive of his government in enabling Japan to join with other regional powers in countering Chinese claims to large stretches of the far Pacific. By some measurements, Japan has the world’s fifth-largest navy now, including two helicopter carriers, and clearly has the ability and the will to resume its formidable naval tradition as an ancient seafaring island nation.

Less straightforward, and certainly less benign, is the deployment of advanced interceptors and apparently several thousand ground troops by Russia to Syria. The West attempted to ostracize Russia for its aggressions in Ukraine, imposing sanctions and taking advantage of the fortuitous reduction in the world oil price by Saudi Arabia, which deprived Vladimir Putin’s government of the means for much adventurism beyond Crimea and Donbas. The Obama administration’s feckless assertions that Syrian president Bashar “Assad must go,” with no follow-up, and vague notions of supporting “moderate” forces in the Syrian civil war against both Assad and the barbarous onslaught of the Islamic State (ISIS), effectively encouraged the intensification of the civil war to the point where ISIS controls half the country, Assad a quarter, and other factions, which would include the U.S. protégé if there were one, the rest. Over 4 million refugees have fled the country, and almost 8 million others have been displaced within it. Hundreds of thousands have got to Europe, where most are stopped at the borders in desperate and disorderly conditions. Russia now presents the only visible force of potential stability, and the West is in no position to object to Russia’s propping up of Assad. Certainly, should there be any direct encounter between ISIS and trained units of the Russian army, the successors to the victors of Stalingrad will make short work of a force whose specialties are circulating videos of the beheading of defenseless Westerners and the destruction of historic monuments and antiquities.

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American and Western European influence in the Middle East has sunk to such a nadir that Putin is the closest there is to an outside civilizing influence in the region. Americans should be aware that, with the best will in the world, American influence in the region over the last nearly 40 years since the Camp David Agreement (1978) has been almost wholly negative, except for the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The Carter administration is complicit in the overthrow of the shah, and the Obama administration has facilitated the nuclear militarization of the ayatollahs. The Iraq War, which was designed to democratize Iraq, atomized the country, and the George W. Bush administration’s demobilization of 400,000 soldiers and police, who went into unemployment with their weapons and munitions, created chaos that was brought somewhat under control by the troop surge but exploded again after the abrupt departure of remaining American forces in 2011. Iranian influence predominates in the majority of Iraq, and apart from Kurdistan, ISIS predominates in the rest, as well as in much of Syria. The agitation for democracy in the Middle East by the second Bush administration elevated Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Here, we dodged the bullet, as the Brotherhood mismanaged its position and was overthrown by the military leadership it had installed, and was sent packing for violations of the constitution that it had largely written, somewhat in the manner of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. Yet the administration and even certain Republicans, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, badgered the new, pro-Western secular regime to be more generous to the Brotherhood.

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#share#It is rarely a benign circle in the Middle East. Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Anwar Sadat (eventually murdered by an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) practically bundled the Russians right out of the Middle East in the mid Seventies. Barack Obama, by his self-evaporating “red line” in Syria (which dumped the issue of Assad’s gassing his citizens into the lap of the Russians) and his refusal to play any role in supporting a palatable alternative in the Syrian war, is ushering the Russians back into the region now. The mighty effort in Iraq has delivered most of that country from the odious Saddam to the even more odious Iranian theocrats and Islamic State, and the U.S. is reduced to encouraging the Iranians in their efforts to keep ISIS out of Baghdad. Given this grim and ludicrous sequence of events, a general and official American desire to be done with the region is understandable, as is the fact that that desire is largely shared in the region.

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But history, including the 9/11 attacks, indicates that, as the American enemies of isolation concluded at the end of World War II, ignoring explosive regions of the distant world generally causes their violence not to bypass the United States but to arrive at its shores. American disillusionment with commitment of forces to the Middle East is certainly understandable, but so is the widespread view in the Middle East that the ineffectual responses of the Clinton administration to the early terrorist acts (the first World Trade Center attack, 1993; the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, 1996; the attack on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and on the USS Cole, all in 1998), the George W. Bush wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the waffling and posturing of the Obama years are all parts of the problem.

Ignoring explosive regions of the distant world generally causes their violence not to bypass the United States but to arrive at its shores.

Given President Obama’s (completely unintended) role in generating the terrible and pitiful flight of millions of people from their homes in Syria and Iraq, it is contemptible that he should speak of possibly admitting just 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States. Of the 4 million Syrians who have fled the country, about 1.7 million are in Turkey, where the Turkish government is making a reasonable effort to retain them in sanitary camps, adequately fed and sheltered. On a relatively positive note, over 700,000 have arrived in Lebanon and have diluted the importance in that country of Hezbollah, a terrorist movement sustained by the Iranians via the Assad government; and perhaps 500,000 Syrians have been taken in, at least temporarily, in Jordan, where they dilute the demographic strength of the Palestinians in the Hashemite kingdom. Over 500,000 have arrived this year on the borders of the European Union, especially Greece, Italy, and Hungary, creating a humanitarian crisis as well as acute stresses within the EU, where agreed policy is for the border states to determine in which country asylum applicants are seeking to reside. This is not a system that can function under the pressure of such numbers. France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have been generous in the numbers of refugees they have accepted in recent years. But in the current circumstances, the violence in Syria and Iraq has contributed a majority of the migrants, including over 500,000 Christians, chased out of the cradle of civilization, where they have lived for 2,000 years. Given inadvertent American complicity in causing or aggravating these conditions and migrations, there is a moral obligation for the United States to try to help organize an effective international safety net for these destitute people.

#related#​The U.S. generously helped the displaced of Europe after both World Wars, distributing food and assistance that saved the lives of millions of people. It evacuated and admitted 130,000 Vietnamese refugees when that country was overrun by the North Vietnamese in 1975. It is unbecoming and un-American for this administration to pretend, however accelerated its withdrawal from some parts of the world​, that it has no role or duty beyond the eventual admission of a risibly small number of people. No sane person is asking the United States to accept an indigestible number of people, and the U.S. certainly has the right to reduce its involvement in the world, though anyone but America’s enemies would hope for a more elegant and coherent approach to that policy than the one this administration has pursued. But the United States has no right smugly to proclaim that this is a crisis that has nothing to do with the U.S., renouncing a shining American tradition of humanitarian assistance in times of mortal threat to masses of innocent civilians and washing its hands of it.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.



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