President Donald Trump confounded most of his critics and even some of his supporters last week by attacking Syria. Trump came into office promising to stay out of foreign entanglements and advocating outreach to Russia. So the decision to punish Moscow’s Syrian client shocked those on the right who liked the sound of Trump’s “America First” isolationist rhetoric. For mainstream conservatives who hope that his administration will discard his campaign rhetoric on foreign policy, the decision to strike was a tonic.
For Democrats, Trump’s move is particularly painful. It throws a wrench into their efforts to portray the president as a moral imbecile or a puppet who was essentially elected by Russians and is now ruled by them. If Trump is going to act like a commander in chief able to make carefully calibrated decisions that starkly contrast with his predecessor’s feckless and immoral dithering on Syria, and if he does this while also offending Russia, the Left’s “resistance” strategy and their truculent anti-Russia tone begin to look less effective.
Deprived of the standard talking points they’ve been using to assail Trump since the inauguration, most Democrats are flailing. Some are joining Rand Paul in saying that no president should be able to order a strike without a congressional vote. There is some merit to that argument, but it’s not one most Democrats like, given that they support such actions whenever their party controls the White House. Plus, few liberals have any real enthusiasm for a strict interpretation of the Constitution.
Instead, they are falling back on something they do care about: refugees. Democrats are claiming that Trump may have been right to punish the butcher of Damascus for atrocities that President Obama ignored. But there is a disconnect, they say, between his military action and his immigration policies. According to both Hillary Clinton and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, anyone who has compassion for the victims of the Syrian regime’s nerve-gas attacks — as Trump clearly demonstrated — must also be willing to let refugees from that country enter the United States.
EDITORIAL: Syria after the Airstrikes
While Trump is often guilty of inconsistency, this is a specious argument. America’s role as the world’s only superpower does obligate it to act when the international order is threatened by atrocities. The leader of the free world can and must send a message to rogue regimes that they can’t use weapons of mass destruction with impunity. But this doesn’t mean that everyone affected by those governments automatically gets a ticket to enter the United States.
If the U.S. were to admit all refugees from countries where it has fought wars or aided one side or another in a conflict, there would be no limit to those who would have a right to enter the United States. As a matter of law and tradition, the entry of refugees is governed by factors that relate to whether their plight is a special humanitarian concern to Americans, whether there are reasonable alternatives for resettlement, and whether the particular refugees are admissible to the United States. While one may claim that Syrians qualify as a focus of humanitarian concern, they arguably fail under the latter two categories.
The Syrian civil war is one of the greatest human-rights catastrophes of the last half-century. Last year, the United Nations said that 13.5 millions Syrians needed assistance inside their country, including 6 million who had been forced from their homes. In January, the U.N. claimed that more than 4.8 million Syrians had fled their country. Many are eager to leave the Middle East and start new lives in more prosperous lands where there is no war. But it’s absurd to think that it’s the West’s responsibility to take in what amounts to close to 22 percent of Syria’s pre-war population. The only rational long-term solution for Syrian refugees is to end the war, not to facilitate Bashar al-Assad’s effort to depopulate his tortured country.
Nor is there an immediate need to transfer large numbers of Syrian refugees out of the region to the U.S. Most are living in camps in Jordan or Turkey where conditions are not ideal but apparently livable. Large numbers who are able to leave the camps have already fled to Western European nations such as Germany, which have opened the floodgates to Middle Eastern refugees. Whether that policy is wise or without costs is a matter of debate for Europeans. But no matter what one thinks about that question, what the Europeans have done makes it difficult to argue that the United States must follow suit.
The notion that refugees pose no threat at all is based on sentiment rather than evidence or common sense.
Trump was accused, not without some justice, of appealing to prejudice during his campaign when he called for a flat, if temporary, ban on entry into the U.S. of all Muslim immigrants. If religion were the only argument against letting in the Syrians, as Trump’s critics assert, the critics would be right. But their effort to ignore the security question is disingenuous. As events in Europe have shown, if you let in large numbers of people from countries where radical Islam has taken hold, it is a given that a certain number of them, even if it is small, will be potential threats.
The notion that refugees pose no threat at all is based on sentiment rather than evidence or common sense. While Assad and his Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese allies as well as ISIS terrorists have victimized the people of Syria, the country has become a hotbed of Islamist extremism. Indeed, the depredations of pro-Assad forces have bolstered support for radical factions such as ISIS. It’s also true that Syria has collapsed as a normal country. As a result, it’s impossible to effectively vet Syrians who wish to come to the U.S.
Democrats who have taken up the argument about opening the door to impossible-to-vet Syrian refugees in the wake of last week’s events that, for once, gave Trump favorable press coverage are simply trying to change the subject. Instead, they should support policies that will actually do something to help the refugees go home to a nation no longer ruled by Assad. Genuine compassion means backing measures to force Assad’s ouster, something that will, in turn, lessen support for ISIS. Until that happens, the U.S. must be ready to aid the refugees where they are and ready to use force to punish Assad for violating international norms. Trump must also apply diplomatic and economic pressure to send the same message to Assad’s Russian and Iranian enablers. Anything else said about Trump and Syrian refugees is pure political hypocrisy.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is the opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online.