From the beginning, the Syrian conflict has been a moral morass for America’s political establishment. Some of this is par-for-the-course in a country that hasn’t decided whether its foreign policy should be a reflection of its moral values or only of its strategic interests. In some ways, the US faces a unique dilemma: in no other country is it as difficult for citizens to convince themselves that horrors experienced by people on the other side of the globe are beyond their ability to influence.
To many, that outlook has begun to stink of hubris. In the wake of our disastrous intervention in Iraq and the Great Recession, Americans have begun to wonder about our ability to not just bring military assets to bear, but to actually change conditions on the ground. For many voters, caution and moderation have come to be seen as the better part of wisdom. One way or another, they reckon, the world will burn; best to make sure we’re far away from it when it does.
President Obama’s foreign policy has been largely in tune with this sentiment. Particularly in the Middle East, the President has pursued a policy of limiting American exposure – willing to use force, but only when he’s sure he has a firm exit plan that can be quickly implemented. In Syria, that has amounted to a strategy of containment.
That stance has always been morally dubious, since it barely contemplated a solution to the bloody fighting that has seen hundreds of thousands killed and countless people tortured. Instead, it maintained the position that such suffering was simply not a core interest of the United States, and therefore not a proper basis on which to act. In 1994, the United States took the same stance on Rwanda, failing to intervene in a genocide that killed more than 800,000 people. The same pattern was repeated when a civil war killed several million in the Congo from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Now, it’s happening again in Syria while the American foreign policy establishment mostly stands idly by.
It would be irresponsible not to point out that the containment strategy is failing – so that even the argument that the morally reprehensible is acceptable when it serves our national interests comes under strain. In the absence of American or European assistance, the moderate forces within Syria have been entirely overrun. After years of fighting, the conflict is fully radicalized and has given rise to the Islamic State – effectively giving the forces of militant Islam the beachhead that the United States fought a war in Afghanistan to take away.
It has become clear that the Obama Administration failed to anticipate the strategic importance of the Syrian conflict. The clearest example of this has been the refugee crisis, which now threatens the internal cohesion of the European Union – by far the United States’ largest and most significant trading and diplomatic partner. If the EU falters and comes undone under the weight of its border policy, Obama’s dithering in Syria will come to be widely understood as a massive strategic blunder.
Seen purely from that perspective, the absence of American leadership in dealing with the refugees streaming out of Syria appears to be a dereliction of duty. But the American response to the Syrian refugee crisis has also been morally indefensible, and the stances taken by many of our political leaders have been outright shameful.
At this point, the basic outline of the situation is clear: while some politicians have used the specter of refugees to scare voters and stoke xenophobia, there is little to suggest that the United States couldn’t take in an order of magnitude more refugees than it is currently accepting. This could be done at relatively little cost and with even less risk to domestic security. The United States has the world’s most robust system for vetting potential refugees as well as the benefit of a massive ocean between us and the conflict area; while Europe is forced to deal with waves of displaced people literally washing up on their shores, the United States can pick and choose who we bring in. Yet we refuse to do so.
It is hard to tell which of the two culprits – callousness or cowardice – is worse. There can be no defense for our unwillingness to either seriously engage with the Syrian conflict or meaningfully mitigate the outflow of displaced people. Meanwhile, the argument that the threat of allowing in refugees is simply too high smacks of moral absurdity. Every American has the right to value their safety and security, but the moment when we are unable to contemplate accepting a minimal level of risk in order to give futures to hundreds of thousands of innocent people – at that moment we act like cowards and we are unfit to claim the moral high ground.
If we’re too scared to do the right thing, we should come right out and say it.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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