Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

Trump, Refugees, and Humanitarianism

January 27, 2017

Vietnamese refugee couple gets married at Camp Pendleton refugee camp. National Archives and Records Administration: Record Group 330: Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921 – 2008, 5/1/75

Since the end of World War II, U.S. presidents from both major political parties have temporarily modified immigration laws to allow refugees fleeing humanitarian crises entry into the country. In 1956, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower increased the number of visas available to Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet persecution. Standing at the base of the Statue of Liberty in October 1965, Democrat Lyndon Johnson declared that U.S. authorities would admit any Cuban who reached American shores seeking asylum from the Castro regime. Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter both signed legislation to admit Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees fleeing postwar troubles in Indochina and residual conflicts following the Vietnam War. In all these cases, the presidents invoked America’s humanitarian impulse, arguing that the willingness to take in exiles who had escaped political persecution, war, famine, or other humanitarian crises was part of the American spirit.

Yesterday the Department of Homeland Security halted staff interviews with refugees in anticipation of Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order banning refugees from entry into the U.S. and suspending visas for Syrians and citizens of other Middle Eastern and North African countries. Trump’s approach to refugees departs from the bipartisan consensus that had preceded him regarding humanitarianism and refugees. It is an example of why the Trump ascendancy is such a jarring moment. It’s not because we’re transitioning from one political party’s control of the presidency to another’s. It’s because we are watching a shift away from the worldview that Republican and Democratic presidents generally have shared for the past seventy years.

Trump has argued that refugees from the Middle East pose a national security threat because they come from a largely Muslim region. During the Cold War, Hungarian, Cuban, and Indochinese refugees fled to the U.S. from Communist countries at a time when Americans viewed Communism as the primary global threat. American citizens have not always supported refugee assistance legislation. In 1975, some Americans opposed the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees because they worried about competition for jobs and did not want the reminder of a shocking war. Racism was just below the surface of some of the opposition. Yet President Ford implored Americans to have compassion for Vietnamese refugees and support resettlement efforts. The U.S. had “always been a humanitarian nation,” Ford asserted during a press conference regarding Vietnamese refugees. Taking them in was “a step consistent with our tradition of providing refuge for the homeless, and help for the helpless,” Ford declared.[1]

None of Trump’s predecessors acted solely out of altruism when responding to refugee crises. Politics and international relations influenced their policymaking. But by appealing to the notion that helping those in need is part of the American character, presidents such as Ford and others offered a moral standard that Americans could look to even if actions or policies did not always live up to it. Confucius argued that virtue is the most important characteristic in a leader, and that the best leaders inspire their subjects to strive for higher standards of behavior. Donald Trump’s callous response to the current refugee crisis suggests that he is not interested in this kind of leadership.

[1] Heather Stur, “Hiding Behind the Humanitarian Label: Refugees, Repatriates, and the Rebuilding of America’s Benevolent Image After the Vietnam War,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 39, No. 2, April 2015, pp. 223-244.



September 29, 2014

With pledges of assistance from allies around the world, and the approval of Congress, President Obama has launched a military response to the Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The intervention will include targeted airstrikes and increased humanitarian aid. The president has emphasized that the U.S. will not deploy ground troops to fight IS, although some military leaders, including Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have suggested that defeating IS will eventually require ground forces, be they American or otherwise. U.S. public opinion regarding the president’s plan is mixed. According to poll results published in the New York Times, Americans generally support the use of airstrikes but are wary about another U.S. war in the Middle East. They have good reason to be—in addition to military leaders such as Dempsey, foreign policy analysts and even the president have alluded to this latest war in Iraq being a long one.

What to do after the war does not appear to be part of the conversation. U.S. military strategists and policymakers believe it will be difficult to defeat IS, and they are concerned about the risk of IS remnants morphing into another terrorist group in the aftermath. It seems obvious that the end of IS will not spell the end of Islamic extremism, so what will the U.S. and its global partners, so keen to launch airstrikes, do to neutralize the threat of recurring terrorism after this war ends? What are the political solutions that will prevent the next terrorist group from surfacing?

Since 1945, counterinsurgency has been central to the American way of war as the method for bringing about long-term political change, but it has rarely been successful. In the past decade, the U.S. failed to win enough hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring stability to those places, which is not so much about methods as it is about the foreigners who bring them. As Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has noted, “Historically, visionary indigenous leaders backed by native populations have been the key to building viable states—not foreigners serving one-year tours of duty, no matter how passionate and skilled they might be.”[1] In the case of building a secure Iraq, Iraqi intellectuals can play a central role. Foreign policy conversations in the U.S. must begin focusing on how local intellectuals can establish a viable state and prevent another extremist group from rising out of the ashes of IS if the U.S. and its allies can destroy it. Looking beyond airstrikes, U.S. policymakers should reach out to groups such as the Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq, which for the past few months has been circulating a statement online calling for a UN-supervised conference of reconciliation and a restoration of democratic political institutions by an Iraqi coalition that transcends sectarian lines. The statement blames the U.S. military for creating the current mess in Iraq and calls for international political support rather than force. Neither this group, nor the activism of other Iraqi intellectuals, including a group of university professors who founded a campaign called “Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed,” has received much coverage in the U.S. media, but these may be the groups that can bring lasting political change to Iraq.[2] They appear to be homegrown, not lackeys of the U.S., and they are media- and Internet-savvy. The Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq has used blogs to gain attention to its statement, which as of June had 1,300 signatures. Members of Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed have broadcast videos of their demonstrations on YouTube. These are individuals who want political change and an end to civil war, so U.S. diplomats should figure out who they are, what their plans are, and how much support they have from the broader Iraqi population.

Now that the U.S. has widened its war against IS into Syria, Americans must confront the issue of what’s next there, too. In a speech to the United Nations last week, President Obama announced that the U.S. will arm and train moderate forces opposing the Assad government, and he called for a political settlement to end Syria’s civil war. The president said the U.S. is “prepared to engage in that effort,” but how? For now, Assad is allowing American fighter jets into Syrian air space to strike IS, and he has voiced support for U.S.-led air strikes, so is he now an ally? Just one year ago, President Obama was poised to go to war against Syria for Assad’s use of poisonous gas against his citizens. How will President Obama explain the arming of troops fighting Assad while enjoying Assad’s approval of U.S. warplanes over Syria? Who will lead the political settlement President Obama envisions?

As in Iraq, Syrian intellectuals may be the answer. In June, a group of Syrian intellectuals established the Syrian Association for Citizenship and New Culture, which issued a statement calling for an end to extremism and the establishment of democracy and good governance practices.[3] Danny Postel, associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, recently interviewed Syrian activists and intellectuals regarding U.S. military intervention against IS, and he encountered a variety of attitudes from opposition to ambivalence to support. The U.S. media should cover these individuals, and American diplomats should be in conversation with them.[4] President Obama, his advisers, and the U.S. Congress have decided that it is in America’s interest to fight a war against IS, but without a vision for long-term political stability and an alliance with Iraqis who can implement it, airstrikes and humanitarian aid will, at best, offer a pause in a never ending war against groups like IS in the Middle East.

[1] Karl W. Eikenberry, “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013,

[2] Shukur Khilkhal, “Iraqi intellectuals start campaigns to end bloodshed,” Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East, Sept. 3, 2014,

[3] “Syrian Intellectuals Establish New Culture Association,” The Syrian Observer, June 2, 2014,

[4] “The War on ISIS: Views From Syrian Activists and Intellectuals,” by Danny Postel, Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture, Sept. 20, 2014,

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