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US President Barack Obama holds a press conference following the G20 summit in Antalya, November 16, 2015. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama's Cynical Refugee Ploy

Walter Russell Mead

The governors of 26 U.S. states signaled yesterday that they will not be willing to take in any Syrian refugees, following the lead of Michigan and Alabama, which announced similar objections this past Sunday. Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire became the first Democrat to voice opposition to President Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 refugees from the war in Syria in the next year. Governors of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Connecticut, on the other hand, came out in explicit support of the initiative.

Goodhearted liberals have reacted with handwringing to the avalanche of dissenting governors. Some have earnestly quoted relevant Bible verses about taking in the poor and the afflicted, while the usual righteous tut-tutters have engaged in their usual righteous tut-tutting. “Everybody who disagrees with my proposal is a bitter-clinging xenophobe, not to mention a racist,” is the clear implication of the President’s supporters.

That there are racist xenophobes in this country is clear to anybody who has ever perused the comments section of an internet news site, or has spent too much time on Facebook and Twitter. And many of these people are spewing ugly hate about Syrian refugees in ways that appall—or should appall—anybody with an open mind and a humane spirit. That said, the refugee issue is not, despite President Obama’s rhetoric, a simple morality play featuring Wise Liberals and Racist Jacksonians. It is something more complicated and, at least as far as President Obama’s own role in the debate, a bit uglier.

To see the full cynicism of the Obama approach to the refugee issue, one has only to ask President Obama’s least favorite question: Why is there a Syrian refugee crisis in the first place?

Obama’s own policy decisions—allowing Assad to convert peaceful demonstrations into an increasingly ugly civil war, refusing to declare safe havens and no fly zones—were instrumental in creating the Syrian refugee crisis. This crisis is in large part the direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to stand aside and watch Syria burn. For him to try and use a derisory and symbolic program to allow 10,000 refugees into the United States in order to posture as more caring than those evil Jacksonian rednecks out in the benighted sticks is one of the most cynical, cold-blooded, and nastily divisive moves an American President has made in a long time.

Moreover, many of those “benighted” people were willing to sign up for the U.S. military and go to fight ISIS in Syria to protect the refugees. Many Americans who now oppose the President’s ill-considered refugee program have long supported the use of American power to create “safe zones” in Syria so the refugees could be sheltered and fed in their own country. If President Obama seriously cared about the fate of Syria’s millions of displaced people, he would have started to organize those safe havens years ago. And if he understood the nature of America’s role in Europe, he would have known that working with the Europeans to prevent a mass refugee and humanitarian disaster was something that had to be done.

Not even President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq has been as destructive for Europe or as damaging to the Transatlantic alliance as President Obama’s hard-hearted and short-sighted Syria policy. The flood of refugees is shaking the European Union to its core, and Obama’s policy has cemented perceptions among many around the world that the United States is no longer the kind of useful ally that it once was. France didn’t even bother to invoke NATO’s Article 5 after the Paris attacks; nobody really thinks of President Obama as the man you want at your side when the chips are down.

The collapse of President Obama’s Syria policy is hardly a partisan issue. He has repeatedly overruled his own national security officials, top diplomats, and advisors, many of whom have been horrified by the President’s passivity in the face of onrushing disaster. His abrupt policy switch on airstrikes left many senior Democrats who had supported his apparent determination to enforce his “red line” against Assad twisting in the wind.

To think that conspicuous moral posturing and holy posing over a symbolic refugee quota could turn President Obama from the goat to the hero of the Syrian crisis is absurd. Wringing your hands while Syria turns into a hell on earth, and then taking a token number of refugees, can be called many things, but decent and wise are not among them. You don’t have to be a xenophobe or a racist or even a Republican to reject this President’s leadership on Syria policy. All you need for that is common sense and a moral compass.

And it’s worse. The Obama Administration’s extreme caution about engagement in Syria led it to insist on such a thorough process of vetting potential Syrian allies that years of effort and tens of millions of dollars resulted in only a paltry handful of people being found acceptable to receive American weapons and training. The refugee vetting process won’t be nearly this thorough; it’s almost certain that the President’s program will result in settling people in the United States who could not be certified to fight for the United States in Syria. Given our gun laws, uncertified Syrians living in the United States will soon have the opportunity to get weapons that the United States government would refuse to give them in Syria. To millions of Americans, this is a double standard they can neither understand nor accept. To call people troubled by these concerns racists and xenophobes is to divide and polarize this country in ways that will cost us all dearly down the road. We have enough hate, enough radicalism, enough mutual misunderstanding and distrust between left and right in America as it is. The President is adding to that distrust, and doing it in a particularly ugly and damaging way.

If President Obama really had the superior moral insight and wisdom that he believes makes him so much more humane and far-seeing than the ignorant rednecks who keep on opposing him, he would have approached the refugee issue with less arrogance and more self-awareness. It is not given to the sons (or even to the daughters) of mortals to be right about everything all the time; Presidents make mistakes, even in the Middle East. A little humility, a little acknowledgement of responsibility, a little self-reflection could go a long way.

For no one, other than the Butcher Assad and the unspeakable al-Baghdadi, is as responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria as is President Obama. No one has committed more sins of omission, no one has so ruthlessly sacrificed the well-being of Syria’s people for his own ends, as the man in the White House. In all the world, only President Obama had the ability to do anything significant to prevent this catastrophe; in all the world no one turned his back so coldly and resolutely on the suffering Syrians as the man who sits in the White House today—a man who is now lecturing his fellow citizens on what he insists is their moral inferiority before his own high self-esteem.

From the standpoint of American interests and of the well being of the Syrians, the primary responsibility that the United States has toward the people of Syria is not to offer asylum to something like 0.25 percent of its refugee population. The primary duty of this country was to prevent such a disaster from happening and, failing that, to support in-country safe havens and relief operations. No doubt President Obama and the unthinking press zealots who applaud his every move prefer a conversation about why ordinary Americans are racist xenophobes to one about why President Obama’s Syria policy has created an immense and still expanding disaster.

The “why are Jacksonians such xenophobes?” conversation, given the way so much of the country’s media works, is the conversation we are having. It is not the conversation the country, or even the President, needs. The Syria war has not finished creating refugees, undermining regional and even global security, putting WMD in terrorist hands, or spreading the poisons of radicalism and sectarian war across the Middle East and among vulnerable Muslims in Europe and beyond. Things can and will get worse as long as American policy continues to flounder; instead of arguing about how to shelter a few thousand refugees we need to look hard at how we are failing to address the disaster that has created millions, and that continues to grow.

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