The Politics of Syrian Refugees

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The above appears on the Statue of Liberty and is part of a larger poem by Emma Lazarus. With its location near Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty became the symbol for new immigrants and refugees entering the United States in search of a better life. Even though the massive immigration center no longer processes new people into the country, the statue still retains its symbol for those that are yearning to be free. Yet it would appear that the quote above doesn’t apply to the 21st century… at least to some.

Syria has been bogged down in a civil war since the Arab Spring. In the past couple of years, a new terrorist group (ISIS) has emerged as a major threat both to the stability of Syria and neighboring Iraq and to the western world. It has become a confusing mix of who is fighting who. (The following video tries to simplify the ongoing war in Syria.

On November 13, Islamic extremists went on a rampage throughout Paris killing 129 people. It turns out that one of those responsible is a Syrian refugee that got into France with thousands of other refugees that have been entering Europe as the war in Syria has escalated. This was one out of thousands yet there is no way to determine if there are more. It was always a concern that ISIS would try to slip agents into Europe and the US through the mass migration of Syrian refugees. It would appear that at least one did and possibly others, but it may not warrant the mass hysteria that seems to be coming from this horrible event.

The rest of the attackers that night, though still Muslim extremists, were European nationalists. As Republican governors, members of Congress, and even candidates for President have started foaming at the mouth about not accepting any Syrian refugees now, they say absolutely nothing about allowing Europeans into the country. These are the same Republicans that say one can’t blame all law-abiding gun owners any time there is a mass shooting. Yet somehow they are going to accuse all Syrian refugees because of one terrorist that came in with all the others.

Governors throughout the US have been declaring that they will not accept Syrian refugees within their state. This is more political posturing than reality. The Refugee Act of 1980, which was an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, created explicit procedures on how to deal with refugees entering the US by creating a uniform resettlement and absorption policy. Basically this makes it a federal matter, not a state. So all of these governors have no real say. Once someone has been approved and is allowed to enter the US, they are free to move about the country and settle wherever they would like just the same as anyone else.

Republicans in the House of Representatives, under new House Speaker Paul Ryan, are preparing legislation to halt Syrian refugees. It’s unclear as to whether such a bill would pass the Senate where Democrats can still filibuster. And it’s more likely to get a veto from President Obama if it were to reach his desk. Republicans need to tread more carefully and watch their words and their tone though. According to an article on POLITICO, faith-based groups as well as Evangelical Christians are largely in favor of the Syrian refugees.

The words of President Franklin Roosevelt come to mind. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear and hate aren’t the answers. True, we can’t tell which of the refugees are good and which might be members of ISIS or another extremist group. But we can’t even say that about our own citizens. We have to remember that 99% of those that are coming to this country are in search of safety and a better life… something that was ripped away from them in their home country.

In early 2015, several Bosnian refugees that had settled in St. Louis in the 1990s were arrested for sending money and military supplies to terrorist groups overseas. Did this mean that all the Bosnian refugees that entered our country were terrorists and should be deported? Of course not. Just a few bad apples in a community that has been a valuable asset to the city as a whole.

According to the American Immigration Council, the United States took in approximately 70,000 refugees in 2014 (the same as 2013). Almost half have came from the Near East/South Asia which includes Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. The cap for the number of refugees is set at 70,000 for 2015 as well.

Our nation has always been a melting pot of different people. It makes our culture quite unique as we have found a way to blend it all together. There have been times when immigrants and refugees haven’t been given a fair chance… the Irish, Catholics, Italians, Eastern Europeans, etc. In the end, the fear that was largely rampant was proven mostly unfounded. The vast majority melted into our society. The new Syrian refugees will be no different than those that have come before.

Sure we all want to feel safe and protected. The majority of those refugees want the same thing. Is it possible that a member of ISIS could slip in? Sure. But they could always slip in another way, too, or influence an American citizen. We know the latter has happened already. We can’t blame all Syrians any more than we can blame all Americans. It is a risk we take, but it is part of our values as well. And we can’t lose sight of those. We must rise above hate and fear to see the bigger picture… the humanitarian aspect.

US Involvement Against the Threat of ISIL

Americans are war weary.  The nation has been at war since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  We have been involved in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Libya during its uprising.  For the past couple of years, we have even been “secretly” shipping arms to rebels in Syria.

As we finally see our troops coming home from Afghanistan, in what has become this nation’s longest war, we are now talking about Iraq once again.  This time it isn’t the nation as it is a group that calls itself ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).  It has also been referred to as ISIS.  It comes from Syria and has crossed the border into Iraq taking one town after another in sweeping fashion.

A couple of months ago, the United States began bombing ISIL targets on the ground.  First, it was to protect a minority group of Yazidis who are ancient Mesopotamian.  Then we began to assist the Kurds as they fought for their own survival in northern Iraq.

But where has the rest of the Iraqi army been?  The one that we spent billions training and equipping?  As ISIL swept through the country, they fled… some even without firing a shot.  And to make it even worse, they left behind the equipment that we left for them which includes tanks that ISIL now has and that we now bomb.


President Obama has spoken with congressional leaders and has asked for approval before committing to a larger international mission that he laid out in a speech to the American people on Wednesday night.  But how much support is there from Congress or the American people?  Though we are only a couple of months away from an election, and Congress would like to duck this issue altogether, the stakes are too high and it is likely that they will indeed support such intervention.  The real question is whether the American people support such action.

We don’t tend to have the greatest luck in picking sides in the region.  We have supported authoritarian dictators in the region such as Egypt and Iraq.  In Iraq, we had to overthrow the regime; whereas, the people of Egypt overthrew theirs.  We support the Saudis and the regime in Bahrain though both are authoritarian.  We even overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in the 1950s to install the Shah who would be overthrown in 1979 by the Iranian people.

When civil war broke out in Syria, we didn’t want to get involved.  We didn’t know who the rebels were that we’d be helping.  There were too many factions.  It was only have chemical weapons were used that the world began to take more notice and an active role.

In the US, there were calls from members of Congress (Senator John McCain being one of them) that called for arming the Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad regime.  Interesting enough that ISIL comes from some of those Syrian factions that we were originally so worried about arming, and they still got American weapons when they invaded a destabilized Iraq and swept from town to town.

Now here we find ourselves again getting involved.  The President claims no actual combat troops on the ground just advisers though that is exactly how our involvement in Vietnam started.  Arming Syrian rebels has also come back into the discussion.  But exactly who would we be arming?  Even Senator McCain has called for helping Syrian President Assad deal with ISIL in Syria.  This sounds like a complete 180 from just last year.  Maybe we should just admit that in Syria, we shouldn’t support either side.

The members of ISIL aren’t just coming from Iraq and Syria or even other nations in the region.  They are also coming from western Europe, the United States, etc.  They are our own citizens with passports that can come and go as they choose making it easier for them to be trained to bring the organization into our own nations.

President Obama mentioned a broad international coalition including Arab nations that also see ISIL as a threat to the region.  It is important to have those nations in this coalition.   Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in the region trying to shore up more support from those nations and work out plans.  This does include Iraq and helping bring the Sunni minority of that country into a government role.

A hundred years ago, World War I broke out across Europe.  Interesting how we are still putting out the fires from that great conflict here in 2014.  ISIL is a threat to the US, and they have already made sure that we get the message loud and clear.  Our involvement is crucial.  However, we must start realizing that we cannot arm people in other countries especially in this particular region.  Somehow we always seem to spend billions of dollars to destroy it all in the end.

Again, as I stated at the beginning, we are a war weary nation.  We have spent trillions of dollars in this region to evoke “change” and here we continue to do so.  We have seen what a well-organized terrorist group can do if we don’t take the necessary precautions.  We don’t need to relive that day again.  The nation is poised to enter the fray with a specific goal.  It will not be quick, and it will not be cheap, and it’s doubtful that in the end we will learn from our mistakes of the past.

The Irony Of Our Foreign Policy

Chemical Weapons In Syria

As President Obama currently mulls over the situation in Syria and for whether the US will get involved, we at home sit and hear the stories of the use of chemical weapons by that nation’s government against its own people.  Yes, any government using chemical weapons against its people is wrong, but when it comes to US foreign policy, it hasn’t always been that way.  The way the US has usually determined whether to get involved or turn a blind-eye to those types of attacks usually depends if the government is pro- or anti- American.

So let’s back up the story a bit and move it outside of Syria.  According to newly released CIA documents, in 1953 the United States overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran after the Prime Minister there nationalized the oil fields.  The US installed the Shah government which was pro-Western.  However, the Shah became more autocratic as time passed and the Iranian people rebelled against the government 1978 and forced the Shah to abdicate in 1979.  At that point the Ayatollah Khomeini took charge of the country and remains to this day… regardless of who is “elected” the “President” of Iran.  Obviously, the Ayatollah is very much anti-Western and anti-American.  This sets up our current problem with Iran… something we basically initiated back in 1953.

mideast1aIn neighboring Iraq, the Ba’ath Party overthrew the government in 1968 which gradually came under the control of General Saddam Hussein by July 1979.  Roughly a year and a half after the Iranian 1979 Revolution, Iraq invaded Iran initiating the Iraq-Iran War that ended in 1988.  The two nations were enemies simply because they were ruled by different sects of the Islamic faith.  So why is any of this important, and what does it have to do with our current situation in Syria?  According to a recently article in Foreign Policy, the Reagan administration stated that Iraq must win that war against Iran.  Why?  At the time, Iraq was our ally in the region and our buffer against Iran.  During most the war, the United States took a more sideline approach to the whole thing though.  They wouldn’t give Saddam any tactical surveillance.  However, that changed in 1988 when it looked like Iranian forces might take advantage of a hole in the Iraqi line.  By the time, according to that same article in Foreign Policy, the Reagan administration was aware that Saddam had authorized the use of mustard gas against his enemies.  But seeing how this new tactical advantage of Iran, and how it could spell disaster for Iraq, the Reagan administration decided to change tactics and give Saddam the tactical surveillance that showed the Iranian military positions and locations for certain strategic military facilities knowing already that Saddam would use chemical weapons against them… and he did.  This time he used sarin.  There is also evidence that the Reagan administration was aware that he used the exact same chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq.  Again, the administration turned a blind eye to these atrocities since it would help Iraq win the war against Iran and Saddam would stay in power.

Needless to say our track record in this particular region isn’t the greatest even if we are attempting to do right this time around.  The Assad-government in Syria is very anti-Western.  It’s only allies are generally considered Russia and Iran.  This is why the actions of the Syrian government are getting any kind of attention from the US and the Obama government.  If the government was pro-Western, then it is likely that the Western governments (the US included) would turn a blind eye and might even offer some support so long as there would be no direct evidence linking us to it.  But, we have the opposite scenario which makes our involvement a little easier when it comes to the rebels that are trying to overthrow the authoritarian Assad regime.  However, the US may be stuck between a rock and a hard place on this one.  Just because the Assad-government is anti-American, doesn’t mean the rebels will be pro-American.  We could very well be arming and aiding people that will still be anti-American and will not hesitate to turn that technology on us.  Again, our track record with this scenario isn’t that great either.

syria_tank_AP120130113000_620x350I’ve already discussed how we armed Saddam in Iraq only to go to war against him in the 1990s after he invaded Kuwait and then again in 2003 where we finally overthrew his government.  In both instances, he still had use of the military weapons that we had once given to him.  When the Soviet Union was at war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was the US that armed the Taliban to thwart the Soviets, and yet it was us fighting the Taliban starting in 2001… who were using the exact weapons we had given them to defeat the Soviets against us.  Iran is a bigger conundrum in this regard.  After we overthrew the government in 1953, we began giving them nuclear technology for nuclear power.  It was under the plan “Atoms for Peace.”  It was increased during the Ford administration under the auspices of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and would continue until the 1979 Revolution.  (Persian Rug)  And now here we are, all these years later, trying to keep Iran from developing that nuclear technology into a nuclear weapon.  Now this still ties into us toppling the Saddam-government in Iraq in 2003.  There is the likelihood that Saddam would have taken care of the current situation in Iran if he was still in power since there’s no way he’d let them have a nuclear weapon.  But Saddam was “bad” and needed to go still.  Again, the rock and the hard place.  In Egypt during the Arab Spring, canisters of tear gas that had labels “Made in USA” were used against the people.  Though we had given the government these canisters long before the uprisings, they were still used against the people and didn’t help our public relations any… especially since we had helped keep Mubarak in power in that country for so long since he was our ally despite what he was doing to his own people.

The Syrian government’s biggest problem is that they are not allies of the United States and the Western countries.  That is what this will all boil down to in the end.  It has nothing really to do with the fact that the government used chemical weapons on its people.  We are just using that as an excuse though we have allowed other authoritarian regimes use the exact same tactics to stay in power.  Using any type of chemical weapon on people is simply wrong.  That is not in question, and it does need to be stopped.  But let us also be honest about our past history and be constant with any government that chooses this course of action… whether they are an ally or not.  And we must tread carefully on how we treat the rebels, as well.  There may not be an easy solution to this mess, but let’s try to make it to where we aren’t fighting against them again… only with them using the weapons we gave them in the first place.

If we do end up engaging in military action, as is looking more like the case, I believe President Obama should go before Congress and the American people (as he is supposed to do) and tell us why we are getting involved, what our objectives are, how we will know once they have been accomplished, and how we will get out in the end.

And Carry A Big Stick

The Predicament Of US Foreign Policy

Just before the College of Cardinals locked themselves away in seclusion to elect a new Pope, several of them were talking to various media outlets.  They weren’t floating around names but rather the different sides of the Church.  Yes, even the Catholic Church has something close to political parties.  There is the more conservative side and the more progressive side.  One such individual being interviewed was on the progressive side and was asked about the chance of an American Pope.  It has been discussed in the news.  The answer that was given was that it was highly unlikely since it would be assumed that the Pope would then be under the guidance of the American government.  When I heard this answer, it got me to think.  It was only in 1960 that American voters were hesitate to even elect a President that was Catholic because it would be assumed that he would be under the guidance of the Pope.  It’s interesting how things can change.  But was the person being interviewed completely out of step with what he said?  Probably not since our government does have a way of intervening in affairs in other countries, and usually that intervention comes back to haunt us at some later date.

Let’s jump back to the early 1900s.  The American government, under President Theodore Roosevelt, wanted to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama.  At that time, it belonged to the country of Columbia whose government declined.  So in true Roosevelt fashion, the US began to ship arms to rebel groups in Panama, and the US Navy blockaded the coast so that Columbia couldn’t respond in force.  Within an hour of Panama declaring its independence, the US recognized the new nation.  In the end, Roosevelt got his canal much to the consternation of the Columbian government.  Today, as a result of a treaty with Panama, the canal has been returned to the control of the government of Panama and is currently being widened.  We might see this is a triumph for our nation, but it still didn’t help relations with countries in that part of the world.  Overall, though, this was fairly simple in relation to the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into by the end of the 20th century.

In 1980, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.  These were the declining years of the Cold War.  The United States could not, and would not, let the Soviets invade a nation.  The people in Afghanistan were putting up resistance, but could they really stop the invaders?  The US government decided to send weapons to help the resistance fighters who would, with the help of the weapons sent by the American government, defeated the Soviets.  These resistance fighters were the Taliban.  In the fall of 2001, the US would go to war in Afghanistan and fight the Taliban for harboring terrorist Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.  US forces were able to overthrow the Taliban government, but the Taliban continued to fight to regain what they had lost.  What weapons are they using when fighting our troops… the very weapons we gave them in the 1980s to fight the Soviets.

mideast1aFor a better example, I turn to Iraq.  It seems like everything spins around that nation these days.  It was the US government that put Saddam Hussein in power.  He was to be the buffer against Iran (more on that in a bit) after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  He was our puppet, so to speak.  And he kept Iran in check… even going to war with the country.  Who gave Saddam all the weapons he would need to stay in power and even go to war with Iran?  The United States did.  Saddam would even use these weapons against his own people when he started attacking the Kurdish population in the north.  Yet the United States still turned a blind eye to the massacre that was taking place.  In 1991, Saddam went rogue and invaded Kuwait.  This threatened US interests in the area.  So now the US had to go to war against the very person it put into power.  The US and its Allies had the upper hand.  The Iraqi army in Kuwait either surrendered or withdrew, and Saddam was on the verge of falling from power.  In the end, Saddam was allowed to stay.  However, all of this would change in 2003 when the US would again invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam’s regime.  The result was a power vacuum and sectarian violence that destabilized the country, threatened the weak democratic government, and cost the US plenty in terms of casualties and money.

The overthrow of Saddam would also have other consequences… our current problem with Iran.  But let’s backtrack just a bit.  In the 1950s, the US government overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran to install the Shah.  This is also the time when we gave nuclear technology to the Iranian government. (see: Persian Rug)  In 1979, the people revolted against the Shah and overthrew their government.  Even today, we still do not have official ties to the Iranian government.  Since the overthrow of Saddam in 2003, we have come across the conundrum of Iran having a nuclear weapon which we are trying to prevent.  The irony of the situation.  As we look at the cluster-bomb (no pun intended), we have failed to realize that we created it by deposing the buffer.  Though Saddam was bad and did need to go, overthrowing his government has directly led to Iran pursuing a nuclear weapon.  Saddam would never have let Iran have a nuclear weapon.  It would have threatened his country.  He would have handled the situation himself… probably with another war.  And more than likely, past transgressions would have been forgiven, and we would have supplied with him with the necessary weapons to ensure that he was successful.  The only thing we despised more than Saddam in the end is still Iran.

Early in his presidency, President George W. Bush referred to three countries as an “axis of evil.”  Those countries were Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.  One of those nations was soon invaded and had its government overthrown.  Since then, the other two countries have been working to obtain nuclear technology so that they may possess a nuclear weapon.  In the past week, North Korea, as a result of joint war games by the American and South Korean navies and new sanctions placed on them by the United Nations, has terminated the 1953 armistice and threatened to attack the US.  The sanctions came after North Korea supposedly tested a nuclear device.  Is there the possibility that the governments in these countries (though authoritarian) might be trying to defend their own borders from US involvement?  They were once declared an axis of evil and saw one of the other nations on the list invaded and overthrown.

bigstickThe US government does have a tendency to meddle in other nations’ affairs.  Though they seem like good ideas at the time, they usually come back to bite us later.  For nearly three decades, we supported the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt despite how he oppressed his people.  Though the US government officially sided with the revolutionaries to oust Mubarak, we didn’t receive any major props.  When the military began firing on protesters, the tear gas canisters had “Made in the USA” written on them as we were providing military weapons to the Egyptian military.  Even today, we are supplying military equipment to the country of Bahrain, and that nation’s government is currently working to stop its people from rebelling and overthrowing it.  In Libya, we helped ouster Gaddafi.  Though we only supplied operational support and didn’t directly supply the revolutionaries with weaponry, other nations did.  And somehow, this could work against us as other situations have.  There have been calls to intervene in Syria.  The US has been walking a very fine line though we are not fans of the Assad regime.  It still goes back to the same conundrum.  Today’s grand moment could be tomorrow’s downfall.  We’ve seen it happen so many times when we’ve meddled in other countries.  Sure, we wouldn’t be here having this discussion if the French government hadn’t given arms to a rebelling army in the British colonies, but the act did work against the French, too.  We still signed our own separate peace treaty with England and left France (and Spain) alone to continue the fight against England.  Sometimes, and more often that we’d care to admit, we need to step back and make sure we are doing the right thing… not just in terms of our interests today but in the bigger global interests that may come tomorrow.

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