As the conflict in Syria has raged and spilled over its borders, I have been skeptical that there is an American military solution to the complex political and religious problems at the heart of the crisis. I remain skeptical and am glad that the Obama administration has been reluctant to engage in a large-scale humanitarian intervention. But I am saddened that it has not engaged in large-scale humanitarian action. The distinction is important.
For most of the past 75 years, the United States has been the world’s humanitarian. It has provided the most foreign aid and taken in the most refugees. For decades, the United States took in about 50 percent of the total number of those who were resettled from foreign lands. Not anymore. American aid in the Syrian crisis has been matched by the European Union, and neither is doing enough.
As for refugees, the United States has become an international embarrassment. It has pledged to take in 10,000 Syrians but last year accepted just 2,192 and is struggling to take in more, despite the fact that, thanks to its distance from the conflict, it can be selective. Meanwhile, Canada, with a population about one-tenth of the United States’, has already resettled more than 25,000 Syrians. For its part, Germany has registered nearly half a million applicants for asylum for 2015 alone, according to the New York Times.
But the world’s richest countries are being put to shame by some of the poorest. Lebanon now has more than 1 million registered refugees, making up a quarter of the country’s population. Jordan is not far behind with more than 650,000. And Turkey houses nearly 3 million. These countries need aid on an entirely different scale than they are receiving.
In addition, Washington has traditionally taken the lead in setting the agenda for humanitarian action, corralling other countries to make donations, accept refugees and provide forces for peacekeeping operations. The administration is now acting on some of these fronts, but it is still not commensurate with the enormity of the suffering. In February, a major donors conference in London was organized by the United Nations, the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and Kuwait.
Syria is a human tragedy of epic proportions. An estimated 400,000 people have died, 6.5 million have been internally displaced and nearly 5 million have fled the country. Some will say that this is precisely the reason we should send in more troops, bomb more targets and set up safe zones in the country. But that assumes that we have a local partner to work with and, most crucially, that there is some political order we could help establish that would be effective and legitimate in the eyes of the Syrians. Without those ingredients, foreign military intervention turns into chaos and colonial occupation.
But what Washington can do is try to respond to the crisis with a set of humanitarian efforts that are equal to the scale of the tragedy. President Obama should address the U.S. public and describe the human suffering, remind us of our nation’s best traditions and urge that Congress support him in providing more aid, receiving more refugees and leading in greater collaborative efforts internationally. He should appoint George W. Bush and Bill Clinton as the country’s special ambassadors for humanitarian action on Syria.
Donald Trump will criticize Obama. Republicans will raise the specter of terrorism. But they are wrong, and he should say so. Americans have always been wary of taking in refugees. Large majorities opposed taking in Germans (Jews) in the 1930s and even immediately following World War II after we had learned about the Holocaust. Fifty-five percent opposed taking in Hungarians after the Soviet invasion in 1956, and 57 percent from accepting the “boat people” of Indochina after the fall of Saigon in 1975. But U.S. leaders insisted, and all these groups were accepted, assimilated and have become vital parts of U.S. society.
Obama is not running for reelection. He has been bold in other areas, proposing policies that he knows Congress will reject in the hope of changing the conversation. Why not on the single greatest source of human suffering in the world right now?
The problem is not simply one that affects the political right or the Obama administration. Where is Bernie Sanders, who is very concerned about Americans who can’t pay for college but seems largely indifferent to Syrians who can’t manage to stay alive? Where are the world’s rock stars, who once sang “We Are the World” and staged a Live Aid concert to fight poverty in Africa? Millions of Syrian men, women and children are fleeing their homes, living in squalor and losing their lives. Where are all of us?
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