The political aftermath of the Paris attacks is tracing a trajectory as familiar as it is disappointing. The fundamental question — how to defeat the Islamic State — is so resistant to any simple fix that the debate shifts to subsidiary but more easily digestible topics.
Republican politicians have fanned the flames of public fear and seized the tragic moment for partisan advantage. President Obama properly took them to task for this un-American xenophobia. But once again, as with the president’s dismissive attitude toward critics of the Iranian nuclear deal, he failed to recognize the public’s understandable anxiety over admitting Syrian refugees.
The terrorist threat illustrates: The more intractable the problem, the more off-point the Washington discussion. One tactic, tempting but useless, is looking back and pointing fingers over who is responsible for the fill-in-the-blank mess.
Is the Islamic State the outgrowth of George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq (and, by implication for Hillary Clinton’s Democratic opponents, the Senate vote she cast to authorize the war)? Is it the legacy of Obama’s line-shifting and hesitancy (and, by implication for Clinton’s Republican opponents, her responsibility as his secretary of state)? To channel Clinton on Benghazi, at this point what difference does it make?
Another favorite diversionary tactic, as demonstrated by the refugee debate, is, as Obama put it, “to get worked up around issues that don’t actually make us safer but make for good political sound bites.”
No doubt, the Islamic State poses a threat to the United States. But the chief peril does not lurk in some long-term plan to embed terrorists among refugees fleeing Syria and hope they make it through the lengthy vetting process to be resettled here.
If the Islamic State wants to strike in the United States, terrorists posing as refugees would be an enormously inefficient path. There are far easier methods: either home-grown operatives or those who arrive through so-called visa waiver countries with far less intensive checking than the process for refugees.
“[F]rom a threat standpoint, I’m probably more concerned with the visa waiver program today,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Post. “Were I in Europe already, and I wanted to go the United States . . . the likelihood is I would use the visa waiver program before I would try to pawn myself off as a refugee.”
By definition, admitting any refugees poses more risk than admitting none. I’d argue that the United States bears a moral responsibility, particularly because of our role in triggering the refugee crisis, to accept some.
Yes, a tiny number of refugees — the Migration Policy Institute puts the figure at three out of 784,000 resettled here since 9/11 — have been arrested for planning terrorist activities. Yet, as Paris shows, it takes only a few to cause enormous damage. Previous intelligence misses, including the failure to connect the dots before 9/11, do not exactly promote confidence in airy assurances that the vetting is under control.
So if the public is anxious over admitting Syrian refugees, that is understandable, not evidence of un-American prejudice. This is why Obama, before unloading on Republican politicians who ought to know better, should have acknowledged public concern, not seem to berate people for it.
“[M]y expectation is, after the initial spasm of rhetoric, that people will settle down,” Obama said. Such dismissiveness doesn’t help his case.
Ron Klain, Obama’s Ebola czar, tweeted out this smart advice: “First, must acknowledge fears & address — not dismiss as illegit (that only exacerbates fear & fuels doubts about leaders’ candor). Second, must explain that NOT acting — giving into fears — is more risky (i.e., blocking refugees will RAISE the threat to the US). Third, must show that gov’t has a plan to manage the risk — not ignoring risk, but taking active, serious steps to reduce it.”
Clinton, by the way, followed this model in a speech Thursday, noting the imperative of vigilant screening before arguing that “slamming the door on every Syrian refugee . . . is just not who we are.”
Let’s hope. Donald Trump has said it may be necessary to close mosques and create a national database of Muslims. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush called for sorting refugees by religion. Chris Christie would exclude even 5-year-old orphans. Ben Carson referred to “rabid dogs” and tried to raise money off the issue.
What’s the bigger risk: that terrorists posing as refugees will slip through in a year or two, or that young Muslims here will listen to this bigotry and become radicalized? The answer seems obvious.