Make America Great Again — And Open Our Doors to Syrian Refugees

A Republican loyalist calls out her own party on America's tepid response to the refugee crisis.

Real estate mogul Donald Trump announces his bid for the presidency in the 2016 presidential race during an event at the Trump Tower on the Fifth Avenue in New York City on June 16, 2015. Trump, one of America's most flamboyant and outspoken billionaires, threw his hat into the race Tuesday for the White House, promising to make America great again. The 69-year-old long-shot candidate ridiculed the country's current crop of politicians and vowed to take on the growing might of China in a speech launching his run for the presidency in 2016. "I am officially running for president of the United States and we are going to make our country great again," he said from a podium bedecked in US flags at Trump Tower on New York's Fifth Avenue. The tycoon strode onto the stage after sailing down an escalator to the strains of "Rockin' In The Free World" by Canadian singer Neil Young after being introduced by daughter Ivanka. His announcement follows years of speculation that the man known to millions as the bouffant-haired host of American reality TV game show "The Apprentice" would one day enter politics. Trump identifies himself as a Republican, and has supported Republican candidates in the past. But in his announcement speech he did not explicitly say if he was running for the party's nomination or as an independent.AFP PHOTO/ KENA BETANCUR        (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Real estate mogul Donald Trump announces his bid for the presidency in the 2016 presidential race during an event at the Trump Tower on the Fifth Avenue in New York City on June 16, 2015. Trump, one of America's most flamboyant and outspoken billionaires, threw his hat into the race Tuesday for the White House, promising to make America great again. The 69-year-old long-shot candidate ridiculed the country's current crop of politicians and vowed to take on the growing might of China in a speech launching his run for the presidency in 2016. "I am officially running for president of the United States and we are going to make our country great again," he said from a podium bedecked in US flags at Trump Tower on New York's Fifth Avenue. The tycoon strode onto the stage after sailing down an escalator to the strains of "Rockin' In The Free World" by Canadian singer Neil Young after being introduced by daughter Ivanka. His announcement follows years of speculation that the man known to millions as the bouffant-haired host of American reality TV game show "The Apprentice" would one day enter politics. Trump identifies himself as a Republican, and has supported Republican candidates in the past. But in his announcement speech he did not explicitly say if he was running for the party's nomination or as an independent.AFP PHOTO/ KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Real estate mogul Donald Trump announces his bid for the presidency in the 2016 presidential race during an event at the Trump Tower on the Fifth Avenue in New York City on June 16, 2015. Trump, one of America's most flamboyant and outspoken billionaires, threw his hat into the race Tuesday for the White House, promising to make America great again. The 69-year-old long-shot candidate ridiculed the country's current crop of politicians and vowed to take on the growing might of China in a speech launching his run for the presidency in 2016. "I am officially running for president of the United States and we are going to make our country great again," he said from a podium bedecked in US flags at Trump Tower on New York's Fifth Avenue. The tycoon strode onto the stage after sailing down an escalator to the strains of "Rockin' In The Free World" by Canadian singer Neil Young after being introduced by daughter Ivanka. His announcement follows years of speculation that the man known to millions as the bouffant-haired host of American reality TV game show "The Apprentice" would one day enter politics. Trump identifies himself as a Republican, and has supported Republican candidates in the past. But in his announcement speech he did not explicitly say if he was running for the party's nomination or as an independent.AFP PHOTO/ KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Americans are mere spectators to the drama of Syria’s refugees teeming into Europe. We are taking no responsibility for our part in the tragedy. Worse yet, we are missing an opportunity to reset our relations with the peoples of the Middle East by showcasing one of our core values, which is also one of our great domestic and international advantages: We are a country of, and welcoming to, refugees.

Americans pride ourselves on being a sanctuary for people fleeing violence, injustice, and political and religious persecution. We have a proud history of sheltering those who fear remaining in their homelands, and it has strengthened our country in myriad ways -- bringing us immigrants courageous enough to start anew in a foreign land; testing and rewarding our tolerance; reinforcing our sense of ourselves as a community devoted to opportunity and individual liberty; infusing our culture with new influences and the malleability that comes from accommodating them; and creating a brand that gives us competitive advantages in the global competition for talent.

We are so accommodating that Fidel Castro sent thousands of prison inmates in the Mariel boat lift to spite our harboring of refugees from his despotism. But our history has also had sad failures to admit the desperate. When we have averted our eyes, it is typically either the result of overt racism (prohibitions on Asian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), our fear of being drawn into an ongoing war (denying Jews admission in the 1930s), our inability to distinguish between refugees and “economic migrants” (interdicting Haitian boats teeming with people fleeing first the Duvalier butchery, then the junta that came after in the 1990s), or our alarm at a sudden magnitude (Central Americans fleeing murderous crime last year).

Americans are mere spectators to the drama of Syria’s refugees teeming into Europe. We are taking no responsibility for our part in the tragedy. Worse yet, we are missing an opportunity to reset our relations with the peoples of the Middle East by showcasing one of our core values, which is also one of our great domestic and international advantages: We are a country of, and welcoming to, refugees.

Americans pride ourselves on being a sanctuary for people fleeing violence, injustice, and political and religious persecution. We have a proud history of sheltering those who fear remaining in their homelands, and it has strengthened our country in myriad ways — bringing us immigrants courageous enough to start anew in a foreign land; testing and rewarding our tolerance; reinforcing our sense of ourselves as a community devoted to opportunity and individual liberty; infusing our culture with new influences and the malleability that comes from accommodating them; and creating a brand that gives us competitive advantages in the global competition for talent.

We are so accommodating that Fidel Castro sent thousands of prison inmates in the Mariel boat lift to spite our harboring of refugees from his despotism. But our history has also had sad failures to admit the desperate. When we have averted our eyes, it is typically either the result of overt racism (prohibitions on Asian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), our fear of being drawn into an ongoing war (denying Jews admission in the 1930s), our inability to distinguish between refugees and “economic migrants” (interdicting Haitian boats teeming with people fleeing first the Duvalier butchery, then the junta that came after in the 1990s), or our alarm at a sudden magnitude (Central Americans fleeing murderous crime last year).

None of these conditions apply in the case of the Syrian refugees clawing their way to Europe. The only remotely applicable reason is the notion that we might be drawn into a war, but Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is not the great power Hitler’s Germany was. Moreover, as the past four bloody years of Syria’s agony demonstrate, we can choose not to fight in Syria. Which is what makes the dilatory response of our government to the plight of Syria’s suffering all the more shameful.

Our policies have fueled the conflict in Syria in at least six ways: 1) being apologists for Assad (recall Hillary Clinton saying that he was a reformer); 2) creating the expectation we would usher him from power (recall President Barack Obama saying Assad must go); 3) fecklessly arming and training “moderate” Syrian rebels; 4) permitting Iran’s direct involvement to prop up Assad; 5) drawing but not enforcing the red line on chemical weapons use by Assad — which continues; and 6) now watching as Russia escalates its involvement. And let’s not forget the State Department’s disgraceful hashtag diplomacy, adding insult to injury. We are buying ourselves two generations of resentment by our government’s callousness.

And where are the Republican hopefuls, those clarions of a better American foreign policy? Coming fast on the heels of suggesting only a “handful” of Muslims are “reasonable,” Scott Walker opposes admitting Syrian refugees. Carly Fiorina thinks America has already done its “fair share.” Jeb Bush, who speaks so movingly about immigration in other contexts, and Marco Rubio, whose family members are Cuban refugees, both agreed in principle we should accept some Syrians, but couched their vague support in the context of preventing jihadis. Neither spoke up until Donald Trump made news saying, “They’re living in hell, and something has to be done.” John Kasich’s faith may drive his views on Medicare expansion, but Syrian refugees are evidently Europe’s problem. Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, so strident in their religiosity, have no room at the inn. Trump may have been the first among the Republican candidates willing to consider the proposition, but when the guy whose bigoted comments about Mexicans holds the high ground, we conservatives need to do some soul-searching.

The United States of America is failing at the central tenet of leadership: that of setting an example for others to follow. We have given money — $4 billion at last count — much of it to assist Turkey and Jordan, neighboring countries who are amazingly and nobly helping the 4 million displaced Syrians. But checkbook diplomacy is no substitute for solutions, as we so often tell other countries.

Jordan’s central political dilemma since 1945 has been devising a balance to accommodate the 2 million Palestinian refugees it accepted with the creation of the state of Israel; yet it has still admitted at least 650,000 Syrian refugees (and more likely double that, since many have been absorbed into Jordanian cities). The fourth-largest city in the country is the Zaatari refugee camp. Germany expects to receive 800,000 asylum-seekers for this year, opening its borders while Hungary’s government verges on xenophobia. Sweden admitted 80,000 refugees last year — and it is a more homogenous country than ours, so its difficulties will likely be greater in fostering civic cohesion in this new mix. If the United States met the standard by population that Sweden has set, we would admit 2 million Syrians. We have admitted 1,500 since the war began, and the 10,000 more that Obama has promised to take in is but a drop in the bucket.

Do Syrian refugees have economic reasons to immigrate? Of course they do — their country is a bombed-out wreck. But economics are not what put families with small children perilously to sea. As Jeb Bush should say, it’s an act of love. Are we at risk of jihadis slipping in among the refugees to threaten our societies? Of course we are — but they are slipping into our countries even without the cover of a torrent of refugees. In fact, we are likelier to have cooperation in finding and managing threats from people grateful to be resettled here (as has proved the case with the more than 100,000 Iraqis admitted since 2003 and 20,000 Afghans since 2001).

Countries accepting refugees from the Syrian war are creating long-term problems for themselves: problems of assimilation, problems of employment, and problems of political backlash. But they are also gaining the traditional advantages America has long benefited from, both domestically and internationally. Most important of those advantages is the justifiable pride at looking difficulties in the face and choosing to be a society that lifts its lantern to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Photo credit: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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