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Commentary

U.S. Response to Syrian Civil War and Refugee Crisis Is Telling



The American response to the Syrian civil war and resulting refugee crisis should illustrate to all the unfortunate militarization of U.S. foreign policy. The nation’s anti-militaristic founders—who blanched at the militarism of European kings and thus refused, in the U.S. Constitution, even to authorize a standing army—would be horrified.

And militarism in America is not just an affliction of the politicians and chattering classes in the media, it now infects the people. The current militarism originates from public guilt about alleged poor behavior by the American populace toward returning conscripts from the Vietnam War (dubious because the conflict was popular for a long time until public exhaustion set in) and is stoked by even more guilt now, because most people just watch America’s wars (and mostly other stuff) on TV, while letting today’s smaller all-volunteer military bear all of the heavy costs in life and limb for America’s largely unneeded overseas military adventures. Now a much fewer number of Americans have sons, daughters, neighbors, or friends going off to fight in faraway hellholes.

Of course, if Americans really wanted to show respect for military personnel, instead of giving them discounted baseball tickets and preferred airline boarding, they would have the courage to stop their politicians and media from peddling the fear that gets American service men and women sent to perform military social work in foreign lands, such as the brushfire wars of occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iraq again. But how does this all relate to the brutal, multi-sided Syrian civil war and its accompanying refugee crisis?

After the ISIS group cut off the heads of a few Americans (and other nationalities), the supposedly war-exhausted public again became unnerved—in a miniature version of the hysteria after 9/11—and immediately supported a reintroduction of American military personnel into Iraq and American air power to bomb the group in Iraq and Syria. No matter that such an emotional public response—which after 9/11 led to the over-the-top Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, occupations, and quagmires—is usually counterproductive. And, of course, many Republican presidential candidates have no problem implying that President Obama is a wimp and demanding even more military action against what is largely a threat to the Middle East region. Unfortunately, politicians can often demagogue such issues, because the public is receptive to appeals to fear in advertising, from bad breath to worn tires to terrorism—even though the average American’s chances of ever getting killed by a foreign terrorist is lower than getting struck by lightning. The public, fully imbued with militarism, also seems to buy into counterproductive military responses to the problem. For example, U.S. aid to Mujahideen Islamic radicals in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s gave us al Qaeda, and the post-9/11 unnecessary invasion of Iraq gave us the even nastier al Qaeda in Iraq, which has now morphed into the yet more brutal ISIS. What uber-Frankenstein will the U.S. military’s return to Iraq and bombing of Iraq and Syria create?

The hair-trigger mentality of the American people has existed only since World War II. Prior to that time and throughout most of American history, the public actually respected the founders’ vision that America’s very secure position away from the world’s conflicts allowed the country to stay out of useless and costly wars of intrigue. With fewer wars (even those were mostly unnecessary) than other continents, the relative peace allowed America to build what is still the largest economy in the world. Wars were foolish bravado for foreign despots; America concentrated on creating prosperity. With the current $18 trillion dollar debt, about $3.3 trillion to $4 trillion of it racked up by the extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American militarism has helped drive the country off its enlightened historical path.

And the adoption of militarism is not the only repudiation of the country’s history. All of this chest-beating jingoism on the part of the American political class (backed by the media and the public) is in stark contrast to the caution with which politicians of both parties are approaching the taking in of Syrian refugees from a civil war in which the United States is now an active participant. Because of public resistance to the influx of refugees in a slow economy and immigration being a major issue in the 2016 political campaign, the Obama administration and the 2016 candidates are treading gingerly on the issue. In contrast, for most of its history, the American people recognized that immigrants brought new ideas and talents, thus making the economy and country stronger. Pathetically, in 2014, the United States took in only 132 of the four million refugees from the Syrian civil war, and only about 2,000 will be allowed in 2015 if the policy is not changed.

Some Republicans are even warning that taking in more Syrian refugees could allow terrorists to slip into America. These are some of the same people who say we should escalate U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. First, we don’t live in a riskless society, and the rapid need for a humanitarian response is real. Second, even if there is a minimal risk of severely pre-occupied Syrian opposition groups trying to sneak terrorists into the United States in the guise of refugees, more bombing of Syria or even an intervention with U.S. ground forces would increase their motivation to do so.

Thus, unfortunately, the U.S. response to the Syrian civil war and resulting refugee crisis may be a warning to us about the decay of our own original principles and traditions: avoiding unneeded foreign wars while being a beacon of liberty and prosperity to the world.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.


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