America and the Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Response to Eric Schwartz

The Lawfare podcast last week (“Refugee Policy, and the Syrian Civil War”) featured Eric Schwartz, the Dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, who previously served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration.

While Dean Schwartz said several things with which I agree, I do think he is way off-base with part of his discussion.  Pointing to the numbers of Syrian refugees other countries have taken, he derides U.S. effort as a “failure,” and claims that it will be perceived by other nations as “hypocrisy” that demotes U.S. “leadership.”  What I found, frankly, especially disappointing (and confounding) was this statement of his:  “It seems to me that we have an obligation to demonstrate that we have skin in the game.”  (Italics added.)

“Skin” in the refugee “game”?  I have to admit I bristle at those words as I think of the thousands of young men and women of the U.S. military who – right this minute – are in harm’s way attempting to eliminate a key cause of the refugee problem: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  These Americans are not just risking their skin, but are putting their very lives on the line to stop ISIL.  And it’s no “game.”

Yes, in handling 4.8 million Syrian refugees Europeans and others (mainly Turkey and Jordan) might understandably be said to be doing more than the U.S. to address that particular symptom of the Syrian crisis, but dealing with symptoms, however real and substantial, is hardly the complete response to any problem, including this one. For example, within the 66-member Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Americans are carrying much more than their share of the actual fighting against a main source of the problem than any of the other nation.

To be specific, of those 66 countries, just seventeen have deployed military personnel to the fight, and only about ten nations are actually conducting airstrikes for what is called Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR).  In OIR the U.S. has overwhelmingly led the effort.  The numbers tell the story: as of April 5th the U.S conducted 68% of the anti-ISIL airstrikes in Iraq, and almost 95% of the anti-ISIL airstrikes in Syria.  Overall, the U.S. – alone – has conducted almost 77 % of all OIR’s airstrikes.  The cost to the U.S. taxpayer (as of Feb. 29th): $6.5 billion.

Of course, the military piece isn’t the whole solution to stemming the refugee flow, but isn’t focusing on what is a main producer of the problem at least as important as treating a symptom?  More to the point, doesn’t America’s grossly disproportionate contribution to the military effort against ISIL – which is responsible for so much of the refugee dilemma – amply show real “skin” in the refugee “game,” not to mention international leadership?

Indeed, by leading the air campaign against ISIL, isn’t America doing what the allies are simply not able to do?  After all, we shouldn’t forget that NATO’s European members spend just 1.43% of their GDP on defense, while the U.S. spends 3.1%.  Put another way, “the U.S. devote[s] $1865 per person to the military” while the European portion of NATO spent just “$446 per person.”  That dramatic difference results in significantly less military wherewithal relative the U.S., as has been shown in previous operations involving NATO.

Unsurprisingly, many critics argue that the Europeans should pay more for their defense, which would also operate to give them more capability for the fight against refugee-generating ISIL.  That said, since ‘we are where we are’ doesn’t it make sense for the U.S. to focus its energy and resources in a way that uniquely plays to its strengths?  No other nation could replace the U.S.’s military role in the fight against ISIL, and I doubt any country would disagree.

In other words, I believe that dealing with the Syrian refugee problem requires a holistic effort where each country ought to do what it can do best in light of its circumstances.  Would we denigrate Vatican City, the city-state that is home to the Pope, because it appears to have taken just a handful of Syrian refugee families?  Or could we agree that the Pope might significantly contribute to solving the problem through his moral leadership?

And let’s also get the facts straight here as to what the U.S. has done (and is doing) for refugees.  Consider that the U.S. has taken 3 million refugees since 1975, and now consistently settles about 70,000 from around the globe each year.  For 2016, the Administration proposes accepting 85,000 refugees, including 10,000 Syrians.  Dean Schwartz thinks we ought to take 100,000 Syrians, but consider that the U.S. already has almost 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are struggling.  Shouldn’t we help them first?

The reality is that every nation ought to do their share.  The U.S. is best postured to contribute to the military aspect – and is bearing far more of the burden than the rest of the 66 nations in the coalition combined.  As Secretary of State John Kerry has said, “there is a role for every country to play” in degrading and defeating ISIL.”   Obviously, those roles may differ among nations given their varying situations, but considering the cease-fire currently in place with respect to the Syrian government, defeating ISIL may be one of the most important things the U.S. can do these days to stem and – ultimately – reverse the flow of refugees.

Hectoring the U.S. or any country to simply take more refugees is no solution when the cause of the displacement remains extant.  Since it is inarguable that other nations are not willing or able to contribute nearly as much as the U.S. to defeat ISIL which is much (albeit not entirely) the source of the problem, it seems at this time to be an eminently appropriate division of labor to have countries other than the U.S. bear the bulk of the responsibility for the refugee element of the overall Syrian problem.

In short, the U.S. shouldn’t be expected to shoulder every aspect of every crisis.  Rather, solving something like the Syrian refugee issue requires a global response where – for many reasons – a particular country will contribute only in a certain ways.  Instead of demeaning this or that country’s contribution, let’s look for ways to optimize what the world community can do collectively.

In my view, accusing the U.S. of not having “skin in the game” and “hypocrisy” when thousands of its servicemen and women are in the field, in the air, and afloat doing the best they can to fight a central cause of the refugee flow is very wrong, but is perhaps illustrative of the fact that blinkered thinking can sometimes infect even the best minds.

Regardless, we must never forget the sacrifices being made by America’s sons and daughters who are sent in our name far from home to do battle against one of the most dangerous threats on the planet.

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