Fear over compassion

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It didn’t take long for fear to triumph over compassion in the wake of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris.  Two examples, first from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder:

Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration. But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents. Given the terrible situation in Paris, I’ve directed that we put on hold our efforts to accept new refugees until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of security clearances and procedures.

And now from his counterpart, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley:

After full consideration of this weekend’s attacks of terror on innocent citizens in Paris, I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. As your Governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way.

Those announcements were made Sunday. This morning, four more governors, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Greg Abbott of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Mike Pence of Indiana, followed their lead. Not to put a partisan edge to this, I will simply note that all six are Republicans.

*UPDATE* OK, maybe I will put a partisan edge on it after all. As of 3 pm today as many as 13 Republican governors had either specifically said they would bar Syrian refugees or that they are considering such a move. But two states, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, have gone the other direction, reaffirming their commitment to resettle Syrian refugees in their states. Both governors, Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, are Democrats.

My focus, though, will mostly be on Snyder, my governor, who claims to be acting in the interests of my safety and the safety of my family and friends.

In barring the door to refugees fleeing the carnage in Syria, Rick Snyder is reversing course only two months after announcing that Michigan would work with the federal government to welcome refugees from the Syrian and Iraqi warzones.  Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, the state’s largest refugee resettlement agency, has in the last year helped between 1,800 and 2,000 refugees relocate to Michigan, about 200 of them from Syria. More were expected in coming months, but Snyder’s decision now casts that in doubt.

In the name of keeping his fellow Michiganders safe, Snyder is turning the state’s back on people like the Al Zoubi family, who fled their home in Daraa at the beginning of the war and spent years as refugees in Jordan before being resettled in Michigan about six months ago.  The video below tells their story.

Bentley, Alabama’s governor, is closing the door preemptively. No Syrian refugees have been resettled in his state, and while it is theoretically possible that some might have been settled there in the future (one of the State Department’s nine domestic refugee processing centers is in Mobile) that likelihood is remote given the State Department’s policy of settling new refugees in communities where other Syrian immigrants are already established. That means places like Dearborn, MI, where refugees have already arrived and been welcomed into the community.

Both governors cite security concerns as justification for their decisions, driven by fear that ISIS terrorists could infiltrate the United States by hiding amongst the flood of refugees fleeing Syria, as may be the case with at least one of the Paris attackers. But the reality is that the United States has taken so few Syrian refugees compared to our European counterparts, only 1,800 between 2012 and September of this year, because of the intense security screening that they have to go through before being admitted to the US.

As the New York Times detailed back in October, refugees trying to reach the United States have to first apply through the United Nations, and before being accepted are screened by the FBI and then through databases maintained by the Defense Department and other federal security agencies. Meanwhile, 18,000 Syrians have already been referred to the US for refugee status by the UN and additional referrals from UN-run refugee camps are piling up at a rate of 500 to 1,000 a month.

The Obama administration says it remains committed to bringing as many as 10,000 additional Syrian refugees to the US in the coming months. But its hard to see how that can happen in the climate of fear to which our elected leaders have succumbed.

ISIS comes to Paris

 

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I haven’t written about Paris yet. It’s not that my training, or the expertise I’ve developed over many years of teaching about terrorism, or the research I’ve done on political violence aren’t somehow relevant. After all, I was perfectly happy to spend 15 minutes recording an interview with the local Detroit news radio station Friday evening when much of what was known was largely speculative.

I’m not alone in this reticence to blog about Paris. My friend and fellow academic blogger Steve Saideman (who I both credit and blame for encouraging me to start blogging) likewise has held back, and for many of the same reasons as I have.

I don’t have a lot to say that others haven’t said. Yes, the coordinated series of attacks in Paris represent an evolution of ISIS strategy, adding a transnational component to what has heretofore been an essentially regional campaign. It potentially represents the development of new capabilities as well. Up until this point ISIS has been content to inspire and encourage lone wolves to act in the movement’s name.

Couple Paris with the downing of a Russian airliner flying out of Egypt and we have something that looks new. Beirut not so much, given that ISIS has struck targets in neighboring states before now. But Daniel Byman of Georgetown has covered this terrain already, and the media has picked up the thread here and here. I have little to add.

The inevitable question is whether the United States could be next. The easy and obvious answer is yes. It could happen here. But that’s not a new either. No society as open as ours will be able to prevent every possible terrorist attack indefinitely.

There will be a response to the attacks in Paris, and it will be a military one. In fact strikes have already begun. France has not been shy about using force, and doing so unilaterally, against Islamist movements. It’s one reason France has been in the crosshairs of groups like ISIS and other extremist groups.

In short, I have no new wisdom to add here. And I will confess, as an academic my tendency would be to focus my thoughts and comments on all the well-worn pathways of dispassionate political and strategic analysis alluded to above.

But frankly there’s more than enough of that to go around. What is sorely lacking, and which I’m not comfortable providing, is something more emotionally meaningful, more humane, than what people like me will typically deliver.

So instead, let me give you something else. Let me leave you with the words of a friend of mine from Belfast, Colm Mac Aindreasa, who earlier today posted the following on social media:

Just a thought.

As the dust settles and the tears flow, the atrocities of Paris, Beirut, Gaza, Syria and a raft of others brought numbing shock, followed by fear, and finally anger. On our tvs, radios and social media feeds, angry people spout hatred, and cry for bloody vengeance. And through it all runs fear. Fear and suspicion. Suspicion of strangers, fear of difference. From Francois Hollande’s calls for a pitiless response, to the most illiterate keyboard warriors and their calls for carpet-bombings, it is clear that IS has achieved its goal. Fear and distrust now rule the land.

The foul deeds of IS and others doesn’t just close borders, it closes hearts and minds as well. That persistent clicking you hear is keyboards calling for blood, guns being loaded and doors being locked as we retreat into isolation and fear. And just as the bombers intended, behind locked doors and twitching curtains our humanity withers.

Humanity can always be judged by how we treat others. And I don’t want my humanity to succumb to atrophy. So here’s what I suggest. Take your humanity out and give it some exercise. Whether your neighbours are Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Jedi or atheist, be thankful that they give you such a rich life to live. Talk to your neighbour, don’t just hunch your shoulders and nod as you pass. Ask those around you how they are. How are their families? Offer help if you can, and encouragement if you can’t. Share a sandwich. Lend a book. Borrow a book. Help carry that heavy shopping bag. Complain about the weather. Share a joke, a smile, a laugh.

Think of this as taking your humanity to the gym. Your humanity is strengthened and reaffirmed. Your life is richer and so is your neighbour’s. That sends a clear an unequivocal message to IS and to the dark powers that created them. And the message is “You failed. I’m still human”.

Thank Congress for Obama’s freestyling on Syria

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Last week President Obama announced that US Special Forces would be deployed to northern Syria to aid Kurdish fighters battling ISIS. This puts American “boots on the ground” (albeit a very small number) to compliment the ongoing air campaign that the US began waging against the Islamic State in August 2014, first in Iraq and now Syria.

Wait just one minute, I hear you saying. Under what authority is Obama getting the US deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire? That’s easy, says White House spokesman Josh Earnest:

Congress in 2001 did give the executive branch authorization to take this action, and there’s no debating that.

Hold on, hold on! That was just to give George W. Bush the authority to take out Al Qaeda and punish those that enabled the attacks of Sept. 11. What’s that got to do with ISIS?

Let’s take a look, shall we? Here’s what Congress passed on Sept. 18, 2001, just a week after 9/11:

SEC. 2. AUTHORIZATION FOR USE OF UNITED STATES ARMED FORCES.

(a) IN GENERAL.—That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001,or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

The White House argues that this gives them all the authority they need. And here’s why:

The Obama Administration has stated that the Islamic State can be targeted under the 2001 AUMF because its predecessor organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, communicated and coordinated with Al Qaeda; the Islamic State currently has ties with Al Qaeda fighters and operatives; the Islamic State employs tactics similar to Al Qaeda; and the Islamic State, with its intentions of creating a new Islamic caliphate, is the “true inheritor of Osama bin Laden’s legacy.” This interpretation seems to suggest that the Islamic State could be treated either as part of Al Qaeda that has splintered from the main group, or as an associate ofAl Qaeda; under either interpretation, the Islamic State would arguably be targetable under the 2001 AUMF.

What Congress gives, though, theoretically, Congress could take away. Actually it’s not a theory at all. Congress has the power to entertain a new authorization specifically focused on the use of military force in Syria against ISIS. If you argued that Congress has a constitutional responsibility to take up such a measure I’d be the last to contradict you. In fact Obama asked Congress for just such an authorization back in February. You can read the proposed text here.

AS CNN reported, congressional leaders were quick to criticize yet unwilling to act. House Republicans simply dismissed the proposed authorization as, wait for it, too limited:

“If we are going to defeat this enemy, we need a comprehensive military strategy and a robust authorization, not one that limits our options,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement … “Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people … I have concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard.”

And so that’s where it sits, even as new developments in Syria prompt some members, like Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), to call on Congress to rein in Obama:

We’re setting an absolutely horrible precedent that this body will come to regret with respect to handing over the ability for a president to wage a war carte blanche without a vote.

But the reality is that Congress won’t. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told NPR this week that not only does he agree with the administration’s position, but that debate would reveal division when the country needs to project unity in the fight against ISIS:

As I’ve said from the beginning, I believe the administration has the authorities to do what they’re doing against ISIS. … So to enter into a debate when you don’t see a pathway forward that may appear to show disagreement over countering ISIS to me does not seem like a prudent course of action to take, especially when, like me, I believe they have authority anyway.

The bottom line is that Congress sees no up side for itself either in signing off on any use force against ISIS or in actively reining in the president. If it goes badly, Congress can lay all the blame squarely at the president’s feet. But if they approve it, they share ownership. If Congress blocks escalation against ISIS and that turns out to be a strategic and humanitarian disaster, then they’re on the hook for preventing Obama from acting decisively. But by doing nothing Congress can sit back and throw bricks at the president and his Syria policy without taking any responsibility for it. Some might argue that’s a win.

Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate sums it up this way:

Many members of Congress want it both ways. They want to criticize the president, but they don’t want to have it on their conscience or their shoulders that they authorized it.

So thanks but no thanks. Constitution be damned. President Obama, take the ball and run just as far as you want. We’ll see you on the other side.

Syria solved!

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After five years of brutal civil war in Syria, an agreement has finally been reached on peace talks with the aim of establishing a nationwide ceasefire. The United Nations will oversee the rewriting of Syria’s constitution and then new elections that will presumably mark the end of the Assad family’s dictatorial rule.

There’s only one problem.

None of the parties doing the actual fighting were part of the negotiations in Vienna.

Assad wasn’t invited, and, as the New York Times reports, it is “unclear” whether either he or any of the constellation of rebel groups will agree to the deal.  The uncertainties don’t end there:

There was no target date or deadline for either the cease-fire or a new constitution and election that would follow.

Even the language used to describe what was decided after the final seven hours of heated talks between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, along with additional European, Arab, and Gulf states, 17 countries in all, was obscure and vague. As Secretary of State John Kerry explained, the parties have agreed to “explore the modalities of a nationwide cease-fire” on the way to a new political arrangement for Syria.

So what was the point of all this? A couple of things come to mind.

First, the ceasefire plan specifically does not apply to combat against ISIS. This suggests that the US and Russia might finally end up on the same side here rather than working at cross purposes. With Obama’s announcement today that the US will deploy Special Operations forces into Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria, that Russia and the US might finally be fighting the same enemy is particularly welcome news.

Second, the agreement to seek a new constitution and elections for Syria signals that Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, are willing to see him go, which further suggests that they can see a way to secure their own separate interests in any post-Assad dispensation. This is important because, as I noted in a post several weeks ago, Russian military intervention to date can be seen to be creating conditions on the ground in which the US (and everyone) else would be forced to choose between a Syria under Assad and a Syria which falls to ISIS.

Third, it offers some semblance of hope that with both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the table together, the proxy war aspect of the Syrian situation may start to ratchet down in intensity.

Whether any of this bears actual fruit remains to be seen. The negotiations will reconvene in a few weeks to try to iron out details. And at some point someone will have to try and bring the forces on the ground into the discussions as well. That will be challenging enough.

Until then, this is the first sign of progress on the political front in a very long time. That’s worth something. Exactly how much it means we will have to wait to find out.