American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
The wave of horrific attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Sinai have defined an important part of the international agenda for the next year. Western societies must face fundamental questions: Is it possible to be open and safe? When does pluralism become separation, separation beget alienation, and alienation turn into violence? And, above all, what is the best way to respond to the current tragedies and lower the chances of future ones?
The attacks have also called into question, notably but not only in the U.S. presidential campaign, the wisdom of Western commitment to the rights of refugees. As Congress considers measures that would effectively end refugee resettlement from the Middle East (including of oppressed minority communities like the Yazidis in Iraq), it is important to address this head on.
For terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam, death and destruction is only a secondary goal. The carnage is an end in itself but it is also a means to a larger end, which is to provoke or further a defining, multi-generational conflict between those committed to violent jihad and their enemies (both Western and Islamic). Every aspect of the response needs to be informed by the challenge of frustrating this larger goal.
When terrorists bombed the London transportation network in July 2005, killing 52 people and injuring more than seven hundred, I was serving as the United Kingdom’s Minister for Communities and Local Government. I remember well the searching self-criticism triggered by such home grown terrorism. "Keep calm and carry on" was the widespread popular mood, even as policymakers across the political spectrum recognized that we had to do a better job with intelligence, homeland security, and the integration of minorities more fully into the national community, steering a course between the false choices of complete assimilation or separation.
As the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary from 2007-2010, I spent a lot of time thinking about how the fight against international terrorism could be conducted in a way that undermined rather than reinforced the argument of violent jihadists, that they were the only people who could adequately defend the interests of Muslim populations. I never bought the “clash of civilizations” argument—because al Qaeda was symptomatic of a clash within Islam as much as between Islam and the West and because I never accepted al Qaeda as a civilization. (One of the dangers of the proclamation of the war on terror was that it aggregated disparate grievances into a singular whole, when defeating violent jihadism required the winnowing of its support base.)
These experiences left me under no illusions about the dangers that exist for Western societies (although the 10th anniversary of the Amman bombings is a good moment to remember that most of the victims of violent jihadism are Muslims), and about the connections between foreign policy and domestic policy in an interconnected world. Today I bring those experiences to my job as leader of a non-governmental organization working in humanitarian emergencies around the world and for refugee resettlement in the United States.
If attackers are strategic, so must be the response. This applies as much to the debate about refugee resettlement as it does to foreign policy. Sanctuary for refugees and safety for Americans are complementary, not competing.
Refugees have (hard-won) rights in international law, and countries have obligations to them. The US, along with over 140 other countries, adhere to the tenets of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol appended to it. These instruments are the cornerstone of international refugee law. All signatories must provide refugees the same educational opportunities they provide to citizens, allow refugees to move freely within the country, and, most importantly, not return refugees to states where their life or freedom would be threatened. The fulfilment of these obligations is what Germany is doing so impressively at the moment. By the latest count, over a million refugees will arrive there this year.
Because of its geography, the United States is largely insulated from the surge of refugees pouring out of today’s refugee hotspots: Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria. But this does not excuse the United States from acting on its obligations, interests, and values when it comes to refugee resettlement.
Historically the United States has taken at least 50 percent of the refugees referred by the UN High Commission for Refugees, with the high water mark for resettlement occurring during the 1970s and 1980s with the admission of over a million people from Vietnam. In contrast, the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States since 2011 is a mere 2,200. Washington can and should take more, for four reasons.
The first is simple decency. The United States can make a life-changing difference for some of the most vulnerable victims of the war, and so it should. Less than two percent of all U.S. Syrian refugee admissions to date are single men, unattached to families; the vast majority admitted have been those who are weakest and most in need. The UN identifies these people and the United States vets and admits them, a humanitarian service Americans should be proud of providing.
The second reason is for the message it would send, telling Syria’s neighbors that they are not alone in bearing the refugee burden and telling Muslims around the world that America stands open to the most vulnerable, of all religions (and of none). Developing countries house 86 percent of the world's refugees. Jordan, with a total population of around 6 million, now hosts 650 000 registered refugees; Lebanon, with a population of between 4 and 5 million, hosts over a million Syrians; and Turkey, with a population of around 75 million, hosts over two million. It is true that refugee resettlement will only help a small proportion of those afflicted by the crisis in Syria. But symbols matter; just remember the symbol that is Guantanamo.
The third reason is that the United States has a proven system for successful integration of refugees. The evidence shows that the combination of language classes, jobs, education for kids, and the prospect of a path to citizenship is a good recipe for creating generations of productive and patriotic citizens. There are successful Syrian-American communities around the United States to welcome compatriots. In fact, family reunification beyond parent-children relationships would allow for faster increases in resettlement. Public-private partnerships across the country point to the important role of employers and state and local authorities in making the system work.
The U.S. model for refugee integration starts with an effective security vetting system. Standing by the strength of the system, former homeland security secretaries Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano note that the vetting involves background and biometric checks, with about half a dozen government agencies participating. Current Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson explains: "It is always the applicant's burden of proof to demonstrate that he or she qualifies for refugee status in this country...If we do not have information to reach a sound decision, or the applications raises questions not satisfactorily addressed, the case is put on hold until we have more, or is denied."
The seriousness of the current vetting process is actually one reason the process takes so long, and so few have been admitted. And there are follow up checks once refugees have arrived—after a year, to test the case for permanent residence, and after five years, to test the case for citizenship.It is true that three refugees have been arrested for terrorism related offenses (before they came to fruition). This stands next to the 750,000 refugees admitted to the country since 9/11 and prompted upgrades in the systems.
Finally, accepting more refugees would provide support for Europe and especially Germany as they try to devise an enlightened response to the Syrian crisis. Europe has far more exposure to both refugees and jihadists than the United States, and is dangerously divided about how to deal with the challenge. If Washington expresses panic about vastly smaller flows, it would set a poor example for others.
Humanitarian action, of course, should not stop at refugee resettlement. Just as geographic isolation is no excuse for the United States to avoid taking refugees, so it is no excuse for shortsightedness in helping front-line nations shoulder their burdens. Washington has pledged over $4.5 billion so far during the Syria conflict, but the scale of the need is massively greater. The United Kingdom has announced that half of its overseas aid budget of around $18 billion will be devoted to fragile and conflict states; the United States has a bigger budget and greater capacity therefore to make a difference.
But this is not just about public aid. It is also about mobilizing private sector capacity. As I recently wrote in these pages, there is no excuse for the World Bank to limit its work in Jordan and Lebanon just because they are middle income countries. Fortunately, the president of the World Bank and the UNSG's High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing have tabled this issue for the World Humanitarian Summit next May. They need strong support.
Americans are tired of being deeply enmeshed in the Middle East. But in a global village, you do not get to choose your challenges; they choose you. Defeating violent jihadists is a challenge for everybody. Approach it the wrong way and the result will be to strengthen the very forces that would threaten us.