30 January 2017

Huddled Masses

I haven't written about politics here since Fidel Castro died, and haven't touched domestic politics since just after the election. Partly I was tired of it and given the strong feelings on left and right, I didn't want to alienate anyone. At heart, I'm a diplomat. I'm not afraid of conflict, but I find it counterproductive. It's a lot harder to find compromise, and I like a challenge.

I want to look at Trump's immigration order in a few ways. My feelings on the subject can be mirrored by an excellent column by Walter Russell Mead and Nicholas Gallagher. A small excerpt:

Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has an American President done anything so cruel and bigoted. And only Barack Obama has exhibited this degree of callous indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people. President Trump signed an executive order on Friday suspending the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, suspending the U.S. refugee program for 120 days, and restricting immigration from parts of the Muslim world. Implementation failures—chaos and screw-ups at various airports as low-level officials wrestled with what the new order meant—compounded the callousness.  
The timing was far from auspicious. Friday was Holocaust Memorial Day, and the symbolism was too great to ignore. On Twitter, the account @Stl_Manifest, which tweeted one at a time the stories of the European Jewish refugees whose ship was turned away from the United States in 1939, and most of whose passengers later perished in the Holocaust, gained over 40,000 followers in a day and sparked commentary in outlets from Vox to USA Today. This history—that at the time of greatest need America’s “golden door” was slammed firmly shut—must haunt anyone who cares about basic human decency. Unfortunately, at a time when urgent problems around the world demand serious and searching thought, many people seem more interested in hang-wringing and virtue-signaling than in taking the time to think through refugee and migration policy. 
The real story of immigration and restriction, as opposed to the dumbed-down and sentimentalized hazy myths that pass for history in our impoverished national discourse, could not be more relevant to our times.
Mead and Gallagher's entire article is worth your time. It deconstructs a complex problem, and the sentence I highlighted is critical: "The dumbed-down and sentimentalized hazy myths that pass for history..."

Already, the focus on Trump's order has overshadowed what Mead and Gallagher call "Obama's feckless foreign policy." Obama often lamented the bad economy that he inherited from George W. Bush. Trump inherited a messy and ineffectual Syria policy that was well-explained in this piece by Rany Jazayerli. An excerpt:
One talking point we’re hearing a lot during Obama’s final days as president is that he avoided a scandal throughout his eight years in office, something no two-term president has been able to say going back to Eisenhower. I respectfully disagree. Nearly six years ago, unarmed, peaceful civilian protesters took to the streets in towns throughout Syria, as they had in Tunisia, and Libya, and Egypt, and Bahrain, as a generation of young Arabs exposed to democratic ideas through satellite television and the internet stood up to demand their inalienable rights from the tyrants who had oppressed them for generations. Within weeks of each other, peaceful protesters had overthrown dictators in Tunisia — a nation that stands today as arguably the most democratic the modern Arab world has seen — and Egypt, where in 2012 free and fair elections produced the first democratically appointed ruler in the country’s 5,000-year history before the nation backslid into autocracy again two years later. 
But in the other countries, protesters asking for ballots were met with bullets, and nowhere more so than in Syria by the Assad regime. Unarmed civilians were gunned down, or arrested and tortured before being killed, which led to more protests and more anger, which led to more killing, which led to civilians trying to defend themselves by any means necessary, which led to a full-on armed rebellion. Rebels of diverse religious and ideological backgrounds were united in opposing a tyrannical dictatorship that compensated for its lack of popular support with military firepower. Hundreds of killings become thousands, thousands became tens of thousands, the vast majority perpetrated by the Assad regime. 
And in the face of these killings, and despite considerable support from both sides of the aisle to do something to alleviate the slow-burning slaughter, President Obama chose to basically stand pat. (There have been diplomatic efforts; a trickle of weapons was sent by the CIA to moderate rebels after long delays and with many preconditions; in 2015, a plan to train up to around 5,000 rebels was scrapped after training about five — yes, five.) And no change in the facts on the ground would change his mind. Not the use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 civilians, including many children. Not a death toll that reached almost half a million nearly a year ago. Not the wholesale destruction of cities that now resemble Dresden in 1945. Not the fact that 11 million Syrians — out of a total prewar population of 23 million — have been forced out of their homes. Not the fact that the Syrian apocalypse now ranks as the greatest humanitarian disaster the world has seen since World War II.
This is what Trump inherited. I disagree with his policy on this matter, but I can't deny that there is a problem. Mead and Gallagher address this in their piece:
This country needs a serious and humane immigration and refugee policy that is both enlightened and sustainable. We didn’t have it under Obama; we are unlikely to have it under Trump. Despite deporting hundreds of thousands of illegals, Obama never embraced the cause of defending America’s borders or regulating immigration in ways that clearly reassured marginalized American communities that the U.S. government was first and foremost committed to their welfare and to the defense of their way of life. And he never took responsibility for the ways in which his own repeated errors of judgment about the Middle East contributed to the mass refugee flows that he then tried to guilt-trip Americans into accommodating. Dumb cosmopolitanism leads to dumb nationalist reaction. The Obama years led to the Trump win—even as W’s years led to Obama. 
Bad foreign policy, not bad immigration policy, was the primary American contribution to the global disasters of the 1940s, the Holocaust very much included. This is also true today, and the need for an enlightened but grounded nationalism, as opposed to unicorn-hunting cosmopolitanism and braggadocious jingoism, is as strong and as urgent as it has ever been—but appears as much out of reach as it was in the 1930s. 
And so here we are: steering erratically into stormy waters, haunted by the cries of the refugees and the dispossessed, squabbling among ourselves as the clouds grow darker overhead. Not since the 1930s has the world, or American foreign policy, been in this much trouble. We are growing more angry and more bitter even as the need for clear thought and wise action grows.
There is a middle ground, and as Mead and Gallagher point out, it is not where we are going.Even if you think Trump's plan was a good move, the implementation was amateur-hour, and employed the same poor tactic (issuance of executive orders) that Obama was criticized for using. Human feeling aside, for someone with such limited political capital, Trump seems to be using it very poorly.

Finally, some thoughts from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. Adams has done a fantastic job of explaining why Trump was so effective at persuading people to support his candidacy. His take on Trump's approach to governance is worth your time.

 A final thought, from a leader of my church:


David Hallstrom said...

A good read. Thank you. I don't disagree that Syria presents an immigration challenge or that violent Islamists (or whatever the "correct" term is) generally present a similar challenge. I'm not convinced that this particular action was needed to address those challenges, but I would be willing to allow a temporary reassessment of immigration policy. My issue is that the order also bans ALL refugees, regardless of where they may be coming from. I see that as completely unnecessary and inappropriate.

David Hallstrom said...
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