As diplomats exchange barbs to little effect in Geneva — with America averring “Assad must go” and Syria contending that it is fighting terrorists — it is worthwhile to briefly reflect upon an ancient truth: to tear down and destroy is easy; to preserve, create, and build is another matter entirely. Though it may surprise the elites of American foreign policy, there are ways to help the vulnerable that do not include dropping bombs and making threats. In this, America can learn from Sweden.
Responding to the horrific August 21, 2013 chemical attack that killed hundreds of Syrian women and children, President Obama in September of 2013 argued that America should bomb Syrian government forces in order to protect the innocent. The President pleaded: “I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”
Today, President Obama—and indeed, the American people—should earnestly reflect back on this statement. In the face of suffering, resolutions and statements are not enough.
As it turned out, neither Congress nor the American people embraced the prospect of a new war in the Middle East. Accordingly, Obama was forced to work with President Putin of Russia and negotiate with Assad, who agreed to eliminate his chemical weapons. Currently, 700 tons of chemical agents are in the process of being destroyed.
But what about the human suffering in Syria? As the Civil War continues, 2.3 million Syrians (half of whom are children) have fled Syria to neighboring countries, especially Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan. These countries — Lebanon above all — are economically unable to bear this tremendous burden. Today, the 900,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon make up one quarter of the nation’s entire pre-war population. As Najib Mikati, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, recently wrote, “refugees are living in makeshift camps in the Bekaa Valley region in the winter snows — many lacking warm clothing and proper shelter, clean water and sanitation — with the risk now of disease spreading and adding to their plight.” Pointing out that the same influx of refugees in America would equal 100 million new people — something almost impossible to fathom — Mikati warns, “Unless world leaders… back up their promises of assistance with action, the country risks losing the ability to sustain its humanitarian aid to displaced Syrians.” Lebanon is doing all it can do, but this is not nearly enough.
America, it would seem, lost interest in helping the women and children of Syria once the allure of bombing military targets passed. This is not an exaggeration: since the war began America has granted refuge to only 96 Syrian refugees (through fiscal year 2013). There are plans to do marginally better this year — America has committed itself to admitting around 2,000 Syrian refugees in 2014 — though it remains uncertain if even that number will be reached. In comparison, since 2012, Sweden has admitted more than 14,000 Syrian refugees, granting permanent residency to thousands. Normalized to population, that would be like the United States accepting almost half a million refugees. Germany, meanwhile, has admitted 18,000 refugees since the war began, and recently agreed to take 5,000 more. Some 15,000 more refugees have been taken in by other EU countries.
In short, it would appear that America is willing, or nearly willing, in that venerable phrase of John Quincy Adams, to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, but quite unwilling to peaceably aid the monsters’ victims.
I am not one to moralize about an alleged duty for America to solve the problems of Syria. That is not my point. Rather, I am concerned with something more profound: the militarization of the American imagination. America came as close to war as a nation can come. Had just a handful of factors changed, President Obama likely would have entered America as a party to the Syrian Civil War. The financial costs of such an action, not to speak of the human cost, was (and remains) impossible to guess. The Congressional Research Service could only estimate that “intervention” would likely have cost “billions.” (Here it is worth remembering, that the Iraq War was “only” supposed to cost $50 to $60 billion; instead, it has cost over $2 trillion.) In the cause of war, President Obama and foreign policy hawks were willing to expend incredible resources to destroy someone they believed to be evil for the purpose of aiding innocents. But in peace, these same people are willing to give little to help the victims of war, and apparently even less willing to grant refugees sanctuary. An alternative approach may cut against the grain of America’s habitually hawkish foreign policy — since the end of the Cold War, the nation has been at war two out of every three years — but we must recognize that not everything requires a military “solution” and much good can be done through peaceful means. This is a lesson America should learn from Sweden.
In 2008, the mayor of the Swedish city of Södertalje, with a population of 60,000, observed that his city housed “More [Iraqi] refugees than the United States and Canada together.” He was right. Today, this same humble city houses ten times more Syrian refugees than the entire United States of America. Even if America welcomes — as it has promised — 2,000 refugees in fiscal year 2014, this little town will still best the American nation.
That America’s leaders will propel the nation to the utter brink of war in the cause of protecting the innocent but will not help these same innocent people through peaceful and unpretentious means is incoherent. If President Obama truly believes that in the face of suffering “resolutions and statements are not enough” and if he really is interested in moving America “off a permanent war footing” and doing good through means other than war, as he declared in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, he ought to emulate pacific Sweden and use his statutory authority to prioritize American grants of asylum to the sick and hungry in the refugee camps surrounding war-torn Syria. Surely we can do better than 96, or for that matter, 2,000.