• America’s Response to the Middle East Refugee Crisis? Buried in Empty Rhetoric

    October 2, 2015

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Libya, Syria

    As the Middle East refugee crisis enters its fifth year, a single image of a child dead on a beach serves as its symbol. Yep, we’re gonna look at that kid again.

    But why is it that those that create refugees are the least likely to help them? The answer lies in empty rhetoric from those who begin America’s wars in the region under the guise of humanitarian intervention itself.

    A searing image of a refugee child lying dead on a beach finally alerted the world to a crisis now entering its fifth year. Awareness is never bad, but here it too easily bypasses the question of where all the refugees come from, in favor of a simpler meme. One is reminded of Malala, one story that pushes aside millions.

    Such narratives bait a familiar trap: the need to “do something.” That “something” in the Middle East is often the clumsy hand of military intervention under the thin cover of humanitarian rhetoric. Cries answered that way have a terrible history of exacerbating a problem they ostensibly set out to solve.

    The scope of the problem is staggering. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are more than three million Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Inside Syria itself, over 17 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including those internally displaced. Only 350,000 Syrians are estimated to have traveled to Europe. They are the ones you see on television.

    In Iraq, some 1.8 million people were displaced between January and September 2014, a declared United Nations emergency, and Iraqis are currently the second-largest refugee group in the world. Yet even now the New York Times speaks of a “new wave” of Iraqi refugees, driven in part by “years of violence and unmet promises for democracy by a corrupt political elite.”

    The situation in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere is much the same.

    There is a common denominator behind all of these refugee flows: they are, in whole or in part, the product of American “humanitarian interventions.”

    In 2003, President George W. Bush declared the goals of the United States in invading Iraq included freeing its people. In case that was not clear enough, in 2007 Bush proclaimed the American military the “greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” Yet by 2007 the number of displaced persons in Iraq had grown by some 50%.

    President Barack Obama used similar rhetoric in 2014, when he revived the United States’ war in Iraq in response to a “humanitarian crisis that could turn into a genocide” for the Yazidi people. “One Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” President Obama said at the time. “Well, today America is coming to help.” A senior administration official went on to explicitly describe the action as a humanitarian effort.

    Some 5,000 airstrikes later, that humanitarian effort is now a bloody war with Islamic State, metastasized across multiple nations, exacerbating the refugee flow. For the Yazidis, long-forgotten by Americans as the no longer needed casus belli, the war enveloped them in Islamic State’s slave trade.

    The conflict in Syria remains connected to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, in the form of militarized Sunnis, the elimination of any effective border between Iraq and Syria and, of course, Islamic State, birthed in the Iraqi sectarian conflict. American intervention in Syria ratcheted up seemingly on a schedule, all around the theme of saving the Syrian people from their dictator, Bashar al-Assad (similarities to George W. Bush’s 2003 wording in reference to Saddam Hussein are noted.)

    After it appeared Assad used chemical weapons in 2013, it was American Secretary of State John Kerry who insisted that it was “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” Airstrikes were forestalled for a time, then popped up in 2014 aimed not at Assad, but at Islamic State. Chaos has gone on to drawn numerous foreign powers into the conflict.

    With Libya in 2011, there was again a “humanitarian effort,” lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton sold intervention as a necessity: “Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled. The cries would be, ‘Why did the United States not do anything?’” That “doing something” helped push Libya into failed state status, feeding the refugee flow and bleeding conflict into neighboring countries.

    It is foolish to claim the United States alone “caused” all of these refugee flows; multiple factors, including the aggressiveness of Islamic State, are in play. But it would be equally foolish to ignore American culpability, directly in Iraq and in Libya, and via arms flows and the fanning of flames, in Syria and Yemen. The common element is a stated intent to make things better. The common result is the opposite.

    To many, particularly outside the United States, political rhetoric is just the aural garbage of imperialism. But inside the United States, military “humanitarian” intervention generally enjoys robust support. It may look like a shoddy product to some, but people continue to buy it, and thus it continues to happen. Politicians seem to know how to feed the public’s demands to “do something” triggered by an emotional photograph for their own purposes.

    There exists an inverse relationship between those that create refugees and those who help them. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted only 1,500, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.

    But that was then, pre-photo.

    Post-photo, with no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”

    Right on schedule following Kerry’s remarks, President Obama promised, per the New York Times headline, to “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.” With the problem seemingly solved, albeit only 10,000 out of millions, the plight of the refugees disappeared from America’s front pages.

    Left unsaid was the emptiness of even such non-military humanitarian rhetoric. President Obama did not mention, nor was he asked about, the reality that refugees to the U.S. are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years (the average out of Syria is two years at present), indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed. If a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been left behind.

    There also remain voices calling for another escalation of war in the Middle East to deal with the “root causes” of the refugee crisis, loosely defined for now as Islamic State’s continued existence.

    There is an immediate need to do more to help the refugees moving into Europe, and those still in the Middle East. That, and that alone, should comprise the “do something” part of a solution. Long term, if the primary response is simply more military intervention in the name of humanitarianism, or more empty promises, the answer is best left as “doing less.”

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  • Recent Comments

    • rover said...


      One must wonder if the US foreign policy aim is not “humanitarian” but is indeed the very destabilization that has resulted from our inglorious military intervention.This is one hypothesis that is out there.

      I tend to feel that the institutionalization of our neo-con and neo-liberal “think tankers” over our foreign policy has resulted in both the Republican and Democratic party’s inability to to shift gears out of our catastrophic military foreign policy aimed at “regime change”.

      It is significant that neither in the Republican Party nor the liberal wing of the Democratic Party’s presidenatial candidates is there a single voice in opposition to continuing this naked aggression all over the world under the guise of humanitarianism. Bernie Sanders, with all of his brave and outspoken progressive domestic positions, bbarely utters a word on our aggressive and failed military foreign policies.

      I think Peter’s article could go further in blaming the U.S. precisely for lighting the fire that has resulted in this extraordinary flight of regugees from countries to which we supposedly came on a “humanitarian ” mission and instead brought violence, instability,and the resultant refugees.

      10/2/15 1:17 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      The POTUS could boldly state an ” intent” to harm anyone designated an enemy and Americans would remain silent. That is where this empire is now. Blind obedience to governing authority just as they blindly obey a single unmarried male God in the ether.

      10/2/15 4:33 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...


      ” With the problem seemingly solved, albeit only 10,000 out of millions, the plight of the refugees disappeared from America’s front pages.”

      Only to be filled through the next 24 hour news spin with Netflix, Miley, Pluto, Mars, various expose’s, Putin, the Secret Service, and 1k other stories vying for your attention, while trying to make ends meet for the day, notwithstanding figuring out what the fuck life means anymore.

      10/2/15 8:51 PM | Comment Link

    • teri said...


      The US intent to “free the people” of [fill in name of random country unable to fight off the Yanks easily, here] seems to be working. These people have fled their homes and are now wandering around “freely” elsewhere. They have escaped the clutches of [insert name of evil despot dictator tyrant, here] and are free of his evil despotic dictatorship tyranny. And, incidentally, the land they once lived on will soon be “free” for the pickings of the US corporate body, as well, but that is a digression.

      For a man is only truly free when he shucks off the shackles of material possessions along with his false ideation of, and juvenile identification with, his “homeland”. We have thus freed millions – MILLIONS, I tell you – to find their path to bliss and enlightenment. Can I hear a “hallelujah”? Can I hear an “amen”?

      I knew I could. Please leave a small donation in the box on your way out today, brothers and sisters. The Church of Crystal Blue Persuasion needs all the help you can give to continue its work of freedom for all the poor non-white, non-Americans around the globe.

      10/3/15 5:20 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...


      On a side note, an update on the previously discussed state, as in “condition’ of, the State of Alabama….


      Notwithstanding Confederate flags on every redneck pickup in the State, if racism were weather, Alabama would be a fucking continuous 5.9 hurricane.

      10/3/15 5:30 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Teri- Kris Kristofferson would give you an Amen- “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” You know I sort of envy those Syrians who can just pick up and move out just like the Joads but without those nasty dusty winds at their back. Ah, freedom to roam and find your inner vagabond spirit.

      10/3/15 8:46 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Pitch- I’m late with this but I just checked your link to the Alabama article about voter registration. Closing those license centers doesn’t seem right but it also doesn’t seem right to me that most black people voted for Obama because he was black. I voted for him the first time but refused to vote at all in 2012. I was suckered by his hope and change thingee. I’m curious if he would get the same black voters to support him if he was allowed to run a third term. If so, I’d be one pissed off white guy.

      10/3/15 9:47 AM | Comment Link

    • Obama to Solve Syrian Refugee Problem with Kickstarter | Ghosts of Tom Joad - Peter Van Buren said...


      […] of September 2015, the U.S. had only accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees. Feel good yet about that $20 you just put on your credit card over at Kickstarter […]

      10/16/15 8:21 AM | Comment Link

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