Less than a week after an atrocity unfolded on the streets of Paris, the discussion over how the U.S. can effectively combat the Islamic State has predictably devolved into a vicious debate over Syrian refugees.
Presidential candidates, legislators and governors — mostly Republican — have voiced strenuously and sometimes ineptly their concern over the ability of the federal government to sufficiently vet 10,000 migrants from a nation that has become an incubator for Islamic terrorism.
Social media echo chambers have amplified messages of hate that do not reflect the sympathies of most Americans, liberal and conservative.
These factors coupled with a myopic media that irresponsibly oversimplifies a complex issue have handed President Obama a most remarkable gift: a shield from scrutiny concerning his utterly failed Syria policy that has contributed significantly to the rise of the Islamic State, the intensification of the Syrian civil war and hence to the refugee crisis
The president had multiple opportunities and ample time to act in Syria: first to support the moderate opposition that initially rose in peaceful protest against a brutal regime, then to fulfill the threat of his self-imposed “red line” when Syrian leader Bashar Assad unleashed chemical weapons on innocent civilians.
The president could have enacted no-fly zones.
He could have established safe havens for displaced Syrians and worked with coalition partners to keep them secure.
He could have pushed for a stabilizing force to stay in neighboring Iraq.
He could have been a leader by demonstrating sooner to regional and European allies that arming and training the opposition forces was in their collective national interests. Ironically, he repeatedly argued against arming the rebels because they couldn’t be properly vetted.
Instead he allowed hundreds of thousands of Syrians to be slaughtered.
And he stood by while half of Syria’s population of 24 million was displaced or forced to flee, precipitating a migrant crisis not seen since World War II.
The administration’s Syria policy was so lacking that in February 2014, the president’s own ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, found himself unable to defend it and resigned.
While Obama and his sycophantic supporters frequently rely on the same tired trope that George W. Bush is to blame for all recent foreign policy failures, the current president exclusively owns mistakes made in Syria, regardless of whether he will own up to them.
“The Obama administration has repeatedly miscalculated on Syria and underestimated the problem, even as the crisis has steadily worsened,” wrote The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof.
More cynical was Fred Hiatt’s assessment in The Washington Post that “inaction was sold not as a necessary evil but as a notable achievement.”
So it’s farcical now, in the shadow of a brutal terrorist assault in Europe and a flood of war-ravaged souls from Syria, that Obama should chastise his opponents for their alleged lack of empathy when the only compassion he has been willing to exhibit is that which fulfills his political agenda.
Still, those Republicans whose rhetoric has breached the berm of civility do themselves and the country no favors.
They are making this debate far too easy for the president; he will label anyone who expresses a rational concern over the possibility that terror cells might infiltrate refugees as the most terrible of xenophobic racists.
In truth, the debate has far less to do with refugees than it does with the fact that most Americans no longer trust their commander in chief.
Sadly, the war-torn masses have become a pawn for both sides.
Like many Americans, I share a deep sympathy for the people of Syria.
My own experience working with Iraqis in 2007 and 2008 left me frustrated that the U.S. did not do more to expedite visas for Iraqis who at great personal risk worked shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. during the war. These Iraqi partners were well-known to us, thoroughly vetted and in desperate need of asylum.
But too many of them died waiting for clearance to come to the U.S.
And now too many Syrians have died because the president convinced Americans that inaction was a virtue. Many more will die, whether waiting in a refugee queue or for the civil war to subside.
So much for Obama’s compassion.