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On Refugees Question, Elite Pieties vs. NIMBY


As expected, the natural trajectory of conversation post-Paris has shifted rapidly from “what should we do about ISIS” to “what should we do about Syrian refugees,” a shift which is happening for a number of reasons.

First, because no one understands what the White House’s strategy is regarding ISIS, and things that are this vague are difficult to criticize except for calling for an end to their vagueness.

Second, because very few Republicans have an articulated strategy regarding ISIS that they are comfortable explaining, and that does not essentially admit the only clear path forward which does not require heavy expense of American blood is conceding the entire field of play in the Middle East to Vladimir Putin’s priorities – early polls indicate that even after the Paris attack, Americans are still opposed to putting boots on the ground to combat ISIS.

And third, because for the American people, ISIS began as a Middle Eastern problem, and has shifted to being a problem for Russia and Europe, but is not yet viewed as a problem directly impacting Americans – except to the degree that the people who want to be killing Westerners are coming here next.

And who is coming here? Refugees, and a lot of them – including not just women and children but a surplus of young men. Consider this the ultimate Not In My BackYard issue, and for 27 U.S. states, governors have already stood up to say there is no room in the inn. Except: they can’t really say that, Constitutionally. So a crisis on this point is coming, and soon.

It is possible to believe two things: 1. That the United States should, out of compassion and humanitarianism, welcome as many Syrian refugees as we can prudently take in. And 2. That the number we can prudently take in is zero. There will be voices of rational and prudent concern on this issue, from the right of course and from vulnerable Democrats, but they will be drowned out by the easily anticipated media frame of the issue: that these Republicans are racist and xenophobic, that their backwards supporters have no basis whatsoever for believing these refugees contain people who may want to kill and terrorize, and that they are terrible Christians for being so obtuse. It is an obvious frame, but it will also run into a problem: polls will indicate that what these governors are doing is absolutely supported by their constituents.

Ted Cruz has already announced he will introduce legislation to ban the entry of Syrian Muslim refugees. It’s no coincidence that in Iowa, where Cruz was just endorsed by Steve King, Terry Branstad has put the refugee issue front and center. As hills to die on go, this is not a bad one for Cruz or any other Republican to choose, much as it will antagonize the pieties of the elites. It is always easier to be compassionate with someone else’s property and money and livelihood than it is with your own.

It is always easier to be compassionate with someone else’s property and money and livelihood than it is with your own.

As for Obama, he remains insistent on the wisdom of his slow roll airstrike ISIS strategy, saying that he’s not interested in ‘American leadership, or America winning’ as a slogan, echoing Hillary Clinton’s remarks the other night. In effect this is a moment where President Hollande is demanding a game change, a major shift in strategy, and the media and American politicians are echoing this call – but President Obama is the lone voice insisting on staying the course.

Yes, this is tone deaf. But it is also all he can really do at this point given that the actual leadership capability has been taken out of his hands: Putin and France will decide what happens next, and the president can state his mission of removing Assad til he’s blue in the face. It’s fun to play pretend.

The Russians are playing their own little pretend game, but they are playing it much more effectively. The Kremlin is announcing its confirmation today that their airliner was downed by a bomb. It is doing so not because it just learned of this fact, but because the arc of the narrative now benefits them thoroughly. The appeal from France for assistance in efforts against ISIS breaks Russia free of its isolation after its actions in the Crimea, and allows them to be the new power broker in the region. Putin has already won the week, and he will win more in the days to come.

They skip right past the argument they would need to make – that those risks are worth it. They won’t even admit there are any risks.

Remember something as you watch the refugee coverage coming in the next few days, highlighting the xenophobia and underlying bigotry of Americans and particularly Republicans: the other side of this argument will not actually engage in a debate. They refuse to admit any possibility of cynicism or skepticism about the virtue of this approach. They jump right past the point of admitting that yes, some terrorists could be among this migrant population, and that yes, this could potentially lead to the deaths of hundreds or thousands of innocent American civilians. And in doing so, they skip right past the argument they would need to make – that those risks are worth it. They won’t even admit there are any risks. And that’s why their position – noble, pious, and insulated – will find little truck with Americans who have more practical concerns, such as: will any of these people try to kill me?

The media’s response to that question may be: That’s racist or bigoted or backward. But that is not an answer that will satisfy.