The attack in Brussels Tuesday has once again hurt many people far from the targeted areas in Europe, namely refugees, principally Syrian refugees. Not often in recent history have individuals facing mass trauma and extreme violence at home found themselves so rapidly transformed into pariahs abroad.
The Syrians are hardly alone in going through such an experience. Refugees have always been regarded as intruders by host communities, and coexistence is frequently very difficult. Worse, refugee crises have a tendency to become permanent fixtures, as the victors at home block a return of the refugees to their country. The destiny of the Palestinians, like that of the Rwandan Hutus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or even the German minorities in the former Soviet Union, are all examples of unresolved refugee catastrophes.
However, the conditions of Syrian refugees has been exacerbated by the fact that their fate has been largely defined by Islamophobia in response to terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists as well as a feeling of cultural alienation. There is little sense of compassion in the West for Syrian refugees because they are perceived as both threatening and strange.
In many regards this signals the death knell, albeit perhaps only momentarily, of the internationalist impulses that characterized the period immediately after the end of the Cold War. At the time such norms as the Responsibility to Protect and humanitarian intervention were given far greater credibility.
It is instructive to observe the fortunes of Samantha Power to see where we stand today. In 2002, Power published a Pulitzer Prize-winning book defending humanitarian intervention, titled “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Today, Power works for a president who, in a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, declared himself “proud” not to have conducted airstrikes against Bashar Assad’s regime after it had used chemical weapons against its own population – a “red line” that Barack Obama himself had set.
Power never resigned over Obama’s shameful behavior in Syria, nor over his ludicrous claim that the conflict there was to be avoided because it was “someone else’s civil war,” a phrase that a more modest man would have since regretted. However, focusing on Power and not on the broader American and European populations, who portray themselves as being in the vanguard of human rights and democratic values, is a fools’ errand. Who can honestly speak of “exceptionalism” today?
We can only yearn for the days when internationalism was viewed as respectable. The notion that all countries have common interests, and values, to defend collectively at the international level is nowhere visible today. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine means nothing in a world where societies are demanding that barriers be erected to block out foreigners, where many countries are looking inwards and barely concealed racism and xenophobia have become widespread.
Everywhere, right-wing charlatans have come on stage promising solutions against perceived threats that they cannot conceivably deliver. In a globalized world, they are selling snake oil to nativist electorates rendered more stupid by their fears.
However, it’s also true that the traditional political class has reacted in inadequate ways. Obama won re-election partly on a claim that he had defeated Al-Qaeda and assassinated Osama bin Laden. But when an even more dangerous group emerged in Iraq after the Arab uprisings of 2011, so decided was Obama not to involve himself in the country, and in neighboring Syria, that he refused to see the potential risks of his indifference.
The American president, while claiming to be an internationalist, has been nothing of the sort. Frauds such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz may denounce Obama hourly, but in their anti-internationalism they merely reflect the president’s own refusal to seriously advance an internationalist agenda.
Does that mean Obama is a hypocrite? It does in part. One of the things his administration put forward in its 2015 national security strategy was an affirmation of “America’s leadership role within a rules-based international order ...” Yet seldom has a president presided over an international system in which rules and law have been so neglected. And almost never has America relinquished so consistently its leadership role.
However, Obama is a step removed from the nutcases proliferating in the United States. There is no other way to describe the vile Cruz, who after the Brussels bombings called for a freeze on accepting refugees from Daesh-controlled areas, and urged law enforcement agencies to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods.” It is remarkable how several of the candidates pining for an office that requires, above all, defending the U.S. Constitution are constantly taking positions that would effectively undermine the Constitution.
In such a sickening political climate don’t expect refugees to get a break, let alone the countries accommodating them. But there may be a silver lining down the road. Once Western countries look back and analyze the Syrian war, they will realize that there are some conflicts that cannot be indefinitely contained within their countries. Once they reach this conclusion, it may alter the way they look at future conflicts. In many places deciding not to get involved may no longer be a realistic option.
The West is changing, and not for the best. Having abandoned an essential part of its liberal-internationalist identity, it is now displaying its ugliest face. Blaming the victims is a favorite pastime of societies that have lost direction. It was the Syrians’ misfortune to suffer in a deeply unsettled time.
By Michael Young
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