The Middle East is a complicated place. Divided by ethnicity, political affiliation and religion, over the last century, arbitrarily set boundaries have forced different peoples to attempt working in unity. That’s to say, outside powers such as Britain, France, Spain and Italy meshed competing interests together, fusing their land, resources and interests. During the transition to independence, these boundaries became legitimate national borders. (To be fair, teachers and students around the world have rehearsed this history lesson, but it’s something we must not forget).
Since World War II, many of the colonizers have tried picking up the pieces, repairing the strife they created in the Middle East — either for national gain, security, development or a confluence of the three.
Then came America.
Through arming rebels, supporting dictators or advancing war, the United States has gone to great lengths in order to secure its interests and stabilize the region. Much of our role in the Middle East, and the world at large, is due to the belief in “American exceptionalism”: an idea promoting America as unique in its valuing of individualism, liberty, egalitarianism and the free market. This concept, while spirited and momentarily empowering, has led the United States to militarily intervene when it’s unjustifiable or unnecessary, acting often as the world’s police. Fortunately, there are numerous ways to promote peace, diplomacy and protect our interests abroad without using brute force. In short, “peace in the Middle East” can be achieved through humanitarian efforts that develop nations from the ground up, and welcoming refugees and immigrants whenever possible, thereby helping people directly.
The current Syrian refugee crisis is a wake-up call, demanding a reformation of what international diplomacy in this region — and around the world — should look like. In the midst of human chaos and tragedy, the United States can have a role in honoring human rights, prosperity and global security. By providing more Syrians refuge, we can protect humans, raise our image as a benevolent world actor and, yes, develop our own nation.
Unfortunately, many politicians are unwilling to accept refugees because they see it as funneling terrorism to the motherland. To me, that’s straight Islamophobia.
Regardless of your perspective, though, there’s an important lesson in this — America’s hubris has created, or influenced, international conflict. Specifically, the concept of American exceptionalism has prompted congressmen to support the bombing of insurgents and propagate war. But whether or not you believe American exceptionalism is justified, it’s still important to recognize the opportunity and responsibility America has to facilitate global security and development.
Advancing educational, health and economic sectors, accepting immigrants and promoting vital civil societies where people express and maintain freedoms in the developing world is our most effective weapon against terrorism.
Let’s now return to the current refugee crisis.
We can’t support dictator Bashar al-Assad as we’ve done with leaders who’ve propagated all sorts of crimes and rebel groups who — momentarily — act for liberating or democratic causes (or simply, causes that are in our best interest). In Syria, we’ve already spent $41 million on rebel forces. It’s not going well.
We can’t send in the Air Force to remove Assad — as we know the horrifying power vacuum created in Libya when assisting in efforts to remove Gadaffi.
We can’t bomb our way through Syria with American force, like Bush’s war in Iraq and President Barack Obama’s drone strikes in Pakistan. These actions destroy foreigners’ trust in America. Referring to drones, in particular, one Georgetown professor is quoted saying, “(Drones) have the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time for secret reasons based on secret evidence in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials.”
But not using drones and war tactics doesn’t mean we can’t do anything for Syrians. We can open our doors to them.
When discussing refugee acquisition or immigration, it’s important to note that taking in refugees is not a zero-sum game. If America allows refugees in, refugees will return the favor. I’ll skip over the psychological, security and economic benefits it provides to refugees, and just mention the benefits for America. Yes, in the short term America will pay for housing, English lessons and job training, but in the long term, this will yield dividends for the United States. Refugees, more than immigrants and natives, are more likely to start small businesses. Additionally, Syrian refugees are consumers, and, as such, will benefit local economies. The quicker a nation can help them assimilate, the faster they will help that nation.
So far, the United States hasn’t done enough. Since September 10, we’ve accepted 1,500 refugees and some senators have pushed to accept 65,000. That’s good, but way behind Germany’s 98,700 and Turkey’s 1.9 million.
On a grand scale, though, America’s foreign policy agenda is shifting in a better direction — toward more foreign assistance and less force; more diplomacy and less exceptionalism. In an interview, Obama recognized the need to combine “national security” and “foreign assistance.” Here, he refers to strategic efforts — supplying aid workers, restructuring criminal justice systems and developing economies — as more critical in the world than leveraging our military.
Still, there’s room for improvement. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid, while 17 percent is committed to defense. As the president himself said, they need to be treated as one and the same.
Just as we cannot colonize our way to economic development or stability, we cannot dominate how a country operates economically, socially or politically. However, we can facilitate development. We can fund technology, health, education and business sectors. We can invest in economies of the developing world like China does in Africa. We can aid in the progress of other countries as partners — expanding the global economy and making things safer for the United States and the world.
Foreign policy predominantly run by humanitarian efforts — educating world citizens, keeping them healthy and raising their standard of living — has another implication: becoming a nation for the good. People will, in turn, look to the United States as benevolent, helping the development of their country. Syrians citizens will want to travel here, acquire American goods and make friends, thereby promoting global safety on a local and state level, not funneling in terrorism.
This form of diplomacy isn’t easy. Diplomacy and global peace is a slow process.
But there are no quick and dirty tricks for solving global crises, and diplomacy is our best option.
Sam Corey can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.