No, The U.S. Is Not To Blame for the Refugee Crisis

As the refugee crisis in Europe gains more attention, commentators have been asking (and answering) the question, who is at fault? 

One answer has been provided by Ben Swann of Reality Check. After asking, “So what is the source of this crisis?” he answered, “It started with the war in Iraq.” He then goes on to blame the United States in particular, citing its role in “blowing apart” Iraq in the search of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, followed by “regime change in Libya through the killing of Muammar Gaddafi,” and then in arming and training members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who “would later defect to Al Nusra Front and to ISIS.”

These interventions, he says, are responsible for the exodus of millions of people from the Middle East.

First, a bit of fact-checking is in order. Swann says that the Iraq War led to half a million Iraqi deaths. This number is very much in dispute. Following the release of troves of Iraq War-related documents by Wikileaks, it appears that the number of noncombatant Iraqis killed is closer to 122,000. Of this total, more than half are estimated to have been at the hands of fellow Iraqis, including from roadside bombs and sectarian killings.

Moreover, through semantic slight-of-hand, Swann blames the rise of ISIS on America’s support for the Free Syrian Army. This is disingenuous. Not only has U.S. support for the FSA been delayed and meager, but the FSA and jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are sworn enemies: it is only because the U.S. provided so little support for the moderate opposition that FSA fighters began defecting to the more radical, better-equipped jihadist groups.

Yet the fatal flaw in Swann’s argument is his identification of the war in Iraq as the origin of the refugee crisis. Choosing this event or point in time is as arbitrary as it is revealing of his membership in the “Blame American First” crowd, whose interpretation of events in the Middle East is very much in need of rebuttal.

To begin, perhaps Swann is not aware — or does not bother to relate to his readers — that Iraq has been experiencing a refugee crisis for decades. Perhaps he is unaware that it was in order to escape the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship that Iraqis began fleeing the country in droves — many of them settling in America, including in places like Dearborn, Michigan.

One wonders why he does not mention Saddam’s draining of the marshesin southern Iraq and his attacks on the Shi’ite population there, which created at least 200,000 displaced persons. One questions why he does not bring up Saddam’s brutal repression of the spontaneous uprisings in 1991 (I wonder if Swann could stomach reading even a few pages of Kanan Makiya’s chronicling of these atrocities in his underappreciated book, Cruelty and Silence), which created 2 million Kurdish refugees alone, with an estimated two thousand dying every day from dehydration and dysentery.

Swann’s focus on the Iraq War but not its antecedents (the war was not waged solely on the basis of securing WMDs, but for, among other reasons, Saddam’s violation of the terms of the post-Gulf War ceasefire agreement) reminds me of how Western journalists, since 2003, are often all too quick to step over 1,000 cold corpses — murdered at the hands of autocrats or jihadists — in order to humiliate the United States.

Take, for instance, the case of Abu Ghraib. While the torture committed by Americans at the prison was horrendous and unjustifiable and rightfully prosecuted, it pales in comparison to the way Saddam Hussein operated Abu Ghraib for the punishment of political opponents. Again, I wonder if Swann (or his readership) knows that Abu Ghraib was a house of misery and terror for as many as 400,000 Iraqis prior to 2003.

While Swann claims to be saying what no one else in the media will say by blaming the refugee crisis on the United States, he is actually expressing a pessimism and self-loathing that is quite commonplace in journalistic circles. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in his critique of coverage of the Iraq War, the news service McClatchy, for instance, ran a headline in 2007 reading, “As violence falls in Iraq, cemetery workers feel the pinch” (that is going quite out of one’s way to put a negative spin on a positive development). Swann is thus not speaking truth to power or offering a radical or novel criticism; he is parroting the line of defeatists and cynics that has carried the day since the war began.

Again, I point out Swann’s selective interpretation of events and selective outrage in order to expose the arbitrariness of identifying the Iraq War as the cause of the refugee crisis. Why not, as mentioned before, refer to the refugee crises caused by Saddam in the 1980s and 1990s? Why not investigate the relevance of Saddam Hussein’s bloody purge of the Baath Party in 1979 and the subsequent construction of a ruthless “republic of fear” as causes of Iraqi emigration? Why not point to the carving up of the region after World War I? Why not point to Ottoman imperialism, the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 CE, or the all too harmful knock-on effects of the Sunni-Shi’a split?

The reason, as hinted at before, is because it seems Swann may not believe that America does or can exert a positive influence in the region, and if something bad happens, it must be America’s fault.

In reserving his ire for the United States, Swann ignores the very real injustices that prevailed in Iraq, Libya, and Syria which provoked the conflicts in these countries in the first place — namely, unstable political equilibria where citizens, for decades, were hoodwinked into accepting a false dilemma and told they had to tolerate autocracy in order to stave off theocracy (why realists — on the left and right — have referred to these oppressive and hated regimes as exemplars of “stability” has never made sense to me).

The refugee crisis is thus not caused by the United States but by the brutal repression of despots like Saddam, Gaddafi, and Assad, who would rather massacre their citizens and destroy their countries than allow for democratic transitions.

In short, Ben Swann is incorrect to argue that the U.S. is to blame for the refugee crisis: rather, it is social unrest following political revolutions — in Iraq in 1991 and in Libya and Syria starting with the Arab Spring — that is responsible.

A more plausible analysis of recent years contends that American interventionism is irrelevant in determining the fate of restive countries making the transition — sometimes with a theocratic interruption — from autocracy to democracy in the region. The following conclusion, penned by former Obama administration official Philip Gordon, is the latest conventional wisdom to circulate through Washington:

In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.

However, this summary is not quite complete. While Iraq did experience chaos for many years during the occupation, one can easily making the case that it was America’s premature departure from Iraq (and its abstinence from resolving the civil wars in Libya and Syria) that is the true cause of the region’s current instability and the resulting refugee crisis.

In other words, it is not American interventionism (or noninterventionism) per se that is responsible for the refugee crisis; rather, it is half-hearted or aborted interventions which fail to leave behind social and political order that are to blame.

Take, for instance, the successful case of Afghanistan. During the 1980s and 1990s, when the country was invaded by the Soviet Union, engulfed in civil war, and then occupied by the Taliban, approximately 6 million people fled Afghanistan — approximately 40 percent of the population. After the U.S. and NATO intervened in 2001 to topple the Taliban, the coalition has painstakingly helped rebuild the country and left behind a democracy capable of governing and defending itself. As a result, the economy, health care, and education have all improved, and more than 5 million Afghans have returned home.

Perhaps the best articulation of the relationship between the West’s foreign policy and the refugee crisis came from Matt Steinglass, who tweeted, “If democracies fail to export democracy to dictatorships, they will end up importing their citizens.”

This, as far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, is the true origin of the current refugee crisis.

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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