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Cautious on Syria war, Obama now cautious on refugee crisis

During the past four years, 4 million Syrians have fled their country's civil war. The US has accepted just over 1,500 refugees, so far allowing Europe to take the lead on the issue.

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A Syrian refugee carries two children moments after arriving on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, September 8, 2015. Greece asked the European Union for aid to prevent it being overwhelmed by refugees, as a minister said arrivals on Lesbos had swollen to three times as many as the island could handle.

Dimitris Michalakis/Reuters

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The crisis roiling Europe is prompting human rights advocates and some United States politicians to demand that the US do more to address what is now considered the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.

To no small degree, the Obama administration’s tepid response reflects President Obama’s cautious, entanglement-wary approach to the Syrian civil war.

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The position that the US cannot ride to the rescue in every global crisis rings hard-hearted to some, and there was some suggestion Tuesday that the White House is considering a more active role. But the president’s hesitation is more realistic than some past US policies, some experts say.

“The days are long gone when the United States rode in on a white horse and solved or tried to solve these big problems,” says Hurst Hannum, an expert in international law and US foreign policy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

“When you consider what a mess we’ve made, and how we’ve often ended up leaving things in worse shape than they were before,” he adds, “it makes sense that the administration would be careful about actions whose consequences we cannot foresee.”

That does not change the “moral obligation” of the world’s leading power to do more to help the waves of Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and others displaced by the Middle East’s conflicts, others say.

“The question of moral responsibility is undeniable,” says Suzanne Shanahan, an expert in refugee resettlement at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Germany and Sweden have agreed to take in refugees equaling 1 percent of their population, she says. “Surely, then, the US can take in at least 65,000 Syrians,” or about 0.02 percent of the US population.    

Part of the Obama approach is a lead-from-behind conception of burden-sharing that he has honed since the Libyan intervention in 2011 – viewed as too passive by some.

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“There is certainly capacity in Europe to deal with this problem, and the United States certainly stands with our European partners,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters last week in response to mounting criticism.

Mr. Earnest noted that the US is the top donor of humanitarian assistance to the region, having provided $4 billion for the Syrian crisis alone.

But did that pronouncement set the wrong tone, even for a cautious Mr. Obama?

A statement by a National Security Council spokesman on Tuesday, promising a more hands-on US role, suggests the White House may have decided last week’s response was too dismissive of the crisis.

The Obama administration is in regular contact with its European partners and is “actively considering” new measures to relieve those countries’ burden, including “refugee resettlement,” said NSC spokesman Peter Boogaard.

Tuesday’s message recalibration followed some stinging evaluations of the US response to the refugee crisis so far.

“The US has historically been the world’s leader in recognizing the moral obligation to resettle refugees…. But in the four years of the Syria crisis there has been inertia rather than leadership,” said David Miliband, president of the International Crisis Committee and former British foreign minister, in a statement last week.

More than 4 million Syrians have departed their country in the four-plus years of fighting. In that time, the US has taken just over 1,500 Syrian refugees. Most Syrians fleeing the fighting have settled in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But growing numbers are setting off for Europe as conditions in countries like Turkey worsen.

Mr. Miliband’s “moral obligation” argument for a more robust American response is also driving calls from some leaders and human rights groups.

Several senators are renewing their call from earlier this year for the US to welcome more refugees. In May, a group of 14 senators, led by Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois and Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota sent a letter to Obama in which they compared an inadequate global response to the refugee crisis to “the international community’s tragic failure to shelter Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi genocide.”

The senators say the US should take in many more of the 130,000 Syrian refugees the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, wants the international community to resettle by the end of next year.

“It is a moral, legal, and national security imperative for the United States to lead by example in addressing the world’s worst refugee crisis of our time,” the senators said.

State Department officials say the US is aiming to allow in more Syrians for resettlement. But they note that the administration is obligated to vet all would-be refugees to make sure none are national security threats, such as Islamist extremists.   

Professor Hannum says there is also some argument that Europe’s proximity to the refugees makes this more of a European problem.

“Geography does matter – it’s difficult to criticize the US for seeing this primarily as a European issue when it’s their shores and borders the refugees are reaching,” he says. “In the same way, I’d imagine the Europeans must have seen the Central Americans arriving at the US border as primarily a Western Hemispheric problem for the US to address.”

Hannum says his is not so much an argument for the US to do “little or nothing more” as it is an acknowledgement that the crisis is not going to be seriously addressed until the conflicts feeding it are addressed.

“What should we do, start sending C-130s [airplanes] and troops-transport ships over to bring people back to the US?” he says. “That’s an insufficient answer at best, and it does nothing in the direction of a long term solution,” he adds. “If all you do is that, you’re detracting from the goal of stabilizing Syria and enabling Syrians to return and live there.”


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