Martin O’Malley Is Right: America Should Be Taking More Syrian Refugees

If little, crowded Germany can make room for those fleeing Syria, so can the United States.

A Syrian baby sleeping in Greece (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters)

I haven’t been writing about Syria, either the horrific war of the past four years or the ongoing refugee crises, because it is one of many topics about which I feel I don’t know enough to offer useful comment.

But over the past two years, I have several times posted guest analyses from someone in a very good position to know: the distinguished international-affairs practitioner and scholar William Polk. In 2013 he offered a two-part backgrounder on why things had gone so tragically wrong in Syria, with a heavy emphasis on ramifications of the years-long drought. His accounts are here, the first and then the second; two subsequent Polk assessments are here and here.

Now I offer another guest perspective, on the consequences of ongoing war. It’s from Dr. Ramy Arnaout of MIT and Harvard Medical School, who is now at the Beth Israel Deaconess medical center in Boston. He describes himself, as you will see, as “a born-and-bred, die-hard New Englander who happens to be the child of Lebanese immigrants.” He argues that it’s time for the U.S. to move aggressively in making room for more of the people displaced by the horrors in Syria.

I agree. I’ll explain why after we hear from Dr. Arnaout. Then I’ll explain why I’m mentioning Martin O’Malley in the headline.

Now, from Ramy Arnaout:

I (and about 40,000 others at last count) have been on Facebook spreading the word about a White House petition to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in the U.S. You can read the petition at the link above.

Several people have asked me why we should do anything when the regional powers, Iran and especially (as a richer and Arab country) Saudi Arabia, have done little, and whether we shouldn’t prefer to send money to support “safe zones” inside Syria instead.

This felt like it was missing the point... This is not either-or but both-and—even if you trust Riyadh to lead anything, or Riyadh and Tehran to agree on anything, or safe havens to stay safe in war zones—an oxymoron about which Yugoslavs, Rwandans, Afghans, Iraqis, and Sudanese might opine.

Personally I might suggest Riyadh and Tehran donate to tiny Lebanon, a country with an actual (but increasingly shaky) government and 30% refugees—20% of the Syrian total—than to Syria itself, but that is beside the point.

The point is, we are not Riyadh—thankfully—nor Tehran. We do not elect their leaders.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor
Countries extending—and refusing—hospitality to Syrian refugees, 2015 (Ramy Arnaout)

We write our Congressmen. We petition our White House. We are the United States. That should mean something.

The inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These words welcomed millions. By our alchemy this “wretched refuse” helped spawn the Greatest Generation and powered the engine of the 20th century. The mantle of that legacy now falls to us. Syria’s huddled masses yearn not to breathe free—a luxury in war—but to breathe at all. Do the words with which we caption our defining monument not include these people?

Syria gave us Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld. “The business of the American people is business,” said Calvin Coolidge. As Americans, we should know a bargain when we see one. Syria is a fire sale. Lady Liberty's “golden door” should be open with Syrian refugees first in line.

The alternative is we keep that door shut—and consider outsourcing our conscience to oil sheikhs and mullahs.

Do we want to trust the future of the world we used to lead to the mercy, generosity, and tolerance of the Saudis? Are we content to play second fiddle to the Germans and Greeks? Or can we begin to salvage our tattered reputation and sense of self by demonstrating some basic human kindness?

“You break it, you bought it,” said Colin Powell of our Iraq misadventure, one of the first dominos in the Syrian crisis. We are not the bull in this china shop, but we fed it and let it in. We owe the shopkeepers.

Reads an open letter from Icelanders to their welfare minister, pleading the good sense of neighborliness: “Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, or soulmates, the drummer for the band of our children, our next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finished the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, the fireman, the computer genius, or the television host.”

Has the flame in Lady Liberty’s lamp burned so low that the City on a Hill has to be shown the way by Reykjavik? … Let us not be shown up by the Old World or let the least charitable among us define for us what is right. Let us open our door.

In the US we’re now talking about settling 1,500 refugees. ... Germany, meanwhile, says its capacity is unlimited. That’s pretty incredible. Merkel must know many—most?—of those people aren’t going back. Her country has uneasy history not just re-integrating the East but with a Turkish population. Fingers crossed that the German people keep behind her—and that the refugees, while not losing their history, become fully German.

Which, as a born-and-bred, die-hard New Englander who happens to be the child of Lebanese immigrants, I think would be a truly great thing.

* * *

As I said, while not a Syria expert, I agree that America should open itself to more of this latest wave of refugees. My reasons, in summary:

  • I am skeptical of the view that America should always “do something” about international disasters by intervening militarily, since the people urging that rarely have answers to the, “OK, what happens then?” question. But the “something” we can effectively and humanely do is take in some of those dislocated by chaos and cruelty.
  • Absorbing immigrants and refugees is always disruptive—for any nation, for any kind of refugees. But looking back, the United States has reason to feel better about those it has absorbed—from Hungary in the 1950s, from Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s, from Cuba and Russia in the 1980s, from Congo, Somalia, Burma, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc recently, and other zones before and since—than about those it has turned away. Most notable in the second category are the Jewish refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe whom the United States declined to admit when there was still time.
  • Traveling around the country these past two years on the American Futures project, my wife Deb and I have been impressed by the opposite of what we hear from the Trump campaign. That is, the ongoing assimilation of immigrants and, particularly, refugees in unexpected locales across the country. You can read reports about Sioux Falls, S.D., and Burlington, Vt. here and here. If Germany with its 80 million people can stand this disruption, so can the more-diverse United States, with four times as large a population and 25 times as big a land mass.

And why do I mention Martin O’Malley? Because, according to The Guardian, of the 4,000 (actually only 22) Republican and Democratic candidates for president who were asked, only O’Malley said unambiguously that the United States should make room for more people from Syria.

From The Guardian’s article on presidential candidates’ views on Syria.

Martin O’Malley is right, and so is Ramy Arnaout. If the United States wants to “do something” about a humanitarian disaster, it can best help them, and help itself, by welcoming more of them here.

UPDATE: People following the Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich campaigns have written in to say that, with varying degrees of caution, these three have also said some positive things about admitting refugees. E.g., this from Kasich: “ ‘I think we do have a responsibility in terms of taking some more folks in—making sure they assimilate, and at the same time, helping people to actually be safe as they move — that’s logistical support,’ he told ABC. ‘But this is fundamentally an issue that Europe has to come to grips with.’ ” Rubio has also said that he would favor taking some in, once we had made sure they weren’t terrorists.

Noted. But I’ll say again, as the Guardian did, that O’Malley was the one making the point “unequivocally,” which is why I singled him out.

* * *

Housekeeping note: The Atlantic’s new Notes section is a great innovation, which we have not yet completely integrated with our preexisting site. Thus for the record I will provide links here to several recent Notes items: two on the Chinese Victory Parade last week, here and here; one on a very interesting Iran-deal panel last week in Washington; and one late last night on a renaissance of California-based magazines.