The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Shock and Awe ... Once Again

From Greg Abbott to Chris Christie, Republicans scramble to show contempt for Syrian refugees

By Michael King, November 20, 2015, News

Responding to last week's terror attacks in Paris by declaring opposition to any U.S. resettlement of Syrian refugees – as more than two dozen (mostly Republican) governors have now done – must set some kind of a contemporary record for kicking people while they are down. The thousands of refugees from Syria (about two-thirds of them women and children) are fleeing the very war and tyranny represented by the ruthless fanatics who attacked Paris (and Beirut a day earlier, adding to a string of similar outrages). Moreover, other than a reportedly forged passport, there is little evidence that the terrorists had any substantive connection to Syrian refugees – most were either Belgian or French nationals.

As yet, there have been no official calls to ban Belgian immigrants. Unsurprisingly, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was among the first to blame the victims for the European refugee crisis, in a letter informing President Obama that "the State of Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris." Quoting (out of context) FBI Director James Comey on the difficulty of background checks – although in fact the federal government has already performed lengthy, successful reviews of about 2,000 Syrian nationals seeking asylum – Abbott insists it's just too dangerous: "American humanitarian compassion could be exploited to expose Americans to ... deadly danger. The reasons for such concerns are plentiful."

As has been widely reported, governors in fact have no authority to direct federal policy on such matters – but they can certainly create obstructions: Abbott directed the state's Refugee Resettlement Program to not accept any Syrians. The Dallas Morning News spoke to a few Syrians who have already found a home in Texas, including a man much more eloquent than the governor: "We are helpless and hopeless," said Moutaz Alafandi. "We are left to face all the terrorism of the world and the terrorism posed by [Syrian President Bashir] Assad, by ourselves."

Posturing Cowards

Like Abbott and his GOP colleagues, the Republican presidential candidates have scrambled to outdo each other in their contempt for people like Moutaz Alafandi. I suppose New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wins the prize, for announcing he would not even accept "5-year-old orphans." (He also wrote to the president, in a letter featuring much of the identical phrasing employed by Abbott. These titans couldn't even compose their own letters, instead working with a circulated template.)

On the campaign trail, the GOP candidates, from Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz (who would welcome "Christians") right on down to also-ran Lindsey Graham, have been mocking Obama's supposed weakness, and demanding wider and greater war. Donald Trump is the rhetorical champion, vowing last week to "bomb the shit" out of ISIS. Yet this week these chest-beaters are all quaking at the prospect of accepting penniless refugees. Abbott and Christie closed their letters with the identically craven phrase: "Opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril."

O brave new world, that has such heroes in it.

Where It Began

Nevertheless, while these rantings embody cynical and feckless policy, that hardly means they represent bad politics. Trump has successfully rested his entire campaign on fomenting hatred and fear of Mexican and Central American immigrants, while his competitors fume that they despise immigrants just as much as Trump does, but to insufficient acclaim. Those southern refugees (also many women and children) fleeing destitution and crime will now feature as proxies for Middle Easterners fleeing bombs, starvation, and tyranny. The appeal to the basest instincts of U.S. voters will continue, with an additional fuse to ignite the xenophobia.

Nearly forgotten in all this hysteria – and the U.S./NATO reflex to expand the bombing of a region that has been bombed relentlessly for more than a decade – is that the latest flood of refugees was inaugurated by the "shock and awe" that the U.S., Britain, and their handful of allies rained on Iraq beginning in 2003. That arrogant and illegal war devastated that country, then sparked the civil war and the Sunni revolt from which ISIS sprang.

At the time we were told that the war on Iraq would be quick and virtually painless (for us), as it would use overwhelming terroristic power – "shock and awe" – to destroy both the military and civilian infrastructure of Iraq. In the words of Harlan Ullman, one of its architects at the Center of Strategic and International Studies: "You also take the city down. By that I mean you get rid of their power and water. In two, three, four, five days they are physically, emotionally, and psychologically exhausted." (See "War Drums," Feb. 21, 2003).

Twelve years later, the predictable results of that breathtaking U.S. hubris and brutality are decimating the Middle East and threatening Europe, while the politicians who supported and celebrated the war are washing their hands of the blood. We have sown the winds, and are reaping the whirlwinds.

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