Misguided Bipartisanship

Republicans and Democrats should work together to fix things that are actually broken.

As someone who has consistently pushed for bipartisan problem solving, I cannot believe I am writing to decry a rare act of near-bipartisanship in the House of Representatives.  Depressing.

Last week, the House voted to change the standards governing the processing of Syrian refugees.  By requiring the FBI Director and the Director of 2040_matters_13National Intelligence to personally certify that each accepted refugee poses no security risk, the House Bill would effectively prevent the acceptance of any Syrian refugees.  It is a classic poison pill.  If this Bill were to become law and the U.S. honored its commitment to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, these two critical national security officials would spend virtually every minute of every day reviewing refugee files and interviewing the staff who performed the underlying screening, rather than performing their actual national security and other duties.  This is ludicrous, and the House knows it.

This legislative approach is also terribly misguided.  The risks associated with the refugee program have been theatrically overblown.  Although no one can say with absolute certainty that there are not Islamic State (IS) operatives in the refugee population, we do know that there are millions of legitimate refugees fleeing the Assad regime, IS, or both.  We aren’t fishing for a handful of legitimate refugees in a sea of IS operatives.

We also know that IS couldn’t pick a slower route to try to infiltrate the U.S. than by pursuing refugee status.  It can take two years or more to successfully pursue a refugee claim from Syria.  By contrast, a teenage girl has sailed around the entire world by herself on a relatively small boat in far less time – a trip that is roughly five-times the distance from Damascus to New York City.  Thus we know it would be faster for IS to sail to the U.S. from the Eastern Mediterranean than to pursue refugee status.  And, of course, the reason it takes so long to process a refugee claim is because of the lengthy security screening performed by U.S. authorities.

So, if we decide to pull the plug on processing Syrian refugees because of our concerns about IS infiltration, we would be asserting that:  (1) it is highly likely that IS will attempt to infiltrate the refugee program; (2) that IS is willing to wait more than two years to get an operative into the U.S. while it is now being bombed almost daily; and (3) that it wants to ensure that its operatives interact with the U.S. national security community when seeking to enter the U.S.  Unless IS really is the “jayvee” team of terrorists, do we really think they would prioritize perhaps the slowest and most difficult route into the U.S.?

If the House now believes that we must disengage from the world to achieve zero risk, then its legislative calendar is going to be very busy in the weeks ahead.  We should expect to see legislation banning all flights to the U.S. from countries where IS has a presence.  After all, an IS operative could hide in the landing gear and survive the trans-oceanic flight.  Enjoy traveling to and from Europe by boat.  We’ll also need to ban all containerized exports from those countries.  A person could survive for weeks in a shipping container on the high seas.  Good luck buying anything not made in China.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that I have dramatically understated the risks associated with the refugee program, such that there would be a plausible benefit associated with refusing to accept Syrian refugees.  Even if that were true, we must nonetheless consider the costs associated with this position.  In particular, our refusal to accept Muslim refugees would be portrayed by IS as powerful evidence that the West is at war with Islam – one of the leading narratives that IS uses to recruit disaffected Muslims to its cause.  Thus, refusing to accept refugees would almost certainly be counter-productive over the next two plus years.  We would trade a certain increase in IS recruits over the next 24 months for a highly unlikely possibility of IS infiltration in the U.S. sometime later.

Conversely, we must consider the benefits associated with taking carefully vetted Syrian refugees.  In particular, we need to recognize that these types of compassionate actions toward Muslims actually counter the narrative that the West is at war with Islam.  If we were strategically altruistic, we would not only take Syrian refugees, but develop an international marketing strategy to tout our compassion.

On balance, this is not even a close case.  We should be taking refugees rather than giving into fear and xenophobia.

We should also recognize that this House Bill is a case of the tail wagging the dog.  Of all the things we need to be doing to defeat fanatical Islamic terror and ensure our safety here in the U.S., suspending the refugee program should be way down on the list, even for those who believe it carries substantial risks and no benefits.  We have much bigger fish to fry and an Administration that refuses to acknowledge we need to go fishing, let alone fire up the grille.  If Republicans and Democrats really want to work together to protect this Country, they should be crafting, and forcing the Administration to execute, an actual multilateral strategy to defeat fanatical Islamic terror using all elements of hard and soft power.  That would be precision-guided bipartisanship.

 

 

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