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The Refugee Crisis: Beware the Drums of War

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries have entered Europe this year. As the debate over Europe’s responsibility to let these refugees in continues, calls for humanitarianism have been accompanied by an alarming and predictable Western response. Following the cynical adage that you can’t let a good crisis go to waste, intellectuals and states alike have been happy to use the crisis for renewed calls for Western military intervention.

The predicate of the arguments is that the West, despite calling for Assad to step down since 2011, has done nothing to get rid of him and as such has “abandoned” the Syrian people. We must now step up and bear this burden, so the pundits say.

The Guardian’s editorial last week berated Europe for its “paralysis,” “inertia,” and “years of failure to confront Syria’s bloody collapse.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof largely agrees, while his colleague Ross Douthat sees Syria as “an ugly crack” in the otherwise admirable and “very consciously accepted stewardship of global stability” that is Pax Americana. The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum agrees too, and calls the refugees a “security crisis,” the “consequences” of Europe’s inaction. Edward Luce, in the Financial Times, repeats the claim that the U.S. bears responsibility for this crisis as well, since it abandoned its role as “beacon”, abstaining rather than intervening, having done “almost nothing” to oust Assad.

Never mind reality.

Reality is, as Adam Johnson of media watchdog FAIR reminds us, that the predicate that Western states did nothing in Syria is pure fantasy: “The US has been ‘intervening’ in the Syrian civil war, in measurable and significant ways, since at least 2012—most notably by arming, funding and training anti-Assad forces.” Johnson cites a Washington Post report from just a couple of months ago:

At $1 billion, Syria-related operations account for about $1 of every $15 in the CIA’s overall budget, judging by spending levels revealed in documents the Washington Post obtained from former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

US officials said the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years — meaning that the agency is spending roughly $100,000 per year for every anti-Assad rebel who has gone through the program.

The New York Times further details how the Pentagon is planning to “revamp the program,” in part by “enlarging the size of the groups of trained rebels sent back into Syria.” And apart from arming, funding, and training these groups, American predator drones have been providing air support as well.
Nevertheless, these efforts will not suffice to stop the hordes from “rattling Europe’s gates,” The Guardian opinionates. Some other kind of “international intervention” is “inevitable.” And though “There is no obvious formula for intervention in broken states” and “no wholly satisfactory precedent for the deployment of western power in support of democracy”, we should have at it nonetheless.

These calls to war are not meant to hold Western states accountable and make them fulfill their responsibilities, as some would have it. Instead they erase from memory our real responsibilities for causing the current catastrophe. By aiming their focus on our mythical inaction, they whitewash history and expunge the details of our real-world actions.

The whitewashed history includes our blundering interventions in Syria, helping to turn it into a “broken state,” but extends much further.
Our “responsibilities” have a long history – a history with enduring consequences – and follow a familiar pattern. During colonization, the Middle East and Africa were divided up between European powers, drawing borders and playing out ethnic groups against one another. When they were forced out, they left behind ethnic tensions and poverty. In subsequent years they kept in power dictators and helped to crush democratic uprisings, fought wars against those who disobeyed, and enforced a political economy on many states that ensured Western access to natural resources and largely stunted economic development in these post-colonial societies.

This history has not ended; it is not the material of dust-covered textbooks. It continues today. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen have all caused those countries to unravel and “destabilize.” A report by Physicians for Social Responsibility on the casualties of more than ten years of the “war on terror” concludes that “that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million.” But instead of being used as an argument against Western interventions, the resulting chaos in turn is used, in Glenn Greenwald’s words, to “justify endless war by the West.”

And as always, intellectuals and the state are closely aligned. Media whitewashing prepares the ground for state action. French president Francois Hollande, rising to the occasion, announced his order to prepare airstrikes on ISIS forces in Syria, in blatant violation of international law. The British government is thinking of following suit. “Officials in Washington and European capitals,” cited by the New York Times, agree with The Guardian’s progressive editors and “acknowledge that halting this mass migration requires a comprehensive international effort to bring peace and stability to areas that those refugees are now fleeing.” The beats of war are drumming once again, and we’d better wake up and hear them.

Continuation of Western foreign policies will inevitably create the next wave of misery and refugees in years to come. The prerogatives of Western states should make this crystal clear. While leaders now claim to stand with the ‘huddled Syrian masses,’ refugee organizations are desperate for money. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency “mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide” is dramatically underfunded. The World Food Program in the past weeks has had to cut benefits to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan, reducing their “food security”, according to WFP executive director Ertharin Cousin. While these UN bodies are struggling to find sufficient funding, the unmentionable fact is that the money spent on our military interventions could easily solve the deficit. The planned allocation of financial resources should give us pause to wonder about actual goals and motives.

Belgian singer Jacques Brel famously dreamed of a world in which the power of love was enough to stop the drums of war. The people of Europe have exemplified this power of love in efforts to aid and welcome the refugees. But if that love is not going to be accompanied by an understanding of and demand to stop and ameliorate the causes of the crisis, the next one is already in the making.

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Jelle Bruinsma is a doctoral candidate in the History of Financial Imperialism at the European University Institute, based in Florence, Italy. He co-edits the social movements website ROAR Magazine.

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