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The US panic about Syrian refugees is basically an attempt to avoid the real problem

A woman wearing a thermal blanket holds her child on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos shortly after crossing the Aegean sea on a dinghy
AP Photo/Santi Palacios
Saying “keep them out” means ignoring what made them try to come in.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Panic isn’t pretty, but American political leaders have produced it in quantity since the attacks in Paris a week ago.

Rushing through a bill to limit Syrian refugees fleeing ISIL and Assad won’t protect Americans, though. And irresponsible rhetoric about Muslim ID cards and religious tests simply plays into the clash of civilizations that Islamist extremists would love to see happen.

So what can actually be done about the virulent ideological cocktail spilling out of a broken Middle East into the streets of Paris and Bamako alike?

Eliminating ISIL in its extremist sanctuary in Syria and Iraq will require untangling a lot of geopolitical and ethnic knots. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic contender for the US presidency, has a plan for doing that. It is neither simple, nor even likely to succeed, but unlike calls to get tough on refugees, it gets at the real problem—the fragile authoritarian states succumbing in slow motion to their people’s political aspirations and to American bombs, creating space for Islamist rebels.

In other, more familiar words: it means nation-building (paywall).

The trouble is, of course, the US has shown neither the capacity or the political will for such lofty goals (and bloody costs) in Iraq or Afghanistan. On the other hand, as Barack Obama recently said, the only alternative his critics have suggested is to “deploy US troops on a large scale to retake territory either in Iraq or now in Syria.” And who wants that again?

All of which is just a way of saying that there are no easy solutions, and the worst thing politicians can do is pretend there are. Only history will judge whether Obama’s steadfast refusal to scramble his priorities in response to the spasm of violence—more a sign of ISIL’s limits (paywall) than its powers—is wise or foolhardy, but either way, he won’t repeat his predecessor’s mistakes.

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