For Whom the Bell Tolls Amid the Refugee Crisis

January 12, 2016

Wars in the Middle East are creating huge flows of refugees. If war creates refugees, we either have to have a way to stop the wars or a policy about refugees. Just saying we will or won’t let people in is a decision, not a policy. One must think past those decisions to the enormous consequences.

Countries can try to exclude refugees leaving them to fend for themselves wherever they are. Countries can also put them in camps, let them in but then leave them to fend for themselves, or help them settle. Surrounding countries can also stop them at borders, keep them in camps, or let or help them settle. The permutations produce very different results.

More than six decades ago, Arab states refused to let the Palestinians settle. Ipso facto they created a permanent Palestinian fighting force. But who would the Palestinians fight? The oppressors keeping them in the camps, or the oppressors who pushed them out of their land? Which story would they buy? Refugee issues can fester. Both Palestinians and Israelis feel their backs to the wall and feel themselves fighting for survival, with lethal results.

Incidentally at the same time, a much larger refugee crisis existed in the Indian subcontinent leading to the separate nations of India and Pakistan out of the British Raj. That land is still troubled, though neither denies the other’s right to exist. In both cases, the mass exoduses left powerful marks on the stability of the regions.

And on the US southern border what happens to the people we exclude and what happens to us because of it? Impoverished masses elsewhere are likely to do the same things that impoverished masses do here – turn to some forms of crime. I doubt, when one takes white collar crime and tax evasion into account, that crime is much more prevalent amongst the poor but it is different – mostly theft, drug dealing or prostitution for survival or quick cash.

Then there’s the effort to deport people who were brought here as small children, an effort some of the prominent Republican candidates have endorsed. Ok, what are those kids going to do when they are back in their countries of origin? Many of them will find themselves jobless because they are strangers in what Americans insist on calling their land. But those young people brought up in the United States will prove valuable to criminal enterprises abroad because they could cross the borders and pass here easily. From an American point of view, those likelihoods of crime and participation in organized crime abroad are dangerous here. Volatile borders do no one any good.

Would it be better to bring them in, settle, employ and educate them and our people too, than to insist that everyone is on their own volatile devices to deal with the cruelties of a world without mercy. And then think about the effect of refugees on the people they leave behind. Think about the letters home, and the money home. Who is the so-called Great Satan when family write back with ordinary family developments – marriages, jobs, babies – and send money.

Creating a population tsunami and then pushing people back into swirling lifeboats has consequences for all of us. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, “entire of itself….. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 12, 2016.


Refugees and the Impact of Immigration

December 1, 2015

Two things have been capturing our attention, the plight of Syrian refugees, and the environmental summit in Paris. They are in fact closely connected.

First, immigration is valuable to us. Immigrants bolster national power – it matters that China and India have a billion people each. Immigrants grow the economy and make it easier to sustain what’s left of our social safety net because they work and contribute. They are productive  partly because they are new blood, and look at things with new eyes. This country has been at the forefront of innovation since it was founded because mixing peoples from different countries and parts of the globe consistently stimulated and refreshed the American economy. With globalization that is even more important. So for national security, economic health and continuing the path of American innovation, immigration is a big plus. In the case of refugees, generosity is also a big plus, good for our hearts and good for making America the world’s destination.

Immigration is not without problems. In the short run, the impact on jobs seems to be a wash – immigrants compete for existing jobs but create new ones by expanding the market. There is reason for concern that some supporters of DAESH (also called ISIL) could get in, but DAESH now has American supporters with passports. So the problem is much broader and needs to be dealt with in a broader way – Americanizing immigrants by reaching out, welcoming and including them in our activities.

But there is a problem. World population has tripled since I was a youngster. That’s an explosion. Chinese authorities understood that China could not sustain population growth and slowed it precipitously. Immigration initially doesn’t change world population. But the ultimate impact will result from improved health, cultural change, and rising living standards. Americans consume far more than our proportion of the world’s resources and we produce far more carbon dioxide and other toxins than our proportion of the world’s population. That is ground for concern. And immigration will stress the environment of some states and communities.

We can enjoy the benefits of immigration IF we can limit and reduce the environmental damage. It means that we should, must, continue to invest in ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and increase our use of passive solar heating and solar and wind energy. We must control our overuse of water, and invest in better ways to use it. We need to rethink our national land-use policies – irrigating deserts for farmland and building suburbs on productive lands with an abundance of water is wasteful, leading to drought, salinization of the land, and making many places unlivable.

Ultimately both our goals for immigration and our goals for America, our children and grandchildren must be driven by concern for the people who will inhabit it. That means care and concern for the immigrants and all of us, expressed through environmental policies that can keep the earth habitable. In that effort we have to be willing to share and accept effective regulation. There is no other way.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 1, 2015.


War in the Middle East

November 17, 2015

The terrorists’ explanation for ISIS’ involvement in the Paris attacks, is that it was in revenge for the French participation in the war in Syria. Another explanation is that the attack was a recruiting tool – they’re stalemated in Syria and they use victory and the dream of an Islamic state as a recruiting tool, so they pulled off an attack that would be heard around the world, to say to young Muslims, come help promote the dream. Actually the two explanations are not inconsistent – they can both be true in the minds of different people, and sometimes even in the minds of the same people. But the two theories point in different directions. The revenge theory suggests that it would be better to stay out. The recruitment theory points to the value of simply defeating them. Recruits need something attractive to attach themselves to and losers aren’t very attractive.

Some Americans want to solve the problem by more fighting. History should make us skeptical. Our record isn’t very good in what are called asymmetrical wars, for some of the same reasons Americans were able to beat the British – warriors who are not in uniform and practice sneak attacks are very hard to beat.

And wars have unintended consequences. The Russian war on Afghanistan created the terrorist armies who later turned their arms against this country. Terrorists attacked the U.S. before we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, foreign wars increase the recruitment of terrorists. In Iraq and Afghanistan we fought the wrong wars, in the wrong places, against the wrong enemies. We destabilized the region in ways that left much bigger problems for us. Syria is the latest maelstrom.

So I’m convinced Obama had the right instinct to get out and try to stay out of the Middle East, especially by not putting boots on the ground. If fighting us is a recruitment ticket, staying away should be a good idea.

But the larger question is whether there is a way to minimize our participation while defeating ISIS and al Qaeda? Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t depend on us. The Iraqis and the Syrians are deeply divided. And war doesn’t seem to be uniting people in either country. The contending forces seem to fear each other as much or more than they do ISIS.

If it’s going to take a major war effort to defeat ISIS, I doubt this country has a taste for it. The economic costs would be huge. What economists call opportunity costs, the value of what we could have done with the same resources, would be even larger. The lesson seems to be, if they can’t fight their own war, we shouldn’t be trying to fight it for them.

Then again, there’s the army of refugees. Immigrants have been offered citizenship in the past in exchange for joining in war efforts. Can the able bodied among the refugees be turned into a credible and united fighting force? Are enough of them willing? And against whom would they turn their weapons? Would they be a mirror of those already fighting or would they be the only people from the area who could fight for broader and more ecumenical objectives? The humanitarian in me says they’ve already been through enough. The utilitarian in me wants the most effective way to end the problem with the least damage in both the short and long term. The skeptic in me thinks it’s another bad idea.

So I think we have four options – withdrawal, a big war, a deal among the major powers in the region, including Iran, or arming the refugees while trying to stay away. But it’s a heck of a set of bad choices. Thanks George.

— Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 17, 2015.


Environmental Patriotism

April 2, 2013

Our two small granddaughters visited us this weekend. For me, their lives have been the most compelling reason to do something about global warming, to accept responsibility and to invest in a better future for them. But there is also the call of patriotism. Many have laid down their lives for this country. Can the rest of us deal with a little burden, a little expense, to save this country from catastrophe? Are we patriotic enough? Read the rest of this entry »


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