Obama's Right, Anti-Syrian Refugee Sentiment a Powerful ISIS Propaganda Tool—So Are Obama's Wars

Accepting refugees would go a long way to win hearts and minds. So would ending stupid interventions.



At a press conference in Manila while in the Philippines for a Asia-Pacific summit, President Barack Obama addressed the ongoing debate in the U.S. over whether it's wise to accept Syrian refugees, which the U.S. has promised to do next year. "I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate," the president said.

I can: an anti-ISIS offensive led by the U.S. ISIS is a death cult looking to bring about the eschatological final battle between good and evil. Such a U.S.-led offensive fits into the propaganda ISIS uses to radicalize its fighters and legitimize its claim as the one true defender of the faith. As I started arguing last year, a regional coalition, operating without U.S. support, would be a more effective strategy to deal with ISIS. Those governments threatened by the rise of ISIS, even when they hate each other, need to, for lack of a more graceful phrasing, get their shit together. U.S. "leadership" in the anti-ISIS campaign only reinforces the dependency of countries in the region on the U.S. for their security, a situation that breeds both poor governance and anti-American sentiment. And U.S. interventions aren't just powerful recruiting tools for ISIS, they help create the conditions for it and groups like it.

Nevertheless, the president is right that the debate over accepting Syrian refugees is also "potent recruitment tool" for ISIS. The overblown fears of the threat Syrian refugees may pose plays into the narrative ISIS pushes as it seeks to impose a caliphate on the Middle East and the world. Worse, it works toward erasing years, and decades, of good work. The U.S. accepts about 70,000 refugees a year. In 1980, that number was 207,000, a record high. Since 9/11, the U.S. has accepted 750,000 refugees, including tens of thousands from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, where U.S. interventions contributed to instability and helped foster the conditions for radical Islamist groups to gain power. ISIS took advantage of the vacuum the Iraq war created in Iraq, while the 2007 U.S.-Kenyan intervention in Somalia ousted the Islamic Court Union. Al-Shabaab, now the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, was formed in the aftermath of that intervention. None of the refugees from those countries, or from any other country, have committed an act of terrorism, not since 9/11, not since 1980.

On the other hand, the U.S. decision, belated as it was, to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, can be a powerful recruitment tool against ISIS. Mercy is an important component of Islam as well as Christianity. Obama is no secret Muslim, and the U.S. is a country that separates church and state even if its leaders focus on its "Judaeo-Christian" roots. Showing mercy in a way "stewards" of Islam like Saudi Arabia (Syrian refugees accepted = zero) or self-proclaimed standards like ISIS (which has created countless refugees) speaks louder than any catch phrases about American leadership. And for Republicans worried about the U.S. becoming a "post-Christian" nation, accepting Syrian refugees would be a powerful message that Christian (and secular!) values like mercy still matter for Americans.

That's not just up to the government, which must approve the entry of refugees for security purposes (the process takes up to two years), it's up to the American people, not as some collectivist rhetorical tool but as individuals, practicing what they preach. Social media is full of pro-refugee sentiment—but sentiment isn't worth much. If more of those Americans supporting the U.S. accepting refugees stepped up to help them themselves, there's a chance for the debate to escape the sorry partisan framework its fallen into.