Obama in Germany: Step Up to the Mark on Refugees

June 8, 2015 "We were at the G7 Summit in Krün, Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel asked the leaders and outreach guests to make their way to a bench for a group photograph. The President happened to sit down first, followed closely by the Chancellor. I only had time to make a couple of frames before the background was cluttered with other people." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

by Robert E. Hunter

President Obama this Sunday and Monday makes perhaps his last visit as president to Germany. His taking part with Chancellor Angela Merkel in the annual Hannover Messe (trade fair) was originally designed to underline the president’s support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). But this scenario has been overtaken by events.

One event is the rise of opposition in the United States to trade pacts from both the right and left of American politics (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, with Hillary Clinton joining in). The domestic chickens of globalization, which has pushed wealth further up the economic ladder, are finally coming home to roost. This opposition to the proposed trade deals suggests that a large chunk of the American middle class has gained little or nothing from the last several decades of burgeoning prosperity. (Correcting for inflation, the federal minimum wage is exactly where it was 60 years ago). Finis the TTIP, at least for now, and perhaps also its Asian companion, the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The other event is perhaps the most difficult crisis to face the European Union since the Treaty of Rome was concluded 59 years ago. Leave aside the potential of the wound that Britain could inflict on itself with its possible departure (Brexit) from a union that it was never truly keen in joining and about which it has always been half-hearted. Leave aside the problems of the euro and of the troubled economies in the poorer parts of the EU (though Greece this week finally got its financial head above water for the first time in several years). And leave aside the security and political challenges posed by Russia’s Vladimir Putin to all of Europe, including the NATO alliance.

What is really troubling most Europeans, publics perhaps even more than politicians, and which now must rocket to the top of the transatlantic agenda, is the Middle East, and especially the flow of migrants to Europe—along with migrants from Africa. Of course, in theory and in many respects in practice as well, increased immigration to Europe is useful economically, given the rising demands for labor to sustain aging populations, coupled with domestic birth rates that have been falling for at least two generations. But migration is coming at a fast clip. And it is coming from countries that Europeans widely see as “not European” and even “culturally incompatible.” This migrant flow is raising issues of identity and “who is a European?” that have not been seen for ages.

American Reactions

For most Americans, this last set of attitudes may seem peculiar, given our own history of immigration. Immigration is one of the stressful issues of American politics, including in this presidential election year. But we are doing a reasonable, though not perfect, job of integrating into American society a huge flow of migrants from within our own hemisphere.

There’s no such flexibility in most of Europe, and there is no point in Americans’ pointing fingers, as our media are wont to do. In fact, the European country that in the 1930s and first half of the 1940s was the most intolerant, Germany, is doing the most to welcome migrants from Syria and elsewhere in the Levant.

But not the United States. We have taken in only token numbers and have been shamed even by our much smaller northern neighbor, Canada. The argument, of course, is that terrorists might infiltrate along with legitimate refugees. (Of course, the 19 suicide bombers on 9/11 all came into the United States legally, along with every other foreign-born terrorist who has killed people in the United States.) The argument further goes that we also have taken so many people from Latin America, some 11 million of whom got here through illegal means. Should we be expected to take more people who don’t even speak either of our dominant languages, English and Spanish?

The answer is “yes,” and not just on grounds of compassion. It is also a recognition of two other factors.

What We Owe Refugees

The stunning growth of migration to Europe of people from the Levant (and Libya, among African sources of migration) is a direct result of things the United States has done, along with some, though not all, of the European allies. Most consequential was the colossal error of invading Iraq in 2003, the horrendous results of which are still with us and are getting worse by the day. Perhaps as important is the unwillingness of the United States to tell Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading exporter of terrorism, that it cannot continue to have a positive relationship with the United States unless it stops the flow of the Wahhabi ideology of intolerance and hatred to other parts of the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and now also Africa.

Given that US policies and actions in the Middle East have done so much to produce more migrants and more problems in Europe, we have an obligation to meet our part of shared responsibilities.

Also, Europe remains important to the United States in just about every dimension—economics, trade, politics, security, culture, values, education. For most Americans, Europe is still the “Mother Continent.” President Obama rightly opposed Brexit during his visit this week to Britain, and he quoted a “British poet” as saying “no man is an island.” But he should also have applied this much-quoted line to the required US relationship with Europe.

Regrettably, other than on military matters related to Russian behavior in Ukraine—unrelated to the struggles roiling the European Union and even raising doubts about its durability—this administration’s attention span on things European has tended to be short, a failing that began with its predecessor.

Further, neither administration has done much to relate what has been happening in the Middle East to the impact of US policies and actions on European societies. Judging by Washington’s practice, it’s as though Europe and the Middle East (lumping Libya in with the latter) are on two different planets.

In Hannover, Obama can be relied upon to say good things about the European refugee crisis, just as Secretary of State John Kerry did at the annual Munich Security Conference in February where he said that “we have a moral obligation to stand with our partners and to do more to assist in the relief effort.” Kerry then announced an upping of the US financial contribution to a total of $5.425 billion—not an insignificant sum. But there would be no added refugees to our shores, an absence duly noted by the allies.

Obama’s Challenge

In Hannover, President Obama needs to say that the United States will take at least an additional 100,000 Syrian and other refugees. He must also show, both on this trip and afterwards, strategic coherence in regard to the myriad security issues stretching from North Africa to the Hindu Kush. The United States is deeply engaged in many parts of this extended region, militarily and in other ways. But the different pieces don’t fit together, and there are major lacunae.

These failures include:

  • not telling Saudi Arabia that it must stop the spread of Wahhabi terrorism,
  • not charting a possible outcome for Syria that can hold out some hope that all of its confessional and other groups will have a chance of survival if not better lives,
  • not disengaging the United States from its lock-step participation in the Sunni-Shia regional civil war on the Sunni side,
  • not putting US interests in the region ahead of those of any local partner, and
  • not advancing some practical methods to implement President Obama’s requirement of saying “to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”

The United States can ask the European allies to play major parts in these efforts. But to do so and expect them to listen, the US must show that we are prepared to do our part in helping Europeans address the challenge that migration is posing, perhaps to the very future of the European Union.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. I assume that in one of the bullet points the author meant sunni-shia war, not sunni-sunni. Apart from that minor detail, very thoughtful article.

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