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U.S. Bombs Won't Save the Kids of the Middle East. Here's What We Can Do

"The Syrian refugee crisis presented an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its global leadership...by increasing our then-paltry numbers of Syrian refugees that we accepted here. That’s the response you'd expect from a nation that once defined our exceptionalism as our willingness to accept the world's 'huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.'"

Medical workers treating toddlers following an alleged poison gas attack in the opposition-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. (Photo: Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets)

With so many crazy contradictions illuminated by the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air over Syria on Friday night — the lack of any coherent American or allied policy in that nation’s ruthless 7-year civil war, the lack of any legal justification for the United States to attack the regime of the despicable Bashar al-Assad, and the lack of faith in scandal-scarred President Trump to make good decisions — my mind keeps going back to a simple and horrific image.

It was only two-and-a-half years ago that the world was shocked to see the pictures of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose lifeless body was found on a Turkish beach in September 2015, after a risky boat ride on which his Kurdish family gambled in a desperate attempt to flee the bloodshed and reach the West ended in catastrophe.

The painful image of the dead child sparked pleas for the world — including the United States — to do more for Syrian families trying to flee to nations where they might find freedom or safety. The Syrian refugee crisis presented an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its global leadership — by working with our allies in the region (for example, Saudi Arabia), with foreign aid, and also by example — by increasing our then-paltry numbers of Syrian refugees that we accepted here. That’s the response you’d expect from a nation that once defined our exceptionalism as our willingness to accept the world’s “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”

But presidential front-runner Donald Trump had other ideas in late 2015 — ideas to make America a less kinder and less gentler place. He cited a terrorist attack in San Bernardino as a rallying cry to ban all Muslim arrivals — including Syrian refugees — “until we can figure out what the hell is going on,” and then he routinely bludgeoned Hillary Clinton for supporting an increase in refugee resettlement. In 2016, the final year of the Obama administration, the U.S. managed to exceed its modestly increased goals for accepting Syrian refugees, bringing the number up from next-to-nothing to 12,587. But that all came crashing to a halt the moment Donald Trump took the presidential oath on Jan. 20, 2017, bringing an immediate slowdown to refugee resettlement and a travel ban that targeted Syria and other majority-Muslim nations. Trump had promised this on the campaign trail about Syrian refugees: “If I win, they’re going back” — and in this case, he’s been true to his word.

Two numbers really stand out from Trump’s “Mission Accomplished” missile strike (in alliance with France and the United Kingdom) this weekend. The first is 105 — the number of cruise missiles  fired at Syrian targets on Friday night, an arsenal that has a total cost of roughly $200 million. The other number is 11 — the grand total  of Syrian refugees that America has accepted so far in 2018. In other words, the number of missiles we fired into Syria because of our concern for their suffering people is nearly 10x the number of people we’re willing to offer safe harbor in the United States.

They say that when you’re a carpenter, every problem looks like a nail. When you’re the most militaristic nation in the modern world (by far), then, every foreign-affairs crisis looks like the bull’s-eye of an infrared missile target. As the great writer Charlie Pierce put it  simply this weekend, “We are a war-making people … from our armchairs and recliners, we love the boom-boom.” Trump and his Pentagon again proved our penchant for showing America’s resoluteness by lighting up the night sky with bombs — dating back at least as far as Vietnam — while actually accomplishing next to nothing.

You probably remember that the U.S. targeted Syria with 59 cruise missiles just one year ago (the night Trump “became president,” some pundits bizarrely claimed) while changing neither the course of the civil war nor degrading the butcher Assad’s capacity to wage chemical warfare. Sending twice as many missiles this time around is kind of like talking twice as loud to a foreigner who doesn’t understand English. Friday’s attack was just the latest in a never-ending cycle of American war-making in the Middle East where we push back old enemies while constantly making new ones.

But attacking the Assad regime is particularly troublesome because even the dubious rationale the U.S. uses to launch drone strikes around a wide swath of the world from Africa to South Asia doesn’t hold any water here. There is no legal authority to wage war on the Syrian government without approval from Congress … period, full stop. But this is America in the 21st century, led by a president with an autocrat’s unchallenged power to launch military attacks in the name of a nation that shuns diplomacy and patient strategies in favor of the instant gratification of firing Tomahawks.

The tragedy is this — I actually believe that Trump was totally sincere when he told the nation on Friday night that he felt compelled to respond to the “evil and the despicable attack [that] left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air.” Trump responds emotionally and viscerally to photographs and images, so much so that his aides often present him information in that format. But that makes Trump’s incoherent policies on Syria and its people — designed to win the presidency by appealing to the worst xenophobic instincts of millions of American voters and ignoring the everyday suffering of Syrian children and the world’s wider refugee crisis — all the more cynical and cruel.

Cruise-missile strikes aren’t making America look strong. They make us look weak. Real strength is the human compassion and empathy that Trump and his administration, including his new warmongering national security adviser, John Bolton, cannot seem to find within their hearts. I’m not naive enough to believe that our current president is capable of changing his ways, but America can’t be taken seriously in voicing our concerns for the “mothers and fathers, infants and children” of Syria until we offer more than 11 of them a chance to breathe America’s freer air. Even the more than 12,000 Syrians we accepted in 2016 was just a tiny piece of the solution, but a truly committed U.S. government could also lobby our allies in the region like Saudi Arabia — which seems to have warm ties with Team Trump — and others to help millions of Syrians find safe sanctuary.

That’s not the only way America can show its concern for innocent civilians in the Middle East. Since Trump became president, he has loosened the rules of engagement for U.S. warfare against ISIS and other terrorist groups — and civilian deaths linked to American strikes in Iraq and Syria spiked by 200 percent to roughly 4,000 to 6,000 in 2017, according to the nonpartisan Airwars. In Yemen, the U.S. has provided considerable support  to help our allies,the Saudis, conduct a brutal and seemingly limitless bombing campaign that has killed thousands of civilians — an effort that gets little or no attention here. Simply put, America could save children in the Middle East by dropping fewer bombs, not more.

Instead of futile and strategically puzzling military solutions, the best way to start thinking about Syria is to never forget that it’s a humanitarian crisis, first and foremost. Even if our government’s priorities are confused, there are ways to help as a private citizen. You can donate directly to groups like Humanity First  that are delivering food and medicine and building schools in Syria. We live in a time when America is both more than its government and, frankly, better than its government. We have so much more we can offer the suffering people of the world than just our Tomahawk missiles.

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Will Bunch

Will Bunch

Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of its popular blog Attytood.

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