This Is Not Our Country

We are losing our heart and our soul as a nation.  I hope that we can recover.

With the Trump Administration policy of “zero tolerance” we are experiencing the full depth of depravity that his leadership instills.  And make no mistake about it, it is a policy, not a law.

Repeat after me:  There is no law that requires separating children from their parents at the border.

There are so many lies surrounding the implementation of this policy and the explanations for its continuance that is hard to know where to begin.  Let’s start with the rationale for it.

Mr. Trump and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security state that it is simply the enforcement of the law.  (All together now:  There is no law!).  However, the Attorney General and high ranking presidential advisers say that the policy is an attempt to deter further immigrants from coming to the border either illegally or for the purpose of claiming asylum – of which the Attorney General changed the criteria for what we will accept under that claim.

Other presidential advisers, including the president himself, basically argued that it was a political gambit to get the Congress to pass legislation to fund his “big beautiful border wall.”  You know, the one he promised that Mexico would pay for.

Taking the second argument first, it is totally despicable and un-American to use children, including babies and toddlers, as political bargaining chips.  The mere sight of these internment camps should be enough for Americans — regardless of one’s views on immigration — to say “not in my America!”

The argument that it is a deterrent is short-sighted and won’t work.  Here is the fallacy in their reasoning.  People that are fleeing unspeakable crimes, persecution and fear will risk whatever lies at the end of a very long road because it cannot be any worse than what they are experiencing and there is a chance that it could be better.  Desperate people do desperate things.  Think Sophie’s Choice (either the book or the movie with Meryl Streep.)

As many of you know I experienced this first hand in the early 1980’s off the coast of Viet Nam.  On several Navy deployments we rescued refugees at sea fleeing the oppressive communist regime of the time.  Note this — we were not there for that mission.  No US Navy ships were there for that mission.  We were merely transiting from one mission to another and happened to be there — far off the coast in regular shipping lanes.  Unimaginably rickety wooden boats of 40 or 50 feet loaded with about 50 people of all ages — babies to grandmothers — on board would head to sea hoping that a US Navy ship would see them (not a sure thing — small boat, big ocean), stop, and pick them up to take them to a refugee camp.  If they missed the US Navy, perhaps some friendly merchant ship would pick them up (some did, but not all).  If they weren’t lucky, they were lost at sea.  Unknown numbers were never rescued.  I should point out that there was no specific government policy to pick them up.  It was our duty as mariners to help those in peril on the sea and our duty as human beings not to let them perish.

Those experiences over about three years have made a lasting impression on me ever since.  I could not and can not imagine what it would take to put my entire family at risk of perishing at sea in the hope — the hope — that there might be something better for us.  And if there wasn’t, well maybe we would still be better off perishing together than losing family members to evil forces.

That is why those people come to our borders.  They won’t stop until the conditions in their home countries change.

Additionally may I add that on numerous occasions over the decades, I have read about a senior military officer, politician, public servant, fireman, successful business person, and others that were among those rescued during that period.  I have no idea whether any of them were among those on the boats that we saved.  I do know that if we had not exercised our obligations as human beings we would have never known about them because they would never have lived to be the proud and productive Americans that they are today.

Some of those in the child internment camps will have similar stories in a few decades.  If we let them.

As I write this, the president just announced that later today he will “sign something” to alleviate the situation at the border regarding the removal of children from their parents.  I hope it is meaningful.  The damage is already done, however, to our standing as a moral leader in the world and in our communal sense of what it means to be an American.

Mr. Trump is using the most vile, scare mongering rhetoric imaginable to demonize these potential contributors to the USA.  It is on purpose.  When he tweets that they “pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13” he brings out the very worst in our nature. Pour? Infest?  What?  Sound familiar?

“From the rostrum of the Reichstag, I prophesied to Jewry that, in the event of war’s proving inevitable, the Jew would disappear from Europe. That race of criminals has on its conscience the two million dead of the First World War, and now already hundreds and thousands more. Let nobody tell me that all the same we can’t park them in the marshy parts of Russia! Who’s worrying about our troops? It’s not a bad idea, by the way, that public rumor attributes to us a plan to exterminate the Jews. Terror is a salutary thing.”  — Adolf Hitler October, 1941

“You see what happens with MS-13, where your sons and daughters are attacked violently.  Kids that never even heard of such a thing are being attacked violently, not with guns, but with knives because it’s much more painful.  Inconceivable — here we are talking about business — inconceivable that we even have to talk about MS-13 and other gangs.  They attack violently, the most painful way possible.  And a bullet is too quick.  And we’re allowing these people into our country?  Not with me.  We’re taking them out by the thousands.  We’re taking them out by the thousands.”  Donald J. Trump, 19 June 2018

There are so many more references from Mr. Trump where he demonized those of color.  There is a reason that to date, the only pictures, still or video, from inside the child internment camps are from the US government.  What do they show?  Only teenage boys of color shuffling along and kept in cages (or as one DHS official claimed that they aren’t cages, they are just walls made of chain link that go from floor to ceiling).  As Mr. Trump rails against “MS-13” — is the president really saying that every man woman and child seeking entry from the south is a gang member — the video subtly reinforces his vitriol.

The president is trying to create a vision of a nation at war.  That we are under attack from the south and the refugees at our borders are enemy combatants.  With that psychology, of course we “capture” them and put them in POW camps.  It is an artificial war and a created crisis.  Created for political purposes.  The president is trying to create an issue that he thinks he and the GOP can win on in November 2018.  Truth is trampled in the process.

Look it up.  The numbers apprehended at the border have plummeted between 2000 and now.  For example in March, 2000 about 220,000 people crossed the border.  In March of this year, when the “crisis” resulted in the zero tolerance policy, about 40,000 were apprehended trying to cross illegally.  Looking at yearly totals since 1960, apprehensions increased steadily until peaking in the late 1990’s at roughly 1.6 million people.  Since then the trend has been downward, hovering around 300,000 to 400,000 during President Obama’s second term and about 300,000 last year. Hardly “unheard of” or “the most in history” or “unprecedented”.  By the way, part of the reason was that there were dramatic new hires in Border Patrol officers begun under President George W. Bush and expanded further under President Obama.  As a side note, one should be aware that the historic rate of crimes for illegal immigrants is half of that of natural born citizens and the rate for legal immigrants is about a quarter of that for natural born Americans.

The current condition is a cruel manufactured crisis for crass political purposes.  We are a nation of immigrants.  We are better than this.  Or at least I thought so.

Despite Mr. Trump’s fake claims that the Democrats want “open borders” to get more criminals, drug dealers and future voters into the country, the vast majority of Americans understand that immigration must be controlled and that laws must be the rule of the land.  That said, it is possible to have and execute immigration laws with compassion.

Let’s hope that when Mr. Trump “signs something” today, he solves this problem.  Whatever that something is, however, we have already seen clearly what is in his heart.  What is now happening on the border is evil.  It does not represent the values of the United States of America that I know.

In truth, I do not believe that Mr. Trump really cares one way or the other about immigration and the welfare of children on the border.  It just makes a good wedge issue to enhance his own power.  We have seen that Mr. Trump will stop at nothing to exploit fear and to promote his personal gain.  Wake up America!  This is what the future holds if we do not begin to demand more from our elected officials.  Now.


Checking In On Syria

When I was working in the Pentagon as the Chief of Staff to a high-ranking political appointee in the Clinton Administration, I was exposed to a lot of decisions that had a lasting impact on real people’s lives.  I came to understand that despite what some may opine, those officials do understand the importance of their decisions and do not take them lightly.  As the change-over from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration occurred, I asked my boss what his biggest regret might be.  Without hesitation, he said “Rwanda.”  I have heard similar regrets expressed about Rwanda privately and in public interviews from other Clinton era officials and from the president.

As you may remember, in the spring and early summer of 1994 an estimated 700,000 Rwandans were murdered (some estimates place the number of Rwandans killed as over a million).  In simple terms it was a genocidal slaughter of members of the Tutsi tribe (the minority tribe in Rwanda) by the majority Hutu tribe which also controlled the government and the majority of military and police forces.  Ordinary Hutu civilians were recruited to help with the slaughter and often neighbors turned on neighbors.  It was horrific.  Unfortunately, this is not so uncommon in the history of mankind around the world.  What made this the one international incident that the officials involved wish they could do over again was the fact that the international community did nothing to stop the killing.  After all, it was an unimportant African nation that had no impact on US national interests and it was “a local conflict.”

In my view our current administration will look back on Syria and have the same regrets that those in our government in 1994 have about Rwanda.  By most credible reports, over 100,000 Syrian civilians have been systematically killed and an estimated 2 million more have fled their country as refugees to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.  Those countries are struggling with the economic and security implications of such a massive influx of people.  This is a major crisis after nearly three years of civil war.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is systematically killing off those civilians still in contested cities and areas of the country through starvation and the calculated use of indiscriminate “barrel bombs” (essentially 55 gallon drums filled with explosives, gasoline and shrapnel pushed out the back of helicopters and that can level homes and make buildings uninhabitable — a very inexpensive but very efficient way of instilling fear and killing people.)

Bashar is supported by the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah and there is very little will in the rest of the world to put an end to the civil war.  Meanwhile the killing continues unabated.

After two ground wars in the Muslim world, there is very little to no interest for the United States to get involved militarily.  We proved our disinterest last fall when Bashar used chemical weapons against his own citizens.  If the United States is not interested, then much of the rest of the world is also going to stand-off rather than get involved.  There have been some efforts, funneled primarily through Saudi and Qatari sources, to get small arms and some humanitarian relief to the forces opposing Bashar and the trapped civilians, respectively.

Oh, and let’s not forget last September’s negotiated settlement to remove chemical weapons from Syria in lieu of bombing that country.  After a surprisingly effective start, very little of the chemical stockpile has been removed or destroyed and the disarmament is well behind schedule.  At the same time, Bashar has discovered that he does not need chemical weapons to kill thousands of his countrymen — starvation and barrel bombs work just fine without incurring the wrath (in the form of military strikes) of the rest of the world.

To me, this is not merely a civil war (“a local conflict”) that has no impact on US national interests.  In addition to the humanitarian aspects of the crisis — which is an important principle of American international relations — there are important economic and security issues at stake.  The major influx of refugees is having a destabilizing impact on the adjacent nations, especially Lebanon (already in a very precarious state) and Jordan (a long time source of stability in the area and a friend of the United States).  As in Iraq and Afghanistan, future terrorists are getting on-the-job-training in the heat of combat.  Areas of several nations are not under government control and as we found in Afghanistan, this leads to what amounts to safe havens for ne’er-do-well types that have very bad intentions towards the United States.  Additionally, it leaves Israel in a precarious position as other bad actors have a base to threaten their security.  The list goes on, but the point is that the fallout from Syria’s civil war could have a profound long-term impact on important American national security interests.  Yet, we are doing very little to end it.  Recent talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition leaders sponsored by the United States and other western nations went nowhere.  Worse than nowhere because now the participants see no reason to negotiate — if ever negotiations were actually possible.

So the question is what should the United States do about this situation?  To use a long-standing diplomatic phrase, “I don’t know.”  The majority of Americans and the Congress clearly demonstrated last fall that they have no desire to get involved militarily.  At.  All.  (There may be some point in the future where we may find that we have no choice but to get involved due to the course of events.)  For now, no way, no how, is there the will to get the United States military involved — even to stop the helicopters from dropping the barrel bombs through a no-fly zone, as was used successfully in other conflicts such as Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya.

I have no magic wand to get our government or the international community involved to stop the systematic elimination of thousands of lives.  Ideas that have been put forward include giving the opposition forces more money, food and much better and more powerful weapons than they’ve been supplied thus far.  Although used in fits and starts, this course of action has been slow and sporadic because not all of the groups opposing Bashar are friendly to the United States and several of those groups are openly hostile to the west.  Some are militant fundamentalist Islamist groups.  Since we are concerned about where the money and weapons may end up, too little is flowing from the west to the resistance .  However, many reports indicate that the best equipped and most wealthy (relatively speaking) fighters are the Islamist groups.  They are getting what they need and as a result, fighters not normally inclined to join those groups do so in order to be more effective.  The US and Europe identified opposition leaders and groups that are at least friendly towards the United States.  We should do all that we can to supply them with the equipment and money required to exceed that of the Islamist forces and thereby give them the most effective fighters and the most influential political leadership.  We need to take the chance that 100% of it will not stay out of the hands of those we do not want to get it.

To understand why I think we should take that chance it is important to remember that Syria — with a population that practices Islam — is not an Islamist state.  Before the civil war it was a modern secular nation with knowledgeable technocrats able to keep a modern society going.  Most Syrians, while practicing Muslims, do not want a fundamentalist Islamic state.  While opposing Bashar, alliances will form that may be uncomfortable for us.  In the end, it is possible, even probable, that the majority of the properly equipped and funded new leadership and their followers will continue to want Syria to be the secular state it has been since independence from France following World War II.

They may never be our “friend,” but now is the chance to influence future leaders and future events.  With no participation we have no chance of influencing anything.

Efforts to aid civilians trapped in cities and areas of conflict are more difficult.  A strong United Nations effort could break this log jam, especially if the United States and the European Union put a full effort into creating the means to do so.  Some small progress was made earlier this year when the UN did get into a few areas to evacuate civilians.  During the evacuation several of the groups came under hostile fire and the effort was suspended indefinitely.  The dilemma is to find a way to provide for the security of UN missions to aid the civilian population without creating the need for a large military force to protect them.  Of course, most UN efforts to get involved in Syria have been thwarted by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power over any resolution that they deem to be a threat to their interests in the area and specifically anything that limits Bashar’s regime in Syria.

There are a lot of smart people in this country and in this world — a lot smarter than me.  Many of them also have an impact on government decisions and are privy to intelligence and covert efforts that may be ongoing that I do not know anything about.  I hope so, and I hope that the efforts are effective, but I see no evidence of it to date.

I do know this.  Syria was not a backward country with a bunch of nomads living in tents in the desert.  It was a modern nation with modern citizens most of whom were educated and aware.  It is now a killing field.  Without effective action, Syria will be this decade’s Rwandan humanitarian disaster and it will be a continuing threat to our long-term national security interests.