America owns this nightmare: Everything Thomas Friedman and the media gets wrong about the migrant crisis

The refugee disaster unfolding across Europe is the result of decades -- even centuries -- of Western policies

Published September 9, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Migrants and refugees arrive on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to Lesbos island, Greece, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The head of the European Union's executive says 22 of the member states should be forced to accept another 120,000 people in need of international protection who have come toward the continent at high risk through Greece, Italy and Hungary. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris) (AP)
Migrants and refugees arrive on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to Lesbos island, Greece, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The head of the European Union's executive says 22 of the member states should be forced to accept another 120,000 people in need of international protection who have come toward the continent at high risk through Greece, Italy and Hungary. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris) (AP)

It is not that the West, or America in particular, is responsible for everything that befalls our awful world. Readers sometimes make it known that they assume this to be the ruling view in this column. But they are grossly unfair and must be corrected: The West, and American in particular, is responsible for almost everything now going wrong across the planet. This is no kind of default political position. It is a detached observation—the kind most Americans dread most.

There is not much case for objecting to this thought. Since Columbus hit the rocks in Hispaniola, and da Gama anchored off the Malabar Coast six years later, the West has insisted on leading all the rest. By and large, the world as we have it—defiled, disorderly, violent—is our world. We Westerners have known best for half a millennium, and our leaders do not take orders—or even suggestions—from anybody. Whatever you see out your window or across any ocean is the doing of those we are content to leave in charge.

You may not yet realize that you are reading a column about the migrant crisis in Europe. But it is always best to begin at the beginning. Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Afghans, South Asians—one way or another, directly or indirectly, immediately or at a slight remove, they are all victims of the policies through which the Western powers have sought over centuries to impose their will upon weaker people they thought worth disrupting, subjugating and exploiting.

I hope some photographers win press prizes this year for the images coming out of the crisis zones. For me they produce a very weird mixture of sorrow and shame, and I know I am not alone in either case. All those lives interrupted, ruined or lost altogether: Who cannot be moved? But it is only the honest among us who can then admit that every picture coming from a Mediterranean beach or a highway in Hungary is a mirror a migrant holds up to us.

The official count of migrants flooding into southern Europe and now making their way northward is 350,000 in the January-to-August period. But this number seems to bear little relation to the unfolding reality. Germany, which has taken the lead in addressing the crisis, said last week it expects to absorb 800,000 asylum-seekers this year. On Tuesday Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said Germany could accept at least half a million annually for several years.

The events themselves are a tragedy in their own right, nothing else attaching: All you need are the pictures, the news reports and the statistics to understand this. But let us “think with history,” to borrow a favorite phrase from Carl Schorske, the Princeton scholar, for there is a much larger meaning in this crisis. It worsens daily now and no one sees any end to it, and in my read this is because a great reckoning has begun. To put the point too simply, we witness those 500 years just noted as they start to come back to haunt us.

We Westerners are called upon to accept this historical dimension of Europe’s migrant crisis—coldly, without emotion, without resistance if we can manage it—for several reasons:

  • We must understand it for what it is if we are to respond constructively and with the ordinary humanity the Western democracies love to brag about but too rarely evince. Unless we acknowledge causality and our collective responsibility, the policy cliques will spend most of their time flinching from reality and very little figuring out what must now be done.
  • This is the moment to recognize that history’s wheel now turns before our eyes. Relations between the West and non-West (or North and South, if you prefer) have already changed, indeed—never mind whether or not we look squarely at the world around us. The West’s insistence on global domination is overripe and cannot go on any longer except at a very high price. The choice migrants put before us is very stark: Rethink everything and alter course, or proceed as you are and live with the human consequences of what you do on your doorsteps, exposed for all to see.
  • Americans have a special obligation to think this through in its historical context. For one thing, Washington’s fingerprints are all over the tragedy unfolding across the Atlantic. For another, Europe’s crisis is but a slight variation on the crisis in our hemisphere. Europe’s Middle Easterners, North Africans and South Asians are our Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans. You can spend what time you like insisting on the differences here, but you may learn something if you consider the similarities.

Let me go briefly back some years to offer one example of these similarities.

My first big assignments in Southeast Asia were to cover the “boat people” shoving off into the South China Sea from Vietnam in search of asylum elsewhere in the region or in the U.S. This was the early 1980s. I spent months in refugee camps and the offices of U.N. officials, diplomats and government ministers. The official line was that economic desperation and political repression were “pushing” these people from Vietnam.

False, I found. The BBC, the Voice of America and Al Haig’s State Department were actively, intentionally, cynically propagandizing the Vietnamese as to the paradise that awaited if they abandoned Ho’s revolution. The intent was to entice them into rickety boats so as to “bleed Vietnam white,” as the saying then went, for the sake of a propaganda coup. The motion was “pull,” not “push.” The ensuing mess took years to resolve and is well enough known.

The push-vs.-pull distinction is upside down today but perfectly instructive nonetheless. Propaganda then, propaganda now.

Europe’s viciously anti-immigrant parties, polished but no less objectionable conservatives and right-wing populist leaders such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary continue to insist that hoards of non-Western people bang on the Continent’s doors solely because they want to partake of the West’s prosperity. They are “pulled,” not “pushed,” in this case, and should stay home.

Does not every GOP aspirant stand before us daily to peddle the same rubbish with reference to Latin Americans? Is this not in some measure the default assumption in our great country? I do not know of any public figure who acknowledges America’s primary role in precipitating the European crisis. Maureen Dowd once satirized the American position as, “They want our stuff.” All that need be said, it seems.

This is what we call denial of responsibility—responsibility for the poverty and violence pushing people from their homes (if they are still standing), responsibility that the history and causes of these peoples’ plights places upon us now.

You get this denial in Europe, surely. The Cameron government takes no responsibility whatever for what now proceeds in regions Britain long either ruled or shaped. As to the multi-phobic Orbán, he ought to consider a run for the G.O.P. nomination. But you also get leaders such as Angela Merkel. She is a Christian Democrat—O.K., nobody’s perfect—but as Germany’s chancellor and Europe’s de facto leader, Merkel now sets an admirable example for the rest of the Continent.

Where is the land that huddles behind the Statue of Liberty in all this, the nation of immigrant populations? As close to nowhere as it can manage. In my estimation, the denial of history among Americans will prove much harder to overcome as the non-West and the South flee the calamities we have done so much to make. Thinking with history is considered a touch subversive among us, and this is perfectly right: History almost always subverts official orthodoxies, which is among the best things about it.

* * *

Even now, supposedly respectable people make the argument that Arabs cannot govern themselves without the guiding hands of politically advanced outsiders. No one will ever persuade me of this. The thought that the Islamic world’s awakening was fated to turn out a grotesque mess of anarchy and extremism is simply upside down: It was Western interventions over many years, usually in behalf of exploitative oil states that did nothing for their people, that defined the outcome. The Islamic State is on the record in its desire to erase the lines British and French diplomats drew in 1916 to carve out respective spheres of influence. Think about why this may be.

But the more immediately relevant period comes in the early postwar years, it seems to me. In the late-1940s the European powers were weak and broke and the Americans were neither. This is when the Middle East as we have it starts to take shape.

By the early 1950s, Washington’s ambitions to replace the old colonials as the dominant power in the Middle East were plain. Various covert interventions—in the Gulf states and Egypt, for instance—culminated in the 1953 coup in Iran. When Britain attacked Egypt over the Suez Canal three years later, the Eisenhower administration was furious at Anthony Eden’s attempt to reassert British power. Cynical even among friends, the U.S. precipitated a foreign-exchange crisis that forced the Eden government’s collapse.

Iran and the Suez crisis were the signal events. The Middle East has been America’s to exploit ever since.

A year after Mossadeq fell came the American operation in Guatemala—the first coup the template for the second. Take the cue. Generations of disrupting policies in the Middle East coincided with the very same in Latin America. History, then, supports the contention that the migrant crisis in Europe is the blood brother of the crisis in Western hemisphere.

“The world is being redivided into regions of ‘order’ and ‘disorder,’” Thomas Friedman writes in Wednesday’s New York Times, “and for the first time in a long time, we don’t have an answer for all the people flocking to get out of the world of disorder and into the world of order.”

Some interesting things in this sentence. Note the passive-tense verb, relieving our favorite columnist of explaining who is responsible for this “redivided” world of ours. Note “redivided,” indeed. Nobody is redividing anything. We witness exactly the opposite: After centuries of objectifying and then dehumanizing the Other so that our nations could proceed without conscience, the world turns out to be one. The disasters we made in far-away places are now ours, here and now and human, all too human.

As to having nothing to say to “all the people flocking to get out,” well, this is a very true thing, Tom. More appalling than our silence, however, is the ease with which our leaders and would-be’s think it is fine to make a political football out of the lives of millions of people paying the price of our policies.

For the sake of perspective, put the American response next to Europe’s for a moment.

This is no time to cast the Europeans as morally or politically superior to Americans—an error I confess to making on occasion in the past. The Cameron government has just started sending drones into Syrian airspace, and the French are thinking about full-dress bombing runs. Business as usual in these cases.

Britain just announced it will take 20,000 migrants over the next five years—a cynical number intended to preclude demands it accept more, in my read; those already settled are consigned to compulsory squalor. Denmark, meantime, now places advertisements in Middle Eastern newspapers saying, in effect, “You don’t want to come here.” The lie that it is all about “pull,” not “push,” persists.

But Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union executive, are plainly aware of the need for a coherent policy and are developing one at an impressive pace. Merkel has already committed €1 billion, about $1.2 billion, to resettlement assistance for German cities, towns and villages, and the reports are she will triple this at a “refugee summit” scheduled later this month.

On Tuesday Juncker called for a common asylum and immigration policy and an E.U-wide quota of 160,000 migrants to be apportioned among member nations according to size, G.D.P. and so on. Both have been punching back hard and without apology against the anti-immigration bloc.

This is doing, not talking. It is not everything by a long way, but I see some grasp of the moment’s magnitude in this. On this side of the Atlantic I see no such thing.

So far, the U.S. has taken 1,500 Syrians out of 4 million forced into exile. To his credit, President Obama now talks of increasing this figure, but he is unlikely to get near the 100,00 per annum advocated by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an N.G.O. The White House promises “a working group” and “active consideration” of “a number of options.” This is talking, not doing.

Across town the right wing on Capitol Hill objects that taking more Syrians—or Iraqis or Libyans or Afghans—constitutes a grave threat to national security because there will surely be jihadists among them. What a time for what a thought.

Simply not on the page. One does not really care if we build walls across our borders. The wall that matters already stands: It is in our heads.

I see two very large things deserving of more thought now than anyone gives them. Both will suggest the historical significance I read into our moment.

One, devising policy in the Middle East according to traditional notions of strategic advantage is no longer defensible, if ever it was. The project Washington began in the early 1950s—unimpeded prerogative across the region—simply has to end, for America’s sake as well as the region’s. The alternative is the second of the two migrants now put before us: Keep going and we join the countless victims of our choice. In Friedman’s terms, there is no such line dividing a disorderly from an orderly world.

It is worse than short-sighted, in this connection, to object to Russia’s continuing support for the Assad regime in Damascus, whatever form this may now take. (And we have no firm reports Moscow is doing anything other than what it has long done, the State Department’s smoke and innuendo notwithstanding.) Russia’s intent is clear: It is to counter the Islamic State, support Damascus as it does, too, and, medium-term, negotiate a political transition in Syria via diplomatic channels.

“Our proposal is to gather all the efforts together—all the international players, all Syria’s neighbors, all members of the opposition coalition, all of those who are involved,” a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said this week. There can be only two things wrong with this: It is a policy, and Washington does not have one; it is Russia’s policy, and therefore must be opposed.

This, precisely, is the kind of strategic thinking that will lead only further than it already has into the darkness.

Two, I have argued severally in this column for a Marshall Plan in the Middle East, knowing full well it sounds like something that might come out of a civics class, a Boy Scout troop or a Nick Kristof column—idealist to the core. The last time this came up was when the Pentagon started the bombing runs over Syria and Iraq last year—roughly 4,000 sorties ago.

Tell me, please, if such an initiative is not now the most realist of realist policies.

Relaxation of EU Asylum Laws as Refugee Crisis Grows

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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