Jacob Parakilas
Assistant Head, US and the Americas Programme
Accepting more refugees wouldn't single-handedly fix the image of the US in the world, but it would counter some of the damage while laying the groundwork for a collective strategy to end the Syrian war.
The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Photo by Getty Images.The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Photo by Getty Images.

The debate in the United States about accepting refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks has largely been framed as a question of liberty versus security. But there is another factor in the debate that has largely been ignored - namely, that taking in refugees is strategically smart. It helps in the general maintenance of American soft power and, specifically, it boosts Washington's credibility with Middle Eastern partners critical in the effort to control the spiralling violence in Syria.

American immigration policy has always in ways been restricted. The country has, at various times, operated quotas based on nationality and discriminated quite openly. As has been widely recalled over the last week, the American refusal to admit German Jewish refugees in the run-up to the Second World War condemned many of them to death in Nazi concentration camps. In retrospect, this is rightly seen as a colossal moral failing, in much the same terms as that era's paranoid imprisonment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans.

But despite these instances, the United States has maintained a powerful image as a safe haven for those fleeing oppression, violence and hard times. That reputation is perpetuated by the millions of Americans whose ancestors - mine included - fled war, famine or economic instability to find a better life for their children. The United States has opened its doors to successive waves of refugees fleeing violence - Hmong, Lebanese, Somalis and many others besides.

That mythos is an incredibly powerful source of moral authority for the United States. As Chatham House has discovered through research on foreign views of the United States, even for those predisposed against American policy or fundamentally opposed to American power, the idea of the United States as a beacon is incredibly vivid. It holds worldwide, nearly universal currency - but it is also a yardstick by which American action is measured, often harshly.

In this case, the gap between symbolism and action could not be clearer. We know that there exists a strong desire, particularly in Europe but shared much more broadly, for the United States to live up to its stated ideals; to embody the moral leadership that it claims for itself. For a nation of immigrants to turn refugees away would widely be seen as an abdication of that moral leadership.

That gap is made larger by the fact that other leading figures in American politics have called for a religious test in refugee admissions - that the United States could admit refugees, but only Christian ones. This idea, which strongly suggests collective guilt and collective punishment, is at great odds with the spirit of the national symbol.

But abdicating moral leadership isn't just a general soft power issue. With Russia making an overt play for Syria and taking the opportunity to remake its image as a fighter of terrorism, the United States needs to demonstrate solidarity with its regional allies in every way possible. After all, the Syria crisis isn't just about Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and it will not be solved by military force alone. Building and leading a coalition of regional and global American partners is the only way the Syrian war will end on terms acceptable to Washington, rather than to Moscow.

Some four million refugees have fled Syria. They are largely in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. France, still reeling from the terrorist attacks, announced that it would take 30,000 more Syrian refugees over the next two years. Germany has taken nearly one million. President Obama had only committed to take 10,000 between now and October 2016, and a bill passed by the House of Representatives would make it effectively impossible for the United States to take any. The message that sends to American allies is stark: We don't want these people; you have to deal with them and we won't help you.

Sadly, that message would play into the narrative of a fearful, inconsistent and self-serving America that has built up over a decade and a half of extraordinary rendition, torture, drone strikes and mass surveillance. Accepting more refugees wouldn't single-handedly fix the United States' image in the world, but it would counter some of the damage done, while also laying necessary groundwork for a collective strategy to end the Syrian war. To do so would be morally right, tactically smart, and strategically important - a rare combination of traits for any policy.

This article was originally published by Real Clear World.

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