Ethics & Public Policy Center

Paul Ryan’s Voice of Calm Reason

Published in Commentary Magazine on November 30, 2015



The debate about whether the United States ought to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees, as President Obama has proposed, is typical of many issues in public life in which there are legitimate arguments on both sides. As a result, they need to be carefully weighed and balanced. (Most of the time we speak as though all the arguments are on one side and none on the other, but that is often a distortion of reality.)

On the one hand are those who argue that in the light of the rise of the Islamic State and the massacre in Paris, it’s irresponsible to accept Syrian refugees since we know jihadists are determined to infiltrate refugee flows to enter the West and may have already have done so in Europe. In addition, there are significant challenges in screening Syrian refugees. Our human sources in Syria are minimal.

According to FBI Director James Comey, “We can query our databases until the cows come home, but nothing will show up because we have no record of that person…You can only query what you have collected.” National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen admitted, “the intelligence picture we’ve had of this (Syrian) conflict zone isn’t what we’d like it to be… you can only review (data) against what you have.” In addition, officials overseas have told staff of the House Homeland Security Committee they have seen signs that Islamist radicals are actively working to recruit from the arriving pools of refugees and asylum seekers.

On the flip side, the civil war in Syria has created one of the worst refugee crises since World War II. The violence has cost the lives of roughly a quarter of a million Syrians, displaced over half the population, and produced widespread atrocities and crimes against humanity. The United States has a proud history of refugee resettlement, and to admit no Syrians in the face of this humanitarian catastrophe, which we have done nothing to prevent, is wrong.

As for the specific counterarguments to those who oppose accepting Syrian refugees, the response is several-fold. First, no population entering the United States is more carefully examined than refugees; second, the process is a lengthy one (it usually takes 18-24 months before a refugee is approved for admission to the U.S.); third, the threat posed by refugees is minuscule (homegrown terrorism is a much more significant problem); fourth, the overwhelming number of Syrian refugees referred to the United States by the U.N. — 67 percent – have been women or children under age 12; and fifth, there are far easier and faster ways for foreigners to legally enter America than through a refugee program, such as the visa waiver program.

The Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh puts things this way:

In 2015, the United States has accepted only 1,682 Syrian refugees, or 0.042 percent of the 4,045,650 registered Syrian refugees. Only one out of every 2,405 Syrian refugees in a camp was resettled in the United States in 2015.

Few ISIS soldiers or other terrorists are going to spend at least three years in a refugee camp for a 0.042 percent chance of entering the United States when almost any other option to do so is easier, cheaper, and quicker. [If the United States still takes in 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, and the number of refugees rises to 4.5 million, a mere 0.22 percent of them–one out of every 450–will be resettled in the United States.]

Mr. Nowrasteh adds, “Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States, and none was successfully carried out…. The terrorist threat from Syrian refugees in the United States is hyperbolically over-exaggerated, and we have very little to fear from them because the refugee vetting system is so thorough.”

What about public opinion? In a Bloomberg Politics national poll, 53 percent of those surveyed say the nation should not continue a program to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Just 28 percent would keep the program with the screening process as it now exists.

If it were up to me, I would accept Syrian refugees. That’s where the arguments, fully considered, lead me. But given legitimate concerns about the vetting process, how badly President Obama has handled this issue (flippantly dismissing those concerns, mocking those who see things differently than he does, refusing to negotiate) and how wary the public is about accepting Syrian refugees, the plan put forward by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is prudent and sensible.

In contrast to the petulant and self-righteous President Obama and the xenophobic and demagogic Donald Trump — who says he would send home all the Syrian refugees now in the United States, allow no more to enter, declared he “absolutely” wants a database of Muslims in America, and perpetuated the lie that “thousands and thousands” of Arab-Americans in Jersey City were cheering as the World Trade Centers crumbled on 9/11– Ryan has been a voice of calm reason. He’s called for a pause rather than a complete end to the Syrian refugee program, refused to distinguish between Christian and Muslim refugees, and still made the moral case for accepting refugees if security can be assured or, if necessary, improvements in the program are made. As a result, 47 Democrats helped Republicans pass the legislation with enough support to override a threatened presidential veto. Even Democrats concede the president mishandled this whole affair with his serrated rhetoric.

Of course, even if we were to accept 10,000 refugees, it would be a fraction of the total number (more than 4 million). And while Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the brutal civil war in Syria, it’s also true that President Obama, until the last few weeks, has been almost proudly indifferent in his response to it, signaling time and again that he felt like the United States had no role to play in the conflict. For Mr. Obama to now portray himself as a Voice of Conscience, to engage in moral preening, is farcical but perfectly predictable. It’s exactly what we have come to expect from America’s 44th president.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

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