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“Shame and anger”: Watch Leon Wieseltier and Michael Ignatieff on the global refugee crisis

In the opinion pages of The Washington Post, Harvard Kennedy School professor Michael Ignatieff and Brookings Foreign Policy senior fellow Leon Wieseltier proclaimed “the moral bankruptcy of American and Western policy in Syria.” On February 5, as part of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum, Ignatieff and Wieseltier delivered similarly impassioned remarks about the global refugee crisis the Syrian conflict has spawned.

In response to drone footage showing the devastation of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, Wieseltier said: “When I see those scenes, I feel shame and anger.” Wieseltier then warned against conflating discussions about refugees with those about immigrants or about intervention, arguing that the plight of today’s refugees demands a particularly urgent response. He outlined the philosophical frameworks through which history has considered stateless peoples, questioning “how it is that we are even debating whether or not to honor [refugees’] rights.” “And remember,” he emphasized, “refugees have rights…this is not just a matter of compassion. They have claims upon us because they have rights.” He insisted that “the hundreds of thousands of poor people that we’re talking about cannot wait upon the results of any attempt at a political solution” in Syria, and that we must “rethink or refresh our sense of what an emergency is” and consider “whether or not the United States government is intellectually and operationally [prepared] for emergency action.”

“[R]efugees have rights…this is not just a matter of compassion.”

Ignatieff echoed these feelings, adding that “[t]he refugee issue is not a humanitarian crisis, it’s a definitional crisis” in that it is about defining who we are as Americans, as Europeans, or in other terms. “[T]here isn’t any more fundamental encounter with our values, with our conscience, with our self-definition, than children dying at sea; and the banalization of children dying at sea,” he stated. 

But the lack of U.S. action on the global refugee issue is not just an offense to our morals, both argued—it also raises questions about the foundations on which this country is built and it does harm to our international image. 

Here, Ignatieff points out the dangerous inconsistency between the U.S. self-image and American action (or inaction), and he discusses the potential impact on transatlantic ties. 

If we are not courageous enough to honor our commitments to those very values which lead many around the world to respect us, then we are a “great power in serious trouble.” 

Wieseltier then criticizes the “scandal” of American foreign policy, later adding that “the White House has capitulated to political realities, not because they are harsh, but because the capitulation to political realities serves their purpose of nonintervention.” 

He reminds us, though, that our country has the capacities—both moral and material—to alleviate the suffering of many Syrian refugees. He calls on leaders from D.C. to Hollywood to mobilize the country to do so.


Ignatieff warns that to assume “America is a bystander” is dangerously short-sighted, and he offers recommendations as to what America “can do to make life easier for [its allies].”

Buttressing Ignatieff’s argument about the strategic and national security challenge, Wieseltier states that “the most egregious failure…on the part of those who support immediate assistance to the refugees—liberals, Democrats, humanitarians, the White House, all—is their absolute cowardice in the face of the argument about security.” President Obama, he continues, needs to point out the obvious: “the refugees we admit are not…wearing bombs under their coats.” Sure, “we are going to have to manage a certain amount of risk,” Wieseltier concedes, but it pales when “compared to the magnitude of our moral obligation.” 

Finally, Wieseltier notes that “the anger and the frustration” he’s expressing does not derive solely “from the high idealism for which [both he and Ignatieff] are famous,” but also from calculated realism.

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