Atlanta Will Benefit from Syrian Refugees, Ambassador Says

Dec 13, 2016

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the federal government has resettled 400 Syrian refugees in Georgia.

Last year, Governor Nathan Deal issued an executive order halting resettlement of Syrians in Georgia, but rescinded it after the attorney general issued a legal opinion against the order.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker says that’s a good thing.

He has served both Republican and Democratic presidents representing the United States in countries including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

Crocker recently joined Rickey Bevington in the studio for a conversation about ISIS, the Trump administration and refugees in America.

Interview transcript:

Ambassador Ryan Crocker: The Middle East is a hugely complex region. That's an understatement. It is not a region that is able, by and large, to fix its own problems. I would expect this war, as awful as it has been, to go on for a considerable length of time. We could be looking at violence in Syria for years to come.

Rickey Bevington: What is the United States' interest in Syria?

Crocker: We have a number of interests. Clearly the initial focus has been on Islamic State. I'm a little bit concerned that the administration is approaching this purely tactically - find a way to defeat Islamic State. But there's no visible strategy. Then what? How do you organize and create conditions that won't lead us all back into yet more violence? And I just don't see that kind of thinking in this administration.

Bevington: The Islamic State is ISIS as is commonly referred to in the American media. Would destroying ISIS effectively bring an end to the Syrian civil war?

Crocker: Absolutely not. You need to understand history if you're going to try to understand today's Middle East. Islamic State didn't just leap into being a couple of years ago. They have antecedents that go back almost literally to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. They were Al Qaeda in Iraq at that time. We pounded them pretty hard during the time I was there as ambassador. We could not eliminate them because of underlying political issues. Sunni Muslims felt that the Shia led government in Baghdad was out to get them. So they kept Al Qaeda in Iraq alive. That is what morphed into Islamic state. We will defeat Islamic state. I don't think there's much question about that. But then what? Islamic state isn't the problem. It's the symptom of a problem. The basic problem is a failure of governance in both Iraq and in Syria. So someone else will move into that space and the fight will go on. My guess is whoever that someone is we may wind up liking it even less than Islamic State.

Bevington: Whenever there is civil war in any country it impacts Americans because typically where there is war there are refugees. As we know millions of Syrians have fled that country largely to Western Europe, some to the United States. The federal government has relocated nearly 400 Syrians in Georgia since 2011. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal tried to block refugees over terrorism concerns but was forced to rescind the executive order after Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said that the states actually have no power to do so. What is your stance on refugee resettlement in the United States?

Crocker: This is a nation of immigrants and refugees. Almost all of us came from somewhere else. We have a long history with refugees and it reminds me of Winston Churchill's famous dictum: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they've tried everything else.” We start out in opposition. Later we come to accept. No group of applicants seeking to enter this country goes through more rigorous scrutiny than refugees. No group among refugees goes through a more strenuous process than Syrians. Atlanta's going to benefit from 400 Syrian refugees. I was ambassador there for three years. Syrians are hardworking well-educated people. They're not going to be looking for free rides. They're going to be looking for an effort to reestablish their lives. Would I want a Syrian refugee family living next door to me? You bet I would. These are great people.

Bevington: What kind of extra vetting does a Syrian family undergo versus somebody from another part of the world?

Crocker: It takes a Syrian refugee about two years from the initiation of the process to admission to the United States. Multiple interviews with federal officials. Stories checked and rechecked. I can't think of what additional steps could be contemplated. I think we're there. I do hope we take a collective deep breath and consider what we're doing here because right now -- with the anti-Muslim rhetoric, the efforts by governors to exclude Syrian refugees because most of them are Muslim -- that's making Islamic State’s day.

Bevington: In what way?

Crocker: They just point to that and say, “We told you the West, led by America, hates you. They hate you because you're a Muslim. Only we can protect you.” The average man or woman in the street listens to this rhetoric and says they really don't like us. This is not a great place to have the United States in a volatile region. Words have consequences. And sadly the words from so many individuals -- commentators, politicians -- have have fed a sense that the United States is irretrievably anti-Muslim. Again, not where we want to be.

Bevington: Over your decades as an ambassador what obstacles do you see to engaging Americans on our nation's foreign policy and helping to better educate them?

Crocker: An uphill fight. I think of the time I was first in Beirut in the early '80s. Israeli invasion in 1982. Ongoing civil war and so forth. At that time every major TV network, every major paper including purely regional papers had a Beirut bureau. They also had a Jerusalem bureau, Cairo bureau and Amman Bureau. That's all gone. The technical meaning of decimate is to reduce by a tenth. The majority of international news media has been reduced by 90 percent. Looking at print publications it's really now the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal with The Washington Post probably a little farther back in terms of the attention they give to international media. The days of multiple big bureaus overseas run by people who actually spoke the language of the country they were in isn't going to come back.

Bevington: Has the Trump administration reached out to you for your expertise?

Crocker: They have not.

Bevington: If they did, what advice would you give to President-elect Donald Trump?

Crocker: Engage. Engage with the world. Here's the thing, Rickey. At the end of World War II, the United States basically designed the post-World War II order. The United Nations came into being in San Francisco. The international financial order post-World War II came out of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. We designed it and we led it. Some of the ways in which we led might have been improved. But there was a tradition -- Democrat and Republican alike -- to be engaged with the world. Because nobody else can do this.

Bevington: There is a perception among Americans that America can't be the policemen of the world. It's not our business. We're spending trillions of dollars elsewhere when our own schools don't have enough desks and school books. And there's also something called compassion fatigue. We just can't care enough about what's happening in other countries. How do you balance having a seat at the table and leading world discussions and policy and overstepping your role?

Crocker: All too often over the last few years I think the mantra of “We can't fix everything” has become an excuse to not try to fix anything. The kind of engagement I'm talking about doesn't involve sending in the 101st Airborne Division somewhere. It's political engagement demonstrating that's what goes on in the world is important to America and that America is still, by default perhaps, the leading country in world affairs. I think the American people have got to understand that this is not a luxury. It's a necessity. Partnerships are important alliances are important. If we don't want to do it all ourselves or bear the consequences of not having anybody do it we need to work on these relationships. As you look through the region I'm most familiar with, our relations with our traditional partners -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Turkey -- all of those relationships have deteriorated. So if we don't want to do it all, we need to revisit those relationships and get some help from our friends.

Bevington: Ambassador Ryan Crocker, thank you for joining me.

Crocker: Thanks for having me.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker visited Atlanta as a guest of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.