Not long after I posted a review of what the 2016 Republican presidential candidates have said about taking more Syrian refugees into the United States, both Governor Scott Walker and Donald Trump changed their positions.
Governor Walker, who had previously dismissed the question as “hypothetical” and declined to take a public position, told reporters on Wednesday: “The answer is no, we shouldn’t be taking any more Syrian refugees right now.” He added that the United States has “received almost 70,000 refugees, of which nearly 2,000 are from Syria. We’ve spent something like $4 billion in humanitarian relief.”
“They drew a line in the sand, that opened the door to the problems in Syria,” Walker said of President Obama’s responsibility for the refugee crisis. “They withdrew out of Iraq too early, therefore opening the ground for ISIS to claim more territory.”
Donald Trump, who previously said the United States was obliged to take more Syrian refugees because “they’re living in hell, and something has to be done,” now says we should not take more refugees due to security concerns, and the problems already faced by American citizens.
“From a humanitarian standpoint, I’d love to help, but we have our own problems. We have so many problems that we have to solve,” Trump said on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Wednesday night.
Trump also complained about the refusal of the oil-rich Gulf states to accept any Syrian refugees, and repeated his previous argument that if President Obama had acted decisively against the Assad regime, the current migration from Syria would not be happening.
“Russia’s not taking, nobody’s taking. We’re supposed to take? We have to straighten out our own problems,” he said. “If Obama would have gone across the line that he drew, the artificial line in the sand that he drew, you wouldn’t have this problem in the first place.”
One debate point that every Republican candidate should sharpen is whether they believe the current crisis should have been averted by toppling Assad (as Trump suggested) or taking out ISIS, and thereby securing Assad in power (as Governor Walker urged.)
Syria is the ultimate zero-sum game. ISIS and al-Qaeda are the primary combat-effective elements of the Syrian rebellion. It will end swiftly if the West takes decisive action against ISIS in Syria, especially now that the Russians are moving in troops and weapons to secure the Syrian regime.
Taking out Assad, on the other hand, would have most likely put most of Syria in the hands of the Islamic State. At any rate, it’s no longer an option now that Russian troops have joined President Obama’s partners in Iran to fight for the regime. The third option, invading and pacifying the entire country until a stable, reasonably peaceable elected government could be installed, has never been seriously proposed by either American or European leaders, and would have been a tough sell, given the state of nation-building in neighboring Iraq.
Republican candidates may rest assured they will face these questions from any Democrat they run against, so they should prepare their answers carefully. The Democrats are all running against Obama to various degrees, but none of them will be prepared to let a Republican opponent pin responsibility for the Syrian catastrophe on him without putting up a fight.
Update: The Walker campaign points out that the Governor’s position on Syria is better described as the third option described above: he has said “no strategy to defeat ISIS can succeed while Assad is still in power,” and advocates a serious strategy to defeat both Assad and his terrorist adversaries.
From a foreign policy speech Walker delivered at the Citadel on August 28:
And as long as ISIS has a safe haven in Syria, it will continue to be a powerful force in Iraq. Because the administration ran away from its red line, Syria’s tyrant Assad remains in power and is a magnet for radical Islamic terrorism. No strategy to defeat ISIS can succeed while Assad is still in power and Iran, his patron, has a base of operations in Damascus.
Therefore, we must do more to recruit and support fighters in Syria who oppose both ISIS and Assad. The Obama administration has only trained about 60 fighters—that is not going to cut it. A no-fly zone enforced by America and its allies would dramatically enhance this campaign on the ground. Our efforts in Syria and Iraq must be part of a broader, U.S.-led, regional coalition, with real buy-in and iron-clad guarantees from our allies that they will help us shoulder the burden.
The speech can be viewed in its entirety below.