When Fear Drives Policy

The debate over whether to admit Syrian refugees into the US in the wake of the 13 November Paris terrorist attacks reveals the depth to which Americans remain obsessed with their security and, at the same time, curiously detached from the wars that have been waged on their behalf for that end.

In the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy, the main character Luke Skywalker is prompted to enter a cave on the planet Dagobah by his teacher, the venerate warrior Yoda, as part of his training. Luke senses the evil within, and so, he arms himself before proceeding. Yoda, understanding the challenge before his pupil, counsels Luke to leave his weapons behind. Trusting prudence over wisdom, Luke arms himself and plunges into the cave where he is confronted by a manifestation of his nemesis, Darth Vader. Skywalker defeats his foe in a brief saber duel but his moment of victory is interrupted when Darth Vader’s mask disappears to reveal Luke’s visage. Yoda had warned him that the only thing in the cave is “what you take with you,” but Luke fails to examine himself and trusts instead in the familiar means of self preservation (i.e., his skill and his weapons), ignoring the fear that compelled him to ignore Yoda’s counsel as well as the heart of darkness which that fear engendered. US policymakers should be careful that they not allow similar impulses to lead them to make rash choices in the wake of the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris.

. . . Americans’ expectation for an idyllic refuge in the homeland also leads them to foist the burdens inherent in their liberal democratic ideals on others.

Americans expect perfect security. This has been the motive force behind the national security consensus in the US for decades. Such absolute expectations drive the American defense establishment to chase after the aspiration of certain victory against all potential foes, indulging in extravagant defense programs, at the expense of non-military solutions to the principal problems threatening the US and her allies. As the ongoing debate over Syrian refugees makes clear, Americans’ expectation for an idyllic refuge in the homeland also leads them to foist the burdens inherent in their liberal democratic ideals on others. The root of the problem is fear. Policy rooted in fear holds politics hostage to the vicissitudes of fight-or-flight responses, creating a condition of perpetual crisis.

Prudence counsels focused preparation. Fear demands unbounded pre-emption.

The grand irony is that policies driven by fear often end up propagating the very thing that is most feared. This is not a philosophical truism. Germany’s fears of extinction led it to commit national suicide twice through cataclysmic wars for the preservation of German civilization. After 9/11, the US launched a pre-emptive war in Iraq that set in motion the violent unraveling of the regional order in the Greater Middle East. To be sure, there was a healthy degree of honor and interest invested in each of these instances, but the ambition of those wars was to forestall the threats which were presumed to loom over the horizon. Prudence counsels focused preparation. Fear demands unbounded pre-emption.

Like Luke, many Americans are choosing to embrace the enemy they know (i.e., manifest fear) rather than the uncertainty of their professed ideals by closing the door to Syrian refugees. In a liberal democracy, institutionalizing liberty is a matter of “do or do not” because there is no way to simply try it out. Securing the lofty ideals of a free society against the demands of the crises at hand is impossible without a societal conviction that preserving the precepts of liberty is an imperative rather than a conditional commitment.

Today’s inclination to retreat from principle in the name of prudence with regards to the Syrian refugees stems, in part, from the outsourcing of American security responsibilities away from civil society. Fighting is done by their professional military volunteers, allies, foreign partners, and proxies in far away places. Americans regularly thank their warriors for serving the nation, but many citizens are also manifestly relieved at escaping the moral and physical burden of maintaining their ideals. The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were only politically possible because those wars have remained relatively distant from the lives of most Americans. In the shadow of the November 2015 Paris attacks, the hazard of allowing Syrian refugees into the US sunders that partitioning of responsibility and brings the possibility of additional danger home to the ordinary citizen.

In war, military servicemembers are rightfully expected to subordinate their interest in self-preservation for the sake of the nation. On the question of refugees, Americans must decide if the bifurcation of responsibility for preserving national ideals rests solely with its warriors or if the invitation to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” demands a burden of risk for them as well. It is indicative that France (the target of four terror attacks since January 2015) has reiterated its commitment to see 30,000 refugeesprocessed through its borders while the US remains embroiled in controversy over admitting a third that many. For the moment at least, the French remain committed to their national credo of libertéégalitéetfraternité. Will Americans?

Maj. Robert Mihara is an Army Strategist. He has previously published articles in Infinity Journal and E-IR.org as well as several posts on The Bridge. Robert earned his MA in US History from Texas A&M University and previously served on the history faculty at the US Military Academy at West Point from 2007 to 2010. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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