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Massive human tragedies defy efforts to explain and most of all to prescribe, and the Middle East/North Africa refugee crisis is no exception. The global commentariat of course is weighing in energetically and – predictably enough – for the most part predictably. So far, the most common memes have been efforts to exploit the situation politically, either to contend that the incoherent and ambivalent response of Europe’s generally wealthy countries rivals for heartlessness American resistance to amnesty-friendly immigration policies, or to insist that more welcoming approaches towards both populations is economically unaffordable and dangerous for national security.

Also especially popular have been efforts to blame American Middle East policy decisions for most of this mounting catastrophe. The main reputed villains are of course former President George W. Bush, for invading Iraq and overthrowing its brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, and President Obama, for pulling out of Iraq prematurely, or helping to overthrow Saddam’s Libyan counterpart Muammar el-Qaddafi, or remaining aloof from the Syrian civil war for too long – and usually for all three.

I’m as stumped as as any of you readers out there regarding what precisely the United States should do – at least concerning lasting solutions – as well as where sound guidance might be found. But although the performance sketched out above makes clear that the usual chattering classes are once again largely failing to provide serious answers or even analyses, their typically tendentious bloviating is at least so far illuminating some thinking that’s best ignored or rejected. Four examples stand out so far, starting with the two I’ve already mentioned.

> First, just as supporting admission into the United States of even many more Middle East and North Africans displaced by the region’s conflicts can’t be blanketly dismissed on national security concerns, greater caution doesn’t automatically signal xenophobia or callousness. It’s true that the world’s most dangerous terrorism comes from the Middle East, but it’s also true, as shown by the lone wolf phenomenon in North America and Western Europe, that ISIS etc has been able to recruit outside the region as well. So as long as the United States continues to accept refugees as a matter of policy, barring them from the Middle East and North Africa is indefensible – especially since these regions are at the center of this problem, too.  

At the same time, the Middle East/North Africa refugees present the United States with a fundamentally different set of challenges and opportunities than the nation’s huge population of illegal immigrants.  The numbers of people involved are orders of magnitude different (inflows to the United States from the Middle East will be much smaller under any imaginable admissions policy), so the economic impact at a time of sluggish American recovery would differ qualitatively, too.  In addition, the refugees are overwhelmingly fleeing war and savage persecution by jihadists, not seeking jobs, higher incomes, or government benefits.  Moreover, whereas some form of amnesty for America’s illegals is almost certain to create a powerful magnet that attracts millions more newcomers – especially from the Western Hemisphere – a welcoming migrants policy threatens no such consequences.      

> Second, despite all the evidence that U.S. policies have destabilized the Middle East and North Africa, the idea that either excessive intervention or simple inaction by Washington are largely responsible for the region’s woes could not be less serious. The region, imprisoned both by secular dictatorships and by a religion still proudly mired in medievalism, has been a powder keg for decades. Also fueling the Middle East’s dysfunction is a pervasive culture of resentment and grievance versus the historically more successful West, and a reaction to its failings that’s been dominated by scapegoating and violence. That’s a sharp contrast to East Asia, which has been every bit as victimized, but which has responded with determination to beat its former colonial masters, along with the United States, at their own wealth-creation and economic development game.

A Middle East that never experienced either of America’s Iraq wars or the 1950s coup Washington engineered in Iran or staunch U.S. backing for reactionary theocrats in the oil-rich Persian Gulf (not to mention Cold War-era Soviet support for equally brutal “Arab socialist” dictators) would have still eventually blown up. Only the timing might have been different.

By the same token, the Middle East’s deep-rooted, homegrown failings reveal the senselessness of insisting that the rest of the world finally act decisively to address the root causes of the crisis. Centuries of pathological social and cultural practices and institutions can only be changed meaningfully from within, and such transformations are rarely quick, easy – or peaceful. There still remains a case for outside actors avoiding measures that make the region’s dysfunction worse. But given the importance of the Middle East’s oil and terrorists, simple hands-off postures will create unacceptable risks for the foreseeable future.

> Third, because geography still matters decisively in global affairs, for all the “small world” babble among politicians and academics, the impact of Middle East migrant and refugee flows as such is bound to be felt overwhelmingly in Europe. So be wary of American leaders and pundits declaring that vital or even important national interests will be at stake depending on how the United States reacts. But that doesn’t mean that the only legitimate American response should be standing aloof. It’s entirely valid for the public to demand that its wants be reflected in policy as well as its needs. So let the nation by all means debate migrant and refugee policy, but let both sides also portray the stakes honestly.

> Let both sides also – especially supporters of more generous responses – acknowledge the inevitable costs and propose responsible ways to finance them. Normally, I’d favor some combination of tax increases or public sector spending cuts. These measures would ensure that Americans today pay the costs in the here and now – and put their money where their mouths are – rather than create more debt and shift costs onto future generations who will have had no say in these decisions. Yet interest rates today are so low that it’s easier from a financial – and moral standpoint – to justify what would be a pittance in extra deficit spending to ease the suffering.

My own preference is for the United States admitting many more refugees from the region – financed by a new tax on upper-income Americans. In my opinion, it’s the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint, and it’s completely affordable for a country as wealthy as the United States. Moreover, unlike most of Europe, the United States has a long record of successfully assimilating newcomers. It system tends to bring out the best even in refugees and other immigrants from especially diseased regions, like Lebanon and the Arab areas of historic Palestine.

There’s no doubt that widespread “multiculturalist” beliefs among policy elites have created new barriers to successful assimilation. But there’s also no doubt that most new arrivals in the country who are not coming from Latin America have no desire to ghettoize themselves language- and culture-wise. (When’s the last time you heard about Vietnamese Americans pushing for bilingual classes for their kids?) And national security threats could be eased by giving priority to admitting families, especially with young children.

But this approach just reflects my own preference. If you’ve got your own, the time to express them to elected politicians is now.

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