The Speech Obama Should Have Given

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The Speech Obama Should Have Given


Tara Sonenshine, NSN Advisory Board
December 8, 2015 | THE HILL

President Obama was right to lay out the strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and to explain his policy. Full stop.

But we confront a bigger problem than just ISIS, which the president understated: The temptation to turn fear into paralysis and forget the lessons of history.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and an increasing number of supporters like the logic of keeping out people whose backgrounds, ideas, values, religions and other defining characteristics we don’t like and whom we are afraid of. It’s a tempting theory. Just cordon off people and ideas behind big walls and tight borders and all will be well. The theory has appeal to many — keeping a nation safe by removing any potential irritants, denying safe haven to those fleeing conflict and letting those who need shelter find another backyard. It is so easy to conflate “outsiders” with “terrorists” and blend immigration issues with international terror and create a blob of fear. Just put everyone we don’t like in a ghetto or behind a barrier.
If only it worked that way; we’d have a lot more historical examples of successful ghettoes where the bad guys are kept out and the good ideas and people bring global peace and prosperity. But the theory is a myth that needs to be challenged with facts.

Firstly, ideas don’t get shut down by banning them or their authors… During the Cold War, we branded communists and evildoers and set up the House Un-American Activities Committee to track those whose ideas threated us. (See the movie “Trumbo” to get a look at how it worked out.) At the height of the Cold War, we cut off all goods and services from reaching the island of Cuba to hem in the people whose ideas we hated. Boatloads of refugees fled to our shores. Over time, things thawed. Today we have diplomatic relations and the beginning of tourism between Miami and Havana. We discovered that not every Cuban is a communist and not every communist is out to destroy us.

We know about walls. The Berlin Wall kept relatives in East Germany and West Germany separated. Only documentation could allow travel. But ideas travel. The rise of satellite television and CNN allowed ideas to scale walls and images to flow in and out of homes on both sides of the wall. On Nov. 9, 1989, after weeks of unrest, the East German government announced that all East Germans could visit the West. Four days later, the wall came down. A united Germany found a way to stop criminals and thugs from getting in and out of the country without deeming those from the East as evil… None of this suggests that we should not enforce borders and insist upon the rule of law. We must. And none of this suggests that we stop granting political asylum or end immigration. We can’t.

What it means, however, is that we cannot be simplistic, seizing upon easy answers to hard questions. We can’t bar all doors, close down information technologies, put like-minded groups into boxes and shut the lids. And we can’t conflate issues out of political convenience to win over hearts and minds. We have to wrestle with complexity and come together with solutions instead of soundbites.

In the end, this is about a passionate commitment to principles: freedom, dignity and security. We should not pretend it’s easy.


President Obama speaks at the National Defense University in December 2012. [Ash Carter, accessed 12/8/15]

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