June 5, 2019

What Jordan’s Syrian Refugee Crisis Can Teach the Rest of the World

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON — In the summer of 1949, three years after I traded my United States Army uniform for civilian clothes, and three months after I sold my half of a successful war surplus business I had started to my partner, I hopped aboard the Queen Elizabeth at the dock in New York City to move to Paris. Arriving in France two weeks later, the damaged road I took into the City of Light was the first visible sign that Europe was still recovering from the war that had taken more than 40 million European lives from 1939 to 1945. But it wasn’t until I tried to start a business exporting food to Germany that I came to understand that for millions of people, the horrors of that war continued to live on, but in different ways.

One in five German homes had been destroyed during the war, leaving 20 million Germans homeless, the vast majority of which were women, children, and the elderly. Another eight to ten million former prisoners of war, slave laborers, and death camp survivors had set out by foot to find food and shelter at war’s end, only to settle in refugee camps on German soil for as many as five more years, as most nations — including the U.S. — refused to grant visas or extend quotas to let in victims of the war. What I remember today as mass misery, history remembers as the largest mass migration in human history.

In the seven decades that have passed since, I never imagined that I would see a day when the total number of refugees, and the scale of human misery, would surpass what I saw in 1949. But I was wrong. Today, there are more than 25 million refugees, a fraction of nearly 70 million innocent people who have been driven from their homes by armed conflict in recent decades. Twenty percent of them are fleeing the murderous eight-year conflict in Syria.

Now, as then, the wealthy countries of the world have largely shut their doors to most refugees. Instead, battles over immigration in the U.S. and Europe have sparked a global populist revolt, with far-right nationalists winning office in elections from the EU Parliament to the Oval Office. But unlike World War II, when the U.S. and Britain oversaw the fate of displaced people, the front line of the refugee crisis today is being handled by a small, landlocked country in the Middle East that is about the size of the state of Illinois and has nowhere near the reach or resources of the West: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

With Israel to its west, Iraq to its east, and Syria to its north, Jordan is an island of stability in an ocean of violence. Refugees from all three states have been crossing Jordan’s borders since 1948, along with refugees from Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia, and Bosnia. As of 2015, every third person in Jordan was a refugee.

One thing we’ve learned about refugees over the past seven decades is that if a person is displaced for five years, they are more likely to remain displaced for at least twenty years, and Jordan is a prime example. Of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who flooded into Jordan after the founding of Israel in 1948, many stayed. Today, around 70 percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, almost two million of whom still live in refugee camps of one kind or another.

Where other nations might have crumbled under the weight of the influx, Jordan has held firm, thanks in large part to the leadership of His Majesty King Abdullah II and his estimable wife, Her Majesty Queen Rania, who is also Palestinian. I first heard of Abdullah shortly after he was a young military officer who had come to the US to train. Wayne Downing, a West Point graduate and four-star general who commanded America’s elite counter-terrorism teams and is known as the father of the modern Rangers, trained foreign soldiers who traveled to Fort Bragg to learn about democracy. Of all the soldiers he trained, he told me, Abdullah was one of the best.

Downing didn’t consider how the leadership skills he saw would be called upon to lead a refugee crisis, but Jordan’s embrace of refugees under Abdullah’s leadership — like its embrace under Abdullah’s late father, Hussein, before him — has been crucial to ensuring the refugee crisis does not spread to the rest of the world. As the U.S. faces increasing refugee challenges of its own — and as the credibility of U.S. leadership rests on our ability to deliver on the values we claim to stand for — it could stand to learn a few lessons in leadership from Jordan.

The first lesson: refugee crises are never contained — and solutions must quickly shift from short-term to long-term.

Jordan dealt with this issue in real time as it worked to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis. Despite Jordan’s long history of hosting refugees, the Syrian crisis has broken every record. Today, almost 1 in 7 people in Jordan is a Syrian refugee. They are mostly impoverished, and more than half are children.

At first, Jordan adopted an open-door border policy, assuming that the conflict would soon be over and that refugees would eventually return home. What Jordan didn’t anticipate was just how massive the wave of Syrian refugees would be, and the economic burden that would put on Jordan’s government. By 2016, 650,000 refugees had registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and these registered refugees had the right to public services like education, healthcare, and housing in camps.

But in truth, the actual number of Syrian refugees was almost double the number of registered Syrian refugees, meaning estimates of Jordan’s need for international help fell far below UN estimates. And because Syrians were not permitted to fully access the labor market, pay taxes, start businesses, or spend, they could never help relieve Jordan’s economic strain.

Realizing the futility of assuming the Syrian refugees would simply return home, Jordan worked instead with the international community to find longer-term solutions. The result was called the Jordan Compact. In return for billions in pledged grants and loans and relaxed trade regulations with the European Union, Jordan agreed to issue 200,000 new work permits for Syrian refugees in agriculture, construction, and production of goods. It expandededucation to include all Syrian refugees, and it reduced fees for work permits.

The initiative was well-intentioned. But the Compact was designed without any input from Syrian refugees themselves, which leads to the second lesson: for policy changes to be successful, there must be trust between refugees and hosts.

In the early days after World War II, the U.S. had trust issues of its own, when the displaced in Germany — camp survivors and camp guards alike — were initially housed by nationality (Poles with Poles, etc.) without regard to roles. It meant, as historian David Nasaw has written, that “inmates and torturers” were housed “side by side” in “inhumane forced gatherings of victim and victimizer.”

Jordan has dealt with a trust issue of a different kind. Because of negative public opinion towards refugees as well as the lack of Syrian representation in the Compact’s creation, Syrian refugees doubt the Jordanian government’s motives, and many have not signed up for permits even with the new policies in place.

Jordan has tried to build goodwill by tweaking its policies to better accommodate the challenges Syrian refugees face. Just last year, the government began the process of regularizing the status of unregistered Syrians living outside of camps. This “amnesty policy” protected them from arrest and increased their access to employment, education, and financial assistance.

Unfortunately, the amnesty policy led to the third lesson: that host countries on the front lines of conflict need more money than is currently available, and that this funding must come from the international community.

Currently, Jordan fills gaps in funding by raising taxes. Since the beginning of the crisis, Jordanians have seen a tax hike of more than 42 percent, particularly on consumer goods like clothes and cigarettes. But almost a fifth of the population remains unemployed. A third of Jordanians fall below the poverty line at least once a year. And Jordan’s public debt now tops $40 billion, more than 95% of the nation’s GDP.

Jordanians cannot afford to pay higher taxes, and their protests have prompted resignations of Jordanian officials. But Jordan is also being forced to cut essential services for refugees. Just a few short months before the amnesty policy was announced, the Ministry of Health slashed healthcare subsidies for Jordan that were reportedly costing upwards of $2.2 billion a year.

The international community is supposed to ease Jordan’s financial strain by providing foreign aid and funding the UN and other international aid organizations. Yet, although the World Bank estimated that the 2016 cost of hosting Syrian refugees would top $2.5 billion, donors at the London conference pledged just $700 million in annual grants, and even limited funding promises too often go unmet.

Which is insanely short-sighted. Jordan needs international help, led by the U.S., to ensure not only that refugees receive the support they need, but also that the government remains stable. Political unrest in Amman could plunge the rest of the region into chaos, resulting in more volatility and more refugees in ways that will further challenge U.S. interests.

If we’re not willing to welcome refugees here, we need to be committed to supporting them there. Because if we can’t help them, as we learned in Europe seventy years ago, it’s not a failure of their morality — it’s a failure of ours.

May 15, 2019

The End of Democracy in Thailand?

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON — In 1851, Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon and the President of France, staged a coup against himself.

The coup was a pretext for cracking down on key institutions and consolidating his power. One year later, he became Emperor Napoleon III. In London, Karl Marx, watching these events unfold, wrote one of his most famous observations: that history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy and the second as a farce.

Continue Reading

April 19, 2019

It’s Time for a Grand Bargain in South Asia

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON — The generals called it Operation Smiling Buddha.

While the name suggests a peaceful initiative, the reality was exactly the opposite: Smiling Buddha was the code name for India’s first nuclear test. Supervised by top Indian military officials at a remote desert site in May 1974, the test was a huge national leap for India. It dramatically revived Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s popularity at home and forever changed the strategic environment of South Asia.

That India and Pakistan are fierce rivals is no secret. But the nuclear weapons programs that the two countries developed since Smiling Buddha have made their tensions more likely to become devastating confrontations. It’s a situation that completely defies common sense — especially since Pakistan, with a much smaller population than India and lesser missile capabilities,would be signing its own death warrant if it launched a nuclear weapon and invited India’s massive retaliation.

Continue Reading

March 22, 2019

The Real Threat from North Korea

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON — It reads like the plot of an Avengers movie in which the good guys fail to stop a cataclysmic event and America is thrown into catastrophic and irreversible ruin.

A sneak attack renders military bases across the country unable to function. Our national electric grid, including backup generators, completely fails, taking out everything — from fresh water and sewage management to cell service, emergency hospital generators, and all means of communication — along with it. Without electricity to cool them, 99 nuclear reactors across America completely melt down, sending radioactive clouds into the atmosphere while choking millions in the communities around them. Within hours, riots and civil unrest engulf every city, as anxiety and fear give way to looting and rioting.

Continue Reading

February 21, 2019

Indonesia’s Game of Thrones Problem

by Stanley A. Weiss

GSTAAD – “Winter is coming.”

That’s the urgent message Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo delivered in a speech to World Bank leaders in Bali last October. It was a reference to the popular television series, Game of Thrones, in which seven kingdoms scheme and battle to claim the Iron Throne, the seat of power over all kingdoms, while ignoring a much more powerful army to the north that threatens them all. Snow and ice are said to follow in this army’s conquering wake – hence, “winter is coming.”

Jokowi used the reference as a metaphor to argue that the world’s major powers were battling to claim their own Iron Throne – competing fiercely with one another for economic and military dominance instead of cooperating to address more existential dangers, from climate change to global terrorism, that threaten us all. It’s not unlike the 57-year old Jokowi – known for his love of motorcycles, denim jackets, and heavy metal music – to use a pop culture reference familiar to millennials to make his point.

Continue Reading

January 21, 2019

How President Trump Can Get Out of the Border Wall Mess

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON-While few Americans know who he was or how he’s connected to the debate raging over President Donald Trump’s border wall, the first time I heard the name Jacobo Arbenz was the fall of 1953, when I was a young American building a mining business in Mexico.
A mutual friend had introduced me to a young journalist named Flora Lewis and her husband, Sydney Gruson, who was the New York Times’ correspondent in Mexico. Since the newspaper had a rule then that married couples couldn’t both work there – which “she understood, but didn’t like,” – she became a freelance writer.

She crossed the border into Guatemala for a story on Arbenz, the country’s democratically-elected president. A reformer and admirer of Franklin Roosevelt, Arbenz was a democratic-socialist elected on a platform of agrarian land reform. With the US-Soviet Cold War heating up and America fearful of a Russian beachhead in Central America, Flora Lewis was dispatched to determine whether Guatemala, as she wrote, was “the one place in the Americas where devoted, angry-tongued Communists have deeply entrenched themselves,” including in the presidency itself.

Continue Reading

December 21, 2018

America Needs a 21st Century Defense Budge

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON-If President Donald Trump gets his way, our first line of defense against a Russian invasion of Europe might well be the Greek army.

It would, of course, be a spectacularly short battle. On one side: Russian tanks, missiles, and aircraft, all built for a European war. On the other: aging Greek pensioners wielding weapons designed to fight Greece’s supposed arch-rival, Turkey – not a military superpower.

That Greece is woefully unprepared to fight the Russian military is likely no surprise. But if you had picked one member of NATO to take on Russia based on President Trump’s favorite measure – how much that country spends on defense as a percentage of its gross domestic product – Greece would be second only to the United States.  But Greece spends over 70 percent of those defense expenditures on personnel, including pensions for retirees; meanwhile, Denmark spends a smaller percentage on defense but is one of the top NATO troop contributors in Afghanistan.

Continue Reading

December 6, 2018

Erdoğan is Not Our Friend

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON-In 1941, Uncle Sam made a new friend.

His name was Uncle Joe. Uncle Sam and Uncle Joe shared the same goals. Uncle Sam was determined to beat the Nazis; so was Uncle Joe. Uncle Sam was making huge sacrifices on the battlefields of Europe. So was Uncle Joe. Uncle Sam was powerful enough to define the world order that emerged from World War II. So was Uncle Joe.

There was just one problem: Uncle Joe was Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator whose iron rule led to mass imprisonments and executions at home. But when Stalin joined the Allies to fight against the Nazis, common cause soon led Americans to overlook Stalin’s cruelty and forget his signing of a non-aggression pact with Hitler’s Germany. It was FDR who began to call him“Uncle Joe.” Hollywood churned out pro-Stalin movies. One Department of Defense propaganda poster showed a smiling Russian soldier, captioned: “this man is your friend.”

Continue Reading

October 11, 2018

What Pakistan Can Learn from India

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON – When a 12-year-old Indian prodigy defeated an 18-year-old Italian champion in chess this past June, he didn’t just win the game. He also became the second-youngest grandmaster – the highest rank possible – in chess history.

It was the latest development in what has become a “chess renaissance” for India over the last 15 years, as the country has rocketed to the game’s top ranks after decades of mediocrity. This transformation has paralleled a more symbolic one, as India – the world’s largest democracy – has risen steadily since the end of the Cold War into the ranks of geopolitical grandmasters, skillfully using its size, strength, and strategic location to expand its global presence. It’s a fitting rise for the civilization where chess first originated.

Continue Reading

June 23, 2018

In Mexico, Beware the Clash of the Populists

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON-“Let’s kill the Americans!”

It was December 7, 1941, and my friend Jack Vietor – a magazine publisher and heir to the Jell-O fortune – was staying in a hotel in the city of Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America declared war. But much to Jack’s surprise, the mob that showed up in the town plaza wasn’t chanting about Japan, or Germany. They were wielding machetes and shouting, “Let’s kill the Gringos!”

The crowd had seen the headlines announcing that Mexico had declared war – and automatically assumed the headlines referred to the United States. Jack hid under his bed, terrified, until the hotel owner assured him everything was okay.

Continue Reading