Rep. Duckworth’s convenient concerns about Syrian suffering

Rep. Duckworth’s convenient concerns about Syrian suffering
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The debate in recent weeks over the Syrian refugee crisis has been a terribly sad exercise in American predictability. Perhaps you’ve noticed the hyperbole on your Facebook feed. It’s easier and more emotional to argue with each other about 10,000 people from a foreign country than to figure out what to do about the nearly five-year-old civil war in Syria that is, of course, the cause of the problem. That is the conversation we should be having.

But it is difficult to have that conversation with people who are interested in self-serving moral posturing. And while none of us can ever know the soul of another, what we can do is check the record to see if it matches the rhetoric. In the case of Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), it does not. 


Duckworth’s recent commentary in the Chicago Tribune, when left to stand alone, is a fairly standard work of political writing. It doesn’t say much, but it says it passionately. When compared to her record on the issue, though, it is a study in callous opportunism and cynical manipulation. This is a tragedy for the Syrian refugees because, truly, her voice could have made a difference.

Duckworth cares about Syrian refugees so much that she has made almost no official statements about them in 2015. No tweets. No press releases. Nothing in the Congressional Record. For that matter, the Illinois congresswoman, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, has hardly mentioned Syria at all, even as the situation in that war-torn country has deteriorated. Despite the deaths of 300,000 people, the displacement of 1.5 million people, the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons, the targeting of civilians, massive movements of refugees into Europe, the rise of al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the unwelcome military intervention of Russia, Duckworth has had virtually nothing to say.

Until this month.

In the aforementioned editorial and an appearance on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Duckworth — who finds herself in an increasingly crowded and competitive primary campaign for her party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkSenate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Senate makes SCOTUS nominee Barrett a proxy for divisive 2020 Senate Republicans scramble to put Trump at arm's length MORE (R-Ill.) — suddenly discovered the Syrian refugees.

The Syrian civil war has been raging since spring of 2011. At several points, the United States passed up opportunities to do something about it; President Obama famously drew a red line over the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, only to back down. He said Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had to go, only to back down. Reports indicate that the United States turned our backs on a Russian-proposed peace deal in late 2012. We didn’t get involved militarily. We didn’t establish no-fly zones or safe havens. As Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest recently wrote, Obama (and, by extension, the people he leads) made a “decision to stand aside and watch Syria burn.”

This refugee crisis didn’t sneak up on anyone, either. In 2013, while Duckworth was voting against arming Syrian rebel groups and voting against funding training programs for groups fighting ISIS, one million refugees were already living in camps in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. For refugees, these camps — despite rioting, disease and deprivation — were preferable to life in the middle of a firefight between Assad’s forces, al-Nusra and ISIS.

Through it all, Tammy Duckworth had almost nothing to say. 

As our European allies were overrun by desperate refugees, she made few statements, issued no press releases, called for no special hearings. As the killing in Syria continued and serious people were trying to figure out a way to help, she almost never used her position on the Armed Services Committee — or even just her seat in Congress — to demand action. When her powerful personal story and valorous background could have served the cause of alleviating mass human suffering, she didn’t use them.

Again, until this month.

We all have friends on social media who are self-reverential justice warrior locusts; after having never had anything to say about an issue before, they jump on an emotional hot button, pick it clean of whatever patina of moral authority it affords them, and then move on to the next issue. Whatever our personal opinions about how best to help Syrian refugees, surely we can all agree that these people come across as frauds and cynics of the first order. Or, at least, that their fist-shaking is more about them than it is about the issue du jour.

We can’t know another person’s soul. We can’t know what Duckworth thinks about or worries about or cares about. All we can judge is what she’s had to say. Which, on the issue of Syrian refugees, is virtually nothing. Nothing, that is, until this month.

Greenberg is an ordained Reform rabbi and the senior vice president of the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought. A former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, you can follow him @JGreenbergSez.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Rep. Duckworth's office responded to the above op-ed by calling statements that she said nothing and did nothing about the Syrian refugee crisis until after the Paris terror attacks patently false, and provided The Hill with a letter dated Sept. 11, 2015 signed by Duckworth and other members of Congress that called on the administration to take steps to respond to the refugee crisis. Certain absolute startements in the op-ed have therefore been modified to reflect the fact that Duckworth did do something on the refugee issue prior to the Paris attacks.