The burdens of the presidency will soon pass from Obama to Trump.
Upon his inauguration on Jan. 20, President Donald Trump will inherit complex issues that will require tremendous intellect, subtlety and heart. Seemingly intractable problems of mounting refugee crises and ongoing humanitarian disasters in places like Syria and the Sudan persist. We hope Trump studies and emulates the approach of his predecessor in dealing with them.
In his final press conference of the year, President Barack Obama was asked what personal moral responsibility he felt, as president and leader of the free world, watching the carnage in Aleppo, Syria. His response portrayed the weight that will soon rest on Trump’s shoulders:
“I always feel responsible. I felt responsible when kids were being shot by snipers,” Obama said. “I felt responsible when millions of people had been displaced. I feel responsible for murder and slaughter that’s taken place in South Sudan that’s not being reported on, partly because there’s not as much social media being generated from there. … I ask myself every single day, is there something I could do that would save lives and make a difference and spare some child who doesn’t deserve to suffer?”
The president must balance the desire to help with a full understanding of the limits of U.S. power. Stopping the slaughter in Syria, Obama noted, would have involved putting “large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground uninvited, without any international law mandate, without sufficient support from Congress, at a time when we still had troops in Afghanistan and we still had troops in Iraq.”
If he had done those things, America might have stopped the slaughter, or it might have provoked direct armed conflict with Russia and Iran. The international ramifications of action require careful analysis, not brash action.
Obama’s measured approach has left him open for criticism from hawks who want to confront enemies forcefully or to those who agonize over reports of the slaughter of civilians. But the push for diplomatic solutions, bringing to bear international pressure on Russia and Syria to get civilians to safety, is the most realistic strategy — and the approach most likely to bear fruit without unintended consequences that could lead to even greater humanitarian disasters.
Even if the new president takes these lessons to heart and pursues a similarly measured approach to diplomacy and military intervention, the global refugee crisis will continue and likely worsen. As Denver Post staff writer Bruce Finley outlined in a recent Perspective piece, the number of refugees is growing, but safe havens for taking them in are shutting their doors — including the United States.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric regarding refugees was harsh, isolationist fear-mongering. When he sits in the Oval Office, reality and the United States’ long, compassionate history of welcoming refugees, especially those facing persecution or threat of death in their home countries, should temper his rhetoric and his decisions.
The world seems increasingly unstable, with geopolitical tensions mounting in more and more places. Trump immediately will face humanitarian crises in Syria, Sudan and beyond. Obama’s responses to them have not been perfect, but they have not been reckless. We hope Trump has Obama’s heart as he shoulders responsibility for America’s response.
President Barack Obama pauses during a news conference last Friday at the White House.