2017, year of “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT)

Asking “Why are we doing this?” is often a good reality check. Posing the question is sometimes a way of expressing doubts about a course of action. It is a question that has been coming to mind a lot in the wake of various policy decisions by the new administration in the US headed by Donald Trump, and by the new Congress.

SDG logoActually I find myself asking this question – often as “why are we undoing this?” – quite a bit. And this is the proper form of the question -not “why are they (un)doing this?”- if you think of this as being one nation. We’re in this together and need to ask appropriate  questions. So I don’t regard this as partisanship, but rather critical and dispassionate (as much as is possible when considering the human dimensions of some of these issues) reading of policy proposals and actions.

“Why are we doing this?” & refugees in Australia

So come to find out the president himself  has been asking “Why are we doing this?” in regard to the agreement with Australia (made by the previous administration, of Barack Obama) to receive 1200 refugees (refugees, not “illegal immigrants” as the president tweeted). One might also ask “Why are we undoing this?” if the president nixes the agreement.

To really ask “Why are we (un)doing this?” however, means more than just throwing out a challenge or dismissing a proposed or existing course of action. There are several items to consider, such as:

  • What are the anticipated benefits of the policy/action (and for who), or what problem does it propose to address?
  • What legal, diplomatic, ethical, or moral obligations come to bear in deciding on the policy/action?
  • How will this course of action lead to the desired outcome?
  • What are the costs of pursuing this course of action, or of not pursuing it?
  • What secondary effects might result from this course of action and the steps involved in actualizing it, or from not implementing it?

In general, it seems the previous administration prioritized humanitarian concerns and international cooperation in the context of understanding the US as a nation of immigrants, while the current administration seems to prioritize protection and national interests even at the expense of international agreements, with a more “nativist” conception of America. Also the previous administration seems to have been more positive-sum in its approach to issues, while the current one sees things more in zero-sum terms.

However, even when understanding general approaches and biases, specific issues need specific questions. What are the benefits of the agreement to settle these refugees in the US is a question that can be answered more narrowly or more broadly (such as local cost/benefit vs. a more stable world system). On the other hand, the benefits of canceling the agreement are framed in terms of keeping out people described as undesirable (though frankly the president’s characterization of these refugees as coming from “prisons” is evidently inaccurate, and the apparent reference to Australia exporting the “next Boston Bombers” is also off the mark). A range of obligations are relevant in this case, from moral (humanitarian) to diplomatic (since the agreement has been made) to safety (to the extent that these refugees may represent a risk). The question of costs of settling the refugees vs. nixing the agreement can be calculated in human, monetary, and diplomatic terms. The contrary concern appears to be that these refugees represent a risk or burden that the government should avoid is one probably misinformed based on experience – but in any event addressed by answering how vetting would take place as part of the process.

The secondary effects of such issues need more attention than they seem to be getting. In this case, refugees as immigrants can be seen as benefiting the country, as they have for generations, in terms both of contributions they and their descendants make, and our national image. But some see in these refugees and their descendants as potential threats – a perception that is at least debatable (and debated) considering the long history of immigrant communities in the US, and especially in light of the rigor of established vetting procedures. Globally, the ripple effects of keeping refugees in camps could, aside from holding people in inhuman conditions, have their own longer term security risks. There is also a cost to the image of America in treating refugees in general as potential criminals. Populations are moving, in response to various problems, often fleeing dire conditions. Responses to their plight and needs – in a world system where even stable areas are seeing social problems, climate change, and increasing economic inequality – will require more than raising barriers or opening doors.

Other “Why are we doing this?” issues

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of policy proposals and decisions that have me asking this question. Such that it is tempting to acronymize it as “WAWDT,” and use that as a tag. To the extent that time permits I hope to look at some of them with attention to specific questions such as those proposed above.

In trying to answer such questions, I believe one will find that there will be a pattern to assumptions driving these proposed changes, and that some of the responses – the answers to the specific questions about “Why are we doing this?” – will also recur. For instance, the president’s reaction to this group of refugees held by Australia shares some common elements with the controversial and much more widely directed Executive Order 13769 effectively banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the US.


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