Evacuations and free cities
Perfect solutions may elude us, but we shouldn't depend upon heroic airlifts to make all things right in a complicated world. We must think hard before the next refugee crisis erupts.
Airlifts, sealifts, and frenzied evacuations have a complex history. Events like the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Berlin airlift loom large in our historical memories because they represent heroic efforts of massive scale against immense odds. The heroics are remembered, as well they should be. But the lessons of the terrible vulnerabilities that make such heroics necessary are often lost because they are far less spectacular. It's easier to make a riveting movie about soldiers, sailors, and pilots than about the complex deterioration of military alliances.
■ What is happening right now in Afghanistan is terrible and heartbreaking on a giant scale. People are desperately trying to escape via the one airport under American control. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing, and 80% of those on the move now are women and children. Wrenching individual stories are no more than a tweet away. Images of hundreds of people being packed aboard US military aircraft in search of refuge remind the viewer of the legacy of referring to the number of "souls" aboard a craft. So many souls are in peril.
■ Aside from the criticisms that can and must be aired of the errors and misjudgments that led to the present crisis, we ought to be asking more broadly whether solutions are available to prevent calamity when people face circumstances so terrible that they are forced to flee their homes.
■ The United Nations counts tens of millions of refugees worldwide at this very moment. And there are crises aplenty that feed that number: Economic collapse (Venezuela), civil war (Yemen), famine (Sudan), and political oppression (Hong Kong). It is obviously impractical to promise to airlift them all -- though states from Utah to Maryland are offering to help, at least with Afghan refugee resettlement.
■ It wasn't that long ago in history that city-states could be found in both Europe and Asia, and the Treaty of Versailles established the Free City of Danzig after World War I in order to preserve Poland's access to the Baltic Sea. That "free city" served as a destination of refuge between the two World Wars (until it was overrun by Germany in 1939).
■ Thus it seems peculiar that the United States, unique in its ability to project power around the globe, hasn't laid out the terms by which we would recognize new "free cities" and offer them something like protectorate status, similar to Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. As a country, we adhere to principles like the right to self-determination, and we stand on a legal foundation that depended upon a clear statement of principles for breaking away from a government our forebears deemed no longer legitimate. Why, then, do we not have a clear statement of policy that might have told, for instance, how we might have responded to the establishment of a "Free City of Kabul" by people seeking voluntarily to escape the illegitimate rule of the Taliban?
■ The question is complex, and it's really too late to do such a thing in the midst of the chaos. There are much more urgent needs to attend, and we have a moral duty to act. But Afghanistan won't be the last refugee crisis, and we can't depend upon international institutions to act on our moral imperatives (after all, China, Russia, and Venezuela all have seats on the UN Human Rights Council). But just as a few thousand American servicemembers were enough to hold the line in Afghanistan, so might clear statements of recognition and protection be enough to shelter millions of people seeking safety. Perfect solutions may elude us, but we shouldn't depend upon heroic airlifts to make all things right in a complicated world.