The headline on Jake Tapper’s The Lead, CNN, April 3: White House: Donald Trump’s call for a missile strike on Syria “caught our staff off guard”
The President’s precipitous call alarmed military advisers as well as much of the press and public, even though he had warned them (and Russia and Assad) ahead of time. (I guess FOX, Trump’s main source of news, was fuzzy on details?)
In Mexico, also, the government and viewing public are aware of such international events.
A video joke in Mexico making the rounds: passenger flying, looking down, aghast: “Díos mio, que horrible, los bombardeos de míseles en Syria;” (how horrible, the missile strikes in Syria). Response from air steward: “No, Señor, éste es Ecatepec” (town in Morelos state, near Mexico City); (No, sir, that is just the town of Ecatepec. A little Mexican ribbing, between rival cities.)
Mexican (dark) humor helps assuage grief and fear; they are reacting to Trump’s attitudes and decisions. But they also join other experts in debunking comparisons by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which claim “Mexico is second deadliest nation after Syria” (Rafael Bernal, “Mexico Slams Syrian Comparisons,” The Hill, 16 May, 2017). Moreover, Trump, himself, has opined “tens of thousands of people with cell phones” are escaping Syria. He suggested they were heading for the U.S., hence the need for more “Muslim bans” (Elspeth Reeve, The New Republic, 14 April, 2016). Later, in a puzzling switch, Trump declared the need for U.S troops actually to leave Syria and head for the Mexican border instead (Chicago Tribune, 4 April, 2018).
More recently, as Americans and Mexicans try to wrap their heads around it all, Trump has declared “Mission Accomplished!” There are cries of “deja vu” (as he apes Bush’s failed effort in Iraq) and/or “wag the dog.” That is, many scoff and claim he tries to deflect his legal/moral problems with strong-arm, military tactics. Too often the military option works; Americans “rally around the flag”, even when there is no clear “mission,” proof of victory, congressional authorization, or evidence of actual threats to the U.S. (Chris Cillizza, “Why Donald Trump’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ Tweet is So Tone Deaf,” CNN, 15 April, 2018). Mexicans watch with bated breath.
Yet, surprisingly, wonderfully, there is, indeed, some truth to connections between Syria and Mexico. While the U.S. refuses to accept Syrian refugees in sufficient numbers (less than twenty last year, according to CNN, 15 April, 2018), Mexico has already accepted dozens this year. This humanitarian response came in reaction not only to the recent gassing of civilians and children in Syria but to the tragedy of one-half million Syrians killed and eleven million displaced! Mexico has its own violence, its own problems, but has historically been a refuge for those fleeing danger.
Syrian students in Mexico recently accepted through the non-profit Habesha Project say they “feel reborn” (Nina Lakhani, The Guardian, 14 July, 2017). Many of them live not only in Mexico City, attending UNAM, the national university, but in Aguascalientes. Silva Hassan Nance, and others disrupted by a relentless civil war, bless the Mexican authorities and the non-profits who helped arrange scholarships, passage and living accommodations. The students are Kurds, Alawites, Sunnis and Christian. Some pray five times a day; some not at all. They are learning Spanish, (delighted by the frequent use of Arabic words, such as “ojalá,” meaning, Would God Will it So). They are treated well and are beginning to enjoy Mexican culture, often with the help of telenovelas, like ones they used to watch in Syria.
They must also watch, as we do, the ever-breaking news of events in the Middle East. They long for the time they may return, better educated from their opportunities in Mexico, to help rebuild their own society. The Trump “mission?” Of that, they are not sure. However, they join him and the rest of us in hoping for the defeat of enemies of civility, inside and outside Syria. But it will be a long, hard road.
Veteran historians and diplomats of the Middle East know of the intricacies and obstacles on that road. They also know, as we must, as we trust Trump will learn, the wisdom of philosopher, George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Peter Baker, “‘Mission Accomplished’! But What is the Mission in Syria?”, New York Times, 14 April, 2018).
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column first appeared in The Guardian with Nina Lakhani’s story.