Day: February 7, 2017

Lost in translation

On Friday, the American Enterprise Institute hosted “Lost in Translation: The Unsung War Heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan”. The evening kicked off with a discussion between Paul Wolfowitz of AEI, and General David Petraeus, partner, KKR and Chairman KKR Global Institute. Following this was a panel discussion featuring former Iraqi translator Salwan Al Toki, former Afghan translator Janis Shinwari, and Matthew Zeller, founder of No One Left Behind.

Wolfowitz noted the timeliness of this event given the recent Trump administration immigration restrictions, though the purpose of the gathering was not to criticize the executive order but to recognize the important role of foreign translators. Petraeus recalled his own experience working with translators from all over the world. He said that the translator’s job goes beyond interpretation; the translater is an adviser to senior US leadership with incredible responsibility. He recalled the bond of those who serve together and the risk these men and women take to put themselves in line of danger.

The US armed forces are veterans in every way except legal status, Petraeus said. He remarked that he is happy to see General Mattis immediately taking on the task of setting up exceptions to the immigration ban. Taking care of those who serve US interests abroad is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. Next time we enter into a foreign conflict, we want individuals on the ground to support us.

Al Toki asked the audience how many of them had stood in front of foreign soldiers while their countrymen stood on the opposing side. Remembering the day American soldiers approached him and asked if he would get involved, he was hesitant, unclear of US intentions in Iraq and wanted to speak to their general. After getting involved he helped build schools, train police, and worked to form a solid governance strategy for Iraq. After the military, he worked for USAID and established a chamber of commerce, along with centers for women and children. He said that the US service members in Iraq were his guests, and now he is the guest in the US. He served the US loyally and to the best of his ability. He is not afraid of death but he is afraid of someone being left behind.

Shinwari became a translator because he wanted to help his own country and to support his family, not because he wanted to come to America. As one of the most trusted translators he was at every conflict and afforded the privilege of a weapon. When recounting the tale of how he saved the life of fellow panel member Matt Zeller, he echoed Salwan’s sentiment that the Americans were guests in his country and that he felt a need to protect them, putting his own life in danger. Though he never planned on going to the US, in 2009 he was informed that the Taliban had his name, face, and information. He started receiving phone calls threatening his life and that of his family. After waiting many years for his visa to come through, he left Afghanistan for a new life in the US.

Matt Zeller recounted the day he met Shinwari at the airport and welcomed him and his family to the United States. They arrived with four small suitcases, and no idea where they were to live. Zeller realized that he needed to do something and started a “go fund me” page to raise money. Within days he got the family set up in a two-bedroom apartment, furnished with donations, and offered Shinwari a check for $35,000 from the American people. Shinwari refused the money, instead suggesting that they start an organization to help bring over other interpreters.

There was no existing organization to step up and meet this need, and thus No One Left Behind was created. The goal of the non-profit is to help former translators get a visa, welcome them at the airport with a proper reception, and find them a home for at least 90 days furnished at no cost to them. Then the group aims to buy them a car, find them a first job and a first American friend or mentor. Zeller remarked he would eventually like the Defense Department to take on these responsibilities and take care of the people who help us abroad. He recalled the honorary veteran status extended to Philippine soldiers during WWII, and suggested a similar recognition be granted to those who served with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Watch the full event here:

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What’s at stake

As I am not a lawyer, I won’t comment on the legal aspects of the hearing later today on the President’s executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and indefinitely barring Syrians, including refuges with a well-founded fear of persecution, from entering the US. The case will presumably be decided on legal grounds, but as Madeleine Albright cogently said on NPR this morning, the policy implications are enormous:

Three things are at stake:

  1. Equality: While the executive order carefully avoids singling out Muslims for the ban, it is clearly intended to favor Christians and other minorities, who admittedly often suffer significant persecution in the countries in question. There is no need to favor them. Christians and other minorities already represent a disproportionate percentage of the refugees who gain admittance to the US. What those who wrote the executive order are trying to do is establish a precedent for presidential authority to distinguish among ethnic and sectarian groups, rather than individuals. I have no doubt at all if the court rules in the Administration’s favor that the President and his minions will try again in the domestic context, perhaps going as far as to try to register Muslims. If the court denies the President the authority to make such distinctions for foreigners who have not yet entered the US, it will be hard to argue in favor of any proposal that makes them for lawful US residents and citizens.
  2. Facts: The Administration has explicitly sought to establish “alternative facts,” including not only the mythical three million illegal voters but more recently also terrorist attacks in Europe that the media have hidden from the US public. Another of its alternative facts is the claim that this executive order is required to protect national security, because immigrants from the seven countries in question might conduct terrorist attacks inside the US. That is of course a possibility that has to be taken seriously. It is a major factor in the rigorous, existing vetting processes, which have ensured that not one immigrant from any of these countries has attempted a terrorist act in the US since 9/11. Of course past performance does not necessarily predict future results, but we have no factual basis on which to expect anything different, provided the vetting remains rigorous. No one has proposed anything else. If the Administration merely wanted to improve and tighten the vetting, it could have done that without a high-profile ban.
  3. National security: As Madeleine and her colleagues have correctly noted, the executive order hurts national security: it will make it less attractive for both individuals and countries to collaborate against terrorism with the US, it will aid extremist recruiting, and it will damage relations with our traditional allies in Europe if not also the Middle East. It also damages travel and educational exchanges in ways that are both economically and culturally harmful: fewer students will be studying in the US and fewer Americans will venture abroad. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that the executive order will protect US national security.

A judicial ruling in favor of the government will not be the last word on these three issues. The government could win on immigration but lose when these issues arise in a domestic context, where equal treatment under the law, factual support, and real national security concerns could be treated more rationally, without reference to the broad executive authority a president wields in the international arena.

But a government win would validate Trump’s outrageous critique of the W-appointed judge who provided the temporary restraining order suspending the immigration ban and send a global message (including to our own citizens) that the US is no longer a rational actor committed to equal protection for all individuals or to factual assessment of its national security risks, but rather prefers some groups over others and exaggerates the potential for those others to threaten America.

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