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America’s Regime Change Wars Created Europe’s Refugee Crisis

A M1 Abrams from 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, fires a round during a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX) at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Mar 26, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Hubert D. Delany III / 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

A M1 Abrams from 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, fires a round during a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX) at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Mar 26, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Hubert D. Delany III / 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Defenders of Washington’s various military interventions in the Muslim world carefully ignore the many damaging effects of those crusades. Proponents of the Iraq war, for example, disregarded warnings that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would likely heighten instability in Iraq and the wider region. That clearly has been the outcome, yet some analysts still defend the invasion and occupation as beneficial, while greatly downplaying the unpleasant side effects. 

The same is true regarding the enormously destabilizing aftermath of U.S. meddling in Libya and Syria. Both of those once-stable countries have degenerated into arenas of bloody chaos. Members of the foreign policy blob and their allies in the establishment news media have tried to pay as little attention as possible to such tragic results, especially since Washington has moved on to other international priorities. 

A similar pattern has begun to emerge now that U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan after their failed 20-year counterinsurgency and nation-building mission in that country.

One especially negative legacy of Washington’s attempt to export democracy to the Muslim world through regime-change wars has been the emergence of a steady refugee crisis. At the time of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, the BBC reported that there were more than 3.5 million internally displaced refugees and an additional 2.2 million people who had fled the country entirely. The situation in Iraq following U.S. intervention is equally appalling. Some 9.2 million people were internally displaced or had left the country by 2021, according to a study by the Watson Institute at Brown University. 

Nearly 1 million Libyans have been displaced from their homes since NATO’s 2011 air war that helped overthrow Moammar Gadhafi. Some Libyans have escaped the worst of the fighting among rival factions and found shelter elsewhere in the country. However, tens of thousands of migrants have tried to make a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, often in overcrowded, leaky boats. Human Rights Watch documented that nearly 47,000 arrived in Italy and Malta just during the first 9 months of 2021. Moreover, the “central Mediterranean” route to those countries was only one of several corridors desperate migrants use to cross that body of water. Doctors Without Borders calculates that 2,367 people (primarily Libyans) died trying to make the crossing in 2022, a total that was up sharply from 793 in 2019.  

Still another appalling refugee crisis that Washington’s military meddling helped cause has resulted from the displacement of innocent people in Syria. In addition to the more than 300,000 Syrians who have perished in the fighting since 2011, some 6.8 million are refugees. A key cause of that bloody civil war was a U.S.-supported effort to unseat Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad.

In addition to the humanitarian suffering that the U.S.-led regime-change wars inflicted, the huge refugee flow that those interventions generated have produced serious social and political tensions in Europe. Desperate migrants numbering in the millions are trying to find refuge and establish new lives in an alien culture. The extent of the welcome afforded them has varied greatly, but even in the most receptive destinations, extensive discord is now apparent. 

During her long tenure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel staved off growing public opposition to the influx of Muslim refugees. However, the political costs were considerable, and her achievement may prove to be temporary. Voter discontent about the migrant issue was a key factor leading to her party’s defeat in Germany’s September 2021 elections. Perhaps even more worrisome is the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, with its stridently anti-immigrant stance. The AfD was a political nonentity a decade ago, but the latest polls show that the party has the support of 15% of voters.

Anger at the influx of refugees from the Muslim world has helped empower right-wing, populist governments in other European countries, most notably Poland, Italy, and Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has been especially successful in exploiting public support for curbing immigration and preserving his country’s cultural identity to amass landslide victories in a series of parliamentary elections. Concern about the growing number of Muslim refugees also was a significant factor in the October 2022 emergence of Italy’s populist government, led by Georgia Meloni.

The rising public discontent throughout Europe about the extent of the refugee influx is likely to cause mounting policy headaches for the United States. Orban has long been a burr under Washington’s saddle because of his autocratic views and his generally favorable stance toward Russia. Although U.S. leaders have muted their criticisms of Poland’s government in the interests of keeping a solid NATO front because of the war in Ukraine, vocal discontent with Warsaw’s troubling autocratic domestic governance had been quite apparent before the West’s current crisis with Moscow. The Biden administration and members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment also are noticeably nervous about Meloni.

However, U.S. policymakers have no one to blame but themselves for the refugee crisis and the turmoil that it is creating in Europe. The vast majority of the people seeking asylum come from four countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. What do those countries have in common? They all were targets of destabilizing U.S.-led regime-change crusades. Washington’s armed interventions not only created havoc and suffering in the Muslim world, but they have also produced monumental headaches for European allies. That development is not likely to foster harmony in Transatlantic relations going forward. 

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).