Jo Cox And The Conscience Of The West

The brutal murder of British parliamentarian Jo Cox, praised as a relentless and warm-hearted humanitarian, has sent a nation into mourning. A wife and mother of two small children, no British lawmaker fought harder for a more humane immigration policy toward refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, especially the thousands of Syrian children who have lost their families in the conflict. Cox's death invites some intense soul-searching -- not only in Britain but also in the United States -- about the West's failure to prevent the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War.

Soon after joining Parliament in May 2015 as a Labour MP, the 41-year-old Cox help set up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Syria with Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell. The group collects evidence from military commanders, diplomats, and officials from the region about the plight of the roughly 4.5 million refugees who have fled Syria's five-year civil war to neighboring countries. Earlier this year Cox fought for legislation to admit into the UK at least 3,000 child refugees from Syria -- roughly three percent of the estimated 95,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Syria, now living precariously in Europe. "Those children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness," she said, "and I know I would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hellhole."

Though a junior parliamentarian in the opposition party, Cox quickly earned a reputation as a bold and principled human rights advocate. Her campaign for Syrian refugees was waged in the midst of Britain's national debate over whether to remain in the European Union, which has been widely criticized for mishandling the immigration crisis. Cox's assailant was a 52-year-old-man who shouted "Britain First," a slogan associated with far right elements in Great Britain.

Many American conservatives would not agree with Cox's views on immigration or her outspoken support for the European Union. But liberals would not have cheered her recent speech in Parliament, where she vigorously rebuked both David Cameron and Barack Obama for failing to act decisively to confront the escalating violence in Syria:

I believe that both President Obama and the Prime Minister made the biggest misjudgment of their time in office when they put Syria on the 'too difficult' pile. Instead of engaging fully, they withdrew and put their faith in a policy of containment. This judgment, made by both leaders for different reasons, will, I believe, be judged harshly by history, and it has been nothing short of a foreign policy disaster.

Of course, Cox is right: Britain has followed America's lead on Syria, right into a moral quagmire of feckless and cynical diplomacy. Obama's views on Syria were best expressed recently by Ben Rhodes, his principal foreign policy advisor: "Nothing we could have done," Rhodes told a group of Syrian activists, "would have made things better."

The problem is not just that the Obama White House has adopted, unflinchingly, this defeatist view of the Syrian tragedy. It is effectively the position of both presumptive party nominees for president, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. It is the position of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist who has drawn millions of voters into his isolationist mirage. It was, for anyone's guess, the position of most of the 16 Republican presidential candidates who have since dropped out of the race.

The depth of America's leadership crisis on Syria is indeed staggering. Aside from Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), and a pitifully tiny handful of others, there are no members of Congress -- Republican or Democrat -- who match the humanitarian vision and commitment of Jo Cox. With regards to Syria's refugee children, she has no counterpart in the U.S. Congress. Fears of Islamic radicals slipping into the refugee population have overtaken our politics, leaving child refugees out of sight and out of mind.

Secretary of State John Kerry, for his part, delivered a flawed Syrian "peace" initiative that simply allowed Bashar al Assad to strengthen his position, thanks to Russia's unchallenged military intervention. The collapse of the peace plan, which has left tens of thousands of civilians at grave risk -- many of them children -- was predicted by diplomats involved in the negotiations. Even Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and an advocate of humanitarian intervention, has provided cover for the administration's moral abdication in Syria.

Now compare Obama's powder-puff diplomacy to that of Jo Cox, who took a Russian ambassador to task for his country's bombing campaigns against Syrian civilians. "She was fearless, utterly fearless," Andrew Mitchell wrote in The Telegraph. "Last year, we went to see the Russian ambassador in London, to give him a rollicking about the terrible way his country has behaved in Syria. He's a professional diplomat and a pretty tough case. But Jo got the better of him: it was her mixture of charm and steel."

Cox spent a decade at Oxfam, the British aid agency, and worked at the Freedom Fund, an anti-slavery organization, before joining Parliament. A devoted mother, she often brought her children with her into Westminster. Yesterday more than 1,500 parliamentarians from 40 countries signed a pledge to uphold Cox's humanitarian legacy -- an unprecedented expression of solidarity for a junior politician. "Jo was a lifelong campaigner against injustice," the joint statement says. "We will do whatever it takes to renew our bonds and fight for those at the margins of our society, our continent, and the world."

Can anyone imagine a similar outpouring of support for any major American politician?

Earlier this week in the House of Commons, parliamentarians wore white roses as they paid tribute to a colleague who had devoted most of her adult life helping people on the outskirts of civilization, regardless of race or creed. For an hour they spoke, with deep affection and eloquence, often choking back tears, as they put aside partisan differences to grieve together and to reflect on a remarkable life cut short. As one participant put it, "not in living memory has there been a House of Commons session like it."

It is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine such a scene on the floor of the U.S. House or Senate: our politics has become so shallow and degraded, our leaders so morally compromised. In a nation once admired for its open borders, its commitment to human rights and humanitarian assistance, something has gone wrong -- deeply and disturbingly wrong.

Jo Cox, I suspect, would have some ideas about how to set things right.

Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West.