Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin has spent the better part of his political career advocating for a more robust humanitarian response to the “industrial scale killing” of Syria’s civilians by their own government.
That work, according to those who know him, was always largely behind the scenes — in the way you might expect a former undercover CIA agent who grew up in a religious Mormon family on a small farm in Washington state to pair ambition with subtlety.
McMullin was instrumental in bringing a Syrian military defector, code-named Caesar, to the US in 2014 to share the photographs he took of the rampant torture in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons. Most recently, he helped draft a huge sanctions bill aimed at Assad and his inner circle.
In March, he gave a TED Talk at London Business School denouncing the West’s inaction in the face of mass atrocities. It was arguably his most visible appeal for greater action in Syria up until that point.
Six months later, handpicked by Republican operatives to represent the Never Trump movement, McMullin has been given a much bigger stage than the one he stood on in London. But his unforeseen political visibility hasn’t softened his calls for action, which he says come from “a deep passion that I have around the idea that all humans are created equal.”
“When I see anyone — whether they’re Syrians, Americans, or anyone else — having their human rights so abused or taken from them by such a brutal dictator, it offends that passion,” McMullin, who has been described as a “refreshingly genuine,” “realistic,” and “principled” by anti-Trump conservatives, told Business Insider in an interview last week.
He said Donald Trump’s “self-centeredness is not just a problem, but a threat” to situations like Syria — situations he believes not only demand humanitarian intervention, but also pose a national security threat if left unchecked.
“I believe he is cut from the same cloth not only as Putin, but as Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-un,” said McMullin, who served as the chief policy director for the House Republican Conference until he started his presidential bid.
‘Syria is Barack Obama’s Rwanda’
It’s not only Trump he chides: McMullin is one of the biggest critics of President Barack Obama’s policy of nonintervention in Syria. He publicly supports a no-fly zone — or something resembling it — to stop the Russian-Syrian bombing campaigns that kill dozens, sometimes hundreds, of civilians on a daily basis.
“I truly believe that Syria is Barack Obama’s Rwanda,” he said, referring to the 1994 genocide of 500,000 — 1,000,000 Tutsis by Rwanda’s Hutu government and then-President Bill Clinton’s decision not to intervene.
“In all fairness to Obama, he is proud of his not being pulled in to Syria,” McMullin adds. “But I don’t know that restraint when it comes to mass atrocities is so laudable.”
Many now characterise the crisis in Syria as genocide, even though it didn’t begin as an ethnic or religious conflict. In March 2011, many were not even demanding regime change — protesters inspired by the Arab Spring took to the streets to demand basic democratic reforms, but were met instead with bullets by the Assad regime.
When bullets weren’t enough, the regime started using barrel bombs, capable of levelling cities and killing hundreds at a time. The bombs still weren’t enough to end the revolution. Then Russia intervened with its own warplanes. Those weren’t enough, either.
Criticism of Obama’s decision not to establish a no-fly zone or crater regime-controlled runways — indirectly grounding the warplanes — has gotten louder as the aerial bombardments have become more relentless, as the refugee crisis has worsened, and as Russia has grown more defiant.
“America has a moral obligation to stand up against mass atrocities,” McMullin said. “Our international allies need to step up, too — but America must lead. Not only on moral grounds, but because these things do have national security implications, and we’re watching it play out. We have a leader now who I don’t think fully understands that. Donald Trump doesn’t understand the first piece of that.”
McMullin also faults Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee and former secretary of state, whose “tenure at the State Department was one in which she presided over our foreign policy when AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] reconstituted itself and ultimately became the terrorist army we now know as ISIS.
“She also empowered Putin through the Russian reset, which I think was incredibly naive,” he said.
‘We can’t resettle our way out of this’
For a presidential candidate, McMullin’s compassion for the war’s victims and his stated foreign-policy positions are surprisingly consistent.
Described as “interventionist” during a recent round-table discussion with journalists, McMullin did not back away from the term. Instead, he replied, “If we are committed to the cause of liberty, we have to an obligation to lead.”
Still, he responds carefully when asked if he would take in more refugees than the 10,000 who have already been granted asylum by the Obama administration.
“We need to do something about stopping the cause of the refugee problem,” he said. “No matter how many we accept, we’ll never take enough to solve the problem. We can’t resettle our way out of this.”
As a former volunteer refugee resettlement officer working for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan, McMullin can say with relative authority that doesn’t believe the refugee crisis spawned by the war is being dealt with properly.
He feels strongly — as do many foreign policy analysts and US Secretary of State John Kerry — that neither the war nor the refugee crisis it’s created will be solved as long as Assad remains in power.
“We cannot win the war against ISIS, and cannot resolve the refugee problem, without dealing with him,” McMullin said, referring to Assad. Eventually, he mentions that as president he would want the US to continue taking in more refugees.
“The hardest way to come into the US is as a refugee,” he said. “ISIS wants us to deny them entry, because if we do, then we abandon our principles as a country and help them [ISIS] fuel their narrative of ‘Islam versus the West’.”
The dig at Trump isn’t subtle. The real-estate mogul infamously called for banning Muslim immigration to the United States “at least temporarily,” before slightly walking back his comments and instead calling for a ban on those from “terror states.”
In McMullin’s view, that kind of rhetoric amounts to doing our enemies’ job for them.
“Sometimes I feel like our adversaries understand better than we do where our power as a nation comes from, which is our principles and our values,” McMullin said. “So they work to undermine that.”
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