Quagmires in Syria and Nashville 

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Action in the Tennessee legislature this week to force litigation against resettlement in Tennessee of refugees from the currently raging civil war in Syria occurs at the precise moment that two old foes — the United States and

Russia — have joined in a plan to implement a cease-fire in Syria, one which, if successful, could abate the unprecedented flood of refugees to the United States and various countries in western Europe.

Neither effort is a slam dunk. Both, in fact, have built-in contradictions. The legislative effort is exemplified in Monday's vote in the state Senate directing state Attorney General Herb Slatery to join in a multi-state suit against the federal government's resettlement plan. The resolution, by Senate majority leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), posits that resettlement of refugees in Tennessee violates provisions of the state constitution requiring legislative approval for spending the tax money that accommodating the refugees will require.

The problem with the state action is embedded in what is known as "the supremacy clause," which mandates that, in instances where state law and federal law conflict, the federal writ is the overriding authority. This is a doctrine that has prevailed in case after case since the most glaring example of a clash between regional and national authorities, that of the American Civil War.

For that matter, the pending U.S.-Russian agreement is in not much better stead. One fact is that the two signatory countries are pursuing contradictory policies vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict, with the Russians backing the embattled regime of Syrian dictator Assad and the U.S. trying to pick and choose its allies from among the assorted groups attempting to overthrow Assad. Some of the rebel groups can be regarded, more or less legitimately, as "freedom fighters." Others, however, owe their allegiance to radical Jihadist entities such as ISIS or al-Qaeda and have no intention of observing any cease-fire dictated by the erstwhile superpower adversaries. Manifestly, the proposed agreement would be difficult to enforce.

So it seems obvious that, to purloin a phrase made famous more than a generation ago in the film Cool Hand Luke: "What we got here is a failure to communicate." Or, to put that into Washington/journalist jargon, a pair of quagmires, into which a great deal of hope or desperation will be invested, without much hope, in either case, of a productive result.

We will say that, of the two circumstances, the latter one, in which two powerful former adversaries are at least trying to find common cause, has more chance of turning hopeful than yet another pointless effort by a state government to nullify the constitutional prerogative of the federal government. We settled that argument almost two centuries ago.


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