by Frank Rich
May 27, 2007
WHEN all else fails, those pious Americans who conceived and directed the Iraq war fall back on moral self-congratulation: at least we brought liberty and democracy to an oppressed people. But that last-ditch rationalization has now become America’s sorriest self-delusion in this tragedy.
However wholeheartedly we disposed of their horrific dictator, the Iraqis were always pawns on the geopolitical chessboard rather than actual people in the administration’s reckless bet to “transform” the Middle East. From “Stuff happens!” on, nearly every aspect of Washington policy in Iraq exuded contempt for the beneficiaries of our supposed munificence. Now this animus is completely out of the closet. Without Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz to kick around anymore, the war’s dead-enders are pinning the fiasco on the Iraqis themselves. Our government abhors them almost as much as the Lou Dobbs spear carriers loathe those swarming “aliens” from Mexico.
Iraqis are clamoring to get out of Iraq. Two million have fled so far and nearly two million more have been displaced within the country. (That’s a total of some 15 percent of the population.) Save the Children reported this month that Iraq’s child-survival rate is falling faster than any other nation’s. One Iraqi in eight is killed by illness or violence by the age of 5. Yet for all the words President Bush has lavished on Darfur and AIDS in Africa, there has been a deadly silence from him about what’s happening in the country he gave “God’s gift of freedom.”
It’s easy to see why. To admit that Iraqis are voting with their feet is to concede that American policy is in ruins. A “secure” Iraq is a mirage, and, worse, those who can afford to leave are the very professionals who might have helped build one. Thus the president says nothing about Iraq’s humanitarian crisis, the worst in the Middle East since 1948, much as he tried to hide the American death toll in Iraq by keeping the troops’ coffins off-camera and staying away from military funerals.
But his silence about Iraq’s mass exodus is not merely another instance of deceptive White House P.R.; it’s part of a policy with a huge human cost. The easiest way to keep the Iraqi plight out of sight, after all, is to prevent Iraqis from coming to America. And so we do, except for stray Shiites needed to remind us of purple fingers at State of the Union time or to frame the president in Rose Garden photo ops.
Since the 2003 invasion, America has given only 466 Iraqis asylum. Sweden, which was not in the coalition of the willing, plans to admit 25,000 Iraqis this year alone. Our State Department, goaded by January hearings conducted by Ted Kennedy, says it will raise the number for this year to 7,000 (a figure that, small as it is, may be more administration propaganda). A bill passed by Congress this month will add another piddling 500, all interpreters.
In reality, more than 5,000 interpreters worked for the Americans. So did tens of thousands of drivers and security guards who also, in Senator Kennedy’s phrase, have “an assassin’s bull’s-eye on their backs” because they served the occupying government and its contractors over the past four-plus years. How we feel about these Iraqis was made naked by one of the administration’s most fervent hawks, the former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, speaking to The Times Magazine this month. He claimed that the Iraqi refugee problem had “absolutely nothing to do” with Saddam’s overthrow: “Our obligation was to give them new institutions and provide security. We have fulfilled that obligation. I don’t think we have an obligation to compensate for the hardships of war.”
Actually, we haven’t fulfilled the obligation of giving them functioning institutions and security. One of the many reasons we didn’t was that L. Paul Bremer’s provisional authority staffed the Green Zone with unqualified but well-connected Republican hacks who, in some cases, were hired after they expressed their opposition to Roe v. Wade. The administration is nothing if not consistent in its employment practices. The assistant secretary in charge of refugees at the State Department now, Ellen Sauerbrey, is a twice-defeated Republican candidate for governor of Maryland with no experience in humanitarian crises but a hefty résumé in anti-abortion politics. She is to Iraqis seeking rescue what Brownie was to Katrina victims stranded in the Superdome.
Ms. Sauerbrey’s official line on Iraqi refugees, delivered to Scott Pelley of “60 Minutes” in March, is that most of them “really want to go home.” The administration excuse for keeping Iraqis out of America is national security: we have to vet every prospective immigrant for terrorist ties. But many of those with the most urgent cases for resettlement here were vetted already, when the American government and its various Halliburton subsidiaries asked them to risk their lives by hiring them in the first place. For those whose loyalties can no longer be vouched for, there is the contrasting lesson of Vietnam. Julia Taft, the official in charge of refugees in the Ford administration, reminded Mr. Pelley that 131,000 Vietnamese were resettled in America within eight months of the fall of Saigon, despite loud, Dobbs-like opposition at the time. In the past seven months, the total number of Iraqis admitted to America was 69.
The diplomat Richard Holbrooke, whose career began during the Vietnam War, told me that security worries then were addressed by a vetting process carried out in safe, preliminary asylum camps for refugees set up beyond Vietnam’s borders in Asia. But as Mr. Holbrooke also points out in the current Foreign Affairs magazine, the real forerunner to American treatment of Iraqi refugees isn’t that war in any case, but World War II. That’s when an anti-Semitic assistant secretary of state, Breckinridge Long, tirelessly obstructed the visa process to prevent Jews from obtaining sanctuary in America, not even filling the available slots under existing quotas. As many as 75,000 such refugees were turned away before the Germans cut off exit visas to Jews in late 1941, according to Howard Sachar’s “History of the Jews in America.”
Like the Jews, Iraqis are useful scapegoats. This month Mr. Bremer declared that the real culprits for his disastrous 2003 decision to cleanse Iraq of Baathist officials were unnamed Iraqi politicians who “broadened the decree’s impact far beyond our original design.” The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is chastising the Iraqis for being unable “to do anything they promised.”
The new White House policy, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has joked, is “blame and run.” It started to take shape just before the midterm elections last fall, when Mr. Rumsfeld wrote a memo (propitiously leaked after his defenestration) suggesting that the Iraqis might “have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.” By January, Mr. Bush was saying that “the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude” and wondering aloud “whether or not there is a gratitude level that’s significant enough in Iraq.” In February, one of the war’s leading neocon cheerleaders among the Beltway punditocracy lowered the boom. “Iraq is their country,” Charles Krauthammer wrote. “We midwifed their freedom. They chose civil war.” Bill O’Reilly and others now echo this cry.
The message is clear enough: These ungrateful losers deserve everything that’s coming to them. The Iraqis hear us and are returning the compliment. Whether Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is mocking American demands for timelines and benchmarks, or the Iraqi Parliament is setting its own timeline for American withdrawal even while flaunting its vacation schedule, Iraq’s nominal government is saying it’s fed up. The American-Iraqi shotgun marriage of convenience, midwifed by disastrous Bush foreign policy, has disintegrated into the marriage from hell.
While the world waits for the White House and Congress to negotiate the separation agreement, the damage to the innocent family members caught in the cross-fire is only getting worse. Despite Mr. Bush’s May 10 claim that “the number of sectarian murders has dropped substantially” since the surge began, The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the number of such murders is going up. For the Americans, the cost is no less dear. Casualty figures confirm that the past six months have been the deadliest yet for our troops.
While it seems but a dim memory now, once upon a time some Iraqis did greet the Americans as liberators. Today, in fact, it is just such Iraqis — not the local Iraqi insurgents the president conflates with Osama bin Laden’s Qaeda in Pakistan — who do want to follow us home. That we are slamming the door in their faces tells you all you need to know about the real morality beneath all the professed good intentions of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Though the war’s godfathers saw themselves as ridding the world of another Hitler, their legacy includes a humanitarian catastrophe that will need its own Raoul Wallenbergs and Oskar Schindlers if lives are to be saved.