Operation Freedom From Iraqis
By FRANK RICH
05/27/07 “New York Times” — – 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.
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