Critics of the administration have recently turned to take up the cause of Iraqi refugees as an instantiation of US moral failure in the region, to which Steve Clemons and Nir Rosen among others have drawn attention. But even as politicians rhetorically adopt this position, little is actually being done to attend to the needs of what now amounts to nearly 5 million refugees.
Angelina Jolie — after visiting the region and making a moving and compelling plea about Iraqi refugees while in conversation with Nick Kristof at the Clinton Global Initiative last week — has put her money where her mouth is, commiting substantial resources to assist children of conflict. But based on US actions alone, it appears the US government has not suffered the same moral compunctions.
Leave aside the accounts of translators who served with US soldiers and are now being hung out to dry — caught between tribal militias who have threatened their lives and the department of homeland security that denies most of them access to a country they served — there has been very little beyond lip service and a pittance of funds. Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch wrote in the Wall Street Journal in May:
How many Iraqi refugees did the U.S. resettle in 2006? It settled 202. The State Department said it would resettle 7,000 this fiscal year. Halfway through, it has admitted 68. (…)
Whether the U.S. resettles 70 or 7,000, it amounts to a drop in the ocean of Iraqi refugees — 700,000 in Jordan; more than a million in Syria. Iraq’s neighbors are inundated and they need meaningful international support to keep their borders open. Ms. Dobriansky says that “the U.S. has funded 30% of UNHCR’s $60 million Iraq appeal” this year. That’s $18 million. She says the U.S. “intends” to provide $100 million more. Meanwhile, the U.S. is spending $2 billion per week to wage the war that directly or indirectly has caused four million Iraqis to be forced from their homes.
Unlike the pace of “political reconciliation” in Baghdad, the status, treatment, and resettlement also appears to be something we can wield far more control over if we actually attempt to devise a policy. Senators Smith (R-OR) and Kennedy (D-MA) have been working on legislation for the translators but that still sidesteps the plight of millions of innocent civilians fleeing the scene.
The refugee issue, though treated as a “soft” moral issue, also poses a strategic quandary with grave implications. Jordan has estimated it is costing them almost $1 billion per year to deal with new refugees — that is roughly 20% of its budget (estimated by the CIA to be $5.5 billion). For a country already in need of substantial economic reform and readjustment, this is simply not sustainable. And should Jordan (or another Arab state) falter under the weight of such a burden, it will create dangerous opportunities for manipulation by al Qaeda, Iran, or another actor.
Nir Rosen, who’s been drawing more attention to the complications of the Iraqi refugees than some would like, writes in a new piece:
The crisis in Iraq has the entire region on edge waiting to see if Iraq will come to them. While Sunni leaders in the region, whether in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, have had to pay lip service to anti-imperialism and Arab nationalism by calling for an end to the occupation, the truth is that off the record nothing frightens them more than an American withdrawal from Iraq.
Fear of successive waves of Iraqi refugees resonates throughout the Middle East, and no discussion of Arab governments’ reluctance to acknowledge their plight can begin without reference to the Palestinian experience. … The presence of the Palestinians also contributed to the destabilization of several countries, while in places like Lebanon they were preyed upon by more powerful militias, which slaughtered many of them. Today radical groups based in Palestinian refugee camps are exporting fighters to Iraq.
Unable to return home, running out of savings, carrying with them sectarian grudges and many with military experience, Iraqi refugees may yet destabilize much of the region.
Supporters of the war and now the surge ought to be forced to defend their position by addressing these critical moral and strategic questions — Is it not our moral obligation to attend to the plight of the millions of refugees we created through this war? And is it not our strategic interest to help resettle refugees to prevent our allied Arab states from buckling and collapsing under the weight of the flood of refugees?
By the same token, an implication of Rosen’s argument is that advocates of withdrawal need to be pressed on the same questions. Most Sunni governments expect a second exodus should the US withdraw and, even if it turns out to be in our broader strategic interest to do so, advocates of various paths of withdrawal have to formulate a policy to contend with these regional and ethical concerns.
Rosen’s concluding thoughts about our direct ownership of this refugee crisis ought to weigh heavily on all lawmakers seeking to slough off the responsibility:
It has become popular with former supporters of the war to blame the Iraqis for the Americans’ failure. The Iraqis did not choose democracy or the Iraqis did not choose freedom, Americans like to say, or the Iraqis have to decide to stop killing each other or Iraqis have to “step up.” But such complaints misplace the blame. Sunni and Shia Iraqis protested the American occupation as soon as it began, and demanded elections and sovereignty. The U.S. ignored their demands and instead imposed a dictator on them, Paul Bremer, hoping he would pave the way for an Iraqi strongman to rule in our stead. Other former supporters of the war, echoing the simplistic sentiments heard during the Balkan wars, now blame the alleged “ancient hatred” between Sunnis and Shias, who have been fighting each other for “thousands of years.” But Iraq had no history of civil war or sectarian violence even approaching this scale until the Americans arrived. Iraq is not Rwanda, where Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered each other and America could pretend it had no role. We did this to Iraq. And it is time the U.S and the international community “step up” to the resulting humanitarian nightmare.