November 29, 2006

When American Troops Leave Iraq

Finally, the news organizations are starting to use realistic language to describe what is happening in Iraq. Yes, it is a civil war.

What using realistic language does is make clear how out of American control the situation has become in Iraq. Despite Bush's protestations that he will never leave until Iraq has a democratic government, it is clear that he is irrelevant to matters in Iraq. Increasingly the harsh and relentless violence is subsuming Iraq and nothing our soldiers do can change that fact. We don't have enough troops to put in to change the equation on the ground. It is much too late to put the genie back in the bottle. And now we can admit, there is no good ending to this show.

But now that it is undeniable that our part in this drama is ending, it is time to understand what end that would be and to see what we can do to mitigate the absolute worst outcomes. George Packer, one of the liberal hawks, wrote in the New Yorker this month, that people advocating leaving Iraq ought to be realistic in what will be the likely consequences when we leave. He disputes the argument that when the American troops leave, that Iraq will gain stability and thus the reason we are leaving is because it is actually better for the Iraqis.

The argument that Iraq would be better off on its own is a self-serving illusion that seems to offer Americans a win-win solution to a lose-lose problem. Like so much about this war, it has more to do with politics here than reality there. Such wishful thinking (reminiscent of the sweets-and-flowers variety that preceded the war) would have pernicious consequences, as the United States fails to anticipate one disaster after another in the wake of its departure: ethnic cleansing on a large scale, refugees pouring across Iraq’s borders, incursions by neighboring armies, and the slaughter of Iraqis who had joined the American project.

Our staying is futile, but our going should not be painted as a good thing for the Iraqis. Packer once again gets to the heart of the matter when he writes in The New Republic that once more, it is important to be extremely clear about what likely comes next. Because having our eyes open to the potential horror of what would happen when we leave can and should make us prepare differently (subscription req'd).

Withdrawal means that the United States will have to watch Iraqis die in ever greater numbers without doing much of anything to prevent it, because the welfare of Iraqis will no longer be among our central concerns. Those Iraqis who have had anything to do with the occupation and its promises of democracy will be among the first to be killed: the translators, the government officials, the embassy employees, the journalists, the organizers of women's and human rights groups. As it is, they are being killed one by one. (I personally know at least half a dozen of them who have been murdered.) Without the protection of the Green Zone, U.S. bases, or the inhibiting effect on the Sunni and Shia militias of 150,000 U.S. troops, they will be killed in much greater numbers. To me, the relevant historical analogy is not the helicopters taking off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, leaving thousands of Vietnamese to the reeducation camps. It is the systematic slaughter by the Khmer Rouge of every Cambodian who appeared to have had anything to do with the West.

George Packer was a liberal hawk because he truly did think that life after Saddam would be better for the Iraqis. He has a number of friends and contacts in Iraq that would be the first to be slaughtered when Americans leave. And so he believes that one thing we really have to start talking about is how to save as many Iraqis as we can now before we leave. And I also would like to see that we find refuge for as many as we can. After all, what would happen to Riverbend and her family when we abandon the country to the Madhi militia? When you read enough about the facts on the ground in Iraq, it is clear that many millions of Iraqis will be left in the inferno created by our policies. What responsibility do we have to the Iraqis we came to save from Saddam?

If the United States leaves Iraq, our last shred of honor and decency will require us to save as many of these Iraqis as possible. In June, a U.S. Embassy cable about the lives of the Iraqi staff was leaked to The Washington Post. Among many disturbing examples of intimidation and fear was this sentence: "In March, a few staff approached us to ask what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate." The cable gave no answer. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad does not issue visas. Iraqis who want to come to the United States must make their way across dangerous territory to a neighboring country that has a U.S. Embassy with a consular section. Iran and Syria do not; Jordan has recently begun to bar entry to Iraqi men under the age of 35. For a military translator to have a chance at coming to the United States, he must be able to prove that he worked for at least a year with U.S. forces and have the recommendation of a general officer--nearly impossible in most cases. Our current approach essentially traps Iraqis inside their country, where they will have to choose, like Osman, between jihadists and death squads.

We should start issuing visas in Baghdad, as well as in the regional embassies in Mosul, Kirkuk, Hilla, and Basra. We should issue them liberally, which means that we should vastly increase our quota for Iraqi refugees. (Last year, it was fewer than 200.) We should prepare contingency plans for massive airlifts and ground escorts. We should be ready for desperate and angry crowds at the gates of the Green Zone and U.S. bases. We should not allow wishful thinking to put off these decisions until it's too late. We should not compound our betrayals of Iraqis who put their hopes in our hands.

Somehow we must make sure we are not collaborators to destroying an entire sect of people in Iraq. Bush's war of choice has been a terrible failure. Let's make sure our leaving doesn't add to the disaster.

Posted by Mary at November 29, 2006 12:52 AM | Iraq | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

My fear is that if we leave Iraq now, it turns into a larger version of pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Worse, it could turn into Darfur.

The country needs to be divided into three separate federations. It is the only logical solution. From there, they can each form their own government and create their own security force.

Posted by: PoliticalCritic at November 29, 2006 08:51 AM