War Stories

Let Them In

Bush’s outrageous neglect of Iraqi refugees.

People line up to enter Baghdad’s Green Zone

One of the great looming disasters of the war in Iraq, a moral abdication of immense proportion, is the Bush administration’s failure to help those Iraqis who have risked their lives to help us.

The Iraqi translators, drivers, and assistants of all sorts face near-certain death, at the hands of one militia or another, once U.S. forces begin to pull out (and, rhetoric aside, the pullout has begun). Scores have been kidnapped or killed already. Whatever one’s feelings about the war, it is beyond dispute that these people have earned our commitment to their safety. If they want to leave, we have an obligation to get them out.

George Packer, the New Yorker writer who first drew attention to this crisis and who continues to shame officials for not doing more to resolve it, proposed a solution in his blog last week. The idea is eminently practical and logically unassailable—so much so that if Bush and his top aides don’t take him up on it, there can be only one explanation: They simply don’t want to.

The answer lies in America’s own experience. In 1996, the U.S. military evacuated over 6,000 Iraqis, mainly Kurds, who had helped Americans during the 1991 war and its aftermath and who faced deadly reprisals from Saddam Hussein. They were flown to the huge American base in Guam, where they were screened for asylum and, if approved, matched up with sponsors. Nearly all of them ended up in the United States within seven months. Packer quotes Maj. Gen. John Dallager, who was the Joint Task Force Commander of Operation Pacific Haven, as saying, “Our success will undoubtedly be a role model for future humanitarian efforts.”

A mere decade years later, the great triumph—which involved more than 1,000 American soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers in a coordinated effort—has apparently been forgotten.

Today’s State Department has promised to resettle 7,000 Iraqis; they have so far processed a mere 1,600. A former USAID official named Kirk Johnson has presented a list of 800 Iraqis who helped American officers and diplomats and who urgently need to leave the country; only 10 of them have received visas.

The State Department went so far as to lobby against a Senate resolution that would have increased by tenfold the number of special immigration visas for Iraqis and would have allowed applications for these visas to be reviewed inside Iraq. (The bill passed anyway, and is pending in the House.) *

The current application process is a bureaucratic nightmare beyond belief. The final papers cannot be processed inside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s green zone (supposedly for security reasons). Instead, applicants have to go to the embassy in Amman, Jordan. They have to make their own way there—and they have to lie about why they’re visiting. (If they say their purpose is to seek a U.S. visa, the Jordanian border guards—many of them Sunnis who still revere Saddam Hussein and despise the U.S. occupation—turn them back.)

A few officials and officers are doing what they can to help the Iraqis working under their supervision. In a March 2007 New Yorker article titled “Betrayed,” Packer quoted Lt. Col. Steven Miska, deputy commander of a U.S. brigade in Iraq, as saying that he had set up (in Miska’s words) “a bit of an underground railroad” to get his unit’s Iraqi helpers across the border into Jordan.

But these efforts, heroic as they are, amount to a trickle.

Hence, the idea of mounting an airlift to Guam. The effort wouldn’t even have to be so massive. All 800 Iraqis on Kirk Johnson’s list could be flown out on a half-dozen or so U.S. Air Force C-130 transport planes in the course of a single day.

The officials handling their cases in Guam would have to treat security concerns very carefully. The fear of jihadists getting a free ride onto American soil is a legitimate one. But it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to deny sanctuary to those Iraqis—the vast majority of applicants—who have earned it. And at least in Guam, their appeals can be heard.

Some midlevel State Department officials, I’m told, are reviewing the records of the ‘96 evacuation and are mulling over the possibility of reprising the effort now.

But they’re not likely to get far, because the real obstacle isn’t bureaucratic blundering or lazy paper-pushers or even hyper-caution about security. The real obstacle is the president of the United States.

If the president wanted to cut through all the red tape, he could do so with a single declaration.

Here’s why he probably won’t make that declaration: Helping our Iraqi helpers leave the country would be to acknowledge implicitly that they’re in danger because they’ve been helping us. And that would be an admission that many Iraqis still violently oppose our presence—that the insurgency is hardly defeated.

Helping them leave would also be an acknowledgment that Iraq holds no future for these people—some of whom are among the country’s educated elite. And that would be tantamount to acknowledging that the war will not end in victory, at least not as the term was originally defined.

To save face—his face—Bush appears willing to sacrifice those Iraqis who served his cause at great risk and without whom American soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers would have wandered even more cluelessly in the dark. That is the deepest shame.

Correction, Oct. 16, 2007: This article originally and incorrectly stated that the State Department lobbied successfully against the Senate resolution. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)