The Iraq We’re Leaving Behind: Abandoning Our Friends

By KIRK W. JOHNSON    |    Op-Ed Contributor
December 15, 2011


West Chicago, Ill.

Paddy Molloy

ON the morning of May 6, 1783, Guy Carleton, the British commander charged with winding down the occupation of America, boarded the Perseverance and sailed up the Hudson River to meet George Washington and discuss the British withdrawal. Washington was furious to learn that Carleton had sent ships to Canada filled with Americans, including freed slaves, who had sided with Britain during the revolution.

Britain knew these loyalists were seen as traitors and had no future in America. A Patriot using the pen name “Brutus” had warned in local papers: “Flee then while it is in your power” or face “the just vengeance of the collected citizens.” And so Britain honored its moral obligation to rescue them by sending hundreds of ships to the harbors of New York, Charleston and Savannah. As the historian Maya Jasanoff has recounted, approximately 30,000 were evacuated from New York to Canada within months.

Two hundred and twenty-eight years later, President Obama is wrapping up our own long and messy war, but we have no Guy Carleton in Iraq. Despite yesterday’s announcement that America’s military mission in Iraq is over, no one is acting to ensure that we protect and resettle those who stood with us.

Earlier this week, Mr. Obama spoke to troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., of the “extraordinary milestone of bringing the war in Iraq to an end.” Forgotten are his words from the campaign trail in 2007, that “interpreters, embassy workers and subcontractors are being targeted for assassination.” He added, “And yet our doors are shut. That is not how we treat our friends.”

Four years later, the Obama administration has admitted only a tiny fraction of our own loyalists, despite having eye scans, fingerprints, polygraphs and letters from soldiers and diplomats vouching for them. Instead we force them to navigate a byzantine process that now takes a year and a half or longer.

The chances for speedy resettlement of our Iraqi allies grew even worse in May after two Iraqi men were arrested in Kentucky and charged with conspiring to send weapons to jihadist groups in Iraq. These men had never worked for Americans, and they managed to enter the United States as a result of poor background checks. Nevertheless, their arrests removed any sense of urgency in the government agencies responsible for protecting our Iraqi allies.

The sorry truth is that we don’t need them anymore now that we’re leaving, and resettling refugees is not a winning campaign issue. For over a year, I have been calling on members of the Obama administration to make sure the final act of this war is not marred by betrayal. They have not listened, instead adopting a policy of wishful thinking, hoping that everything turns out for the best.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis who loyally served us are under threat. The extremist Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr has declared the Iraqis who helped America “outcasts.” When Britain pulled out of Iraq a few years ago, there was a public execution of 17 such outcasts — their bodies dumped in the streets of Basra as a warning. Just a few weeks ago, an Iraqi interpreter for the United States Army got a knock on his door; an Iraqi policeman told him threateningly that he would soon be beheaded. Another employee, at the American base in Ramadi, is in hiding after receiving a death threat from Mr. Sadr’s militia.

It’s not the first time we’ve abandoned our allies. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford and Henry A. Kissinger ignored the many Vietnamese who aided American troops until the final few weeks of the Vietnam War. By then, it was too late.

Although Mr. Kissinger had once claimed there was an “irreducible list” of 174,000 imperiled Vietnamese allies, the policy in the war’s frantic closing weeks was icily Darwinian: if you were strong enough to clear our embassy walls or squeeze through the gates and force your way onto a Huey, you could come along. The rest were left behind to face assassination or internment camps. The same sorry story occurred in Laos, where America abandoned tens of thousands of Hmong people who had aided them.

It wasn’t until months after the fall of Saigon, and much bloodshed, that America conducted a huge relief effort, airlifting more than 100,000 refugees to safety. Tens of thousands were processed at a military base on Guam, far away from the American mainland. President Bill Clinton used the same base to save the lives of nearly 7,000 Iraqi Kurds in 1996. But if you mention the Guam Option to anyone in Washington today, you either get a blank stare of historical amnesia or hear that “9/11 changed everything.”

And so our policy in the final weeks of this war is as simple as it is shameful: submit your paperwork and wait. If you can survive the next 18 months, maybe we’ll let you in. For the first time in five years, I’m telling Iraqis who write to me for help that they shouldn’t count on America anymore.

Moral timidity and a hapless bureaucracy have wedged our doors tightly shut and the Iraqis who remained loyal to us are weeks away from learning how little America’s word means.

Kirk W. Johnson, a former reconstruction coordinator in Iraq, founded the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies.