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Another Test in Iraq: Our Aid to Refugees

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Bush administration correctly asserts that the entire Middle East, from royal palaces to terrorist camps, is watching the eventual outcome in Iraq to determine the state of American resolve. But the region is also taking a more immediate measure of America's commitment to its friends: our response to the Iraqi refugee crisis. And this, too, is a matter of national credibility and honor.

About 2 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq by sectarian violence and contagious fear; another 2 million have fled the country for Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and beyond. According to the United Nations, a steady flow of new refugees continues at about 50,000 each month. For the most part, these Iraqis are not concentrated in refugee camps but dispersed in poor urban areas of cities such as Damascus or Amman, making it difficult for humanitarian agencies to identify and reach them.

The sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis creates tensions -- swamping education and health services, increasing prices and provoking suspicion. According to Kristele Younes of Refugees International, Lebanon has begun deportations. Some refugees in Jordan are in hiding for fear of raids. The eventual danger is clear: As some Palestinians have demonstrated, refugee populations can marinate in their grievances, succumb to radicalism and trigger broader conflict.

Over the past several months, the American response to this crisis has improved from dismal to minimal. The United States is funding its normal 30 percent of U.N. refugee efforts and cooperating more closely with UNICEF and the World Food Program. But these global initiatives amount to tens of millions of dollars of help to millions of refugees -- completely unequal to the scale of the need. American efforts to help internally displaced Iraqis through the International Organization for Migration were funded at a little more than $1 million last year, which Younes dismisses as "peanuts." And if America and its friends and allies do not provide practical help to refugees, Islamic radicals are adept at filling the gap.

A few members of Congress clearly are pressing this issue as a way to embarrass the president, on the theory that large refugee flows prove the security efforts in Iraq have failed. But the refugee problem actually reinforces a very different argument. As Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution points out, an all-out Iraqi civil war could dramatically increase the number of Iraqi refugees. Neighbors such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would find it difficult to hold back the flood. And the fragile sectarian balance of several Middle Eastern countries could be upset, causing serious destabilization. A precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq could make a miserable problem significantly worse.

But the credibility of one of the Bush administration's central arguments -- that America should not abandon Iraqis to chaos and genocide by leaving prematurely -- would be strengthened if America showed its commitment to displaced Iraqis now. Helping Iraqi refugees on a larger scale is not an embarrassing necessity. It is an opportunity to show consistency, humanitarian concern and constructive, long-term engagement in the Middle East. Rather than ceding leadership on this issue to Congress, the administration should develop a comprehensive approach -- increasing its own funding to aid refugees while pressing friends in the Middle East and Europe to do more as well.

To be convincing, this effort will need to start by removing a national embarrassment. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has recommended about 8,000 Iraqis for visas to the United States this year because they helped American forces and now live under threat of murder, kidnapping or persecution. These Iraqis are being admitted in a trickle -- about 200 in the first half of this year -- largely because of terrorism concerns at the Department of Homeland Security. Screening of refugees is an important job -- so important that the appropriate officials should do it in a timely fashion and stop exposing America to contempt. If friends of America continue to be treated this way, we will face the world friendless.

When it comes to refugees, Iraq is not Vietnam. America has not abandoned the Iraqi people; there is no need for the permanent resettlement of hundreds of thousands; and we still hope for many refugees to voluntarily return as security improves. "We are not saying that efforts in Iraq are a failure," explains Younes, "or arguing it will succeed or not, but you can't deny the humanitarian consequences."

Addressing those consequences may make success more likely.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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