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Public Opinion Is No Excuse for Evading U.S. Responsibilities in Iraq

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By Mark Hanis and Chad Hazlett
Saturday, July 18, 2009

While visiting Iraq over the July 4th weekend, Vice President Biden told Iraqi leaders that "if Iraq returned to ethnic violence, the United States would be unlikely to remain engaged," according to the New York Times. A U.S. official told the Times that Biden explained by saying "because one, the American people would have no interest in doing that, and as he put it, neither would he or the president."

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Such a statement may have made a certain tactical sense, signaling to Iraqis that their security forces are on their own, but it was the wrong way to send this message. It tells militants that targeting civilians won't increase the likelihood of U.S. military action against them. It violates commitments the Obama administration has made to pursue a "responsible withdrawal" that reserves the right to stop mass atrocities. Most troubling, it uses public opinion to evade our responsibility to halt genocide or related crimes -- a mistake the United States has made in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

Although Iraq's security situation has vastly improved, its civilians still suffer more fatalities as a result of violent conflict than civilians in any other conflict zone, with the possible exception of Sri Lanka, where violence spiked ferociously this spring but fatality rates are not known. In the average monthly rate of direct civilian fatalities for the first quarter of 2009 was 258, according to Iraq Body Count, an organization that is generally conservative in its estimates. This surpasses known rates for direct civilian fatalities of conflict during the same quarter in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur.

The most concerning aspect of the vice president's remarks is the way he used public opinion as a preemptive excuse to set aside responsibility for helping to halt mass atrocities.

This preestablished unwillingness to reengage to halt atrocities in Iraq reminds us of several instances in which stopping atrocities was thought to be politically inconvenient, given recent history. After a long and costly war in Vietnam, Americans were assumed not to have the stomach for helping those in the killing fields of Cambodia, where hundreds of thousands were deliberately slaughtered. The 1993 "Black Hawk Down" episode during the U.S. operation in Somalia made action the following year to save close to a million people in Rwanda politically unpopular. Clinton administration officials later pointed to public opinion to explain this failure, noting that the American people did not make enough "noise." Little surprise that our recent history in Iraq makes it harder to talk about going out of our way to protect civilians against mass atrocities.

In fact, polling shows that Americans are much more willing to intervene in genocide and mass atrocities than their leaders believe. To be fair, the Iraq case is special. Vice President Biden is probably right about the average American's interest in Iraq; a June CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 63 percent of Americans agreed the United States "should not send combat troops back" in the event of a "significant increase in the number of attacks on Iraqi citizens by insurgents."

Nevertheless, reengaging in Iraq to halt atrocities would not be a political impossibility, nor is public opinion on the matter immutable. The same CNN poll found that 35 percent of Americans agree that the United States should be willing to recommit combat troops in the event that violence against civilians worsens. The scale of the movement to end genocide in Darfur further suggests that there is a substantial constituency -- a largely liberal one at that -- that would rather stop mass atrocities than get the United States out of Iraq at any cost.

Fundamentally, then, this is a question of leadership. If conditions in Iraq warrant it, President Obama must lead us toward a responsible course of action that may initially be unpopular.

During the transition, the Obama administration noted on its Web site, Change.gov: "They [Barack Obama and Joe Biden] will reserve the right to intervene militarily, with our international partners, to suppress potential genocidal violence within Iraq." These words offered assurance that, in the worst-case scenario, President Obama was prepared to stop mass atrocities.

We recognize that the Iraq war is unpopular and that U.S. involvement has not always been for good. But we cannot allow politics to blind us to what responsibilities may emerge in the coming months and years. As with U.S. inaction in Cambodia and Rwanda, the clarity of hindsight will eventually leave us shamefaced if political inconvenience prevents us from halting mass atrocities in Iraq.

Mark Hanis is president of the Genocide Intervention Network, where Chad Hazlett is director of protection.


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