What we owe the Iraqis

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By L. Craig Johnstone
Friday, September 10, 2010

Thirty-five years ago, two young Foreign Service officers went AWOL from Henry Kissinger's staff at the State Department to go to Vietnam in the days before the collapse of Saigon. I was one of them. Our action drew stern rebukes and orders that we be arrested and returned to the United States. We had each been posted in Vietnam. We went back there at our own expense and in defiance of our superiors because we were alarmed at the lack of planning on the part of our government regarding the well-being of our Vietnamese employees and allies as the end to the war approached. We believed that the United States had a moral obligation and a humanitarian responsibility to rescue those who had worked and sided with us on the battlefields of that unwinnable conflict.

If I remain today appalled by the callous disregard the government had for our allies in the lead-up to the collapse of Saigon, those feelings are trumped by the extraordinary pride all Americans must feel at the response of both our government and the American people once Saigon fell and the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis struck home. The outpouring of support and the open-arms welcome from Americans for hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees was a magnificent demonstration of the strong moral fiber of our country.

We face an analogous situation in Iraq today. We are pulling our troops out of this war. But as we leave, our humanitarian obligations remain. Our war in Iraq has uprooted more than a half a million refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. And we are leaving behind more than a million and a half people who have been forced from their homes within Iraq. Many of these were middle-class workers, merchants, small-business owners -- not unlike people you would find in the towns across America. Today they live in squalor, in cardboard shanty towns with open sewers and without clean water. They beg most for the opportunity to educate their children to the levels they themselves achieved before the war. For these families, the war has been a disaster. Americans are not solely responsible for the tragedy that has befallen them, but we bear a measure of responsibility, and we cannot leave them and our responsibilities behind.

What we need to do first is provide our share of the funding necessary to help those in the most dire circumstances. The United Nations humanitarian appeal for aid for vulnerable and displaced Iraqis this year calls for just over $700 million. The United States needs to fund at least half of that amount this year. As the oil infrastructure improves in Iraq, oil revenue will follow in five or six years, and the Iraqis can take on the burden themselves. The U.S. contribution would not be a small sum, but would be trifling in comparison to what this war has cost us to date.

Next, we need to increase the resettlement of Iraqis who have no prospect for returning to Iraq or whose situations are so perilous that life in Iraq is simply not possible. This includes, among others, Iraqis who have worked with U.S. institutions and whose lives have been compromised by this association.

Finally, we need to give the United Nations a mandate to leave the safety of the Green Zone and go into the squatter slums where the biggest humanitarian problems exist. U.N. workers in Baghdad bristle over the restrictions placed on them. The United Nations, by imposing these restrictions, has become a contributor to the humanitarian problem.

I noted the great pride that we all should feel over our response to the humanitarian crisis faced at the end of the war in Vietnam. Whatever one may feel about our involvement in that conflict, we rose, albeit belatedly, to the challenge of the humanitarian consequences of our actions. We should do no less in Iraq.

The writer is a board member of Refugees International and a former U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees.


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